From Endurance to Dressage
I am just coming off a five-day series of professional development sessions, or PD as they are colloquially known. The purpose of those PD days are to load teachers with a bunch of new ideas before school begins; after nearly 30 years of teaching, not much is original. For our new teachers, these events are probably more helpful than they are for us veterans of the profession. Either way, one word that I heard a few times over the past two weeks was intentional. It turns out that riding with intention is a pretty good way to make progress.
On Saturday, I had my regularly scheduled lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. After my three-day boot camp at STC Dressage the previous weekend, I gave Izzy Monday off. I rode Tuesday, but then I attended three days of PD, one of which turned out to be on the hottest day of the summer. I didn't get to ride again until Saturday morning. When Sean asked how things were going, I had to say they were the same as when he had seen us last. Fortunately, we had left on a really good note, so Izzy and I were able to pick up right where we had left off.
The one thing that I did mention to Sean was that his fabulous 10-meter, repeating circle exercise had not gone to plan when I had ridden the Tuesday before. I just couldn't get the bend or suppleness that I had felt when we rode at his place. Sean reminded me that I am now wearing spurs and that I need to use them with purpose. Probably because I had just sat through several days of education for teachers, but all of a sudden, that idea of using the spur purposefully made a ton of sense. A huge light bulb went on.
Sean described it like this: if I use that spur consistently to convey my intention, Izzy will begin to attach meaning to the spur. In our case, it's Izzy's right ribcage. He likes to push against my right leg which means I can't get any bend. Sean explained that if I ask with my calf and get no response, I need to use that spur very deliberately to show Izzy that my calf on means yield the ribcage and bend. If he doesn't respond to the calf aid, I need to enforce the need for bend by using the spur. If I do that consistently with intention, Izzy will begin to remember that if he doesn't respond to the calf, the next aid will be the spur.
I don't know why that was such a difficult idea to comprehend, but my understanding of when and how to use the spur with Izzy became crystal clear. I quit using spurs quite some time ago because I had developed the very bad habit of over-using them. A month or so ago, I had to put them back on because Izzy's forward button had gone kaput. He had decided to quit listening to my seat and legs which meant I was kicking him harder and harder to get him to move his bloomin' arse. It's interesting that I was able to determine when and how much spur to apply to fix the forward problem but not the bend problem. But that's just me. I am not always the sharpest crayon in the box.
In just the few rides that I have begun to use the spur to reinforce my bend aid, Izzy has begun to respond more and more quickly to my calf. Hooray! The spurs haven't fixed all of our bend issues though. During the lesson, Sean gave me yet another tool to add to my toolbox. We have the same bending/suppleness problem in the canter, but the spur hasn't been as effective in getting Izzy to bend through his body; he just speeds up instead of yielding his ribcage. Sean offered this technique: instead of pushing my hands down in an effort to get Izzy to round over his topline, Sean encouraged me to counter flex by bringing the rein up and over towards my hip.
Holy mother of Moses! It was as though someone had taken my chalkboard and given me a computer. Suddenly, I had a new level of control. Instead of trying to get the bend by forcing Izzy to bend, I helped him get off the rein on which he was leaning so that he could balance between both reins. Holy hell, people, we have just made it to a new level of understanding. By counter flexing, I took away Izzy's ability to brace and lock his poll on one rein. By counter flexing, I was able to gently push him back and forth between both reins which allowed him to regain his balance and carry the bit without leaning on it.
By putting both of those concepts to use - using the spur with purpose and counter flexing in the canter to rebalance, I was able to ride with much more intention. Instead of just trotting around stiffly or cantering on a wooden bench, I have two new tools that will help me keep Izzy more supple.
I have these next three days off, and I will be riding every single day from now through Sunday. Monday, my contracted days begin so there won't be any more weekday rides unless the temperature is below 100 degrees. Let's hope nature cooperates because I really want to cement these two new ideas before I lose them.
Purposeful. Deliberate. Intentional. My dressage dictionary is expanding.
You all know how much I love owning a trailer. Being able to go wherever I want, whenever I want means freedom. Freedom always comes at a price though. In the case of a truck and trailer combo, the price is literal. A new truck with a living quarters trailer can easily run a hundred thousand or more. Besides the actual price tag, the maintenance on both also costs time and money.
When I came home from my three-day boot camp at STC Dressage, I decided to take my trailer home for the night so that I could clean it the next morning. It had been at least a year since I had done a deep cleaning. With the trailer in front of my house, I can clean without tracking dirt in and out, and I can pressurize the water and use real electricity.
The first thing I did was strip the bed of sheets and blankets and emptied all of the towels out of the bathroom. I did all of the laundry on Sunday night so that it would be clean and dry once I finished cleaning out the inside of the trailer the next morning. I spent a good two hours scrubbing every surface of the inside, especially the shower and toilet. I also oiled all of the cabinets, and scrubbed both screens and doors.
Last summer, a friend (THANK YOU, Aime) shared a YouTube video that showed an easy way to remake the bed in a gooseneck trailer. I can't find the video, but I didn't forget how to do it. I started off by "making" a bed in the house, and then rolled up the bedding from the bottom to the top and then folded it into a roll. I placed the roll on the trailer's mattress, scooted it to the top, and unrolled it enough so that I could tuck the fitted sheet around the top two corners of the mattress.
Once the top two corners of the fitted sheet were tucked under the mattress, I kept unrolling the package until I could tuck the bottom two corners of the fitted sheet around the mattress.
It changes a horrendous job into one that takes less than two minutes. And, it looks much smoother when made this way versus yanking things around while struggling to avoid banging your head on the ceiling. Once everything was cleaned, the carpets vacuumed, and the linoleum mopped, I let things dry before putting everything back.
I love having a trailer; I hate taking care of it.
I know that Dover isn't everyone's favorite tack store, but you have to admit, they run good sales if you're willing to dig through the sale emails and/or settle for something other than your favorite color. I've been doing a lot of Dover shopping these past few weeks which means I've been watching my email pretty closely. That's where Dover slips in all those good deals. Here's one I saw last week.
I am already a USEF member of course, but if you don't show, a fan membership might be just the ticket. And of course, 10% off every Dover purchase makes the price of that free membership even more attractive.
I hate US Equestrian, but I love saving money.
Besides going to STC Dressage for a weekend of lessons, I also crammed in as much fun as a girl on her last weekend before school starts can. It all started on Friday afternoon ...
Have you looked at your USDF 2022 Member Guide recently? If you'll remember, my friend Terry Spehar-Fahey's original watercolor was selected for the cover. Her subject was Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, aboard her own gelding, Roulette.
Over the past year or so, Terry has been doing a series of paintings that capture the light and space of American ranch life. Her inspiration comes from the beautiful photographs taken by Kirstie Lambert. You can find Lambert on Facebook where she shares her photographs. They are stunning.
Terry and Kirstie have been collaborating in an effort to share the beauty of the lives of the ranches of Idaho and Montana. According to Terry, Kirstie's photos capture the exact space and light that Terry strives to express in her watercolor paintings. Terry was recently interviewed by Western Art Collector magazine where the journalist wanted to know more about the process of collaboration between photographer and artist. The issue will be available in October.
Knowing how much I enjoyed her painting of Sean and Rou, Terry arranged for several of us to view her show at the Kwan Fong Gallery of Art and Culture located on the campus of California Lutheran University. While the gallery is open during business hours for public viewing, we went late in the day, so it turned out to be a private showing. That suited all of us quite well.
Terry is both a professional artist as well as a retired teacher of art so it was an absolute treat to view her work with her there to explain what we were seeing. She was patient and willing to answer my million questions. She discussed every aspect of her work from the medium used, to the time it takes to paint such large watercolors, to the subtleties of her work. She also showed us what she wanted the viewer to focus on and she achieved that. Her explanations brought each painting to life and helped me appreciate them so much more.
When we left the gallery, we headed straight to Terry's house for drinks and a dinner party. Terry loves to entertain, and her guests are never disappointed. Before eating though, we begged Terry for a peak at the rest of her work. Terry has stacks and stacks and stacks of unframed pieces, many of which were from her experience with art therapy. Years ago, those pieces were also in a gallery for a show even though they were intensely personal. We all marveled at her ability to paint images that conveyed her fears and feelings. They were truly astonishing paintings. Besides those more serious pieces, we also uncovered the original painting of Sean and Rou which was much larger than I expected it to be.
After dinner and way too many whiskey sours, Sean hauled me back to STC Dressage where we checked on horses before finally getting to bed around midnight. It had been a very long day.
The next morning, I rode of course, but shortly afterward, my friend Jen, the most amazing show/clinic/event organizer of all time, picked me up for an afternoon of laughter and fun. Our first stop was In-N-Out; we have three in Bakersfield, but none are easy nor convenient for me to get to. She ordered no onions, I asked for extra onions. We're a perfect pairing.
Our next stop was Fortissimo Farm where Laura Goodenkauf is head trainer. Laura had partnered with the Ventura County Chapter of CDS, of which Jen is Chairperson, to hold a clinic with Amelia Newcomb. Jen and I handled parking but afterwards, we did have time to watch some of the rides.
I have ridden with with Amelia twice and have found her to be a very kind clinician and coach. I am sure she's a bit tougher on her regular, every day clients, but as a guest clinician she is very encouraging and looks for the positive in order to support riders without intimidating them.
After the clinic, Jen and I headed back to Moorpark for our regular visit to Woodranch for dinner. We ordered a plate of ribs with sides and a plate of salmon with a side and promptly split everything in half to share. And even though we were both stuffed, we still had room for gelatos at Carrara's. Jen always gets mint chocolate chip, but I like to play the field. By the time she dropped me off at STC Dressage, I was practically sleep walking. Two late nights in a row is way out of my normal. And of course, I rode the next morning.
As planned, I had a jam-packed weekend full of riding, learning, and visiting with great friends. I think my next visit probably won't happen until late October which is disappointing but worth waiting for.
Have a great weekend. After this past one, I need a slow one, thanks.
For my third morning at STC Dressage, I paid a lot more attention to the clock and didn't let myself get distracted. That alone gave me a firmer feeling of being in control and relaxed. And of course, there was no anxiety because I was on day 3 and a bit tired. Wet saddle blankets are useful for both horses and their riders.
While I've done boot camps with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage a few other other times, it still amazes me how much progress you can make when you work with your trainer on consecutive days. We didn't need to talk about how things had gone over the past week; I started riding and Sean started teaching.
After working through our regular stuff - a bit of canter, shoulder-in, leg yields, Sean threw out a brand new exercise designed to support a horse's balance in the changes of bend. To do the exercise, track right through a corner on the long side and immediately do a full 10-meter circle. At the quarterline, change the bend and track left and complete another full 10-meter circle. At the quarterline, again change the bend and track right to complete another 10-meter circle. By the time you get to the end, you should have completed six 10-meter circles, alternating tracking right and left. I think this is a link to a quick Loom video which shows how I drew it.
Of course, I tried the exercise by myself on Tuesday and found it much more difficult than I had with Sean watching. When we did it at STC Dressage, Izzy fairly danced through the changes of bend, flowing left then right. On my own, I didn't have him nearly supple enough to do the change of bend. He was stiff, braced, and resistant. I love the exercise though as it tells you right away how balanced your horse is.
Another exercise that Sean had me do following the 10-meter trot circles was 10-meter canter circles down the long side. Now, that is not a new exercise, and I love doing them already, but in the context that we had just created with the trot circles, the canter circles were an excellent segue from trot bend to canter bend. The difference between the two exercises is that there is no change of bend and no change in direction unless you want to do a super fast flying change at the quarterline. And if you can do that already, you're only here to watch the train wreck.
Besides feeling as though I had progressed from the world's worst rider to a not-so-bad rider, I also started feeling better about my sitting trot. In case you haven't noticed, I am not an elegant rider. I am a middle-aged, adult amateur with a fluffy bootie and a chunky belly. There is only so much room in a dressage saddle, so when you try to cram all of that into one square foot of space, the fluff and chunk get pushed upwards. I am pretty much a beige minion. When you do a rising trot, the fluff and chunk get redistributed stride after stride, not so in the sitting trot.
As I struggled to keep my butt in the saddle as Izzy worked himself into his sewing machine trot, I gasped, My sitting trot sucks! to which Sean replied, "no one can sit that thing and look good." Bless you, Sean Cunningham. Sean pointed out that as Izzy learns to swing through his back more and more, I will be able to sit so much more easily. I know that's true because when Izzy softens his back for me, especially in the shoulder-in, I have no trouble sitting. It's only when he's stabbing the ground with his front feet that I feel like I am in old pick up truck speeding along a dirt road filled with a continuous washboard.
I am sure it won't take long for the excitement from this weekend to wear off, but I am trying to hold the feeling of both confidence and competence. I don't mind looking frumpy and off balance in the saddle as long as things improve month after month. I have started back to work this week which means my daily rides will be a thing of the past for the next six weeks or so. Today is supposed to be one of the hottest days of the summer, and I don't get off until 4:00. I'll continue riding on the weekends and squeezing in short rides on the days where it is not 100 degrees. There aren't many of those until mid to late September though.
Other than when Speedy was injured, I've never spent a summer doing so little showing. It was disappointing at first, but now I see that I've been just as busy, and while not successful in the context of earning ribbons, I feel like a huge winner nonetheless. I have at least one more post coming about the weekend, maybe two, so stay tuned.
To be continued ...
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2022 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2022 Show Schedule
(*) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
2022 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2 Scores/1 Judges/60%: