From Endurance to Dressage
Lois, the dressage trainer in Tehachapi, is fond of reminding me of this fact as I struggle with establishing and maintaining Sydney's rhythm. I think I am finally starting to internalize her meaning.
Don't get me wrong; she's not suggesting that we ditch the training pyramid and toss out straightness. Instead, she means that the horse must have some bend when doing practically every dressage exercise, especially when riding 10 or 20-meter circles.
Maintaining a bend has helped me see that I was pulling back, a lot. When Sydney gets nervous or anxious, which is every time he leaves the property or even while riding in my own arena, his go-to response is to pick up speed at the very least, or bolt sideways with a rear at the worst. Have you ever tried to stop a bolting thoroughbred? I have, and the only way to get the job done is to run him into something, or crank his neck around. Pulling back doesn't work.
Hi, my name is Karen, and I am a recovering "puller of the reins."
Saturday's ride presented me with many opportunities to pull back, but I stayed on the proverbial wagon and used a bend to achieve the relaxation that Sydney needed. JL, my trainer here in town, calls it letting the geometry teach the concept.
A young couple with two little horse crazy girls have been coming to the barn every now and then to groom and ride. I helped get Bailey saddled even though I suspected their presence in the arena might cause Sydney to be tense. I was right.
Dad and the little boy, not much older than a toddler, hung out on the fence while mom helped my barn owner lead both little girls around on Bailey. The girls switched off riding, but the whole time the group was in the arena, they were laughing and enjoying themselves.
Dad and little boy were one thing, but Bailey, and his entourage were yet another. Sydney checked out. He squealed, he grunted, and he tensed his whole body as he prepared to launch himself into the next county. Lois's advice to me during moments such as these was to let Sydney think that he could gallop off across the county line. I wasn't going to hold him back.
Instead, I bent him around my inside leg and put my spur behind the girth to send his haunches around. He could go as fast as he wanted to, but it was going to be in a small circle with a bent neck. I bumped him off both reins and let him just go. As long as he didn't grab the reins, I didn't touch his mouth or have any contact. We circled for a long time.
Every time he softened his body, I reduced the bend and suggested that he move out onto the bigger circle. If he changed the rhythm or grabbed the bit, I tried one half halt. If that was ignored, I immediately bent him into the small circle and continued on as though making 8 - 10 meter circles was my favorite thing to do.
Eventually, he started to listen to my aids, and we were able to ride the larger circle for long and longer. I don't know whether Sydney learned anything, but I sure had quite a few aha! moments. This exercise was boring as hell, but it allowed me to keep perfect control without having my horse run off. It also showed me that Sydney can carry himself and maintain a steady rhythm without me holding on to him. He can do those two jobs himself.
After what seemed like forever, and it really was at least 20 minutes, Sydney was mostly willing to keep a steady rhythm and listen to my aids. His ears started to get floppy and I was able to use half halts to slow him down. I moved on to the counter bent exercise and even got him to canter. The canter transition was explosive of course, and I had to do a lot of canter with a counter bend, but I eventually got a round horse who had released his back.
I changed direction and we started the process over again.
Riding Sydney to the right can be quite difficult. He ignores my inside leg and shoves his inside shoulder forward. Riding the 10-meter circle becomes an exercise in pirouettes. I did several things to fix the problem. First, I bent him around my inside right leg and spurred the heck out of him. He literally grunted in surprise. I could practically hear him yell, WTF? He moved off my inside leg though which allowed me keep the bend as he circled at Mach 10.
I was able to expand the circle enough to ride him in a counter bend. Lois also suggested that I ride the square when tracking right. Knowing it is not very dressage-like, I rode the square completely off my outside aids: outside rein and outside leg. My inside rein simply kept his nose in place; I couldn't get any inside bend. Instead, I worked the problem by having too much outside bend and then gradually got his neck straight.
Eventually, I felt him soften on that outside rein, and I was able to get a little inside bend. I added a tiny bit of inside leg and smiled. Finally; inside leg to outside rein. When my ride first started, I was irritated that our visitors were "ruining" my ride. After a bit however, I was thankful that they were there as they had given me an excellent opportunity to apply my skills and put my horse together.
While Sydney was a complete pain in the patootie, I felt that I at least made tremendous progress in that one ride. I felt a whole new sense of control and purpose. The exercises worked and helped me to balance my horse without pulling back. And instead of pulling, I was able to offer a giving hand whenever he was ready to take it.
I wrote about this idea a short time ago; how instead of where. I needed to revisit the idea this weekend while riding Speedy.
I've been feeling that the sharpness he and I developed over the summer has begun to dull. I am just not getting the same connection that we had a month ago. I need a lesson, but since Chemain lives so far away and the Christian Schacht clinic isn't until December, I'm going to have to dig a bit deeper and start focusing on the quality of what Speedy is offering by myself.
After warming up on Saturday, but still having a horse heavy on the left rein, I halted, took a deep breath and thought really hard about how to fix the problem. For me, the answer almost always lies in the outside rein so that's where I started to focus.
As we tracked left, I continually asked for some inside flexion by squeezing and releasing the inside (left) rein. After each squeeze, I added inside leg to the outside rein and tried to "catch" him with it. We did this for a few minutes, and he finally started to offer some nice stretches.
We changed direction, but I continued to pay very close attention to that left rein, now the outside. Rather than fighting him to soften off it, I realized that I should take what he was offering, but try to improve the quality. As we made the 20-meter circle, I asked him to really step under with his inside hind leg. Speedy resisted by breaking into the canter. I realized that I needed to be even more vigilant with the outside rein.
Cantering is easier than stepping under deeply, so I added a firm half halt as we approached the problem end of the circle. He tried hard to canter, but I insisted that he trot by resisting with my core and holding the reins very steady. Little by little, I felt him soften on the outside rein. He also started stepping under better with more balance. And that become my mantra, balance him with the outside rein.
At one point, I realized that he was "letting" me hold him up and that he was completely on the forehand. I shortened my reins, gave a firm half halt and added leg. He sassed me a bit, but his front end came up, and I felt his balance shift back. I asked for the canter and was rewarded with a pretty decent canter transition.
My focus was on the quality of the canter. I wanted him to be uphill and light in my hand so I rode him that way. We did some canter loops without me having to keep a go leg on. In fact, he was so balanced (for him), that mid-way through the loop I sent him across the diagonal and rode a 20 meter circle in counter canter without losing the gait. We came back across the diagonal and returned to a true canter bend.
I think that by focusing on the quality of each movement, I am not so overwhelmed by how much we need to improve upon. I am not going to worry about which movements we are or aren't doing, but rather how well we can do whatever it is we're working on. I know that sounds like a duh! concept, but actually doing it is harder than you might think.
It almost feels like riding in slow motion. And that's kind of what started to happen during Saturday's ride. I found that I was really feeling each hollow stride, each lifted stride, each stride that had bend, and so on. By riding in that exact moment and focusing on the quality of that stride, I found I was able to better influence Speedy's way of going.
Quality is definitely my new focus!
Thanks for all your kind words yesterday. Dressage can be a very humbling endeavor. Heeding your advice, I took a moment to reflect, relax, and simply enjoy being with my horses without the pressure of learning, improving, or succeeding. Here's what my Friday afternoon looked liked.
I knew Sydney was probably a bit tired on Sunday after his long day with Lois on Saturday. Not only did he have a pretty intense lesson, but he spent three hours in the trailer. I decided to take it as easy as possible.
We started out at a walk with me reminding him to carry himself. Lois called me on allowing Sydney to bump, bump. bump the bit in my hands so I paid particular attention to that. I was still following with my elbows, but I resisted when he tried to bump the bit. Hmmm ... that was definitely a new sensation.
My only plan for the ride was to do the counter bent trot circles. Sydney picked up the circle to the left very quietly and willingly followed as I asked him to to do the counter bend. We spiraled in slowly and then changed to a correct bend and spiraled back out. Easy as pie.
I let him walk for a few moments and then picked up the trot to the right. He already felt more balanced than he has in the past few weeks. Once the 20-meter circle was established, I moved him into a counter bend and felt the stiffness in my left hand and leg. It takes a lot of leg and a firm half halt to get him to move off his right leg. I just focused on slowly making the circle smaller and smaller until we hit the 10-meter mark.
I kept him in the circle for a few moments and then slowly returned him to a normal bend. I moved him out onto the bigger circle and was overall pleased with his balance.
The longer I practice dressage, the harder it gets. Every time I think I am getting somewhere, I realize how much farther I actually have to go. Rather than getting closer, the end seems to be drifting out of sight.
It's hard not to be discouraged by that.
Hand waving frantically in air ...
I just got confirmation from the clinic's organizer that I am definitely "in" the Susanne von Dietze clinic this October.
In case you don't recognize her name, or if you do but can't quite place her, this might help!
Yep. That's right. Susanne von Dietze is currently writing "The Clinic" column in Dressage Today. How lucky am I to get to ride with her? And, to make the deal even sweeter, it's a two-day event!
I don't have anything interesting to say right now, of course, but rest assured that there will be a full write up after the fact. If you want more information, like where and when, send me an email, and I'll give you the low down.
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%
2023 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2023 Show Schedule
2023 Completed …
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: