From Endurance to Dressage
Thankfully, There is Always Tomorrow
I refused to let myself be discouraged about Saturday's ride. I went out on Sunday determined to try again. Upon arrival, Sydney was his usual gentlemanly self: he greeted me at the gate, stood quietly in the cross ties, reached for the bit, and stood politely at the mounting block. He is not afraid of me, and he is not afraid of being ridden.
I went as far back as I could to find his comfort zone. I walked him aimlessly around the perimeter of the arena allowing him to stop and gawk at whatever caught his eye. He was very relaxed. I asked for a very loose-reined trot which he gave me happily. We did a long series of movements that he seems to enjoy: trot around the dressage court in both directions, changes of direction across the diagonal, three loop serpentines in both directions, 20 meter circle in both directions, and a canter circle on first the left lead and then the right. I do all of this on the loosest rein possible.
When he did all of this, I let him walk and praised him enthusiastically. As soon as I picked up the rein to get back to work, his back hollowed and his head shot into the air. He tried to break into a trot, but I gave him a gentle whoa and insisted that he walk. I had to do this several times. Since it was the trotting that seemed to generate the tension, I shortened the reins and asked for the bend that I wanted while at the walk. We had done this a lot over the summer so I hoped he would remember that it's not scary or hard. In a fairly short time, his neck was again supple and he was moving away from my inside leg in both directions.
When I was fairly confident that he was genuinely relaxed, I asked for a trot from that same rein length. He gave it to me fairly willingly. In fact I was able to very gently shorten the reins even a little bit more. I discovered that I have to be very subtle while I do this. If I drop the connection at all while I am shortening, he becomes very tense when I try to re-estabish the connection. This is clearly a rider error; I will be working on my technique.
After just a few times around the circle with a long and low frame. I asked for a halt and praised him generously. We changed direction and worked the other way. It took a few moments to get the same connection, but the panicked tension from the day before was gone. Again, after twice around in a long and low frame, I halted and let him know that he done a lovely job. I hopped off and gave him a big face scratch.
So, what did I learn? Sydney can do this, but he needs to warm up to it very slowly. I may not be able to do much trot work in the afternoons after work. There simply may not be enough daylight hours. Once the time changes, we may only do the long and low walking with the free trotting. It might be that the weekends will be when we do the real work. I'll have to wait and see.
What to do, what to do?
This is not a complaint; it's more of a think-out-loud.
I rode Sydney last Wednesday night and was disappointed by how anxious he was. I had hoped that by riding him this weekend he would be more relaxed. He wasn't. Here is what I see: He is certain that with an even slightly shorter rein, something bad is going to happen. I wish I could tell him with words that this is not so. But since I can't tell him with words, I am trying to tell him with my aids that it is okay.
My plan on Saturday was to walk, walk, walk and then trot, trot, trot with a big loopy rein. Right away things fell apart. He was so tense at the walk that he couldn't even go straight. He zig-zagged down the long side and and weaved in the circle. When he was as relaxed as I could get him, I let loose the reins and asked for a trot.
Things went okay for a moment or two, but then he started to pick up speed. I used the corners to ask him to slow down and did lots of changes of directions to slow his momentum. He just got faster and faster. Rather than let the tension build, I decided to convince Sydney that nothing uncomfortable was going to happen. I brought him back to the walk.
The walk has been Sydney's strongest gait. He relaxes long and low and seems happy to walk forever. Not now. Now, I am forced to plant my inside hand and bend him around my leg, first one way then the next. This eventually relaxed him and he was finally able to spiral out into his normal, relaxed walk.
I asked again for the trot. Again the tension built. I kept my rein at a slightly longer length and just continued to ride: when needed, I rocked the rein, squeezed him forward, and stretched up tall and tightened my core. Eventually he gave me a lovely, stretchy trot.
We changed directions and had to start all over. Even when he was finished, and he always gets a long, low walk as a reward, it took me quite a few circles to get him to relax at the walk.
I was disheartened. But rather then just throw in the towel, I decided that we will continue to go back to what he knows. All summer he did great at the low and stretchy trot. If that's still where his comfort level is, then I'll go back to there.
I am trying to figure out what triggered his anxiety after so many months of relaxation. Was it simply shortening the reins just those few inches? Was it going off property twice in the last two months? Was it the combination of both those things? I just don't know.
Speedy G and Our Pal, Contact
Poor Speedy G - he seems to be the good child who never gets any attention. I may not write about his under-saddle work very often, but it is happening; I swear it.
The latest thing we've been working on has been to keep his nose in front of the vertical. To do this, I have to keep my hands higher than what feels comfortable. The purpose is not to establish a head set. I so finally get that. Instead, we are asking (insisting) that he accept the contact and not hide from it.
Speedy has a lovely neck that arches beautifully. This is a problem because he can "fake" the connection quiet well. The arch has not been coming from a lifted back and withers. Instead he is breaking at that vertebra below the poll.
By shortening my reins (a lot) and holding my hands up in the air, Speedy can't hide from the contact. The second aspect to this is getting more activity from his hind end. I suppose you might say we're cramming him up to the bit. It might seem like that, but I know that's not what we're doing. When I feel Speedy try to duck under, I lift the left rein (outside when we're tracking right, and inside when we're tracking left), which is where his evasion seems to come from. At the same time, I sit back and add LEG.
Saturday's ride was a bit of a struggle. He wouldn't lighten up, and I just couldn't get my aids together to coordinate a true correction. No problem, by Sunday, we had it worked out. I now know the feeling that we're trying to achieve by shortening the reins and holding my hands higher. It is truly a feeling of being pulled along.
We had it in spades on Sunday. As I was riding and thinking, it occurred to me that the difference between being heavy and being taken by the hand could be described like this: imagine holding a bucket filled with rocks. That's heavy. To imagine a solid connection that isn't heavy, imagine holding a helium filled balloon that's tugging ever so gently on your hand. That's very light. Speedy's not there yet.
Instead of imaging the balloon, which is just too light for us, I imagine that I am on roller skates and holding the hand of a friend who is pulling me along. If I lean forward and allow slack in our connection, I am likely to fall flat on my face. If she speeds up, I need to lean back. When she slows, I assume a more neutral position. But when she stops, I've lost the connection unless my butt is underneath me and the "line" maintains tautness. When she begins to move, she won't pull me off my feet because my legs are underneath me. All I need to do is keep my weight back and allow her to pull me forward.
Speedy and I had a wonderful connection on Sunday. I added leg and he "pulled" me around. When I felt the reins get light, I leaned back and added leg. The more forward he got, the more I leaned back. It created a wonderful sense of riding a teeter totter: he and I pulled on each other evenly. Imagine it like this: do you remember the game where you grabbed a friend's hands and you both leaned back? When you were sure you had a good connection, you could twirl around faster and faster without falling. It took a lot of trust because if one of you let go, the other other would fall.
When I asked Speedy to canter, I got a pretty good departure and an even better downward transition. A few more months of this kind of work, and I know we'll be much more competitive at training level in the spring!
More on the Freedom Feeder
It's been quite a while since I've done an update on the Freedom Feeder. Since I just replaced Sydney's old one with a new model, I thought I'd bring everyone up to speed.
If you'll remember, or if you're new here, I bought the Freedom Feeder this past February in an effort to curtail Sydney's hay waste. When alfalfa hit $22 a bale, keeping the feed off the ground became a big priority. Sand colic is not an issue with Sydney; he won't eat hay that has hit the dirt.
For the most part, the Freedom Feeder has saved the barn at least the price of the net. Some hay still makes it to the ground, but since it's usually clean and still tasty, I rake the spilled hay each afternoon and split it between the barn's two older dudes as an afternoon snack. They're happy to munch away, and I feel less guilty about my own horse wasting money.
The Freedom Feeder is not indestructible. I am sure that there are other horses far more aggressive than mine, but Sydney gives that net a pretty good workout each day. He doesn't nibble through the holes like he's supposed to. Instead, he grabs the netting between his front teeth and SHAKES the bag until the leaves fall through.
We discovered his system very early on and tied a large feed tub underneath the net in order to catch what he shakes out. He loves this as the feed falls into the feeder rather than onto the ground. It's quite an efficient system. We also added a flat bottomed cart in front of his stall to catch the leaves and stems that want to fall out of reach. When I arrive in the afternoon, I scoop up the hay in the cart and add it to his feed bin - yet another way we prevent hay waste.
Here is his old Freedom Feeder. Do you see the gigantic hole in the center that he created? Horse teeth can be quite destructive.
Last month, I used baling twine and "stitched" the hole closed. That lasted less than a week. Last weekend, I finally admitted that the Freedom Feeder was no longer doing it's primary job, preventing hay loss, so I headed on over to Smartpak and ordered a new one.
Kind of a side note here: with Barn Saver Shipping (free!) and the USEF 5% discount that I get, this Freedom Feeder cost less than when I bought the first one directly from the maker at Horse Expo. Yah for Smartpak! (I ❤ you Smartpak.)
Our barn strives to be very green. We don't like to throw things away, so the question was what to do with the old Freedom Feeder. Yes, it had a big hole in the center, but the rest of it was still intact.
Speedy G has been put on morning alfalfa cubes. He seems to really like the cubes so it's fine with me. The reason he got demoted to cubes, which are actually more expensive than baled alfalfa, is because he started to waste a lot of his hay. One of the very best things about RM's barn is that the horses get fed PLENTY. There's no scrimping on hay. HOWEVER. Waste is not appreciated so everything is done to minimize the amount of hay that gets trod into the bedding. So Speedy now gets cubes at night and flaked hay in the morning. It's been a good compromise as he is now eating everything and less hay is being wasted.
I decided that the old Freedom Feeder might be salvaged and used as a test version for Speedy G. If it worked for him, a new one could be ordered. With some scissors and a length of twine, I was able to sew up the hole that Sydney created and rehang the bag for Speedy G.
When I introduced Speedy to the freedom Feeder, he spent quite a bit of time looking for the opening. He is quite familiar with hay bags so this apparatus took some thinking. It was actually quite comical. I left him to examine the new set-up while I rode Sydney. When I came back an hour later, I was delighted to find the net half empty. Some hay had fallen into the feeder below, but there was hardly any on the ground and Speedy seemed quite happy.
Hopefully the "recycled" net will last a month or two as I am watching my pennies right now. Be kind to the Freedom Feeder, Speedy G, be kind!
California Barn Life: Feed Prices
I would love to know what everyone else around the country is payng for feed. I stopped by the feed store last weekend to pick up next month's feed supplements. RM takes care of the hay, but anything else I want to feed I take care of myself.
I usually don't look too closely at the receipt as I've been buying the exact same thing for years. For this trip however, I picked up something for our barn owner so I needed to see which portion of the bill belonged to her.
Wow - was I surprised. When I first started feeding beet pulp, a 50 pound bag was just under $8.00. I paid $20.22 this weekend. The rice bran was no better. I seem to remember that running about ten bucks a bag. It's now $19.55 a bag.
As I write this, I am realizing that I first started buying these feeds at least fifteen years ago. Crap. I'm getting old. Back when candy bars were only a quarter and gas was less than two bucks a gallon ...
I use a small mom and pop feed store that's been around since the 1950s so their prices might be a tad higher than say, Tractor Supply Company. So what does everyone else pay? I'd really like to know.
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%: