From Endurance to Dressage
After our last show of the summer, the one where Izzy showed up really body sore out of nowhere, I committed to having body work done in October no matter whether he was acting sore or not just to make sure he was comfortable before the show at the end of the month. Normally, I only call when I notice Izzy starting to get resistant or unhappy in his work. My chiropractor texted on Tuesday saying he could meet me on Wednesday. The timing was pretty good because after getting vaccinated, I always give my boys a few days off as they tend to feel a bit puny.
CC took one look at Izzy and mentioned a loss of beefiness - I admitted that we hadn't done much work in September due to my work schedule and the heat. He flexed Izzy's neck, moved his poll around, and asked about any red flags. There aren't any I answered. This was just a what can you fix? visit. Nothing to fix was the answer.
After flexing Izzy to the both the left and right, moving his poll around and feeling the rib heads, CC thought Izzy was in great shape. This has happened one other time. I wasn't too surprised as I haven't felt anything that would suggest a visit. Also, CC worked on Izzy a long time just two months ago, and since then, we haven't done anything particular challenging. In fact, from the middle of August until the end of September, I only rode him on the weekends.
I can't decide whether I am annoyed at having spent money for nothing, or happy that my horse is feeling so good that he didn't need any body work.
No excuses now, mister!
Sheesh. I think I need to lighten things up a bit. This past few weeks, all of my posts have been so serious. I know I am pretty hard on myself, and I do have high expectations, but taking oneself too seriously can lead to a whole mess of trouble. If there is one thing that I don't need, it's more trouble. With that, my vet thinks Izzy has a fat butt.
The thing with doing a fall show is that it requires a second round of USEF's required vaccinations. With a shorter show season, I could get away with just spring shots, but with the every six month rule, Izzy (or Speedy) always needs that second shot in the fall so that we can go to an October show. In mid-summer, I mapped out the rest of my 2021 show schedule and planned for a mid-October trip to the vet. The problem was that with school being back in session and me being so busy, I woke up on Saturday and realized that we were past mid-October and Izzy still hadn't seen the vet.
After my lesson on Saturday morning, I called Bakersfield Large Animal Hospital and asked if there was any way I could get in that morning. As great as the staff there is, they can't conjure up an appointment time if all spots are accounted for. I took the next option that would work for me, Monday at 4:30. It made for a long day - I get to work at 6:00 a.m., but it was necessary.
Since Dr. Gonzalez hadn't returned from his field call, I hung out for a bit with the ladies in the office. They're a hilarious bunch, so I never mind waiting for one of the doctors to be finished. Once Dr. G was ready to see us, I met him over at the scale to see how Izzy's weight was holding. While Izzy will ultimately do what I ask, it took a few tugs on the lead rope to get him to step up on the scale. Once he had settled into place, Dr. G called out Izzy's weight: 1,360 pounds, ten pounds more than in the spring.
When I asked Izzy to step off the scale, he cocked a hip and sighed. Nope. Feeling pretty good right here, thanks. I tugged. I pulled him sideways. I tugged harder. Finally, Dr. G asked if he could just vaccinate Izzy while on the scale. Yep. He's obviously not going anywhere. Dr. G poked Izzy in the thigh. No reaction. We all rolled our eyes. When Dr. G had finished with the injection, I gave Izzy another tug, and this time, I really leaned into it.
GET. OFF. THE. SCALE.
Nope, no thanks, don't bother, I am good.
I am not exaggerating. Izzy simply wouldn't get off the scale. He didn't act nervous, he wasn't stressed, he just wanted to take in the moment and look around. Finally, after I really started to insist, he stepped off with both front legs, but he left his hind end behind. Dr. G walked back over to the scale and read aloud in amazement, "His hind end weighs 580 pounds!"
That's a pretty big butt!
I never felt truly successful on Speedy, even so, we enjoyed a ridiculous amount of success. We won at least five neck ribbons. We earned a number of "Year End Champion" trophies from my chapter of the California Dressage Society. From CDS, we earned the Ruby Rider Award and Horse Performance Awards from each level that I entered. We won the CDS Regional Adult Amateur Competition for Intro, Training, and Second Levels and were reserve at First Level. We earned all three of the USDF Rider Performance Awards as well as a USDF Bronze Medal. After such a dismal 2021 show season with Izzy, Speedy and I look BRILLIANT in retrospect.
Spending the last year earning scores in the 50s has been heartbreaking. I don't blame Izzy at all. I've known for a quite a long time that under a more knowledgable rider, he would have been much farther along in his education and would likely have been earning scores that would make him eligible for awards and trophies. With me aboard, that hasn't happened. Yet.
During my Saturday lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, I finally told him that I didn't know why I was going to the show at the end of the month. Not only are we going down a level, but I have no hope of earning a decent score. Sean pulled the plug on that thinking almost immediately. "What's going to happen when you're in the warm up and Izzy gets tense?" he asked. "Will you get mad at your horse?"
"No," I replied. "I'll simply feel frustrated."
"And Izzy will feel your frustration, and he'll feel anxious." Sean replied. "You'll get into the ring already knowing that you're not going to get whatever score you wanted. You'll get more frustrated, tense, and angry and Izzy will feel that. Sunday's ride will be even wore."
"Then why bother spending $700 at all? Why not just skip the whole thing and stay home?" I asked.
"We need to see where he is. A show will show how well we're doing." Sean answered.
We continued to chat about it, but I wasn't feeling any better. Isn't a show the place where you SHOW OFF your horse? I am tired of looking foolish. I am tired of earning scores that clearly indicate we don't belong out there. Why bother?
Sean had me think about reframing my goals. My goal cannot be to go out there and earn high scores. Instead, he wants me to focus on going out there and applying what I've been learning over the past six months. How well can I use the tools that he has given me? What will happen if I do? Instead of going with the goal of earning at least a 60%, he wants me to ditch the idea of scores completely. That is such a hard thing to do, but it did me no good last year. What do I have to lose?
Instead of aiming for a 60%, my goal is to reduce Izzy's anxiety by trying the different techniques that Sean has been teaching me. If Izzy spooks, I'll ignore it. If Izzy bolts, I'll stay soft and follow, but I'll also do what I have to keep control. If Izzy pushes against me, I'll use one of the strategies we've worked on for softening his under neck muscles - halt and get round, over exaggerate the inside bend, and move his body around. When Izzy is round, I'll push the swing once and see what I get. When Izzy focuses on me, I'll reward him with a scratch.
It won't be easy to ignore the scores, but having a different goal gives me a better chance for success. I don't need to win, I just need to feel that I am doing something right. Having Sean determine my goal also takes some of the responsibilities off my shoulders. He wants me to focus on implementing the lessons I've learned. If I do that, then I'll have been successful.
I won't turn down a generous judge or a bit of luck though.
For the past few months, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage has been trying to help me understand how to ask Izzy for a longer stride without causing Izzy to feel anxious about it. I've been making some progress, but I've really struggled with understanding what Sean meant when he said to ask for the longer stride and then allow Izzy to come back on his own.
A week or so ago, I had a big AHA moment when I realized that the "ask" can only come when Izzy is soft in his neck and not pushing back against me. On top of that, the "ask" can't result in his head popping up either. As I rode this week, I started working really hard to put those two things together: asking for the longer stride while keeping Izzy's head and neck steady.
From out of nowhere came this idea of sitting on a porch swing. Have you ever been in a hammock or a porch swing? Usually, you put a foot on the ground or up on the railing and you give yourself one gentle push to get the swing to rock. Then you just ride that swinging motion until it's about to stop. Just before it does, your give yourself another push and you ride that motion.
It suddenly occurred to me that that was what Sean meant. In the canter, I made sure that Izzy was soft in his neck, and then I just pushed. Sure enough, he increased his energy, but rather than push again and again, I just rode the motion and allowed his energy to dissipate on its own. As soon as he felt relaxed and soft in his neck, I pushed again. We traveled around the arena with me pushing every so often to keep the swing going.
Before beginning my lesson with Sean on Saturday morning, I ran the swing metaphor by him and asked if that was what he meant. He wholeheartedly agreed and said that for now, that was exactly the feeling he was hoping I'd get. As we teach Izzy that a more powerful and energetic stride can feel safe and comfortable, I can start to add more and more "pushes" until Izzy can hold that energy on his own.
After Izzy was warmed up, I asked for the canter and applied the idea of giving him pushes as his "swing" slowed down. Sean probably wasn't surprised by the result, but I sure was. Suddenly, Izzy's canter was much energetic, but relaxed. He was steady in the bridle, soft in his neck, and very rideable. As a teacher, I am always so pleased when my kiddos finally grasp an idea and can apply it, so I am certain Sean was fist pumping and high fiving himself. As for me, I was thrilled that I was finally able to be so effective in my riding
Sean asked how that idea was working in the trot lengthening. Not so well. The idea is much easier to apply in the canter as that gait has a much longer moment of suspension. The canter actually feels like being in a rocking chair. To help me understand how to apply the idea to the trot, Sean explained that I should follow the same protocol: ask when Izzy is soft in his under neck, but since he doesn't balance himself nearly so well in the trot, I can only push and let Izzy go for one stride. After that, I need to rebalance him with my posting so that he never gets a chance to take that hurried, unbalanced step.
I don't know why I continue to be amazed when Sean's teaching actually works, but I do. It took us a few minutes to get the conversation going, but Izzy started to listen to my posting rhythm. I gave a gentle push, he responded, and I immediately slowed my posting tempo. I gave another push, he responded, and I again slowed my posting. Suddenly, he was feeling the half halt, and he came back to a walk without a loss of balance or any anxiety.
With that, we ended the work while Sean and I talked about my recent crisis of faith. It seems strange to see so much progress and still feel so ineffective, but there it is. Sean and I had a long talk about goals, but I'll save that for tomorrow.
In the meantime, we're just a swingin' ...
Over the past few weeks, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has written some really thought provoking essays that have resonated with me and touched on some of my insecurities. It's almost as though he has been peeking inside my head. He wrote this one about the importance of being part of every aspect of horse ownership and this one that explains how slowing down is actually the quickest route to success. His most recent essay was about failure, and it hit me hard. Tell me if this doesn't reveal a little about you as well.
"You're probably going to fail, and I hope you do."
Written by Sean Cunningham
Did that first statement trigger you? Did you immediately get defensive, and question why anyone would wish you to fail?
Why are we so afraid of failing? We go out of our way to shelter ourselves from situations that will make us look like a failure. We will carry on in a state of barely making it, avoiding taking the very step that may change the course of our lives and/or careers for the better, because that step may also lead to failure.
When faced with failure, our internal dialog goes something like "What will my friends say? What will my clients think? I don't want to disappoint anyone."
Or perhaps worst of all, "they were right about me."
We need to change that.
Failure gets a bad rap. There are a number of things I wish I had learned earlier on in my life. Learning to embrace failure ranks near the top.
Pick your favorite successful person in any walk of life, and really go read their story. I guarantee you their path is full of failure, and then using that failure to learn how to do it better.
I'm no different. I failed 3 years ago, hard. Once I finally found and applied the lessons from it, every aspect of my life dramatically improved and business has been stronger and more profitable than ever.
Failure is the ultimate learning tool. Failure is only bad if you stop there. Failure is part of that test we talked about last week.
Go fail. Again and again and again. Celebrate it. Dance with it. Embrace it. It's there to make you better.
Take the risk. Make the leap. When you fail, and I hope you do, I hope you also learn to see it for what it is. Not something to make you feel small and defeated, but something to help you grow and become who you're meant to be.
The line that really stopped me in my tracks was this one, "I don't want to disappoint anyone." Oh man, that is so me. Disappointing my trainer is one of my greatest fears. Disappointing all of you. Disappointing my 5th grade students. Disappointing my husband who doesn't even care about dressage. Disappointing my horse. Disappointing myself. I feel so much pressure to be successful because so many people are watching and waiting for me to ... to what? Fail? Succeed?
First of all, there is probably nobody watching and waiting for me to do anything, so whether I fail or succeed is really only important to me. But still, I write so publicly about my journey that I feel as though there must be this expectation that since I talk so much about riding and showing that I must therefore be good at it. Spoiler alert: I am not.
Is failure helping me as Sean suggested? I don't think I have yet let it. I need to do something about that.
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%: