From Endurance to Dressage
Riding horses is a lot like driving cars. First, you've got your stripped down economy models. These have very few buttons, not much horse power, and you're unlikely to get a speeding ticket or drive recklessly. Speedy is a lot like my old Toyota Corolla: he's ultra reliable, you're highly unlikely to be involved in an accident, and he'll go forever. Then you have a Formula 1 car. They have a million buttons that make them very complicated to drive unless you know what you're doing. For the right driver, these cars can make dreams come true one minute, and the next, they're erupting in a ball of fire. Izzy is a Formula 1 kind of horse; he can be super flashy or cause me to hang on for dear life as we spin violently out of control.
Every time I come home from a show, I do a lot of self-reflection. I ask myself what went well and what didn't. I think about where I failed and come up with a plan for doing better the next time. One thing that stood out was that we're doing much better at home than we do when we're at a show. A lot better. That tells me that it's time to start asking for even more correctness at home. It's not like I let Izzy run amok at home because I don't, but it has been a slow process teaching him to accept corrections, and I know he's ready for me to up our game a bit. The better we are at home, the better we'll do at shows.
I put my theory to the test on Thursday and Friday. I hacked around the property, but instead of "babying" him as he jerked and spooked and giraffed his way down the road, I put my leg on and gave sharp, immediate corrections each and every time he forgot that I was up there. Of course I gave small aids first; I didn't jump immediately to the big aids, and when I got the response I was looking for, I went back to the quietest aid possible. What ended up happening was that by day 2, he decided that listening to me while ignoring the distractions was a much more pleasant way to spend a half an hour.
Over the weekend I had a fantastic lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. As we started out, I told him what I had learned and how I had applied it over the past week. Sean is always working on refining my aids and hoping to make them more effective, so he was very receptive to my newfound awareness of my aids.
After doing some regular warming up - bending lines, leg yields, and some canter transitions, we got to the real work. My medium-term goal is the flying change. While we've had a few successes with them, I can't ask for them often enough because Izzy's canter is still braced, so we did some work on getting Izzy to canter in such a way that he is more supple.
In the canter travers, Sean kept reminding me to ask and then remove my aid. Just like in the leg yield, I should put Izzy in travers and then take away the aid. He should continue in travers until I ask for something different. I don't know why this seemed like such a shocking idea, but on Saturday, it was like hearing something for the first time. What do you mean take my aids off? Sean explained that as soon as I come around the corner and shift my weight to the inside, Izzy should know I want his haunches to come in. What?
Sean was right though. if I never take the aid off, Izzy can never learn to carry himself, and I can never make subtle corrections because I am stuck holding him in the movement. It also dulls Izzy to my aids. So, I gave the canter travers another go. I asked, took my aid away, and then rode it. As soon as I felt his haunches come back to the rail, I gave a firm half halt, sat to the inside, and lightened my outside leg. I instantly felt Izzy give me a new gear. His haunches repositioned themselves and his back became much more supple. It felt just like what a Formula 1 car must feel like when the driver grabs that next gear and slingshots around another car for the pass.
As we continued to work, I kept that inner dialogue going - ask, then take the aid off and allow him to do the movement. Along with schooling the canter travers, Sean kept working on my half halt. He really wants it to connect with my inside leg. The inside leg says reach further forward while the outside hand adds just a tiny bit of resistance. When the hand resists in just the right moment, the horse sits and lifts the shoulder. It's a feeling I am just starting to understand, so I asked a ton of very specific questions.
As it turns out, I have been lifting with my thigh instead of my lower leg. To the right, I've been missing something else huge! For so long, Izzy needed me to use my outside leg to catch his falling shoulder. When Sean instructed me to lift with my inside lower leg, I asked how I could catch the outside shoulder and lift with the inside lower leg at the same time. Sean said I wouldn't. Instead, lift the inside leg and catch the shoulder with the outside rein.
You know you're onto something when your horse immediately loses the canter when you try something new. As soon as I took my "holding" outside thigh off, Izzy dropped back to trot and looked around asking, what the hell just happened? He could not maintain the canter without me holding him up. We went back to trot, and I asked for the right lead canter again. I put my inside leg on and said bend around it while using the outside rein to straighten the shoulder. Suddenly, I had a whole different canter. It was much more balanced without the jarring pogo stick bounce he usually gives me.
My mind was blown by the end of the lesson. In fact, I wanted to end as quickly as possible so that I could think about those two big ideas before they melted away. When I write the two ideas - give an aid and then quit giving it and inside leg to bend and outside rein to straighten and balance, I am annoyed at how basic and uncomplicated they are. It's baffling that nearly every problem in riding can be solved by just doing those two things, yet they feel so novel when applied to "new" situations.
I have some very good homework to work on this next week. I started yesterday and am very encouraged!
It's not like I should be surprised that it is STILL the temperature of the sun here in Bakersfield - and believe me, we get the joke: BAKEersfield; but I am. Surprised is probably not the right word; frustrated is more like it. It has been in the low 90s every day this week. I did a quick weather search to find someplace place, ANYPLACE, hotter than it has been here. Know I found? NOTHING! Even Baghdad is only a few degrees warmer. Thankfully, today should be our last hot day of 2022. We will still have some warm days, but the arrival of Halloween usually marks the end of the real heat.
Since we had a show last weekend, I gave Izzy Monday and Tuesday off. On Wednesday, I did a short ride - some quick walk, trot, canter in each direction. As sweat was pouring down my face yesterday, I looked over at my winter-coated big brown horse and knew that it just wasn't fair to ask him to work hard in the heat. I made the quick decision to just hack around the ranch instead. There are lots of trees, so the ride is partly shaded, and frankly, he could use more hacks anyway.
Izzy is happy to trail ride with a buddy, but alone, not so much. Even though we're walking around all of the dry pastures and he can see his friends, he still acts as though there are boogeymen behind each tree and stump. I made the entire circle, poking him with my spur and giving small (and sometimes big) jerks on the rein to get his attention back on me. The second time we started the loop, he was much better behaved but there was the occasional lapse in judgement. By the third time, he still held some tension in his body, but he agreed to get to work. I cut off the last half of the loop and praised the heck out of him.
If it is just as warm today when I get out there, we just might do it all again.
Things gave been pretty serious around her lately. For those of you don't know me personally, I am actually a pretty funny person, and I tend to find the comical side of things. I am quick to make light of mistakes, particularly my own, and I don't mind being the fodder for other people's jokes. Bring it, I say.
So when I got to the ranch yesterday, I could only laugh.
I tend to wear lots of heels and dresses to work. Yesterday was one of those days where nothing in my closet looked right, so I threw on my black Esprit Equestrian breeches, shrugged on a red technical shirt, and paired the ensemble with red Chuck Taylor's. Cute, while not looking homeless. Plus, I wouldn't have to change when I got to the ranch.
When I climbed into the back of the truck yesterday afternoon to switch out my Chuck's, smart watch, and jewelry for a Timex and muck boots, I did one of those, "maybe my boots climbed into the glove box?" searches. No boots. No Timex watch. BUT, I had remembered socks which are regularly forgotten. Thankfully it wasn't a heels sort of day. I very carefully picked my way to the tackroom where I swapped out my Chuck's for riding boots. Joke was on me. I tried to make life easier by wearing riding clothes to work, but then I forgot the appropriate footwear. You can't win them all.
I have a very firm policy: no real life shoes allowed at the barn. I have ruined many a pair of real life shoes by doing just one little thing at the barn. I wasn't willing to sacrifice a pair of Chuck's because I didn't have my muck boots. Instead, I did all of my barn chores, including dumping and cleaning Speedy's water trough, in my tall boots. Which, by the way are the same pair I wrote about in January that were getting too tight to zip up so I had a new pair waiting. The new pair are still waiting!
Excuse me while I go throw my barn bag - filled with breeches, shirt, sports bra, socks, Timex, and barn boots, into my truck.
Lately, I've been hooked on Mike Rowe's podcast, The Way I Heard It. His guests are from all walks of life and cover the political spectrum. Yesterday, I finished episode number 251, "You Wear 40 pounds of Gear Because, You know, You're on Fire Quite a Bit." Rowe's guest was three-time NHRA Funny Car champion Matt Hagan, who not only drag races, but is a rancher and farmer.
As you probably know, one of the topics near and dear to Rowe's heart is work ethic and dirty jobs. Rowe's foundation grants scholarships to individuals who are looking for a career in what he calls, The Trades - welding, electrical, plumbing - basically any kind of job that requires you to get your hands dirty. As a horse girl myself, I have great respect for people who aren't afraid to get dirty and who have a solid work ethic. To this day I can't sit on my butt watching someone else work. My parents raised me to offer a hand whether it is asked for or not.
That's neither here nor there though. The point that I was trying to make is that this particular episode really resonated with me, and maybe that's because of how we did at this Sunday's show. Which, if you didn't read the last two days' posts (here and here), was not good at all. Mike Hagan, the guest, was talking about how important the mental game is in sports, not just racing. In Funny cars, the driver covers 1,000 linear feet at over 300 miles per hour. Hagan pointed out that if your mental game is not razor sharp (my words not his), you won't just not win, you're very likely to wreck and die.
Hagan went on to explain that he has worked so hard on his mental game that he now sees that 1,000 foot track come at him in slow motion. He described it as letting the track come to him. In the seconds that he runs his race, he is able to make numerous corrections as he pilots his rocket to the finish line. As he shared this, Rowe jumped in and compared it to something his mentor had taught him: What Not How.
I actually hit pause on the podcast when I heard those words. Wow, is that ever applicable to dressage. In fact, it's exactly what Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has been preaching for the past year and a half; scores don't matter; that's how I am doing. What I do in the saddle is what matters. How am I doing? is the wrong question to be asking. Instead, by focusing on what I am doing, the how will take care of itself.
Yesterday, I called it being lackadaisical, but now I see that's not it at all. It's not that I've grown careless, it's that I care a lot more about what I am doing than how I am doing. Maybe that's why the judge's score of 4.5 for my effective use of the aids smarted so much. It felt like a slap in the face when I was deliberately and consciously working so hard at being effective. I wasn't riding for a score; I was riding the horse I had at that particular moment, and what he needed was to feel safe, secure, and reassured. That's what I gave him.
Those moments are difficult to see in the video, but numerous times I reached down to pat Izzy. I also made the decision to ride conservatively which the judge thought was back to front riding. If this horse isn't slowed down when he's pushing against me, he gets even more anxious as he feels the loss of his own balance. Letting him "move out" doesn't ease the tension; it only exacerbates it. Sean's solution is to move him sideways and do lots of bending lines which allows the circle to slow him down without needing to use the hand. Unfortunately, in the middle of a test, it's not exactly appropriate to circle when I feel tension. That means it's probably going to come from the hand.
For maybe the first time ever, I didn't look around at everyone else and think that I was the worst rider out there. That's a monkey that took a long time to be rid of. I have always worried so much about whether I fit in and whether I am good enough. For this show, it never crossed my mind that I shouldn't be there. Instead, I kept thinking about the what of what I was doing. Was I using my aids effectively? Was my inside leg pushing Izzy to my outside hand? Was I keeping him even between my aids? Was he on my outside rein?
For every stride of the schooling ride, the warm up (all 8 minutes of it), and the test itself, I kept up a running commentary that had nothing to do with negative self-talk. I didn't criticize myself, and I didn't compare myself to anyone else. I just focused on the job at hand. In Matt Hagan's world, that means making adjustments for every inch his car travels. For Mike Rowe that meant singing and not wondering if the audience liked it (he was an opera singer in case you didn't know). For me, that meant using every tool that Sean has given me in order to keep Izzy in the conversation. Despite the score, I know that I was successful. What Not How is a new tool that I'll be bringing out every day.
And yet again, onward we go.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has worked really hard to help change my mind set about showing. With Speedy, I may have had some show anxiety, but I wasn't really aware of it. Since Speedy was such a complete and total rockstar, he never let my emotions get to him. In his mind, showing was a gigantic party where he was the guest of honor. I always knew that I could count on Speedy to both bring his best work and take care of me along the way.
When I first started showing Izzy, his anxiety, both at home and at shows, combined with mine, served to create a disaster. Each show was worse than the last. I felt as though I was letting everyone down, especially my trainer. I had decided that it was the client's job to make the trainer look good, and I wasn't making anybody look good. in fact, I was a complete embarrassment to anyone who knew my name. It became almost debilitating. The more obsessed with scores I became, the lower my scores were.
After a number of heart to heart talks with Sean, he finally convinced me that not only did he not give a rat's ass about the scores, but that he wasn't going to fire me as a client over my low scores. He was in this thing for the long haul. Little by little, my mind set began to change to the point where I have become nearly lackadaisical as I prepare for a show. I clean my boots and make sure our turnout is clean and tidy, but I no longer obsess over my scores. In fact, on Sunday, once my test was done, we never even talked about what the scores might be. It took us a while to even think about picking up the score sheet. Instead, we talked about my mistakes and why I had made them.
But I am jumping ahead.
My ride time was 8:52 which meant an early departure from STC Dressage. I pulled in right on time, hung Izzy's hay bag, and spent the next 45 minutes grooming, tacking up, and polishing my tack. I bridled at 8:00 and walked down to the ring. As I had done the day before, I hand walked for about ten minutes until spotting Sean. As I attached the Cee Coach, Sean polished my boots, and I sent Izzy off at a walk. He was certainly tense, but he was improved over the day before.
As I walked Izzy around, Sean checked in with the ring steward. I am not sure who freaked out more, Sean or me, when we discovered my ride time had been changed from 8:52 to 8:25! At the same time, we reassured each other that it would be okay. It was what it was so we had better make the best of it. That's what I meant about being a bit lackadaisical. Neither of us had thought to confirm my ride time. In truth, it probably hurt my scores to have such an abbreviated warm up, but I was really proud of myself for not letting it shake me. I did a minute of canter both ways, did a few transitions and leg yields, and then gave Sean my ear buds and the Cee Coach.
As soon as the bell rang, I focused on riding my horse. I didn't freeze up, and I found myself making little corrections every step of the way. I was so focused in fact that at the right lead canter in the first quarter of the circle, a transition that Izzy can get overly dramatic about, I rode it so step by step that by the time I looked up, I realized that I was heading down the long side which did not see correct. I frantically tried to remember where I should be and wondered if there was any way to right the ship. Nope. As soon as the whistle blew, I knew I had missed the part about the first quarter of the CIRCLE. I apologized to the judge and got back on track.
No point in getting upset. It was my mistake, but I did not let it rattle me a single bit. I continued the test and focused on riding it the very best I could on a horse who was still pretty anxious but doing his very best to do what I was asking. While Izzy's concentration wavered every other step, he kept coming right back to me, something that he hadn't done before at this facility.
Our final score ended up being 48.654%. At a training Level Test. Do I think the judge was a little harsh? Absolutely. A 48% at Training Level says you have absolutely no business showing your horse at all. While I've only watched the video twice, it's actually a fairly quiet test. The centerlines are hilarious - so feel free to laugh, and he certainly wanted to carry his haunches to the side, any side. Plus, there was the two point deduction for the off course error. All of that is true and easy to see, but still. I just don't see this as being a 48% ride.
I get that he was tense and lacked some suppleness, but it was just Training Level. What stung the most was the mark for the rider's use of the aids. The judge dinged me pretty harshly with a 4.5. Seriously? That screams complete ineptitude on the rider's part. I've been showing dressage for at least 12 years, and I don't think I've ever earned anything lower than a 5, and even that was rare. I am not saying I deserved an 8.0, but 4.5? I can't help but think the judge must have had an off day because no one who is sitting quietly and piloting their horse in more or less the correct way should ever earn a score that low. The video is below along with the score sheet. You be the judge.
Onward we go ...
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%: