From Endurance to Dressage
I hope you had a great Thanksgiving weekend. Mine was not what I was hoping for. I woke up sick on Thursday morning and Friday morning and Saturday morning ... You get the idea. I didn't know my doctor ran a skeleton crew on Saturdays. I do now.
I am taking a short blogging break until I kick this thing to the curb. In the meantime, can someone sing me some Soft Kitty, Warm Kitty?
Be back soon.
Like all of you, I have much for which to be thankful. While I could list hundreds of things for which I am grateful (wine, the Riding Warehouse, chocolate, sunny days, etc.), I'd like to share just five on this day of Thanksgiving.
I wake up grateful each and every day to be married to such a generous and dependable man. I am also thankful for his sense of humor and tolerance. That he likes dogs is a plus! We've been together since I was 19 and he was 21, 27 years. How did two young kids know enough to pick the right partner for life? I don't know how I got so lucky, but I am grateful every day that I did.
While I might be marking off the years until retirement, I am still thankful to have job that pays me well and still allows me to have so much time to spend doing the things I really love. Its seems as though you usually get one or the other: good pay or time off. I am grateful to have both.
I am very thankful that a greater power led us to live in Bakersfield. While my husband is native to the city, we looked elsewhere as we were pursuing our first jobs. Settling in this city has afforded us opportunities that we wouldn't have had living somewhere else.
I am particularly appreciative to have my boys. Each one of them brings me joy in his own unique way. Speedy is irreplaceable; to lose him would be losing a member of my family. And while Izzy is not my easiest "child," I find myself growing more attached each day.
We don't have human kids (I am grateful for that), but our four-legged buddies fill the role nicely. When our first two canine friends crossed the Rainbow Bridge (McGwire at 11 and Kirby at 15), we spent a dogless year waiting for our next "kid" to find us. It was a long and quiet year. We missed the click of toenails on the floor, the jingle jangle of dog tags hitting the water bowl, and soft snores filling our bedroom. Each day these guys fill our home with love.
I hope you spend this Thanksgiving Day surrounded by friends and family doing something that you love.
The horse I pulled out on Sunday was definitely not the same horse I had put away on Saturday. Before I rode, the ranch owner and neighbor took a group lesson. A few of their friends and family members came over to watch. They also strolled around the property enjoying the nice weather.
This was too much for my big brown horse. His alarm bells started ringing. While he stood quietly as I tacked him up, he had some very wet and sloppy poops that told the tale. As we walked up to the arena, I could see the tension in his body.
We had decided that for Sunday, I would ride Izzy in the legal bit, especially since he had been so willing on Saturday. Although I cringed as I slipped the bit in his mouth, I knew it was the right choice. Just in case though, I brought my every day bridle with me.
From the moment we started, Izzy was coiled up like a spring. His top line was pulled tight, and he couldn't have stretched his neck down even if he had wanted too. These are the times that I have the most trouble riding him because he gets so behind the bit that I can't develop a connection. If I had leg, he just bounces higher and higher.
Fortunately, Chemaine had a solution. While she didn't call it natural horsemanship, that's really what we worked on. Since there was no way I was going to get any longitudinal flexion (from the nose over the poll down the neck and along the back down to the hocks), we worked on lateral flexion instead.
First at the walk and later at the trot and canter, Chemaine had me flex Izzy to the inside while also sending his haunches in. And when I say "flex," think carrot stretches but with an outside rein. It's a lot harder than you might think.
So here's how it worked: I flexed Izzy deeply to the inside while establishing the rhythm with the outside rein. I also sent his haunches in. The instant I flexed him, his brain said run faster because I am off balance.
As you can imagine, doing this exercise requires a good amount of coordination from the rider. I had to keep my weight to the inside seat bone while still pushing my outside leg back for the haunches in. I also had to maintain the flexion with the inside rein and also slow him down with the outside rein until I felt him soften to the inside. The instant that he gave, I gave. I allowed his haunches to travel straight, and I released the flexion.
Of course he resisted in the very next stride, but I simply repeated the flexion and haunches in every single time he tried to brace his neck. Things got a bit wild and wooly at the canter, but he eventually gave in.
What I liked most about this flexion work was that I was able to build some connection even though he wanted to be behind the bit. By flexing him, it put him on the outside rein. From there, I could start to get longitudinal flexion, which is what we did next.
Chemaine had me visualize the "horse" and bit from Disneyland's hearse. If there were a horse there, he would be on the bit. Keeping the bit in mind, Chemaine encouraged me to think about placing the bit wherever I wanted it to be. In this case, that meant down.
Once I had established a certain amount of lateral flexion with Izzy, I started lowering the bit. To do this, I asked for some inside flexion and then held the inside rein firmly while sponging the outside rein. As soon as Izzy's head dropped a little, I flexed him slightly to the outside, and held that rein firmly while sponging the new outside rein. Back and forth I flexed and held, flexed and held as he slowly started to drop his head.
Even though Izzy was a jerk on Sunday, I was really pleased with how much we were able to accomplish over the weekend. I don't know that he'll ever be a horse that doesn't carry some amount of tension, but we're both learning how to deal with it.
You can bet that I am going to be doing a lot more work with both of those exercises.
I am doing the happy dance today. Izzy was actually a normal horse for Saturday's ride with Chemaine Hurtado. There was no rearing, no bolting, no melt downs. This didn't happen overnight. He and I have been working our butts off. For years. Years! Saturday was the result of a lot of persistence.
Chemaine's daughter shot more than 30 minutes of video, and I could hardly find a moment where he put a foot out of place. Here's a short clip of what he looked like for most of the lesson.
Of course there is a ton to work on. This horse is far, far from being finished, but man, oh, man are we on the right track!
As we started the lesson, I told Chemaine that I felt we were ready to tackle our connection. Yes, that should always be what we work on, but for so long, it's been more about getting this horse to not bolt through my aids. At the end of the lesson, we actually had a long talk about that issue.
Many people have asked why I don't ride this horse more forward. The truth is, he just doesn't have the balance to do that. If I let him go faster, he has to run to keep from falling on his nose. He doesn't know how to sit and lengthen his stride. You would think that when he felt unbalanced, he would slow himself down, but his answer has always been to go faster. Convincing him that slower is a better choice has been hard, hard work. He's one of those who thinks his answer is always right, but finally, he seems to be rethinking things.
Essentially, the lesson went like this. Slow, slower, SLOWER ... stretch down. Repeat, repeat, repeat. As we worked, Chemaine decreed that our word for the day (week, month, year) is establish. It is my job to establish a rhythm in which Izzy is able to maintain his balance. She explained it like this.
So he just has to say, "This is my happy place right here. If I come back to this happy, relaxed place every time I lose my balance, then I am going to be okay."
Once he accepted the bit, Chemaine had me work on getting his body organized. To begin with, she instructed me to put more weight in my inside stirrup while thinking about pushing him toward the outside rein.
Every time his head popped up though, Chemaine instructed me to re-establish that safe, balanced rhythm. She described it like this.
So maybe a little bit slower and deeper again because he keeps asking, "Oh, can I come up now? Oh, can I come up now?" You have to convince him that no, that is not the right answer. Those are not the right questions to ask. When he starts to ask "the question" again, you need to re-establish that rhythm.
As he started to move into the outside rein, Chemaine encouraged me to ask for a longer and straighter stride by closing my outside leg a bit while thinking about his toes going under his nose. Let me say that again. Think about his toes going under his nose. Wow! That gave me a totally different feel for straightness! While we didn't get a lengthening, Izzy did straighten up and get a wee bit of a loftier stride.
For the canter work, we worked on the same ideas. The trot work has been harder for me to establish than the canter, so when we got to the canter, there was less tweaking. One thing in particular stood out though. Chemaine had me think about a full body half halt. That was something I was already doing in practice, but putting a name to it helped me visualize it better.
On half halting, both at the canter and trot, Chemaine had a few more interesting things to say.
I want him to shorten up to the point where he recognizes you. He's still thinking about everything else.
She felt like he actually forgets I am up there. She wanted me to keep half halting and shortening his stride until he acknowledged me in some way - licking his lips, cocking an ear ... something. Essentially it was all about this...
You need to re-establish his mental connection as much as the feeling in your hand.
Isn't that the truth? More tomorrow.
Of course we all pay our trainers, but I've been thinking about what I expect to get for that payment, and what I should get for my money.
Over the weekend, Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, was in Bakersfield for a two-day clinic. I've been riding with Chemaine for a number of years. Besides hauling to her barn for lessons during the summer, I've had her coach me at shows, I've twice been one of her demo riders at Horse Expo, and I've brought her here for nearly a dozen clinics. Clearly, we have a long standing relationship.
Not only is Chemaine always easy to work with, her style of teaching focuses more on what the rider is doing right as opposed to pointing out what she's doing wrong. This weekend, it seemed as though Chemaine's comments were more superlative than normal. Instead of being impressed, she was super impressed. She pointed out that my hands were especially quiet. And so on.
As we finished up Saturday's lesson (more on that tomorrow), she offered even more praise of my riding. I laughed and protested that any improvement was because of the new saddle. When she insisted that she really liked what she saw, I joked that she has to say that because I am paying her. We both laughed, but it really made me stop and think. What am I paying her for, if not for her opinion?
The truth is, I have a very difficult time accepting praise or compliments. That's the perfectionist in me. If I can't do something perfectly, I don't feel worthy of the praise. Stupid, I know. I have a much easier time accepting criticism; that I feel I deserve since I am not doing it perfectly. So when Chemaine offers praise, especially better than average praise, I am suspicious of its genuineness.
And yet, isn't that what I expect from my trainer, an honest critique of my riding? I have never seen Chemaine give gratuitous feedback to any client. Sure, she always tries to find something nice to say, but after a tough lesson or show, it's usually something along the lines of being a hard worker, sticking it out, having good moments, and so on.
After giving it some thought, I decided that what I expect from a trainer is this: lessons that focus on sound dressage principals, genuine feedback on my riding, someone who supports my riding goals and is willing to try to help me get there, and as a bonus, if we can be friends along the way, the student/teacher relationship is even better. Chemaine checks all my boxes for what I need in a trainer.
That seems like a lot to ask for $75. The reality is that for the price of the lesson, the sound dressage principals is about all I should get. I've ridden with a number of trainers over the years. Sometimes, I got sound teaching, but the positive feedback was missing. Other times, the trainer offered a supportive learning environment, but there wasn't enough "meat" to the lesson. I've even worked with trainers who were positive and had sound basics, but they just weren't able to help me achieve my goals.
So tell me, what do you all expect from a trainer, and realistically, what should we get?
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
*** SCEC 10/15-16/22
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
(***) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 62.115%