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!
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%: