From Endurance to Dressage
I am back on a daily riding schedule. That's both a good thing and a bad thing. With a horse like Izzy, there's a fine line between just right and too much. He needs plenty of work to keep his energy level down and his brain busy, but depending on the kind of work, he also needs days off so that I don't over-face him. Right now, the kind of work I am doing is a bit corrective, so I decided to give him Wednesday and Thursday off. He had been worked for at least five consecutive days, so I knew he was due for a rest day.
I am really happy with how he's been working this past few weeks - we got a clean left to right flying change earlier this week, but I was beginning to feel some low level anxiety building. I also saw a few scattered sloppy poop piles. Those two things told me to back off just a bit. I worked late on Wednesday so both horses got a day of complete rest, not that Speedy needed it.
Yesterday, as always, I changed out of my work clothes whilst using my back seat as a changing room. I park right next to Izzy's sandy pasture, so he sees me kicking off shoes and doing other gymnastic work as I struggle into breeches and boots. He usually comes shambling over to say hello and beg for treats. He didn't do that yesterday. Instead he kept himself parked in his shady corner, lazily swishing his tail at a few flies. I made the quick decision to play with both horses instead of riding. I turned Speedy loose out in the big yard, and closed Izzy up in the grassy turnout in front of Speedy's paddock.
Speedy knows how to live. He immediately set to mowing the grass down as though he were being paid by the mouthful. He also took the opportunity to hang out with me and tell me about his day. Not Izzy. Despite having lots of perfectly nice grass underfoot, he sidled up next to his gal pal and spent a solid half an hour licking the hose, chewing the rake, and rubbing his face and neck on the fence. I can't take that boy anywhere.
While the boys enjoyed themselves, I parked myself in the grass and swiped through TikTok. I don't do much on social media, but a few minutes spent laughing at absolutely nothing always changes my outlook. Speedy is not a fan of TikTok, so he eventually ditched me in favor of checking out what might be be available at Izzy's place. He scrounged around in the feeder, checked out Izzy's roll spot, and then blasted past me when he realized I was about to kick him out.
Getting both horses back into their respective paddocks is always what I imagine herding cats must be like. Each horse is certain the other is getting something better. Eventually, Speedy was back where he belonged with his lunch bucket, but not before chasing Izzy out with pinned ears and a swishing tail. To my surprise, Izzy actually skedaddled, certain that Speedy meant it. It seems as though the pecking order has shifted. With some poking and prodding, I finally got Izzy heading towards his own paddock and his bucket of lunch. He is familiar enough with the routine that he now tucks himself in as long as I get him pointed in the right direction.
Sometimes, it becomes necessary to re-examine one's priorities. A day off seemed more valuable than another day of work.
Imperioso is his registered name, but his barn name is Izzy. I also frequently refer to him as the Big Brown Horse because he's both big and well ... brown. Brown is not usually an official horse color, but in Izzy's case, that's the color his registry, Rheinland Pfalz-Saar International (RPSI), recognizes. Specifically, dunklebraun - dark brown. Even though I call him brown, he is really just a dark bay. While I had him tested for the cream dilution gene a while back - it came back negative, I should do it again but test for something else.
Each fall and spring, as his new coat comes in, it is nearly black. He's not yet as dark as he will eventually get, but I love the coat color he gets after summer. While Speedy's coat used to go through some interesting changes, he's mostly white now. Even the flea bitten areas are getting fewer and fewer.
I've always loved horses of color - roans, pintos palominos, buckskins, dapple greys. You would think a brown horse would be the least interesting coat color, but the opposite is true. Izzy's coat changes colors all year long. Since he didn't lighten nearly as much this summer as in the past, I wonder if he will darken as much as usual this winter.
Light brown or dark brown, he's still just a Big Brown Horse. I think I'll keep him.
As usual, I used my Pivo Pod to record my Sunday ride. While I love having a lesson on Saturday with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, it's my Sunday rides that give me a chance to try out what I learned the day before.
While I have learned to be flexible with each day's riding goals - Izzy doesn't usually read the same playbook as me, I knew that playing around with creating bend from the inside leg was definitely a must do. It didn't matter if we did it in the canter or not, but we were going to work on it. I warmed Izzy up as usual, but I kept reminding him that if he braced and leaned into my inside leg instead of bending around it, a sharp poke would be waiting for him.
Just to be clear, the goal is not the sharp poke. The goal is to encourage softness and bend around my inside leg with the lightest possible aid. Ideally, that would be a weighted inside seat bone. Right now, I haven't made that aid clear enough for Izzy which is why I am helping him to connect the dots: inside leg at the girth means bend. If he doesn't bend, he will feel a sharp poke. If I can become very consistent in asking and reinforcing, he will learn very quickly to wrap himself around my leg and soften through his neck and poll. He is already making those connections.
Early on in the ride, I asked for the right lead canter. As soon as he braced and leaned into my inside leg, I gave him a poke and carried on. It only took three circles for him to make better life choices. In the video below, you can tell right when I put my spur in because he hops away from me, but about the third time around, I had convinced him to stop bracing as we passed the gate end of the arena. Was it perfect? No, but he demonstrated that he was listening. We went on to something else.
Throughout the ride, I put on my teacher hat and presented the idea of creating softness from my inside leg in lots of different ways. So often, my students only learn a new idea after seeing a number of different examples. With Izzy, I walked up each quarterline asking for a change of bend with my inside leg. It was like dribbling a soccer ball: bend to the left, bend to right, bend to the left, bend to the right. Each time I asked for the new bend, I did it by first weighting the new seat bone and then pressing my calf at the girth. Only if he didn't change the bend did I poke him with the spur.
I also asked for some steeper leg yields which he is doing really well. We still have too much shoulder one moment followed by too much haunches the next, but that's really all just pilot error. I need to remember to ride him forward into both reins evenly while monitoring the haunches. I tend to ask for too much haunches which is something Speedy "taught" me.
To finish up the idea of creating bend and softness with my inside leg, we worked on traverse to half pass. The half pass to the right was a real struggle. He kept fighting to take the bend away from me. I had him do the half pass twice, and when he gave me a half pass that was at least better than the first one, I took what he was willing to offer and moved on to the left side. It wasn't great by any means, but I was really encouraged by the effort he offered.
In the video below, his traverse is pretty decent, maybe not super consistent, but the bend is there. In the half pass, the bend is not nearly enough - at least I don't think so, but what I was rewarding was his effort. He didn't take the bend away; instead, he kept trying which is all I ever really want from him - the try.
The one thing that I have learned about this horse is that as he's learning something new, it tends to get worse before it gets better. It might take him a few weeks to accept my inside leg as an aid for bend. And for certain, I know that over-using the spur is a recipe for disaster which is why I've asked Sean to keep an eye on my effective use of the aids (as it were). Even knowing it might get worse for a bit, I am so encouraged by the progress we're making. I know none of this is brilliant, but I am proud of our progress.
Who knows? Maybe we'll get to show Training Level, Test 2 next year!
I always learn at least a little during my Saturday lessons, but THIS Saturday was a biggie. Over the past month, Izzy and I have had to tread water so to speak as we waited for that last brutal heat wave to end. I was hopeful that he'd come out on the other side still trusting me. Saturday's ride showed me that my slow and steady approach paid off.
Except for Wednesday, I was able to ride each day during the past week. The weekend before had been terribly hot, so my ride's rides were really short, but we did do a little. By Monday, the temperature dropped more than 30 degrees. Each day, I asked Izzy for a little more, adding new questions each day. By Thursday we were finally schooling movements, and by Friday, the "sas" was really starting to show. I wasn't sure what I'd get for Saturday's lesson, but I knew he was ready to return to work.
With Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, in my ear, Izzy warmed up easily without any tension. I even mentioned to Sean that warming up is now a pleasant experience. Izzy gets right to work. Even after his warm up coughs, he no longer loses his balance and bolts. He has learned how to cough and keep right on going. I know that sounds like a duh moment, but it's sort of huge for the King of Making Me Yell - and yes that's a real place, "Oh, shit!" as I try not to die. Which, by the way, I haven't had to yell in at least a year, probably longer.
Anyway, as we trotted around, I talked about how braced Izzy still is in the right lead canter. He's a bit stiff to the left as well, but until we can get him to let go reliably while tracking right, the flying change will never happen. Sean asked if I am doing simple changes down the long side alternating which lead we pick up. As though we've done it all our lives, I asked Sean, like this? as we be-bopped from one lead to the other, counter cantering the short sides.
I am laughing aloud as I write this because I am not sure who was more surprised by the ease at which Izzy was able to pick up the counter counter and hold it, Sean or me. Or maybe even Izzy for that matter. Either way, it was as though I've schooled them hundreds of times. I had worked on it over the week, but the dude really hit it out of the park. I shouldn't be surprised though as Sean has said from the beginning that if we spend most of our time on the basics, the hard stuff becomes easy.
So there we were picking up the counter canter through simple changes and changes of lead through trot. That's when Sean basically told me to cool my jets, and yes, I am paraphrasing. What he actually said was that he wasn't at all upset by what he was watching. He felt that the small mistakes, like the loss of balance and bracing, would fix themselves with time. He said that I need to be patient and recognize that I am doing everything right. That's when I told him about being the kind of person who looks first at what she might be doing wrong while asking if there is more that she should be doing. I wrote about that yesterday.
He couldn't see anything that I was doing wrong, but he did have a great suggestion. Each month, Izzy comes to a new place in his understanding of his job. As he develops more and more confidence in both himself and me, and by extension, Sean, he allows me to ask more complicated questions and tolerates firmer corrections.
In the right bend, Sean felt it was time to use my spur a bit more strongly. When I said that I was poking Izzy with the spur, Sean said that he wanted me to poke Izzy in the "liver." It should be a clear enough poke that Izzy should feel uncomfortable, thereby causing him to think twice about ignoring my inside leg in the future. I know it sounds harsh to "poke him in the liver," but I understood what Sean meant. I put Izzy on a circle, and lifted my heel up and into his side. It took me a few times to gauge how much poke to give him - not enough the first few times to get a response, but when I figured it out, Izzy wrapped his body around my inside leg and quit bracing.
Sean's purpose was to teach me how to teach Izzy that the bend should come from my inside leg and not my inside rein. The rein should be to guide him, not correct him. If I have to tug his head around, we'll never get a flying change or even a decent shoulder-in or half pass. It only took a couple of "pokes to the liver" before Izzy started bending through his body. To test his new awareness of my inside leg, we did some shoulder-in and travers where I did have to poke him a time or two, but eventually he started anticipating the shift in my weight aid and recognized that a poke would be next if he didn't start bending.
When we moved the "poke him in the liver" idea to the canter, I laughed out loud. For maybe the first time ever, my job as the rider got so much easier. Instead of trying to muscle his neck into bending, I just gave a poked with my spur, and suddenly we had a balanced, adjustable canter. As soon as I felt it, I knew I should ask for a flying change. Sean had the same idea. Before I could ask though, Izzy lost his balance a bit and fell back into a trot. Sean suggested I find that balanced canter again, straighten Izzy by moving his ribcage over, and then quietly ask for a flying change.
I did what Sean suggested. I put my right spur in to say bend around my leg. I kept repeating, it's just another canter stride, it's just another canter stride. When we were ready, I straightened him by pushing his ribcage over with my new inside leg and gave a scoop with my seat. It was a bit wild and wooly with a lot of flying before the change, but he did the change on my aids. It scared the heck out of him, and he shot forward in a bit of discombobulated gallop, but he did it. Once I more or less had him under control, I patted his neck and brought him back to a less chaotic trot.
So yeah. Flying changes are no longer part of our distant future. They're here!
Last week, while listening to Mike Rowe's podcast, The Way I Heard It (which is fascinating by the way), his guest made a comment that really made me stop and think. The guest, George 'Tyrus' Murdoch, is a regular on Fox News's late night program, Gutfeld. To be honest, I had never heard of Murdoch, I don't know who Gutfeld is, and I can't stay awake long enough to watch anything classified as "late night TV." It doesn't matter though because I enjoy listening to all kinds of points of view, especially so when they're expressed with logic and respect.
Anyway, what Murdoch said was this (and I am paraphrasing): Essentially, there are two kinds of people. The first are those who look outside of themselves for the cause of their hardships or the reason why things happen to them. They also look outside of themselves for solutions. The second type of persons looks within to understand how their own behavior has brought them to the point of wherever they may find themselves. They also look inward to make changes in an effort to change their circumstances. Guess which one I am?
I don't think one is better than the other. I am clearly one of those people who looks inward to figure out what I am doing wrong to cause whatever situation I find myself in. If something is going wrong, it is obviously my fault, and this is especially true when it comes to riding. If one of my horses isn't doing what I am asking, the fault always lies with me. I am not asking in the right way, my aids are unclear, my tension is getting in the way, and on and on.
The great thing about this way of viewing the world is that the solution can also be found within. If I make a change in the way I am riding, if I become better educated, if I seek heIp ... I have the power to fix things. There are pitfalls in living with this point of view though. If everything is my fault - Speedy's physical limitations come to mind, I will continue to look for a solution even if there isn't one. Speedy is one in a million, but even Charlotte Dujardin wouldn't be able to score a 90% on him.
Izzy is full of talent, but he also likes to be in charge even when he has no idea what the hell he is doing. It is difficult for me to admit that sometimes, I am doing all that can be done. During my lesson on Saturday - more on that tomorrow, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, pointed out that in the particular instance of what we were talking about, I was already doing everything right; I just need to be patient. If I keep doing what I am doing, Izzy will get there.
I can't change which type of person I am, and even if I could, I wouldn't want to. Looking to myself for solutions means I have an excellent work ethic. It also allows me to get things done because as we all know, if you want something done right, do it yourself. I don't have to reply on a trainer to fix something. I don't have to wait until my horse matures. I don't have to wait on anyone or anything. If I want something to change, I simply have to take a long look at myself and ask, how can I do this better? And while it might not happen tomorrow, as long as it is possible - I am not making it to the Olympics no matter how hard I work, I can make it happen eventually.
That's an empowering way to live.
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%
2022 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2022 Show Schedule
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
(***) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 62.115%