From Endurance to Dressage
On Saturday morning as I went to load some stuff for a weekend at STC Dressage, I saw that my truck door hadn't been shut properly. I flipped a U-turn and went back into the house. "I didn't shut my truck door last night," I told my husband. I worried that I might need to jump start it which would have been a big bummer as I had just bought two new batteries in November.
When I went back out to Newt, I noticed a series of things that hit me like the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun.
To each thing I kept repeating, I must have been in a big hurry on Friday night when I got home from work. And then I got in to start the truck to check the battery. My driver side seat was pushed back. I am 5'3". A lightening bolt struck me; someone had broken into my truck. Son of a bleeping beep. Before I touched anything else, I brought my husband out to show him. I discovered that the interior lights had been turned off which is why none of them came on when I opened the door which is one reason I had worried that my battery was dead.
We both stood there shaking our heads, getting madder as each second passed. The front of our house is well lit at night. We have a light post right in front of our house. We have motion lights. We live in a gated community. My community, of which I am a board member, has a contract with a private security firm who does drive-bys throughout the day and night. And yet, someone was able to sneak around my front yard and break into my truck. Fortunately, there was nothing of value to take, and no damage was done, but still ...
Later in the day I posted the break-in on the Nextdoor App. My neighborhood uses it as a sort of neighborhood watch. All of my neighbors post suspicious activity, so I knew I'd get a response. The next day, several other people reported that the same thing had happened to them, and one of them shared a screen shot from his video camera.
Unfortunately, there isn't anything any of us can do except warn each other and be vigilant. We have a board meeting coming up, so I am going to suggest we change our gate code again. We're considering adding an exterior video camera to monitor what's happening outside at night. We have an interior camera for our security system, but it appears we need to do more.
If we weren't truck people, our vehicles would fit in the garage. As it is, my husband's truck does fit, but only barely. Newt is way too long. Our garage is wide, but we'd need at least another three feet to get Newt's big butt in there. She sleeps outside, but I am now worried about her safety.
What's the world coming too? Big, big, sigh.
The one thing that I dislike about doing virtual lessons with my Pivo Pod is that the Pivo app can't do a meeting and record at the same time. Given its very reasonable price though, it can't be expected to do everything. Two weeks ago I recorded video the day before my lesson, and for this last lesson, I recorded my ride the day after the lesson.
While there is nothing fancy about the videos, there isn't anything horrible either. I recoded twenty-five minutes of pretty basic work. No one wants to watch twenty-five minutes of anything, so I found some stretches of trotting and a bit of canter and uploaded them. This is us without any filters. It's just raw footage captured without any effort at looking well schooled.
I am not as happy with the canter work that I grabbed. I can see how tight I am in my upper body, particularly through my elbows. At fifteen seconds you can see me push my hands forward so that Izzy can carry himself for a moment, and that sort of reset my position as well. The other thing I am trying to fix is my swinging left leg. I keep my right leg much quieter.
While I haven't done much recording over the past year, I think it would be worth my while to try and record once a week. I've discovered that even watching it in fast forward gives me an overall impression of my position. As I make changes in how I ride, I see those changes reflected in how Izzy moves. I have the tools to quickly and easily record; I need to make use of them.
There's nothing like a bunch of honesty to make you feel naked.
I have written about Dessa Hockley's book, Is Your Horse a Rock Star? more times than I can count. No matter how many times I've read it, I come back to it time and time again. In fact, if you Google the book title and then search for images, a picture of Speedy shows up. Speedy truly is a Rock Star.
According to Hockley, there are sixteen personality types, all of which are determined by figuring out which four of the eight personality traits your horse possesses. The eight personality traits are:
I didn't get so lucky with Izzy; or, maybe I did. Izzy is DEAF - dominant, energetic, afraid, and friendly. Dessa calls this personality combination The Wild Card. Getting a wild card in a game is usually a good thing, but at times, the wild card costs you big points.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and I have been working hard over the past year to figure Izzy out. After having made a great deal of progress, I remembered Hockley's book and took it out this weekend to see if it might offer any new insights. I didn't discover anything I hadn't already read, but things that Sean has said were echoed in the book.
The Wild Card is dominant and strong-minded with lots of energy. They want to be the boss, but since they have the fear gene running through, they aren't brave enough to be a leader which means they are prone to "checking out." The DEAF horse needs the rider to take control, but his dominant side does not appreciate that and will happily fight with you if you push too hard. And since he's also energetic, he has the energy and attitude to fight long and hard.
The Wild Card horse is also very friendly. Hockley describes them as generous with a desire to please. In her final words describing the DEAF horse, she says, "Once the DEAF horse is working for you, he has ample energy and expression that he will freely give to any situation or sport. You will truly feel that you are blessed to have a Wild Card in your hand."
As Sean and I work to figure Izzy out, we are seeing moments where he truly relaxes and allows me to lead. Sean commented the other day that the fear is receding, but Izzy doesn't want to give up control. That's where we are now. The spooking doesn't appear to be fear based anymore. Instead, it seems calculated to avoid giving up control. Hockley's book really supports this idea. Izzy has both fear and dominant personality traits. We're calming the fear, and now we need Izzy to give up control.
I believe that we're on the right track though. Sean is teaching me to quietly and calmly tell Izzy that this IS the way we are doing it without letting Izzy bait me into a fight. Hockley stresses that you "Do not fight with them - they have a lot of energy and attitude if you want to go there." Sean has said the same thing.
Wild Card or Goddess, Rock Star or Macho Man, Worker Bee or Accountant, by understanding our horses' personalities, maybe we can see their quirks as part of their personalities rather than something that needs to be fixed.
Buy the book; you won't be disappointed.
On Saturday, I took a lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer st STC Dressage. We've been together for nearly a year now, and I only just this weekend realized how our particular dynamic works. When Sean joins me virtually through the Pivo Pod, it's as a coach or even a more experienced friend. I've learned that he doesn't come prepared with exercises. He's more interested in coaching me through the issues I am having right now. Lately, those issues are behavioral, but I imagine that some day, he'll coach me through a better half pass or a better pirouette.
I've learned that I am in charge of my riding during the lesson. He might suggest we do a change of rein, but ultimately, I realized that he's there to offer support. As I am riding, I tell him what I am feeling or struggling with, and he talks me through my aids. I might ask if I need more outside rein or more inside leg. He responds, and I apply his advice. Nearly always I see an immediate effect. I don't know if this is how he works with all of his clients or not, and it could be that we've developed a more unique system since we work virtually, but it is definitely working for me. Saturday's lesson was more of a conversation than what you'd typically see in a traditional dressage lesson.
To begin with, early in the lesson, Izzy spooked really hard. I lost both stirrups and was hanging on for dear life certain that this was the time I was going to come off. Surprisingly, I hung on, but it knocked the wind out of me. Once I had righted myself and caught my breath, I asked Sean what he thought. He didn't say anything for a moment, and when he finally answered, I could tell that he didn't think much of Izzy at that moment. We both thought it was a pretty dirty move.
As the lesson continued, Izzy threw in spook after spook. It gets a little exasperating, but this is the horse I have, and I am doing my best to figure him out. After one particularly rough spook, Sean thought for a moment and described it as calculated. That descriptor stopped me in my tracks. I realized that calling a spook dirty versus calculated says more about my mindset than it does about Izzy's. Referring to his behavior as dirty implies a sense of meanness as though he's doing things because he's malicious. Calling a spook calculated means that he's thinking about it. Right now, he's obviously figuring out how to get out of the work, but at least he's thinking instead of just reacting.
As Sean and I talked about how much meaning can be attached to a single word, he explained that while it might not look as though we've made a lot of progress in the past year, the way Izzy spooks indicates that we have. Early on, Izzy simply exploded with no rhyme or reason. Now, Sean is starting to recognize Izzy's tells, those little signs he gives before spooking.
I had never thought of it that way. Some of the time I can catch him before he's got me hanging on for dear life, the ground swiftly rising to greet me. Other times, it's only because of my guardian angel's efforts that I am not a lawn dart. Now that Izzy is beginning to have more and more moments of relaxation, a careful observer, someone like Sean, can begin to catch those tells. Often times, just being made aware of something is enough to help you see it clearly. I continued on through the lesson looking for Izzy's tells and watching him as he thought about what was happening.
Sean gave me a lot of other great advice during the lesson, things like how to more effectively use 10-meter circles and how to leave a door open so that Izzy doesn't feel so trapped. While I took those ideas and applied them immediately, it was the use of the word calculated along with the idea of Izzy having tells that really rocked my little world. Just paying attention to those two not-so-little ideas has the potential to really affect big change in how I ride and deal with Izzy. When you choose complicated over simple, you need to view the situations from as many angles as possible.
Now that I realize that Izzy and I are at a poker table of sorts, I just might be able to out think him.
Izzy is a complicated horse; no one questions that. As I continue to dig for the root of Izzy's anxieties, I am finding more and more hot buttons. The latest one is Izzy's absolute abhorrence of working in the late afternoon. When combined with working past 20 minutes - something else he hates, after-work rides become something I have to really psyche myself up to do. And those aren't the only two things he hates. He also hates working under heavy clouds or fog. Take a guess at what the weather was like this past week.
The difficulty with riding a horse who hates being worked under cloudy skies in the late afternoon for more than 20 minutes is that for four months out of the year, it's cloudy. From September to June, I teach all day which means I have to ride in the afternoon. In order to make any progress, at least some of our rides need to be longer than 20 minutes. Izzy's won't work conditions are just not acceptable.
For a lot of horses, the rider could simply give a sharp kick with a heel and say come on, let's do this. With Izzy, it's not that simple. His bring it mentality is always prepped for a fight, so I have to ask in a way that is firm, but not dictatorial. By Friday afternoon, I was tired and not in the mood for a fight. Even so my response to every balk and spook was to calmly tell Izzy that I wasn't going to be baited. Nothing he could say or do was going to pull me into the fight he so desperately wanted to have.
Did I want to jerk his face off and kick him in the ribs? Absolutely. Would it have helped? Nope. Instead, I just refused to overreact. I kept asking the same questions over and over with the expectation that he would eventually get the answer right.
It took twenty-three minutes, but he finally agreed to go forward without snapping his head around at each little sound. At about the twenty minute mark, that point when he starts to get pissy for real, he gave a deep sigh that either indicated relaxation or acceptance or maybe even both. I didn't care which one it was. I patted him on the neck and finished the ride. I counted it as a win.
This problem isn't solved yet, and I imagine I am going to be pushing that boulder up a hill for a while yet. A win is a win though, and each time I can show him that I am willing to be his partner is one step closer to getting him to join my team.
As they say, what doesn't kill me will only make me stronger.
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 Second Level. 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%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2022 Pending …
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2nd Level Qualifying
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 60.610% Bhathal
2nd Level Qualifying
5 Scores/4 Judges/61%:
Stuff I Read