From Endurance to Dressage
Hitting the Dirt
In the eight or nine years that I've owned Izzy, I've yet to come off him while he was still vertical. That doesn't mean we haven't had a spill because we have, twice, and one of them happened on Monday. Seven or eight years ago, we were cantering. He lost his balance and did a mini somersault spilling us both to the ground. I was unhurt, but he came up sore.
It was close to 100 degrees on Monday, and I was not up to doing any real work, so I opted for a short trail ride. I chose a route that Speedy enjoys even though I knew it might challenge Izzy a bit. You can see from the map that there is nothing inherently tricky about the loop. I follow an unpaved road until I cross the old golf course, then circle counter clockwise through a cherry orchard, and then meander along the river until I cut through a hedge to get back to the barn.
Izzy was being his regular tense and high headed self. He simply can't just mosey along. No matter how many trail rides we've done, his default is still to be high headed and on alert. He is certain dragons are going to swoop out of the sky and cart him off for dinner. I manage him though and we always get home safely. In the photo above, you can see where the Kern River normally is. That's not where it is right now. The river is creeping up closer and closer to the row of houses that dot the landscape above the river.
As we headed toward home, the lower half of the blue-green line, I rode across the neighbor's lawn, almost at his back door because his lawn was saturated with water. Without being able to follow my regular route which tracks closer to the river, I had to find a way around the next house that didn't have me traipsing across his lawn. I saw a small ditch filled with dead foxtails. I paused on the berm as I looked both left and right for the best path to get back on the dirt road.
I turned Izzy to the left and asked him to step forward. Without hesitating, he stepped down into the ditch and quickly sank to his belly in quicksand. He heaved and lunged as he tried to pull himself out, but with my weight on his back, he wasn't going anywhere safely. I quickly stepped out of the saddle and backed up onto the hard packed road. I tugged on the reins to turn Izzy's head my way and encouraged him to push out. He gave a massive grunt and leaped beside me.
He was pretty rattled but otherwise fine. I gave him a quick going over making sure that he was uninjured and that his shoes were still attached. I dusted both of us off - we were both covered in sand, and led him over to a tractor that I used as a mounting block. After patting his neck for a bit, he sidled up next to the tractor and let me get back on. We headed back home where he was quite relieved to get a cool shower and a chance to graze on the lawn.
Throughout the whole ordeal, I kept my wits about me. Surprisingly, this was not my first encounter with quicksand. It wasn't even my second (or third). Living on a river that rises and falls depending on rain or snow melt means that there are frequently boggy or deep sandy spots like the one I stumbled into. The quicksand we found was very dry on top, but I think that deep down the water table has risen so high that it is seeping up towards the surface.
After I untacked Izzy, I gave myself a quick check and discovered sand deep in my boots, down in my sports bra, and even in my ears. I don't think I actually hit the ground as I was mounted the whole time, but I think when Izzy dropped so suddenly through the surface of the sand, we both scooped up a lot of dirt. It was definitely not the ride I was expecting, but I was really pleased with how trusting Izzy was. That is one thing I love about this horse. When he's in trouble, he always waits for a human to help him out.
I am glad he trusts me, but he might really hate trail rides now.
Over the past two years, and especially over the past few months, I have seen some profound changes in my riding. For so, so long, I struggled to simply not suck. Forget about being good. Being "good" is of course relative. To my utter embarrassment, my mom constantly tells people - quite often complete strangers, what a fantastic rider I am. In my mom's opinion, I am Olympic material. Compared to non-riders, I am a fantastic rider, but compared to the Charlotte Dujardins of the world, I am just trying not to embarrass myself. Even with understanding that being good is relative, I have begun feeling pretty positive about my effectiveness as a rider.
Over the weekend, Izzy gave me some less than pleasant rides. And even though he was a bit of an ass, I still felt great about what we did. Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has given me some especially powerful tools. And even better is that I know when and how to use them. During Sunday's lesson, Izzy decided to spook at the ranch owner's horse as they walked by. I am okay with spooking at unusual stuff, but a horse calmly walking by is not one of them. I didn't get frustrated or angry; I simply slowed everything down so that Izzy's mental hamsters could get back on their wheel.
I was rewarded with a horse who got right back to work. Now that I have control, Sean is able to help me work on real stuff. Lately, that has meant tweaking my aids and my position which has allowed me to feel some brand new things. The more relaxed and loose I am through my body, the more I have been able to positively affect Izzy's body. I am starting to feel subtle things that simply weren't there even a month ago.
I've always known what was meant by holding the horse with your seat, but I was never strong enough or balanced enough to do it. Now, my seat plugs into the saddle, and I am relying less and less on my reins to slow down or even halt. My control over Izzy's shoulders is also vastly improved. Sean had me really think about how I could move Izzy's shoulders around by riding renvers. To my surprise, I felt exactly what he was talking about.
I've also been working on my chicken wing elbows - I find that my right elbow wants to stick out. After watching me for a few moments on Sunday, Sean pointed out that my right elbow sticks out when I pull on the inside rein. I do that because I can't get the inside bend. Sean commented that it wasn't a bend issue. Instead, he explained that it happens when I let the left shoulder fall out. By straightening the shoulders and getting them in front of Izzy's haunches, I was able to put Izzy on the outside rein which allowed me to carry my right hind in front of myself instead of back and out.
The work I've been doing with Sean has been so subtle and very specific. The more balanced that I get as a rider, the more effective I become with just small tweaks here and there. By staying loose through my ankles, knees, hips and shoulders, Izzy stays softer which gives me even more control. When I watch videos of my rides, I still don't recognize the changes in my riding, but I definitely see how much fancier Izzy is beginning to look. He doesn't have the sewing machine trot from just a year or so ago, and he's beginning to get some bounce in his stride. This tells me I am riding better and better.
When I quit trying to succeed and ride my horse instead, my riding gets a whole lot better.
M.A.R.E - Week 17
Today is my final day as a MARE volunteer. While I am looking forward to having my Wednesdays back, I'm also a bit sad to be leaving. Being a volunteer has been a very rewarding experience.
Wednesday afternoons have really filled up. We have four kiddos that ride in three lessons while I am there, a little boy, two girls, and the 5th grader that has quickly become my favorite. Last Wednesday, our first little guy was a no-show which was disappointing as Trainer 2 had worked on some songs to try to get him to engage with us. The two girls showed up for their lesson though as did our last kiddo of the day.
My little lady rider got to use the reins for stopping and turning. Since she's a little uncoordinated, the reins were clipped to the riding halter so that she wouldn't annoy Cricket. Instead of the rides where the kids find puzzle pieces or toss bean bags into buckets, the lesson was about influencing the horse with the reins in order to execute right and left turns.
For the 5th Grader's lesson, he was working on go, whoa, and turning almost solo. My job was to be there in case of an emergency or spook. He used a side walker for one lap around the arena, but after that it was just him and me with Trainer 1 keeping a close eye.
It was by far the funnest lesson I've done at MARE. T1 set up a speaker and asked our 5th Grader what kind of music he liked. She had him do a Red Light- Green Light sort of game where he whoa'ed Smoothie when the music stopped and then sent him forward when the music started up again. For turning right and left, she had him follow her around the arena as she weaved between cones and did figure eights.
It's a challenge for the horse handler to keep control while still allowing the rider to be effective with the aids. Smoothie followed T1 to some degree, and I am sure my body position affected him in the turns as well, but I really did try to let the rider make the turns without my help. It was so much fun to see our rider feel empowered as he rode.
There was talk that this particular rider might get to ride on his own this afternoon. I sure hope so!
A week or two back, the ranch owner moved the hay to the top of the property in case the river floods. Some time last last week, someone covered part of it with a blue tarp. I knew that meant trouble. I saddled Izzy on Saturday morning and walked him up to the arena. I pointed him at the hay stack. I walked him towards the hay. We stood and stared at it. He never batted an eye. Until he did.
We had worked for a full twenty minutes before Izzy noticed that tarp. It took me a minute to figure out what he was spooking at. Once he did notice it, it was all he could think about.
When we first started the ride, he was tense and grouchy, but I knew it was because I hadn't ridden all week. We had had several special events at school that I couldn't miss which meant no rides. I was really pleased with my riding though. I immediately put him to work, asking small questions at the walk. Within just a few minutes, he was stretching his neck down and letting out deep sighs. We started the trot work, and he was like butter.
I had him pick up a canter and was delighted with how well he was listening to my seat. My new focus is to keep my canter aids quieter, and I felt I was doing a good job. Then came that spook. Rather than allow myself to feel irritated, I set to work getting him back on my side. I never felt like I got the same level of relaxation that I had before he spooked - he was still keeping his eye on the tarp, but the video tells a different story. He was still being sassy with attitude, but he didn't check out like he would have done even last year.
While I didn't get to school exactly what I wanted to, it didn't matter because we did something else. Something that was probably more valuable anyway. Testing the effectiveness of my aids and discovering that I can positively affect Izzy's attitude is worth more than getting a so-so flying change. Every time that I keep him with me mentally, I make a deposit in his trust bank.
So thank you, Scary Blue Tarp.
Clyde's Leather Recoloring Balm - Update
Despite having dyed my dressage saddle in 2018, by last summer, it looked worse than it had before. I decided to take a chance on Clyde's Leather Recoloring Balm, a product I had seen on Facebook. It was easy to do, and my saddle came out looking pretty good. You can read about the process here, here, and here. My plan was to do an annual touch up beginning this summer.
After my ride on Saturday morning, I put my saddle on a stand, gave it a good cleaning with a damp rag, and then gave it a light coat of Effax Leder-Balsam. That stuff is awesome by the way. It smells good, and it leaves tack clean and smooth without feeling oily. When I was satisfied that the saddle was clean and well-conditioned, I stepped back to have a look at it.
To my complete surprise, my saddle is as black as it was last summer. There has been zero fading. In fact, it looks better than it did last summer because the shiny Tan-Kote has nearly worn off. I will definitely NEVER use that stuff again. There are still parts that don't look so great, but those parts came from using a deglazer which stripped whatever finish the saddle still had. Besides the uneven shine caused by the Tan-Kote, the leather is uniformly black.
If you have a black saddle that has seen better days, I would definitely recommend Clyde's Recoloring Balm. And since my saddle is still evenly black, I am going to skip the touch up for now. I'll reevaluate at the end of the summer.
Isn't it great when a product does what it says it will?
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%: