From Endurance to Dressage
Two weeks ago, I had a horrible lesson with Sydney. He spooked, bolted, whirled to the right, and absolutely refused any inside bend to the right. Repeatedly. Eventually, he gave in and softened on the inside rein and walked and trotted past the offensive spot in the arena, but it was very frustrating.
Two days later, we went through the same routine. This time, I asked for a 20-meter trot circle to the left. He simply couldn't do it. I spent forty-five minutes doing every suppling exercise I know, but the only answer he could give was to whirl and bolt. He never got more than a step away, but he kept trying.
Once he was willing to at least walk a ten-meter figure eight, I got off and decided that I was done. Not done with the ride, but done with riding him. Right then and there, I decided to sell him.
I walked in the door at home and burst into tears. My husband was worried of course, but when I blubbered out that I had decided to sell Sydney, his response was that he had figured that out long ago.
This is the first time in more than 30 years as a horse owner that I couldn't make it work. I've sold two because they couldn't handle the work physically, endurance is hard on horses that way, but it's never been because the horse couldn't handle the job mentally.
JL and I talked about my decision at length. She feels that dressage is simply too stressful for Sydney. I worry that I am just not an educated enough rider for a horse with his high level of anxiety. JL shook her head no to that idea, but still.
In any case, don't all break-ups go that way? It's not you, it's me.
Yesterday, my best friend in the whole wide world hopped in the truck with me to make the two and a half hour drive to Clovis. Sydney will be with Sport Equine until they can find a more suitable job for him. If you've been following our journey and think that you can give it a go, contact Debbie and go see him. He truly is a sweetheart.
So even though I am incredibly sad, I am even more relieved by the decision. I know it was the right choice, for both of us.
I am on the lookout for another horse, but my husband has suggested that I wait through the worst of the winter before buying again. So even though I am (kind of) waiting, I am keeping an ear close to the ground in case the right horse crosses my path.
So for now, it's just Speedy and me as we continue with Not-So-Speedy Dressage.
If you only started following recently, Sydney has several nicknames. When things aren't going too well, he's Mr. Hyde. When he's right there with me, he's Captain Awesome all the way. Last week, we had a serious Jekyll and Hyde afternoon. It was so terrible that I didn't even want to write about it.
I jinxed myself, of course, because it came after a day that I had flippantly tossed out that Sydney's normal fall freak-outs had not happened (yet). Sure enough, the very next day, all hell broke loose. Not half way down the arena, on a loose rein while walking, Sydney spun violently to the right, his preferred direction for freaking out, and stood at full attention with his heart pounding beneath my thigh.
Shit. Pardon my language.
I spent the next 45 minutes riding a 2 x 4. I tried every single suppling exercise that I know, but nothing worked. Eventually, I felt that he wanted to canter, and I knew it would be good for him, if he could stay in control. I told him that he could canter, but it was going to be on the left lead, to the left. He tried everything he could to whip his head to the right, but I planted my inside rein on my knee and repeatedly asked for a left lead canter.
Finally, he let go through his neck just enough that he could pick up his inside shoulder and canter on the left lead. I let him burn off some of his tension in a good hand gallop, but then I slowly asked him to collect and get back on his haunches. By the time we finished, much of the tension was gone, but it took the better part of a week to get rid of the rest of it.
I rode him nearly each day, focusing solely on relaxation. He got better and better. On Monday afternoon. Captain Awesome finally showed up with his cape snapping smartly in the wind. He practically saluted me. We worked in the scary end of the arena for the first time in nearly a week. That's where the freak-out had occurred. We cantered the whole arena, we rode big looping circles, and even did 15-meter circles, all on both leads.
What a relief. I know I don't have an easy horse to ride, but it's always frustrating when Sydney takes ten giant backward steps. Those weird freak-outs are occurring less and less, but that doesn't make them any more fun to get through.
When we finished our ride on Monday afternoon, Sydney got TONS of hugs and kisses followed by a handful of cookies. He looked pretty pleased with himself, and maybe even a bit surprised. I hope he remembers that feeling for the rest of the fall.
My trainer, JL, has me working on some new stuff with Sydney. My goal for the summer was to get a consistent right lead canter. It's there, and I can get it just about every time, but occasionally, Sydney is too tense, anxious, or stiff to offer a nice canter departure. But since I can still usually eke it out, JL thinks we're ready for more, and I agree.
It took a few lessons for me to understand what she wanted from me, but after the work we did during last Wednesday's lesson, I see where we're going, and I LOVE it!. For the first time ever, I felt my horse's croup tuck under as he sat deeper on his hocks.
It was quite the sensation. Sydney's poll (and withers) came up, and his croup went down. If this is what true collection feels like, sign me up for more. Feeling all of that power underneath me, waiting for me to send it somewhere was truly an awesome moment. And now that I've felt it, believe me, I am going to be looking for it again.
What's interesting to me is that I don't feel Speedy's croup lower when he's working really well. Instead, he just feels more engaged and forward. It could be that Speedy is not carrying as much weight on his hind end, or what I think is more likely, is that Sydney has a much harder time stepping deeply underneath while it's easier for Speedy.
From the beginning, Speedy has always been able to step relatively deeply underneath. I suspect that has a lot to do with his conformation and because he put so many miles on the trail as an endurance horse. He doesn't have any hock articulation in the first photo, but at least he's stepping forward. In the second photo (excuse my horrible position - work in progress), there's more articulation, which is hopefully leading to more collection.
The first photo of Sydney is beyond horrible, but it illustrates my point exactly; he is not stepping un himself. The photo is from a clinic in October 2013. He was very tense and tried to bolt repeatedly. I wish I had a photo from our lesson this week to show the comparison, but I don't. You'll just have to believe me when I say that I truly felt his croup lower and his front end come up. And while the second (really crappy) photo shows what I was feeling, this was the first time I actually felt it myself and made it happen on my own.
JL was extremely pleased with Sydney's frame and even happier that I could feel what was happening. The only way for his croup to drop so much would be if he had finally learned to step deeply and rock back onto his haunches.
My homework for this week is to repeat the suppling exercises that she gave us so that I can continue to get the same level of work from him as during the lesson. I'll share more about those exercises in the next day or so.
Sydney has never tried to duck behind the contact like Speedy. Instead, he tries to just run right through it. On Sunday, I realized that I am developing some really good feel for what an elastic connection is. Sunday was a definitely a good riding day!
With Sydney, I am really working on transitions into the canter and then schooling the downward transition into the trot. Now that I am focusing on not just getting the transition but improving it, I have reached a whole new level of feel. I love it!
As I cued Sydney into the right lead canter, I got several out of the starting gait canter departures. It didn't even phase me. I sat up tall, and brought him back down to a trot and asked again. The third canter departure was perfect. He heard me whisper, and rather than bolt into the canter, he gave me a super soft and light departure that was quiet and lovely.
I can now maintain the contact no matter what he does. This allows me to keep him under control without ever dropping him, which gives him confidence. I am really looking forward to the next time I can take him to a show. I think we're finally getting it!
Over the weekend I found out that my Monday and Wednesday lessons were cancelled. It was okay though because I felt like firming up our latest work was really important before adding a new element.
The latest is of course, the right lead canter. Things went quite well on Saturday. They were even better on Sunday. By Tuesday's ride, I was grinning from ear to ear. For the first time ever, I was able to ask for repeated right lead canter departures wherever I wanted to in the arena. We worked in the scary end where I asked for the canter in the second half of the circle at C, between H and C, and even between C and M. If he got fussy, I worked the inside rein as firmly as I needed to remind him that he can't hang on it.
When I took a lesson with Chemaine a week or so ago, she reminded me of a technique that Christian Schacht uses to encourage a horse to let go of the inside rein. He has the rider lift the inside hand toward the outside shoulder, effectively crossing the withers (something we're never supposed to do). The instant the horse lets go, the rider MUST give a release. I can't over-use the technique with Sydney, but mild variations of it remind him that he must let go.
JL has had me sponge or rock the inside rein, but when that doesn't get the job done, I can now use Christian's method. And once Sydney has been encouraged to let go with that aid, it is much easier to remind him with the rocking of the rein.
The more in charge I am, the more relaxed he becomes. This horses doesn't want to have to make a single decision. He doesn't want to save my butt, and he certainly doesn't like multiple choice questions or fill in the blanks. He wants me to point exactly where he is to go.
No problem, Sydney. I can handle it!
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%