From Endurance to Dressage
After several months, I was finally able to get Izzy back up to CC's place for some body work and that promised ride. The last time I took Izzy up for body work, CC joked about wanting to hop up on him, but we were already unsaddled. I swore that the next time Izzy needed some work, he was more than welcome to get on the big brown horse.
CC has worked on my horses for more than a decade, and every time I see him, I learn something new. Over the years, CC has been incredibly generous with his knowledge and experience. He wears many hats: cattle rancher, judge, trainer, chiropractor; so when he tells me something or shows me something, he gets my full attention. I unloaded at his place early in the morning and asked what the day's plan was.
I didn't want to presume that we'd ride, so I asked what he wanted to do. CC said we'd ride first and then do the body work after. He saddled his mare and insisted I ride Izzy first. I think he wanted to see whether or not we'd improved any since being there in late November. We mounted at the tack room and then walked down to the arena. Izzy wanted to be glued to the mare's side, but I put him to work while CC worked his own horse.
It didn't take CC long to start offering some advice. While he's not a dressage trainer, I can usually translate his western horse vocabulary into dressage terms. Occasionally I have to tell him, no because "that's" not allowed, but not often. In this case, he suggested cotton plugs in Izzy's ears to help reduce the show anxiety. Nope, no can do. A noise cancelling bonnet, yes, but it hasn't worked.
After watching me struggle for a few minutes CC told me to hop down. Finally! His place is filled with spooky things: sheep, cows, young horses, burros, dogs everywhere, so it's a great off-property experience for Izzy. While I am happy to work through stuff, I'll never turn down the help of an experienced horseman. It was very motivating watching CC ride Izzy. He's a great rider and great trainer, but Izzy pulled the same shenanigans with him as he does with me. Here's proof - in slow motion.
This was definitely the worst thing Izzy did, so I don't want you to think that CC wasn't in control because he was, even during that stunt. For most of the time that CC rode Izzy, he had my horse working and bending and giving and yielding in a very good way. I just thought the video was hilarious. And, to his credit, CC did compliment my riding in a roundabout way. He has only really seen me ride the one time, so I think he has sort of felt that I let the big brown horse run roughshod over me. After riding Izzy himself, CC's opinion of my riding ability changed for the better. Go me, I guess.
CCs coaching and discussion about riding is always the tails to Sean Cunningham's heads. Same coin, different sides. Fortunately, Sean, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, doesn't have a problem with me working with someone else. He understands that going to clinics and trying new things can always teach us something new or confirm what we already know. CC's contributions are less about dressage and more about getting control and isolating the different parts of Izzy's body, especially as they connect to the body work that CC does on Izzy. CC left me with a couple of great takeaways.
I rode, CC rode, and then I rode again. I could definitely feel that Izzy had learned something about the rider's leg aids. CC wears a pretty big spur, and while he avoided touching Izzy accidentally, a few times he did feel it necessary to give him a little poke. Even when I rode the next day, I could tell that CC had sharpened Izzy up to the leg aid.
Once CC felt that Izzy and I had learned enough for the day, we headed back up to the tack room for some body work. I can almost always tell when Izzy needs work, but for this visit, I knew there wasn't much. I also knew that CC would find something, but I was right; he only found a little something with the C7, Izzy's go-to spot. But, CC said, Izzy could easily have tweaked that during the morning's ride. Whether Izzy arrived with the C7 needing work or not, it was a very minor adjustment.
CC pointed out that Izzy is a bit unique in that when his C7 needs work, his loins also get sore. But once the C7 gets adjusted the tenderness in Izzy's loins disappears. For this visit, CC again complimented my riding by saying I had done a good job with Izzy's poll and ribs. As I have worked to get more and more control, Izzy rarely jerks the reins from me anymore which was causing problems with his poll and C7. Since he doesn't jerk free, he's not jacking up his poll. You would think that he would make that connection, but no.
Since coming back from CC's place, Izzy has been working really well for me. I know that CC didn't perform magic, but it always inspire me when I see a very competent horseman scuffle with my horse. It tells me that it's not me causing the problem. If I'm not the problem, it's much easier to believe that I can be the solution.
That's something worth doing!
There were a few more things I wanted to add about yesterday's post. Things CC said that made a lot of sense about Izzy's frequent need for body work. As cool of a horse as CC thinks Izzy is, he has said from the beginning that dressage is hard for Izzy and not just mentally. CC thinks Izzy has some conformational issues that make the sport harder for him, things like being able to stretch forward and down. I never argue with him because I don't have the training experience that he has, but I do disagree a little. Every horse can do dressage, and Izzy is built better for it than a lot of other horses.
On the other hand though, he is right though: dressage is hard for Izzy, but I don't believe it's for the reasons he thinks. I think CC's under the impression that I ask for a lot more than I do. I think he assumes we're passaging and piaffing in between all the canter half passes and extended trot that we're doing. We're obviously not doing all of those things; we're just trying to walk, trot, and canter without bracing and sticking our nose up in the air like a giraffe. Every horse can do the work we're doing, even his quarter horses.
Whether the work should come naturally to Izzy or not, whether he is built for it not, we're still doing it. Since Izzy is hard on himself, doing it means frequent body work. One of the things CC and I talked about yet again - we have this conversation several times a year, was how to keep Izzy from tweaking himself so frequently.
CC has made suggestions in the past, all of which have been spot on. One in particular was to be super vigilant about not letting Izzy get away from me by jerking the reins out of my hand. Every time he gives that hard jerk to the side, usually to the right, he runs the risk of tweaking the C7, the base of the neck. I have taken that advice to heart. Izzy rarely makes that move anymore.
CC's newest piece of advice was about riding deliberately with tension. I immediately thought of positive tension. CC didn't quite know what to do with that, but I think that is what he meant. He explained that when I get Izzy nice and supple and stretching forward, that is exactly when he is most likely to tweak something. If he spooks while being so relaxed and loose through his frame, he has no tension to protect against something going "out."
Instead, if I ride with some tension, and I understood that to mean with collection, there will be some rigidity in his muscles and tendons to hold everything in place. This is an idea that I will have to work on carefully because when I push Izzy up to the bit and ask for more collection and thrust than he is ready to give, he becomes overly tense and stiff which defeats the purpose. It is something that Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and I have been working on lately.
I am grateful to have such a knowledgable team of professionals helping me. I don't think anyone can do this completely on their own. Between my trainer, CC, my vet, my farrier, the ranch owner, and Reggie - who takes care of the property, I am surrounded by a lot of help and support.
I hope your own team is just as great as mine - better even!
A Western Horse - Part 2
Yesterday, I wrote about Izzy being body sore - again. After his last visit with the chiropractor, I had decided we're back on an every other month schedule, but it seems that Izzy prefers every six weeks. After the lesson the day before with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, I sent an even more urgent text to the chiropractor. CC does a lot more than equine body work. He's also a cattle rancher, trainer, and judge, so when I text and beg for help, he can't always drop everything and make the 45-minute drive to help me out. He usually makes it within a few days, but I wanted him THAT day.
Since I have the week off, I was willing to drop everything - which meant binging on Netflix, and haul Izzy out to his place, a ranch along Caliente Creek. Many years ago I hauled Speedy out to CC's place for some body work, so I knew where his place was. This past summer, I went out to CC's ranch again and wrote about watching a friend take a lesson. Since I am digressing here, I also looked back through my records to see just how long CC has been working on my horses. The first entry I can confirm is way back in August of 2012, ten years ago. I have records for chiropractic visits before that, but there are no names next to the entries, so those are probably from the last chiropractor I used.
Since CC's place is a working cattle ranch, there is no end to the distractions for a horse like Izzy. As I unloaded him, CC's dogs came out to greet us. The kenneled dogs - his wife's show dogs, started barking loudly, and other horses stood watching us. Equipment was everywhere, and the smell of cows was in the air. CC went off to bring over some horses to stand tied to keep Izzy company. While he did that, I let Izzy get an eyeful. He never really relaxed, but he was willing to stand and be worked on. Had we been at home, CC would have done the work in just minutes, but on a tense horse, adjustments don't happen so quickly.
My favorite thing about CC is how ho hum he is about everything with horses. He never reacts, and he never gets mad or frustrated. If he does, he never shows it. Despite Izzy being a little resistant to CC's ministrations, CC just kept working around Izzy's lack of attention. When a train went by - the tracks are really close, he let Izzy look. When the burrow caught Izzy's eye, he let him look. CC is all about the horses first. Everything he does is about producing happy, well-broke horses. He and Sean Cunningham are two sides of the same coin.
As he was finishing up, CC said something about watching Izzy under saddle. I am not exactly sure how it happened, but before I knew it, we were putting one of CC's western saddles on Izzy and finding a bit that was close to what he normally carries. While I went and peed in the trailer, CC led Izzy around and saw Izzy hump up his back when the back cinch touched his belly. I had questioned him about it actually. He took the cinch off and let the straps hang. I didn't see this happen, so when I eventually climbed aboard, I didn't realize the straps were hanging, probably slapping Izzy's sides as we worked. Since I didn't know about it, I didn't worry about it. And since I wasn't worried, neither was Izzy.
While I was in the trailer, I grabbed one of my show helmets and dug out an old pair of half chaps that I keep in the trailer for emergencies. I had breeches on and was wearing muck boots, so my footwear was mostly appropriate for riding. Even though I knew Izzy was going to be pretty worried about the trains and everything else, CC's complete and total confidence gave me confidence. CC shoved a small mounting block my way, and I laughed when I saw it, but then I remembered I had a saddle horn. I hauled myself up into the saddle and burst out laughing. Izzy felt enormous! The stirrups felt super short, but CC assured me they were just right for the saddle he had chosen.
CC saddled up one of his young horses, and Izzy I followed him down the steep hill to the arena. Izzy was overwhelmed by what he saw, which actually helped. He stayed right on the butt of CC's horse and followed without question. As we rode into the arena, a large oval, I kept Izzy at CC's mare's hip. As we walked, CC coached me. Before long, we had picked up a trot, something he calls long trotting. He lets the horses move out without asking much other than that they go where he points. He encouraged me to give Izzy his head and only touch his mouth when he got too strong. Doing as CC suggested, I gave an aid, and Izzy came back to me. I repeated that ask and release a few times, and eventually, Izzy settled into the trot work.
I don't know for how long we worked, but it was long enough that Izzy worked up a pretty good sweat. We long-trotted both directions, and worked on the canter. It didn't take long before Izzy was soft in my hands and forward thinking. There was one place in the arena that Izzy tried to avoid, so CC helped me work on using my outside rein more effectively. It was no different than what Sean would have told me to do - half halt and move the shoulder over with an opening outside rein. The only difference was that CC had me move both reins to move the shoulder.
Once Izzy's canter was soft and relaxed, I asked for a flying change. I got the right to left change with a big woohoo, but the left to right eluded me. CC asked how good Izzy's canter was from a standstill. I told him that we don't do that. We pick it up from the walk. Try it was his response. CC told me to gather Izzy up in the halt, cluck, and ask with my outside leg. My first response was to say we can't cluck, but then I realized we were schooling; of course I can cluck. You know what? Izzy did it! He popped right into a a nicely balanced right lead canter. CC suggested that I do that regularly in both directions for a while. By isolating the canter aid, Izzy will begin to recognize it when I ask for a flying change.
By the time we were finished, Izzy was standing quietly even when the trains roared by. CC and I chatted about what we had worked on. He discussed it in reining cow horse terms, and I turned it into dressage. I said a lot of that's exactly what my trainer says! Nothing CC said or showed me was different from what Sean teaches. CC just does it in a western saddle.
We walked back up to the tack room, and CC pulled off the saddle. I put Izzy's halter back on, and CC gave him one final adjustment. I thanked him over and over for the ride. CC responded by thoughtfully telling me that Izzy's a pretty cool horse, and I laughed. He also insisted we stick him again as there was no way he was "only" 16.3. CC swore he had to be at least 17 hands. I laughed and told him to have at it. Even CC measured him at 16.3. Told you was all I could say, as I laughed again.
It was a fantastic experience, and I really hope I can bring Izzy back during my Christmas break. While I love riding, lately, it has felt like a grind. I haven't been able to find the joy in horses. Being so driven can drive the fun right out of things. Riding with CC was fun! I grinned like an idiot the whole way home. While I had a great time, my little cherry on top was when CC casually threw out there that he would like to hop up on Izzy. OH MY GOD, YES! I told him he could ride him anytime. I swore that when I come back, he'll get on Izzy and I'll ride one of HIS horses!
It is on my calendar. It's going to happen. I found my joy!
A Western Horse - Part 1
A little business first: Since I am on vacation this week, my posts will be coming a little late each morning because I get to sleep in instead of bolting from the house at 5:45 each morning. One of the perks of being a teacher ...
This whole story actually begins two weeks ago with my regular Saturday morning lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. It was one of those big AHA lessons with fantastic takeaways. Izzy was supple enough that we were able to work on some new and different things. I rode him that Sunday making sure to ride with these new ideas in mind. He had Monday off. I rode lightly on Tuesday, and then gave him Wednesday off. On Thursday we hacked around the property for half an hour. It was an easy week.
On Friday, he was LIT up. Every flutter of a leaf, every scurrying ant, and every car that crept by were sure signs of the apocalypse. He saw death and carnage everywhere he looked. For f*ck's sake was all I could think. I tried every single one of the tools that Sean has given me, but Izzy just would not soften. I rode him for a solid half an hour. I never got mad, and he never got away from me. There was no bolting or spooking, things that he definitely would have done not so long ago. He just wouldn't get on board with doing anything that resembled "dressage."
Very early on Saturday morning, it occurred to me that Izzy probably needed some body work, so I sent an early morning text to the chiropractor asking him to put me on his schedule. Since I have the whole week off, I really hated to waste even a single riding day because Izzy is "sore." He has basically no pain tolerance, so even a bit of tightness in his ribs will cause him to call in for a "sick day." Hoping that Friday's disaster was a one off, I set up my Pivo on Saturday as usual for a lesson with Sean.
To give Izzy some credit, his I am not happy about this would have been an awesome ride a year ago. He went where I pointed him, he stayed underneath me, and he never did anything particular naughty, but after 30 minutes, I called it a day. It was horrible to ride a horse so tight in his back and stiff in his neck. It felt like I was trying to steer a piece of lumber as he jolted me out of the saddle stride after stride. Instead of coaching me through movements, Sean and I talked about the benefits of riding a horse who thinks he is about to die.
Instead of trying to get a perfect shoulder-in or a flying change, Sean suggested that I ride with the idea of helping Izzy's body to let go of the tension by simply getting him moving to warm the muscles up. It wasn't about riding figures or exercises but showing Izzy that I can help him even when he's sore. Sean suggested shallow leg yields, gentle changes of bend, and transitions. As Izzy warmed up and got his circulation going, he would start to feel better. I appreciated coaching during a ride where I knew Izzy was sore. Most of us won't ride a horse who is in "pain," but Sean explained that in the case of body soreness, it can actually help. Which is very interesting, because the chiropractor said very much the same thing the next day.
Sean also pointed out that every time we make a breakthrough with Izzy, he comes up sore. Sean explained that it seems as though every time Izzy learns how to use his muscles differently, it causes some soreness. It's a frustrating cycle in some ways, but in other ways, it shows we're making great progress.
Even though my lesson time wasn't even close to being up, I told Sean that Izzy had had enough. Pushing him too much more would lead to an explosion which would not accomplish what we were aiming for. Sean agreed that it was up to the rider to recognize where that point is. He can only see so much in a video, and without being on Izzy himself, he trusted my judgement.
Part 2 tomorrow ...
"Quit Breaking Your Horse!"
I had the absolute best ride on Tuesday afternoon. Izzy was willing and focused. He did such a great job for me that I started contemplating the idea of showing at Second or Third next year; he was that good. That evening as I checked my messages before going to bed, I saw a message from CC, Izzy's body worker. He said he could work on Izzy the next morning.
Over the previous weekend, I had realized that Izzy was due for his every other month visit, so I had left CC a long text with a bunch of available dates and times. When I didn't hear back from him immediately, I sort of forgot that I'd ever messaged him. And then when Izzy gave me such a great ride on Tuesday, I figured he really didn't need any work done. I was wrong.
CC gave Izzy his regular once over, and it was quite clear that Izzy was sore in the usual places - his C7 and rib heads. He was so sore in fact that when CC checked the C7 by pressing into Izzy's lower neck, Izzy jerked his head around and glared at CC. Izzy knows him so well that he never tries to evade the adjustment. In fact, he often tries to help CC find the right spot. Izzy's face tells us exactly when CC has found the right spot and when CC has given him some relief.
Now that I am having Izzy worked on every eight weeks or so, the adjustments take only a few minutes. There was a time when the adjustments would take an hour or more. Now that Izzy doesn't resist so much during our work, he does less damage to himself. And, it doesn't hurt that I am riding him with more control. Every time he would get away from me through a bolt or ripping the reins from my hands, he would throw out the C7, his poll, ribs, and more. These days, that happens less and less.
I never want Izzy to be hurting of course, but I was really pleased that even though he needed an adjustment, he had been willing to work despite being a bit uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable every day; I have arthritis in both hands, my neck is always bothering me, and I have a bum knee. I still get up and do my job. CC has made it clear that Izzy's maladjustments aren't so severe that he can't be worked. According to CC, the more broke a horse gets, the more he recognizes that he has a job to do, so he'll learn to ignore the little aches and pains. It sounds like Izzy might be getting to that spot.
As he walked toward his truck, CC yelled at me to quit breaking my horse. We both laughed because we both know he'll back in a month or so.
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%: