From Endurance to Dressage
I attended a clinic with "S" judge, Barbi Breen-Gurley, a week or so ago. She's coming back at the end of August, so I have been particularly motivated to show some improvement in the areas she felt needed some work.
My mom came down to visit for a few days last week, so I asked her very nicely if she wouldn't mind shooting some video. I knew she'd say yes, but still, it's only polite to ask. Barbi's list of "needs to improve" included keeping my left shoulder back, creating the correct bend by looking between Izzy's ears, and following with my hands at the walk and canter. That's all I've been working on over the past week, so those were the things I was looking for on the video my mom shot for me.
I'll be honest; I've either fixed it, or I simply can't see my rogue left shoulder. I looked hard through the videos to find an example of a leading left shoulder, but it must be too subtle for me to see. Either way, I understand what Barbi was getting at, and I have definitely been aware of keeping my shoulders aligned with his.
I will say that she very correctly nailed me on the look between his ears thing. I can't believe how many times I've had to rethink where I am looking. Barbi was absolutely right; I am looking precisely where I want to be going, but my horse most definitely is not. By looking between Izzy's ears, I've noticed a few different things. First, the bend is getting much more correct as is his wayward right shoulder. Second, my shoulders are in a better position when he and I are both looking at the same thing. I can't say I've fixed "it," but I am quickly becoming motivated to keep him looking where I am looking.
It's the following with my hands/elbows thing that is definitely throwing me for a loop, and I don't think it's because I can't. I have naturally soft hands - too soft actually. From all my years of endurance racing, I have a long ingrained habit of opening my hands as I search for no contact. I want my horses to be too light, which is what I tend to get. This has been a tough habit for me to break, and Izzy's not helping any.
Izzy has learned to shorten his neck and duck behind the bit. In an effort to draw him out and forward, I drop the contact, crossing my fingers that he'll find the bit on his own and lengthen his neck. Spoiler alert: it doesn't work. At the walk, we're both getting it. I am no longer pushing my hands forward and allowing a sloppy contact. It's hard, but I keep a soft feel on his mouth no matter how short his neck gets. I think he's starting to trust that I'll follow as his neck is getting longer.
It is in the canter is where I am struggling the most. Since his neck is so tight and retracted, he barely moves it which means there's little to no movement to follow. As Barbi suggested,I keep glancing down at my elbows to see if they're sliding backwards and forwards. Most of the time, they're just sitting there, motionless. When this happens, I flex him to the inside and ask him to lower his head and neck. The instant that he does, I try diligently to follow with my elbows no matter how small his movement.
Am I instantly successful? No, but there is already some excellent progress overall. While I have a great trainer in Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, it never hurts to get a fresh set of eyes. It's been refreshing to tackle our issues from another angle, and I can't wait to get both Chemaine's and Barbi's feedback over the next month.
With COVID-19 keeping most of California on lockdown, my small chapter of CDS, the Tehachapi Mountain Chapter, has been forced to cancel at least five of our six shows. The October show is still hanging on by a thread. Determined to meet our members' needs, we turned our show series into a clinic series. This past weekend, we offered a two-day clinic with "S" Judge, Barbi Breen-Gurley, and both days were full! Barbi hails from the central coast where she runs her training and boarding facility, Sea Horse Ranch.
I am prepping Speedy for the Regional Adult Amateur Competition, so he doesn't really need a clinic opportunity, but Izzy sure did! He was a total rock star at our clinic in June with Ulf Wadeborn, so my fingers were crossed that we could build on that success. I was not disappointed. He was absolutely perfect!
Before beginning my ride, I stopped in front of Barbi to "prepare" her for the possibility of the wheels hurtling off our little struggle bus. Izzy stood politely listening, ears flopping to the side. Taking me at my word, Barbi instructed me to start walking Izzy in a small circle in the corner while asking him to flex his neck. Her thinking was to give him a job right away before he could get tense. And then suddenly, it wasn't about soothing Izzy's tension, it was about addressing my position and riding.
You see, over the past few years, an amazing thing has happened. My tough customer has turned into a reliable and very rideable dressage horse. Right away Barbi realized that Izzy wasn't the rocket on a string that I had prepared her for. Instead, she saw some things in my own position that if changed, would help Izzy perform better.
Once Barbi ascertained that I was under-selling my horse, she peppered me with corrections. The first thing she worked on was my left shoulder; it wants to push forward all the time. This is a big issue as we track left. If my left shoulder is forward, my left hip is forward which has the effect of creating a very crooked horse. Over and over, Barbi insisted that I push that shoulder back. Since my feeble attempts weren't having the desired effect, I instead started thinking about pushing the right shoulder forward. That got my body moving.
There was more however. Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, has finally convinced me to actually look where I am going, but Barbi insisted that I also get my horse to look that direction as well. One way she helped me establish the correct bend was to insist that I look between Izzy's ears. Why that is so difficult to do, I do not know, but it is. I tend to be looking far in advance of where we're heading which means I'm looking, but I am not asking my horse to look which means I am not getting the correct bend for the figure.
The lesson started to sound a little like this: get your left shoulder back. Where are you looking? Where is your horse looking. Left shoulder! And then, she threw even more at me. Not only was my left shoulder a problem, but my arms weren't following at the walk and canter. Her next instruction was to look down at my hands. Where they following forward and back, forward and back? No, they weren't which meant Izzy couldn't get soft and forward in the canter.
So then Barbi's list of corrections included left shoulder back. Look up! Look down at your hands. Left shoulder!!!!! Look up! At one point, I burst out laughing. I felt like the world's most idiotic rider. As a "bronze medalist," I should be able to better coordinate my aids. Sheesh. Barbi apologized for being so "tough" on me, but I told her that I am not easily offended, so bring it! She took me at my word. And the truth is, her corrections were done kindly and never made me feel inadequate. Her praise for things done well came quickly and frequently.
At the end of the lesson, we talked about what I had learned, which I just shared. It was the conversation we had after that that turned out to be more meaningful for me. Barbi wanted to talk to me about introducing Izzy as such a difficult horse to ride. She explained that while he might have had his moments in the past, I should really let go of that image of him as he is a wonderful horse. She really and truly loved him.
I have such a hard time "owning" my successes - whether they be in my own riding or in how my horses behave, because I don't want people to think that I think that I am better than I am. Any judge or trainer will know what kind of rider I am the second we walk in the ring. They'll also be able to see what kind of horse I have as well. Barbi appreciated that attitude, but I think she wanted me to think more of myself and of my horse than I do. She very kindly told me that she enjoyed teaching me, and that I had done a great job applying her "demands." My step-mom recently made me promise to eliminate "it was just" from my vocabulary. To hear Barbi say something so similar really gave me a lot about which to think.
If you ever have a chance to take a lesson with Barbi Breen-Gurley, I would highly recommend it. In fact, all of the riders at the clinic liked her so well that we're bringing her back for our August date. If you're local and want to join in, reach out to me on our Facebook page or message me directly.
It was supposed to be a show, but we'll take the miles where we can get them. I am the Vice-Chairperson for the Tehachapi Mountain Chapter of CDS which is my GMO of USDF. We had a show planned for Sunday, but due to COVID-19, we were forced to cancel. In its place, the judge, Ulf Wadeborn, agreed to do a two-day clinic.
Ulf lives and works just two hours from Bakersfield, so he's been a judge at our shows for years. All of our riders love him. Even though he's been the judge at shows where I've competed, I'd never taken a lesson from him. I really appreciated his coaching style. He was very supportive, ignoring the awkward moments while focusing on helping me feel the "right" moments.
Before we started, I told Ulf a little bit about Izzy and then explained that all I was really hoping for was to get Izzy to stretch his topline and reach for the bit. We can get it at home, but off the property his tension frequently takes over. Like most clinicians that I've worked with, Ulf asked me to just ride like I normally would do so that he could see what we needed to work on. At one point he asked for the canter, and then he asked to see the canter going the other way. When Ulf had seen enough, he called me over.
The first thing I was happy about was that Izzy stood patiently in front of Ulf without fidgeting or getting fussy. It was as though he were listening too. I was also happy that Ulf saw the exact same things that Chemaine Hurtado (owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables) and I had just worked on. I have been allowing Izzy's right shoulder to pop out which means he doesn't track up with his hind legs. Since he's not correctly aligned, he can't push forward to the bit.
After the warm up and the quick chat, we spent the next 30 minutes working on controlling the outside shoulder. With Ulf's voice in my ear - I love the Comtek for so many reasons, he softly offered suggestions: sponge the outside rein to capture the shoulder, sit taller when Izzy wants to race off, open the inside rein to invite him to turn, think about riding an octagon. It seemed that within minutes, Izzy's topline lengthened, and he stretched forward to the bit.
We never did anything fancy, but I was fine with that. Working for a solid half hour on just establishing and re-establishing a soft and elastic connection was worth the price of the lesson. It was so wonderful to hear Izzy snorting and sneezing as he loosened his back. He really and truly relaxed. Had we had a bit more time, I am sure we could have gone on to work on leg yields and half passes, simple changes and maybe even flying changes.
Finishing the lesson with a quiet and relaxed horse was all that I hoped to achieve. Not only did I finish with a relaxed horse, but I started with one, too. When we were finished, I rode Izzy back to my trailer and untacked. He stuffed his head in a hay bag and rested quietly for more than an hour while I went and watched Chemaine ride. When I came back to the trailer, he gave a big whinny and a goofy smile. Another rider, who was nearby with his own horse, remarked on how quiet and easy-going Izzy had been standing.
It's taken half a dozen years, but I think we're finally ready.
Back in 2013 - how can so much time have passed?, I participated in a two-day clinic with Susanne von Dietze. I loved watching her work with the other riders, but I didn't have such a great time myself. I wrote quite a few pieces about my experience which you can dig through here. While I was frustrated for most of my lessons, I did learn that relaxing my own body can positively affect my horse.
After that clinic, I used a lot of the exercises that von Dietze shared, but after time, it didn't seem that my horses needed them so much. The truth is that I eventually forgot about those exercises until the other day.
Lately, Izzy starts out flat and behind my leg. If you've ever ridden a horse that plods, you'll know what I mean. If I get after him with a tap of the whip or a poke with the spur, he feels as though I've beaten him and his marbles dribble right out of his head.
As we slowly dragged around the arena, I dug through my mental list of tools trying to think of an exercise to wake him up without turning him into the Incredible Hulk - "You wouldn't like me when I am angry." (See video below). I've tried lots of transitions within the gait - which helps. I've tried doing all of the movements at the walk first to really stretch out his body - that also helps. But some days, it takes a long time to get him in front of my leg so that he has enough energy to rock back a little so that he's not falling on his face.
Out of the blue, I remembered some of the rider-loosening exercises that SVD showed me, and I started using them. I asked Izzy to pick up a trot, but immediately I let my body go super loose. Instead of trying to "put him together," I thought about loosening every muscle in my own body first. I alternated rocking my shoulders back and forth, back and forth. I swung my hips, I flexed my toes, I bobbled my head, flexed my fingers, and so on until I was riding like a bowlful of Jello.
I am sure you can guess what happened. Izzy's stride got longer, his back got loose, and he started making all of those happy snorting sounds. His neck got long and round, and he begged me to let him stretch. For the rest of that ride, I schooled the trot and canter work from 1-3. Anytime he started to get tense, I refocused on letting go of any tension I was holding.
Each time I ride this horse, he and I put a few more pieces together in our puzzle. I can see the picture that we're trying to create; we just need to fill in a few more pieces ...
I'll admit that I am a little bit superstitious. Back when I was endurance racing, there was one, and only one, t-shirt that could serve as my pajama top. I am also careful about what I wish for. Jinxing yourself is a thing. I sort of feel like tempting fate, or the Universe, is pretty stupid, but black cats, broken mirrors, and Friday the 13th have never spooked me.
With horses though, it's best to honor all of the weirdo gods, the real one, too, and offering sacrifices whenever possible can't hurt either. You know, like not stepping on cracks, always take time to pet a dog whose tail is wagging, and don't hesitate to go back to double check that gate one more time.
I must have missed a sacrificial moment or forgotten to give homage to one of the gods of something - probably the weather god; he's always annoyed with me, because the stars did not align for me this weekend.
Early in the week, my friend Jen, who organizes tons of shows and clinics, texted and asked if I wanted to come and do an Erika Jansson Cavaletti Clinic on Saturday. I tried to do one earlier in the year but something came up. I hesitated for a few minutes - was I comfortable jumping into something again without a plan?, and then I threw caution to the wind. "Sure," I told her. "Sign me up." Izzy needs all the show miles he can get.
While we were at the schooling show the weekend before, I noticed that one of my trailer's tires looked a bit low. I made a mental note to ask my husband to bring out the air compressor and fill it up. Of course I forgot to do that, so on Friday afternoon, as I was loading my tack, I noticed the tire again and realized that it was more than low. I popped on my tire gauge. Instead of 40 pounds of pressure, like the rest of the tires had, the gauge read 10.
Reggie, the ranch's fixer of all the things, brought out his air compressor and filled the tire back up. Even though we couldn't hear or see a leak, I just couldn't drive 6 hours round trip with a questionable tire. I gave my favorite tire place a call, Les Schwab over on Buck Owens Boulevard, and asked if they could work on a tire that was still on the trailer.
Not only could they, but they have a large, covered bay for just that purpose. I was told which entrance to use and easily found the enormous covered parking for servicing large rucks. The manager, Justin, came out to greet me with a jack in tow. In less than 15 minutes, he pulled the tire, found the nail, patched it, and had it back on my trailer.
When he said I was good to go, I reminded him that I still needed to pay for the repair. He quickly shook his head and explained that they never charge to fix a flat tire even if I hadn't bought the tire there. Wow. That's amazing customer service. On a personal note, fixing a horse-related problem at no charge earns you my business for the rest of my life. Got a tire or brake problem? Check out Les Schwab on Buck Owens Boulevard; they'll treat you right. I headed back to the ranch feeling much better about Saturday's long drive.
But it was Friday the 13th, and like I said, I must have forgotten to sacrifice something because when I rolled into the barn at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning ready to roll, Izzy was missing a shoe and his leg was hot and swollen. Turd. He's fine, but I didn't get to do the cavaletti clinic after all.
Horses. What are you going to do?
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. We're currently showing Third Level for the 2020 show season. 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 schooling and showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2020 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2020 Pending …
7/26 TMC (*)
8/8 - 9 RAAC (Q) (***)
8/30 TMC (*)
9/20 TMC (*)
10/11 TMC (*)
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
2020 Completed …
10/26-27/19 SCEC (***)
6/20-21/20 SCEC (***)
6/29 Ulf Wadeborn (c)
7/11-12 SLO-CDS WC (***)
2020 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
3rd Level Qualifying Modified for 2020
2 Scores/1 Judge:
Score 1: 60.405% Atkins
Score 2: 62.432% Atkins
3rd Level Qualifying Modified for 2020
3 Scores/2 Judges:
Score 1: 60.405% Atkins
Score 2: 62.432% Atkins
Score 3: 61.750% Johnson
Stuff I Read