From Endurance to Dressage
The clinic was a week ago, and no, I didn't forget to write about it. My Pivo Silver recorded an entire hour of video, and finding the time to sit down, watch it all, take notes, and capture relevant screenshots required more time than I had. Amelia's feedback was so digestible though that even though I hadn't had time to watch the video before now, I was able to ride all week with her suggestions replaying in my head.
First, some nuts and bolts stuff. I am the vice chairperson of the Tehachapi Mountain Chapter of the California Dressage Society. We're a small chapter located in the Tehachapi Mountains, but we also serve the Bakersfield area and beyond. Historically, the chapter's events have been held at the BVS Equestrian Center, home of the Bear Valley Springs Dressage Club. Hoping to better serve our Bakersfield members, I volunteered to organize and host the October clinic at my own barn.
We could not have had a nicer day. Our smoky, hot weather broke just in time for the clinic. We were blessed with a chilly morning and blue skies. In all, we had nine riders and a good turnout of chapter and club members who came to watch. Amelia Newcomb was a gracious clinician who was never anything but encouraging and friendly as she helped each rider bring out the best in his or her horse and in themselves. She worked on getting the horses softer and rounder, quicker off the leg, and bending more honestly through their bodies. She had riders sitting more quietly, using their seat bones more effectively, and stretching their comfort zones while still building confidence.
Since I had to be at the ranch the entire day anyway, I volunteered to ride first. All but one other rider had to trailer out to the ranch, so being saddled and ready to go at 8:15 was a bit of stretch for everyone else. It worked out well for me to go first because by the time I was finishing my ride, Laurel was riding over from her place. Once Izzy was cleaned up and put away, I was free to direct traffic, get riders to sign releases, and point the way to the restroom.
I've ridden with quite a few different clinicians over the years. A few have made me consider quitting riding altogether, which is pretty hard to do. A few have left me feeling like I just drank a sugary drink - it tasted good going down, but afterwards, it didn't really serve a purpose. And then there are those clinicians that stick with you like a good book. You know those books that leave you thinking about the characters days and even weeks later? Amelia's lesson was a lot like that. She used lots of short, quick instructions that were easy to understand, but said at just the right time to be immediately effective. Here are some of the things I heard her tell me:
Every horse is different of course.These are the things she suggested for Izzy. For other horses, she wanted more activity behind, she wanted the horse to react more quickly, and so on. Izzy doesn't need quicker, and he doesn't need more activity. He bounces off the walls as it is. Over the past week, I've been able to get some really good change in Izzy's neck (it's getting longer and lower) and in his willingness to relax.
We have a two-day USDF show this weekend. I've reached out to Amelia to see if she can give me a lesson on Friday evening; the show's venue is in her neighborhood. She has a clinic and is waiting on the schedule, but with any luck, she'll be able to help us warm up the night before. I will definitely be looking for future opportunities to ride with Amelia. If you have the chance to ride with her or audit one of her clinics, I strongly recommend it. And if you have time, you should check out her YouTube channel; it's packed full of instructional videos.
If we're a hot mess this weekend, Amelia, it's totally NOT your fault!
On Sunday, Amelia Newcomb is coming to the ranch for a one-day clinic. I am hosting on behalf of my California Dressage Society chapter, the Tehachapi Mountain Chapter of which I am the vice chairperson. Our CDS chapter is based in Tehachapi, a small mountain community to the east, but it also serves the entire county, including Bakersfield.
You might know Amelia through her YouTube channel which is the first place I look when I want to see how something should be ridden. One of my favorite videos of hers is How to Ride Third Level Test 3. Her YouTube channel is packed full of videos ranging from how to keep your stirrup in the canter to rider work out videos.
With COVID-19 still running amok here in the Golden State, we have found that trainers who are usually busy showing and training are suddenly more available than usual. Imagine my surprise when I reached out to Amelia just a few weeks ago and found out that she was available for a one-day clinic! During a normal season, she no doubt would have had her schedule jam packed for months. It also helps that she's less than two hours away which means she can drive here and head back home on the same day without needing to overnight in someone's home (mine) or a hotel.
The ranch owner and I recently dismantled the dressage court and dragged it smooth, so neither of us wants to do it again before Sunday. Dragging is easy since Reggie does it, but rebuilding the court is rather tedious, and neither of us really has time to do it in the next two days. Even though I replaced the labels on my dressage letters over the summer, they were looking pretty sad this week, so that was the one job I made time for.
The hardest part of redoing the letters is buying 12 bottles of water. It doesn't help when you can't count. Last week I paid for twelve bottles, but when I unloaded them into the garage, I realized that I had only bought ten. It was my mistake completely; I told the cashier I had twelve on the cart, but I obviously can only count to ten. I didn't care about the lost $1.50; I was more annoyed at myself for miscounting. Over the weekend, I had to go back to the store and buy two more.
With packing tape in hand, I covered a few bottles at a time in between teaching, cooking dinner, and walking the dogs. By yesterday afternoon, all twelve bottles were ready to be loaded up and hauled out to the ranch on Saturday. I may not get the arena dragged, but I will straighten my rails/poles and replace all of the old letters.
If you're local and want to watch Amelia teach, reach out to me for directions. I'm the first rider to go at 8:15. Amelia will be teaching through the early afternoon, and auditors are free. Come join us!
Hands down, this is the best clinic in which I've ever participated. Now, I realize I haven't been to a million clinics or anything, but I've done quite a few. I've even ridden with Hilda Gurney and Susanne von Dietze (of Dressage Today fame). This one, a cavaletti clinic with Erika Jansson, was actually fun in the sense that I was laughing out loud. My whole group was having so much fun that we clapped and cheered for each other, especially as the line of poles got longer and longer.
Erika Jansson is originally from Sweden. She has worked in her home country of Sweden as well as in numerous places around the world including Australia, Germany, and the US. She currently lives in Santa Rosa, California and is the dressage trainer at Santa Rosa Equestrian Center. According to Erika's website, the clinic helps the rider create a sport horse that is highly responsive, maneuverable, can rapidly and smoothly collect or extend the gaits, stop, turn, and remain balanced.
We generally rode in small groups of four, although a group of juniors made a group of five, and in another one or two groups there weren't enough to make a full group. Four was the perfect number. With a small group, we were able to watch other riders pass through the "tunnel" and by watching, our horses were able to take a break. By the end, Erika assured us that our four-legged partners were going to have sore booties. We passed through the tunnel at least twenty times.
To start each group, Erika gave a short talk that included some basic instructions. We were put into an order so that we simply followed the horse in front, always paying attention as some horses might not make it through or a rider might need to circle before entering the line of poles. I was assigned the first position which meant I also had to remember to turn left or right at the end of each pass through. We alternated turning left or right after each pass.
The poles were laid in an alternating left side up, right side up configuration. Erika started with just three poles which we walked through the first time. Since the poles were set to a trotting distance, around four feet apart, she expected the horses to whack them a bit. This gave them all a chance to see everything and to build a little trust. After that, we trotted through each time. Once each horse had developed a good tempo, she started adding poles, one at a time.
One thing that Erika stressed was this was not a dressage show nor did she want to see a dressage seat. She was looking for the rider to sit deeply so that we could drive our horses forward while at the same time getting them long and low in the neck so that they could balance themselves over the poles. She called it a cavaletti seat. This was HARD! As we approached the line, she encouraged every rider to get their horse as supple as possible because at some point down the line, particularly when we had five or more poles, the horse was going to need help. If he was braced at the first pole, his back was going to be too tight to allow him to lift himself over so many poles.
It took us probably ten pass throughs before Izzy and I started to figure it out. For every attempt, he tried his heart out, never once spooking, balking, or acting anything but brave. After each line, he swung his head around and asked if he was still a good boy. No matter how many poles he hit, I gave him huge pats and hugs. I could see on his face how proud of himself he was. He truly enjoyed the work. I think all of the horses did. It was just a big game for them, and us too!
Each time we went through,Izzy got a little better educated, as did I. The hardest thing was to get him really round and deep for the first pole. If I did that, while keeping my chest up and my seat back, I could drive forward while also half halting when he started to rush or lose his balance. Jumping looks so easy - point them at a fence, leap over it, and away you go. Except we all know it's not easy or we'd all be doing it.
Erika was so supportive, always offering just a little bit more feedback to apply the next time around. I never felt overwhelmed or discouraged. She made sure that we knew that every horse and rider team was trying, and this was only their first time ever doing this kind of work. I literally ate it up. In the next video, we did nine poles with only one small whack in the beginning. I was so proud of him!
Eleven poles with a big cheer from me at the end.
After those first few poles in the beginning, he rarely missed big, and when he did whack something, it was only once or twice. Of the approximate twenty video clips that T shot for me (OMG THANK YOU), I didn't pick just the best ones; I picked subsequent videos to show how quickly Izzy improved in just thirty-five minutes, and it wasn't just him. All of the horses showed tremendous improvement. Here's our final go with fourteen poles.
I can't say that I learned anything concrete from the clinic to take back into the dressage court, but it was still a hugely worthwhile experience. Izzy got to work in an arena with other horses, he got to do something that challenged both his mind and his body, and he was presented with an opportunity to use his body in a whole new way.
There's some talk about bringing Erika back this fall. If you live anywhere in Kern County, follow and like our Facebook page if you'd like in on the next event. I will totally be there!
On Sunday, Izzy and I participated in another clinic with Barbi Breen-Gurley. Barbi hails from the central coast where she runs her training and boarding facility, Sea Horse Ranch. Barbi is an active competitor, trainer, and "S" judge. She earned her USDF Bronze Medal in 1977, just four years after it was offered by USDF. She earned her Gold Medal in 1982, but then went back to earn her Silver in 1985. She's been in the dressage world since USDF's very beginning.
I rode with Barbi last month, so I felt a particular sense of commitment to apply her suggestions since I knew I'd be riding with her again. For me, it's embarrassing to have to repeat a lesson. As hard as I tried though, one of the things that I had worked on still needed (and needs) to be improved. My bend was much more correct, and I was following with my elbows at the walk. Both were things that Barbi had pointed out last month, and both were things I have since "fixed."
Before we started to work, Barbi asked what I would like to work on this time. I explained that I had been focusing on her previous feedback, but the one thing that I am truly struggling with is how to follow with my elbows in the canter. The problem is that Izzy is so short and stiff in his neck that there's nothing to follow. Of course, it's likely that me not following is the reason he's so tight, but simply dropping the contact doesn't fix the problem either. We both need to change something. Barbi was completely on board.
My favorite thing about this clinic was that none of it was about "fixing" Izzy. Instead, Barbi focused on fixing me which then had the immediate effect of softening Izzy's neck and lengthening his stride. Near the end of the lesson, Barbi yelled out Do it for him! as a way to help me buy in to the correction she was asking my body to make. Those words really resonated with me because they proved to me that fixing my body wasn't about looking good, it was about changing my body so that Izzy will be be more comfortable in his work.
The hardest thing we did was to put my left arm behind my back and grab my shirt as close to my right armpit as I could mange. My entire left side wants to turn be forward no matter which direction I ride. Or walk. Or sit. Or drive. It's a problem for sure. To help me really feel how twisted I am, Barbi had me grab my shirt and ride with one hand while spiraling in to the left. If your seat says right, it's awfully hard to turn left.
I can steer with my seat, honestly I can, but forcing me to do it one-handed really pointed out my weaknesses. Barbi was merciless though. There was no cheating. She peppered me with commands: neck rein him; spiral in; turn sharply NOW; don't let him look outside; turn him with your shoulders, and on and on. That one though - turn him with your shoulders, that one started to connect some dots for me. It wasn't really about my shoulders; it was about my whole torso and down.
What it came down to was this: Izzy wants me to turn my torso and lower body in the same direction that he's traveling. That means my shoulders, my seat, and even my inside leg. If any of those elements are not turning with him, he braces. Once my left shoulder was "back," Barbi found that my left leg wants to come forward which negates the whole thing. If my left shoulder is back, my left leg needs to drop down, not push forward.
Once my position was better, Barbi also had a way to help Izzy. When I am following with my elbows, particularly at the canter, her exercise went like this: one in, one out, one down if he'll take it. What she meant was a flexion to the inside, a flexion to the outside, and then give him a moment to ask to stretch down. If he doesn't, then we do it again. When I could keep myself together, when I could keep my hands in front of the saddle, and when I could allow with the outside rein, Izzy took the stretch every time.
For the canter, Barbi left me with a few thoughts:
Here's a short clip where I am trying to put it all together.
It was a great experience to finally be able to work on what's wrong with me without also trying to control a rocket on a string. When I got myself together, Izzy was happy to listen. We're definitely making quick progress.
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.
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.
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2021 Pending …
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 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