From Endurance to Dressage
At last Wednesday's lesson, JL pointed out that Sydney's right lead canter is now prettier and rounder than the left lead. So after spending just a few minutes on getting some inside bend to the right, we went back to improving the left lead canter. He's very heavy this direction which requires a lot of leg. It's exhausting to use that much leg, especially when it's as hot as it has been.
This is the first time that I've really asked Sydney to move more forward. For several years we've been teaching him to slow down. JL and I both thought it was rather funny that I was complaining that my bolter had no forward! That's when JL reminded me that I needed to thump Sydney's sides with a more obvious aid. When we play this game with Speedy, I whack hard enough to get a gallop. I don't need that much with Sydney, so a medium-sized thump-thump was what I gave. I was delighted with his immediate forward response; good boy!
Cantering to the left requires a lot of whoa in the front with go from the seat and leg. It was hot on Wednesday, and we'd already been working for nearly a half hour. All at once, Mr. Hyde put in a rare appearance. As we came around the corner, cantering, I felt Sydney get higher and higher in the front, and he quit listening to my outside rein. Within two strides, I knew a massive airborne leap into a rear was coming.
That leap is a trick I haven't seen in more than a year. It was a favorite of his when he was frustrated or confused when tracking left. Once I got good at using the outside rein and leg, that "dirty trick" fell by the wayside, until Wednesday.
Just as I felt him coil up for the take off, and it really is a launch, I grabbed that outside rein and jerked it as hard as I could to the right. Sydney came back to the ground and stopped hard on the spot. I looked over my shoulder, certain that something huge and scary was right behind us. JL also gave a look around to see what might have spooked him that badly.
When nothing became obvious, we got to work because we couldn't end on that note. JL had me school him on stopping with the outside rein. I asked for a few walk steps and then I halted him firmly. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Then we did it at the trot. And again, repeat, repeat, repeat. By about the tenth halt, I almost couldn't get him to go forward; he knew a halt was imminent and wanted to save us all the trouble of asking. And just to show him that he does need to work, we did the exercise at the canter. We cantered a few strides, and then I asked for a quick halt. By about the third one, he was lifting quite nicely into the canter from the walk. That's what it's like to be on your hind end, Dude!
And then, just for good measure, we worked on improving the quality of the halt. From the walk, and later the trot, I asked for a halt that didn't include a head fling or a fish-tailing rear end. It didn't take too long to get it.
By the time we were done with the lesson (less than 45 minutes), Sydney was a bit grouchy, and he didn't want anything to do with either of us. I don't want him to hate his work, so I made sure that the rest of his day was relaxing. I turned him out for a sweaty roll, followed that with a cool shower, and then hand grazed him until his ears were floppy and his pleasant expression returned.
Tomorrow is always another day.
By Sunday, I was ready to get back into the real swing of things. I had unpacked, done all the laundry, and restocked the refrigerator. My house was clean (thanks to the house keeper, really), and I had had a good night's sleep. I drove out to the barn mid-morning with nowhere else to be.
I started out by giving Sydney a thorough grooming. It wasn't that he was particularly dirty, but I felt the need to reconnect. I also pulled his mane and conditioned his tail. He's a very good boy when it comes to mane pulling, but I think I tested his patience. I gave him a number of breaks, but by the last couple of tugs, I could tell that he was getting annoyed. I gave him a final go-over with a soft brush and led him out onto the lawn to graze.
By the time that I started saddling, his anxiety to finally do something had gotten the better of him. While he stood still to be tacked up, he wasn't the head drooping, ear flopping fellow that he usually is. I grabbed the side reins and lunge line.
I rarely lunge Sydney as it actually makes him more anxious. I am pretty sure that in his previous life lunging was done to simply run the energy out of him. Over the nearly three years that I've owned him, I've used the lunge line only when I've had a very specific plan, never to get rid of extra energy. On this day, I needed him to relax his body so that when I got on, he wasn't a rocket on a string. Since I knew he was going to resist the contact, I attached the side reins, but I set them to the loosest setting.
I sent him to the left first which is easier for him. I kept the circle fairly small and let him choose the gait. To my delight, he didn't go careening off around me like he would have done a year or two ago. I spoke soothingly to him and let him know that he was a good boy. He was tense, but he kept flicking an ear at me so I knew he was trying.
I had him change directions and got pretty much the same result. He was very tense to the right and just seemed worried. The neighbors were having a family bar-be-que and my barn owners were doing tractor work. On most days, these things might illicit a spook or two, but Sydney was ready to just lose it.
I lunged him for about 10 minutes. Not enough to even make him sweat or breath hard, but long enough that he got to move while giving the world the stink eye. I really didn't want to get on him, but I wanted to help him see that the world wasn't going to eat him up.
By the time I had the side reins unhooked and the lunge line coiled up, he looked much more relaxed. He stood quietly while I mounted, but I could feel that anxious buzz as soon as I asked him to do a walk warm up. He was primed for a bolt and whirl. Rather than give him the opportunity, I cut across the arena and walked back to our "safe" end. And then we just walked.
We spent the next 30 minutes or so just walking, but with a purpose. I had him do 10-meter figure eights until he started to reach and stretch over his back. The entire time we walked, I patted his neck and praised the heck out of him. We moved on to leg yields and voltes in the corners with a ten-meter circle at B. When he finally seemed as relaxed as he was going to get, I asked for a halt and got off.
I popped up on Speedy for the next 45 minutes. We did some work in the arena, and then we did a walk around the neighborhood. I'm still just riding bareback in the halter, but I can't tell you how proud I am of that horse. He hasn't been allowed to trot or canter for almost three months (no turn out even), but he's still willing to work in just a halter.
You should see his rein back! We've been working on this for a while since it's a good exercise to do while bareback, and it doesn't require any twisting on the front end. He's to the point where I can ask for one backward step with just a tap of my calf. He stops and waits for me to ask for the next backward step with my other calf. I do nothing with my hands except to say no forward movement. And after the first step, there is slack in the contact.
I put Speedy away and re-saddled Sydney. He was quite surprised, but also in a much better frame of mind. For this ride, I had something to work with. I was able to ask for walk, trot, and canter without that feeling that I was on a rocket. We didn't have any spectacular moments, but at least we were able to work on our right lead canter without the duck and whirl of just a few months ago.
I recently read an article* about the rider who does nothing for fear of interfering with her horse. I think I am guilty of that sometimes. I may not be doing anything to "hurt" my horse, but I am certainly not helping him to be balanced. While I was riding, I kept this in mind. That's why I got on him the second time; I wanted to help him. Rather than just riding through the tension, I worked diligently to help him relax his muscles and to let go. By the end of our ride, he was looser and more balanced.
I am going to keep this in mind for a while. With all of the other things running through my mind while I ride, I am going to keep asking myself if I am helping him to achieve a healthier weight carriage or am I just being a passive rider. Hopefully it will be the former!
* I keep meaning to share this site. Horse Listening is a really good blog with gentle lessons on what we all do incorrectly, but it comes with real solutions and tips that you can try today.
I already wrote about the need to sit up and lower my center of gravity. Sydney gave me an excellent chance to put all of that together on Sunday afternoon.
I am not sure what got his panties in a bunch, but as soon as we reached the "scary" end of the arena, he tensed, whirled, and reared when I hauled him to a stop. It wasn't that I particularly wanted to have that conversation with him, but I grabbed the moment with both hands and went for it. I sat deep, exhaled, and lowered my shoulders.
We spent the next 30 minutes discussing whether or not he should rush and be heavy on his forehand, or better, simply listen to my aids and be more relaxed. He chose to relax, but it took a lot of work on my part.
What I ended up doing was using Chemaine's voice to coach myself through the ride. Every time I felt myself tensing my core above my belly button, I let out my breath and imagined a heavy sack of potatoes. Immediately, my center of gravity dropped and my seat felt much freer.
As Sydney tried to rush the corner, I told myself to close the outside rein and outside leg. As we continued on the circle, I was able to feel when I could be neutral. That moment was followed by the need to open the outside rein while still maintaining contact as I asked for flexion with the inside rein and leg.
And round and round we went. Fortunately, Sydney doesn't get bored with an exercise like this. We worked the circle for more than a few minutes until he really started to get even between my aids. I laughed out loud and remembered to praise him a lot.
We took a walk break, and then repeated the exercise to the left. What I really started to feel was that he isn't trying to run off and dump me. Instead, he's just very unbalanced and running to keep from falling down. Each time he rushed, I reminded myself that my job was to help him lift his front end. I sat up, gave two squeezes with my outside hand and added leg.
Eventually, we repeated the exercise at the canter. To the right, I opened the outside rein and asked for flexion with the inside rein when he wanted to fall in, but then closed the outside rein when he wanted to fall out. To the left, I really just needed to ask for inside flexion; he doesn't fall in that direction.
I am sure many of you think I must be an idiot: how hard can all of this be? This horse is much more difficult to ride than any other horse I've owned. Frankly, he's just a lot of horse. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn on him however, as he doesn't let me fake anything.
The good thing is, I am making tons of mental connections right now and developing a level of feel that I would probably not have achieved on Speedy. I wake up each day eager to ride because I know I am getting closer and closer to having a really fancy horse that I can actually show off!
Captain Awesome had a rough day on Saturday, but if this is his new version of resistance, I'll take it!
During our walk warm-up, the sprinklers popped on, and Sydney spooked hard. It was enough to unseat me and send me scrambling for the reins. Once I was back under control, I realized that I was back on a familiar rocket. I immediately sent Sydney into a small circle, driving him forward with my outside leg. That energy had to go somewhere.
But then I remembered what Christian Schacht (world's best clinician) had said, no more small circles. So instead of driving him forward, I switched up my aids and sent him sideways. I took a STRONG hold of that outside rein and PUSHED with my inside leg. Within moments, Sydney's behavior became much more submissive, and he started to listen.
We spent most of the ride schooling to the right. For whatever reason, his neck was quite stiff. While tracking left, I just couldn't get him off my inside rein so I decided to use that to my advantage and track right. Almost immediately he was on my outside rein, he was heavy of course, but at least he was there.
It was an interesting ride because he was completely on my outside aids only. There was only one place on our 20-meter circle where I needed inside leg. The rest of the time I was struggling to keep him on the circle; he wanted to just keep drifting out. Once I realized that I was probably using too much inside leg, it became easy to shift him in and out on the circle.
I was also able to school the right lead canter departure. Now that I know how much outside rein I can hold, his canter departures are getting less and less wild. My new goal for myself is to ask for the departure without shortening my reins and leaning forward. As soon as I shorten my reins, he gets tense and worried about the departure. That makes me tense and lean forward. I need to trust the contact that I have, sit back, and scoop him UP into the right lead canter.
I have a lesson this afternoon so I know we'll be working on it!
Can you believe it? After what I was writing a month ago (the rearing, Speedy being lame), it seems as though I have nothing to say!
Speedy still hasn't taken a lame step which would suggest that Dr. Judy's treatment plan is going well. He is also behaving extra-ordinarily well with just being hand walked. He has gotten a bit whack-a-doodle in his stall a few times, but he quiets down pretty quickly.
And Sydney? Meet Captain Awesome.
OMG is all I can say about my big brown OTTB. We've had a solid, two-week string of fun and relaxing rides.
My barn owner has been doing a lot of work with her own gelding this past month. She prefers to ride when someone is around, so she's been timing her rides to coincide with mine. This has given Sydney a chance to school with another horse. When he and I have finished, we pick a spot in the middle of the arena and encourage my BO through the rest of her ride.
At first, Sydney would wiggle, lean, or begin drifting toward the gate; he even bucked once. He has now learned to just suck it up and stand there with a hip cocked waiting for Marty's ride to end. The other day, Marty started to throw a hissy fit so I asked BO if she'd like me to hop on; she quickly agreed. She held Sydney while I rode the naughtiness out of Marty. Sydney just stood there quietly while Marty tried to run off, spin around, etc. I was so proud of him!
On Thursday, the wind was gusting pretty good as a small front moved through. I almost didn't even ride as the wind is guaranteed to give Sydney reason to be naughty. During our walk warm-up, we could both hear the neighbor scraping something loudly (he was shoveling dirt off cement). As we got closer to the sound, I could feel Sydney begin to tense. He spooked reasonably hard, but I was right there with a steadying outside rein, and he stopped in place.
We circled a few times while I called out to the property owner to see what he was doing. He's always so apologetic when he's making weird noises, but I told him not worry about it. As we continued to yell over the fence, Sydney took a deep breath and returned to a completely relaxed frame of mind. We ended up having a very nice ride with no issues.
The piès de résistance was yesterday's ride; Friday afternoons are usually the worst. I am sure it's because I am usually cranky and tired after a long work week and probably in a rush to finish, but I followed my usual routine and saddled up as always. As we walked into the ring, I had a sense of all being well within my little world: Speedy's happy, I am healthy, Sydney's making progress. I mounted up, gave Sydney his usual good boy pat and started off.
No matter what I asked for, he gave it willingly. We did a fast and slow, fast and slow trot warm-up, leg yields across the diagonal (not pretty, but he's trying), and 10-meter figures of eight. The best part of the ride was our canter. We cantered the whole ring, including the long sides, working on hand galloping and then coming back to a working canter. And we did it to the right, too!
You heard me; we did a hand gallop to the right and he came right back to me! So there you have it. What else is there to blog about? Who wants to read about lovely, quiet rides day after day? Since he's a horse, I am sure there will be a return to days when I want to sell him, but for now. I am going to express nothing but gratitude for Captain Awesome; he's a much better ride than Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde!
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.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
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 …
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
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