From Endurance to Dressage
For several years, I've been reading about my friend Wendy's spring rides in the poppy fields. Last year, I finally convinced her to invite me to one of these rides. The poppy is California's state flower. While it is beautiful, it is also very short lived. We get just a few weeks each year to enjoy its color, and that only happens if we get enough rain. This year, we didn't get enough rain.
Late in the winter, Wendy messaged me, and we picked a Poppy Ride date; this past Sunday. Besides riding in the flowers, we also planned a barbecue for after. We were to be a small group, but we were all very eager for the date to arrive. As mid-April drew closer, we knew our chances for poppies were slim to none. California is once again in a severe drought. In the days leading up to the ride, our hostess, Brenda, informed us that the poppy fields were empty.
The lack of color was disappointing, but it was really the horses and the people that were the real draw. We decided to ride even if there were no flowers to admire. Since "J", one of Speedy's ladies, lives in Tehachapi, I asked her if she wanted to meet me at Brenda's so she could ride Speedy. Bakersfield is in the valley. Tehachapi lies in the mountains between the valley and the desert. Of course J was willing. I later found out that she hasn't done much trail riding, so a bit of trotting and cantering across the desert was a new experience for her.
As luck would have it, we rode the day of a pretty good rain storm. Whenever the weather is about to change in California, the event is preceded by heavy winds. We enjoyed the blue skies and approaching clouds, but the wind made it a little harder to chat while we were riding. In all, we covered 5.7 miles, shorter than I would have done back in my endurance racing days, but it was perfect for a trail ride with friends.
The footing out in this part of the Mojave desert is always great. We had nothing but wide dirt roads nicely covered with a layer of sugary sand. It makes cantering so inviting. Being able to canter or trot for long stretches is such a treat when you live somewhere without the kind of room to stretch your legs that the desert offers.
Once we all made it back to the house, we were pleased to discover burgers on the grill. Wendy brought guacamole and chips - a staple here in California, along with chocolate chip cookies. With my macaroni salad and J's divine pastries, we all felt just a little bit rounder for the drive home.
Oh, and before I forget, we DID find some California Poppies!
I know I've been writing about tempo a lot, but Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has given me a new reason to think about it. For so long, my focus has been on relaxation and softness, but really, you can't achieve those without a steady tempo.
My students are working on where energy comes from in an ecosystem. At first, they "discovered" that energy comes from what an organism eats. They slowly began to understand that plants are always first in a food chain; therefore plants provide energy for every food chain. Just this week though, they've been tasked with investigating where energy for plants comes from. They now understand that the energy in an ecosystem comes from the sun.
For a dressage movement to be beautiful there must first be relaxation and straightness, but as in the example of where do plants get their energy, the same question can be asked of relaxation. What produces it? I've been struggling with getting Izzy to relax because he hasn't had a truly steady tempo. The Pyramid of Training illustrates this. The base of the pyramid is rhythm which is composed of energy and tempo.
It's easy to be discouraged about being at the bottom of the pyramid again, but even the world's best horses need to revisit the idea of rhythm in their daily schooling. You can't have true collection without reviewing each layer of the pyramid. Some horses can get to the top more quickly on any given day, but others may need to stop here and there when some resistance is discovered.
This had been a really tough week. I had to take my boots in for a repair, my truck is in the shop, and on Wednesday, I locked the keys in the rental car. The boots and truck have required visits to places that are not on my way to the barn which meant my riding time has been shorter than normal. On Tuesday, I saddled Izzy much later than usual, so I decided to use my few minutes to work on some trail work.
Izzy gets very tense out of the arena when he's alone. No matter how many times I've ridden him around the property, each time feels like the first time. He just doesn't like being out on the trail alone. As we were circling some downed logs, I realized that the reason he couldn't relax was because I wasn't insisting on a steady tempo. I was allowing him to hurry in the walk. Yes, he was walking, but there wasn't a steady rhythm to it. He was doing a lot of quick, quick steps in an effort to rush past whatever he didn't like.
Once I became aware of what was happening, I started using some big half halts and rode him like I would for a turn on the haunches. I shortened his stride and told him that it was okay to take little baby steps. As soon as I did that, I felt him begin to relax. Instead of asking for relaxation, I asked for a steady tempo, no matter how slow it was.
I spent about a half an hour circling trees, wading through tall grass, and walking past the odd building or pile of rocks. Izzy never walks by those things like they're old hat, but by insisting on a slow, but steady pace, he hurried less and seemed to feel supported. It was as though by monitoring each step he took, he seemed to have more confidence in me. I suspect that by always asking him to just "relax already," I've left him feeling like he was alone on the journey.
Someday I hope he'll have confidence in himself, but until then, it seems that he needs more support from me than I've given him.
I turned 50 on Sunday. Rather than feeling depressed or sad, I found the idea of turning 50 pretty hilarious. It's like somebody just pulled a really good prank. Ha ha - you got me. I am sure the horror of landing undeniably in middle age will eventually hit me, but for now, I giggle every time I think about it.
My birthday is not my favorite day of the year. It's not about being older; the day just comes with a lot of baggage. On Saturday, the day before my birthday, I spontaneously jumped at the idea of going hiking with my husband and the dogs. He goes every weekend while I ride, so he was a little surprised that I wanted to go. Tobias, our black lab, was celebrating his 9th birthday, so it was easier for me to "celebrate" my birthday weekend on someone else's "special day."
We headed out to the Wind Wolves Preserve, a spot my husband enjoys. From the website: Wind Wolves Preserve is in an ecologically unique region where the Transverse Ranges, Coast Ranges, Sierra Nevada, western Mojave Desert and San Joaquin Valley influences converge. Due to elevation ranges from 640 to 6,005 feet, the Preserve has an impressive array of landforms and habitats that serve as a critical landscape linkage and wildlife corridor between the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada.
There is a large network of trails to explore, but my husband had already picked out our hike. With such a beautiful, clear day, he knew that a hike to the top of the ridge would give us an excellent view of the valley below. He was right. With the dogs jogging ahead - Yellow Dog, and sometimes lagging behind - old man Tobias, we made the climb, pausing occasionally to look back.
After a short break to catch our breath, we all hiked back down to the trail head where the dogs played in the creek, very happy to cool off. With all our drinking water consumed and me with the beginnings of a headache, we decided to grab lunch at a taco truck that lives on the corner on Old River Road. That taco truck has been on that corner for as least long as I've lived in Bakersfield. It's literally in the middle of nowhere. The food is excellent though. My husband had a water, but I needed some caffeine. A Coke and three amazing tacos later, and I felt much better. On the way home, we stopped by Nothing Bundt Cakes for some mini birthday cakes.
On my actual birthday, I rode Izzy in the morning, and then my husband enjoyed a burger and fries from my favorite mom and pop diner. Later in the afternoon I visited with my parents on FaceTime while I opened presents. I had forgotten what I had wished for, so it was with real surprise when I opened my gifts and saw a proper stethoscope. My equine medical kit has nearly everything you might need in an emergency, including a stethoscope, but the one I had bought a million years ago was as cheap as I could find. With Izzy's recent bout of colic and ulcers, I had mentioned to my stepmom that I could really use a good quality stethoscope.
My stepmom works in the medical field, so she consulted some of her friends and colleagues and bought the stethoscope that they actually use while treating patients. I immediately tried it out on myself, my husband, and the dog. It was amazing to be able to hear every heart beat without trying to guess as the connection came and went like with my old stethoscope. Not that I want one of my horses to get sick or anything, but I am looking forward to putting it to use.
Among some other pretty amazing gifts, my husband also bought me a new solar charger to replace the one that was stolen while at the Santa Barbara Dressage show. I was really bummed to have lost my other one. I use it to charge my phone at night while camping in my trailer. This is an upgraded model with a few features the other one didn't have.
All in all, turning 50 turned out to be a pretty pleasant experience. I don't recommend it for the feint of heart though. It does take some life experience to make the leap. Like one of my students pointed out, turning 50 means you're half-way there.
My friend Wendy lives in Rosamond, a small town in the Mojave Desert. Rosamond is a short 133 miles to Death Valley and an even closer 75 miles to Bakersfield. Back when I was still endurance racing, we did a lot of winter riding out in the desert. California may have some political and economic issues, but for many of us, the access to forests, mountains, deserts, and beaches makes up for a lot. And from Bakersfield, all of those places are within a two-hour drive.
Wendy has been to Bakersfield three times over the past six months to see me, so I thought it was high time I drove out to see her. With my truck and trailer again road worthy, I pulled out for the Mojave Desert on New Year's Day. It's an hour and a half to Rosamond, and the drive is actually quite pretty. From Bakersfield, you head east through the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, dropping down into the Mojave Desert. Interestingly, the Mojave Desert receives less than 2 inches of rain a year and is generally between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in elevation which is why it is often referred to as high desert.
Between Bakersfield and the desert lies the Tehachapi Pass, a high wind area. If you've seen the wind turbines outside of the San Francisco Bay Area near Livermore, you'll know how stunningly impressive these windmills are. The Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm is one of the first large-scale wind farms installed in the U.S., with more than 4,700 wind turbines. One of the best ways to see the turbines is to take the Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road that runs between Tehachapi and Rosamond which is the route I took. Until fairly recently, the wind turbines of the Bay Area, Tehachapi, and Palm Springs were the largest in the world.
Just before 10:00 a.m., I pulled into the ranch where Wendy keeps Beanie and Bloo. Since Speedy loves to travel, I had brought him for Wendy's friend (and ranch owner) to ride. Jane is an experienced rider and was happy to hop aboard Speedy knowing that she was doing me a great favor. They got along famously, and Jane was quite delighted by Speedy's friendliness and pleasant attitude. If she only knew!
We headed out into the desert on a loop that took about two hours. Of course, with so many interesting things to stop and see, we might have been out there longer. One of the first places of interest, besides the abandoned gold mine - the desert is rich in minerals, was the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound's Feline Conservation Center - "The Cat House." Wendy had told me about the place before, so I was eager to glimpse one of the tigers.
While we didn't get to see one of the tigers, Wendy shared a video of the tigers enjoying donated Christmas trees. If you visit this link and scroll down to the bottom, you can see the video. Wendy said that when the tigers are out and about in their enclosure, the horses don't even bat an eye. They just walk on past. I guess I'll have to go back for another look.
As we rode further out into the desert, the Joshua Trees caught my eye. If you've ever traveled through the deserts of California, you've probably seen them from the highway, and maybe you've even gotten out for a closer look. They're quite beautiful and much larger than you'd think; some grow to more than forty feet in height.
Joshua Trees grow all over the desert, but most people probably think of them all growing in Joshua Tree National Park. The JTNP is about 150 miles southeast of Rosamond, but you can see the trees throughout the deserts of California, particularly to the north. Neither Wendy nor Jane thought it odd or weird to want a photo of the "trees." The sky was brilliant blue and the mountains in the background had snow from the day before, all of which created a beautiful picture of a part of California that not everyone gets to enjoy.
After our ride, I tied my boys to the trailer, hung a hay bag, made a beet pulp/bran mash lunch, and filled a bucket of water. With all of the horses resting in the sunshine, we headed to Jane's patio for a delicious lunch and two hours of laughter. Wendy enjoys a good meal just as much as I do. By mid-afternoon, I glanced at my watch and realized I had better hit the road. I managed to get the horses back to the ranch and the trailer unhitched before it was completely dark, but by the time I arrived home, it was well past sunset.
The next day, my husband and I took the dogs hiking. I think I have a great idea for our next trail ride, and I am pretty sure Wendy and Beanie will be up for it.
It can be hard to see progress. Last weekend's show in Santa Barbara was proof of that. Saturday's rides were truly disastrous, but with a better strategy on Sunday, we at least got back into the 50s. At the show two weeks earlier, we scored in the high 50s and even managed to eke out a 60%, so I am not sure low 50s was any progress. Even so, I learned a few things and so did Izzy.
I gave Izzy (and myself) Monday and Tuesday off. I was exhausted, so I figured he probably was too. On Wednesday, my friend Wendy drove over from the desert to do another trail ride and picnic lunch. The weather was spectacular and the air was finally free of smoke and haze after the weekend storm that blew through California. Wendy rode her three and a half year old baby, Beanie. That little mare has sure grown up since I last saw her in the spring. Wendy does all sorts of things with her. They take dressage lessons, but they also do a bunch of gymkhana type events, including running barrels. Wendy even has her popping over small jumps. Beanie has done a lot of things for a girl her age.
Of course, "T" also came with us to ride Speedy. As usual, Speedy was his perfectly behaved self. If horses could smile, there would have been a huge one plastered on his face. He loves getting out on the trail, especially if he has a few buddies along with him. T hadn't ridden Speedy off the property yet, so I laid down the ground rules. Riders are responsible for expressing their needs. If the pace is too fast or too slow, speak up. If you need to stop for a minute, or if your horse needs something, say so. That doesn't mean we don't check in with one another, but each rider needs to assume responsibility for her own safety, and that includes monitoring your comfort level. Since we were on my home turf, I led most of the way, but before trotting or cantered, I always asked if everyone was up to it. There was never a no. These ladies were game for anything.
Towards the end of the ride, I asked if everyone wanted to do a gallop. Both girls were up for it, so I let Izzy out a bit and urged him forward. I glanced back and saw that Speedy was right on Izzy's shoulder, ears perked forward, stride long and loose. Beanie was just behind us, happily galloping. She's fast, so even with Izzy's long stride, she had no trouble keeping up. When we pulled up and came back down to a walk, T sheepishly informed me that that had been her first time to ever gallop a horse! She was pretty delighted about it.
We did the same loop that I always do. We started in Hart Park along the river and rode a figure eight that goes around the lake and comes back in front of the California Living Museum (CALM). The loop is just a bit under eight miles. To my utter amazement, Izzy started out in the lead with a huge, swinging stride. His neck swung back and forth, and I was on the buckle for nearly the entire ride. At one point, Speedy got in front of us which caused more than a bit of tension, but once the order was reestablished, Izzy was flat out perfect. His stride was so loose and long that I frequently had to stop and wait for the other horses to catch up. My smile was even bigger than Speedy's.
Over the years, Izzy has shown steady progress on the trail. In the beginning, he was containable, but not relaxed. Each time I take him out, he gains just a bit more confidence. This was the first time that he was completely relaxed at the walk with absolutely no jigging. It was only in the trot and canter that he showed some tension. At one point, when Speedy was too far ahead - Izzy's words, not mine, he actually cantered in place. If I can someday tame his tension, the FEI levels will be a piece of cake!
We finished the ride in a little over two hours. After getting the horses untacked and settled in at the trailers, we dragged out the coolers stuffed with food. While I love going to shows, this kind of ride is so much more relaxing and rejuvenating. We laughed, traded stories, and simply enjoyed our horses, the fine weather, and the good company.
I didn't know how much I needed a non-stressful horse day. I think Izzy needed it, too.
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