From Endurance to Dressage
Hey! We're back. More on our trip in a day or two ...
A few days before we left for Nashville, Izzy and I met up with MC, my endurance mentor and riding partner. MC and I rode thousands of miles together. MC has been an endurance competitor since at least the early 1980s, and is one of AERC's highest milage riders. What she doesn't know about the sport isn't worth knowing.
The Central Valley of California regularly experiences 6 months without rain from March through November. Occasionally we'll see some rain during the monsoon season (July or August), but it's rare. Last Wednesday, we had a record setting rainfall with thunder and lightening. The weather was cooler than normal - high 80s, but the footing was perfect with no dust. We left MC's place right around 8:30 a.m.
While Izzy has turned into a pretty reliable trail horse, this was the first ride where he did not jig even one single time. He was a bit of a camelephant here and there, but after the first 30 minutes, I was able to ride him on the buckle.
The Panorama Vista Preserve covers 936 acres with the Kern River flowing through the middle. Thanks to the efforts of a lot of different people, the area contains miles of equestrian trails and has been planted with hundreds and hundreds of trees that now provide shaded trails over many parts of the river bottom. For many years, I boarded my horses in the area and rode through the preserve daily. Over the years, the trees have matured, and what was once a pretty desolate area of the river is now a lush habitat for birds and other wildlife.
With MC leading, we covered most of the preserve. MC's gelding Gem is a well traveled endurance horse with quite a few miles under his girth. Since he doesn't have a race until fall, MC kept the pace slower for Izzy but that doesn't mean we poked along. We did quite a few long stretches of trotting which was just what Izzy has needed. In the beginning, he was pretty high headed, but before long he was willing to trot in a more level frame.
I normally don't ride for quite that long, but Izzy really needed a good solid day. We rode 9.41 miles in two hours and thirty-five minutes - definitely not an endurance pace, but it was fun.
I was really proud of the big brown horse. He didn't do a single thing wrong, and he was very rideable. Once we got going, Izzy settled into the rhythm of the ride and never showed any resistance. We even crossed the river twice. The first time it was belly deep and pretty reedy, but he plowed right across and even stopped to drink both times. By the time we finished up, he and Gem were good buddies.
MC and I have a mutual friend who has been riding on Fridays with MC as she and her horse attempt to get fit enough for a fall endurance ride. I am hoping to tag along with the two of them at least a few times this summer. Even though Izzy and I have done a lot of trail riding every summer, I think he is finally ready to learn from the experience.
I just might need to check next Friday's weather ...
A month or so ago, a Facebook friend asked about trail riding, so I volunteered to set something up. I immediately texted my friend Wendy who, besides being a fellow dressage rider, also barrel races and trail rides - all with the same horse! It took a few stops and starts - finding a date where three horses and three riders are all healthy and sound can be difficult, but we finally met at Hart Park this past Sunday morning.
With Izzy still being body sore, I crossed my fingers and asked Speedy if he were ready. I had given him a good bath the day before and was pleasantly surprised by his energy level. He has always loved to go places, but I was worried about his fitness level. The loop we do is nearly eight miles, but it's flat, and even if he doesn't get ridden anymore, he lives turned out. Speedy and Izzy play hard nearly every day, so he keeps himself fit enough for light work.
I wasn't a hundred percent sure who I was going to ride until Sunday morning. I hooked up the trailer and then went to check on both horses. Izzy looked just fine, but I just didn't want to fight with him on the trail. He's not scary, and I don't worry about coming off, but Wendy and I were riding with someone who I've never ridden with, and I just didn't want to ruin her day. Speedy still looked quite interested, so I loaded him up.
Wendy arrived at the Barn first; Hart Park has a fabulous staging area for trail riding. Many years ago, the big barn was remodeled, picnic tables were installed, and corrals were built. The barn is really just for parties as it's not actually set up to house horses. The parking is somewhat limited, but three trailers fit easily. As I was pulling into the park, Wendy called letting me know that a bunch of trailers were already there. Yikes! She scoped it out though and determined that Lisa and I would be able to pull through without blocking the first group.
Horse people can be incredibly rude or incredibly polite. The gentlemen who arrived before us were the latter. They managed to park four or five trailers so far out of the way that we had no trouble parking. They headed out on the trail just before we did, and despite mentioning that we had food, we never saw them again.
The weather was a tad warm, but we were blessed with some clouds that kept the day quite pleasant. While Lisa is an accomplished reiner - Ruby showed us some pretty fancy moves, she had never done any trotting or cantering out on open trail before. Knowing that, and knowing that Speedy was pretty out of shape, we spent the first hour just walking and chatting.
Just before we got to the lake, we did do a small stretch of trotting, and from that point on Lisa was game on. We ended up trotting the entire back stretch of the lake. We threw in a bit of canter, but Ruby got a bit strong for Lisa's liking, so we kept it to a trot. From the lake back to the barn, we spent our time chatting and trotting when the footing was nice.
We finished the loop in about two and half hours. There were so many families at the park this time of year that we felt compelled to stop for every group of children and every family who wanted a photo. That tends to slow down the riding, but being good ambassadors for the equestrian community benefits us all. Once we got back to the barn, each of the horses got a cool shower - there's a wash rack at the barn, and a bucket of water. With all three horses resting comfortably, we dragged out chairs and a table and enjoyed chips and guacamole, meats and cheeses, pasta salad, and Wendy's famous chocolate chip cookies.
Given how blue I've been feeling, it was much a needed day. Many thanks to old friends and new!
During my week long spring break, I had a little more time than I usually do to spend at the barn, so I hopped up on Speedy. It's been months and months since I last rode him, and since the end of October, he's only had a rider up on him two or three times. Even so, I rode bareback with a halter. Speedy is that dependable.
As we headed out into the neighborhood, I settled in for what I assumed was going to be a lengthy ride. I wasn't sure we were even going forward. Speedy's walk was so slow that time was traveling faster than we were. Since the ride was about changing Speedy's view, I figured he could do it as slowly as he wanted to. And then we got to the Haner Family Farm.
Mr. Haner is a very nice guy, as is his wife and now very grown up children. When I first moved my boys to this neighborhood more than ten years ago, I would often see the Haner kids playing outside. I always stopped to let them pet whichever horse I was riding. I don't think they are kids anymore. When I rode by last week, the Haner dog came streaking across the yard straight for Speedy's hind legs. On the other side of the road, Mr. Haner's neighbor's two horses came charging up from across their pasture. Speedy tucked his hind end deep underneath himself and prepared to launch.
Since I was bareback, I slipped right and then left but managed to hang on. I got control and promised Speedy that it was all okay. Mr. Haner called off the dog and apologized profusely. I laughed. "He's just doing what dogs do." I replied. And it was true. Mr. Haner always keeps some kind of herding dog because he has a farm full of animals. He keeps pigs, geese, turkeys, ducks, sometimes bees, and anything else that can be butchered or harvested.
By the time we left the Haner's place and made the turn toward home, Speedy was on fire. As quiet as the stretch was going up the neighborhood, the long side coming back was bustling. There was a pack of loose dogs, workers pouring cement in a driveway, horses working in an arena, and flowers blooming. At one point, I almost jumped off to walk back on foot. While there's no traffic, we do walk on the asphalt, and I was worried about Speedy spooking hard enough to slip and fall.
Instead, I sat squarely on both seat bones and collected Speedy into a little prancing ball. One neighbor we passed gasped in delight. "He's beautiful!" she shouted. I waved and laughed. If she only knew that riding that kind of "beautiful" comes with a Lord, don't let me die prayer. While Speedy was a handful, I never doubted that he would be mostly sensible. He was just super excited to be out, not stupid.
When we got back, I unclipped Speedy's reins and let him go. He's so sassy; he gave me a look and then marched himself back over to the mares. Apparently, they are more interesting than I am.
You're welcome, Speedy!
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.
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%
2022 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2022 Show Schedule
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
(***) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 62.115%