From Endurance to Dressage
It's been a while since I've written about an AHA! moment or about developing a new feel. As I was riding Izzy yesterday morning, I realized that there's a lot going on in my head right now. And while some of it is about frustration - I hate the half pass with all my heart, so help me God, much of it is good stuff. I am making some connections that only come with experience and good old fashioned hard work.
As we all know, nothing has been linear with Izzy. One moment we're working on a stretchy trot circle, and the next I am asking for the trot half pass - turns out they're not so hard if your horse is good at lateral work. Izzy has a lot more natural talent than does Speedy. That doesn't mean Speedy is without his good points. I'd trade a little of Izzy's ability at the half pass for just a wee bit of Speedy's common sense. Not every lizard is out to maim or kill.
A month or two back, I decided that Izzy was ready for the flying change. His counter canter is confirmed, but not too confirmed, he has a decent simple change, and he knows the canter cue. Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, has worked with a us a few times on the changes, and Izzy now knows more or less what I am asking for. It's nowhere near confirmed of course, and 95% of the time I can't get a clean change yet, but at least he now understands that what I am doing up there is an aid.
The way I ask for the change is to first get the horse on the new outside rein by counter flexing, or changing the bend. Then I ask him to move his haunches over with my new inside leg. For the change itself, I make sure to maintain the new inside bend, change my seat and legs for the new lead while asking for the change with the new outside rein. Giving an audible, and CHANGE! doesn't seem to hurt either.
The main problem I am having in the flying change is that Izzy now knows when it's coming. He thinks the change is hard - everything new is always hard in his opinion, so his go-to is to resist as soon as I change the bend. He flips his head up and down violently, locks on to the bit, or just drops down to trot instead of jumping in the canter.
Over the past few days, I've decided to go back to some really basic fundamentals.
Without already having worked through Introductory to Third Level on Speedy, I wouldn't know each of the pieces that a horse needs to understand before offering clean flying changes. For so long it's been daunting to look at how much I don't know. It's nice to finally be able to use what I do know.
So while Izzy doesn't have a flying change yet, I don't feel stuck, and he's not feeling overwhelmed. I now have enough tools in my box to help him when he feels intimidated or doesn't quite understand. He'll get it; he's almost there, and then we'll continue spiraling our way up the levels. Circling back continuously doesn't feel very quick, but it feels right for this horse.
Over the weekend, Speedy and I worked with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. As always, I laid out our current struggle: he's in front of my leg, but I can't shift his balance back as much as I need to for the half pass. It's always the half pass. Chemaine's solution was to focus on weighting the outside hind leg and then reposition the new outside leg. Sound confusing? Yeah, for me too.
There is video of this first pirouette, but it's too embarrassing to show. Speedy understood Chemaine's directions, but I didn't. The exercise goes like this: use the outside rein to weight and control the outside hind leg as the horse's shoulders come around the circle. That part I undersood. But as we were finishing the turn, Chemaine instructed me to ride a shoulder in to the new direction. I could not figure out how to do it.
To perform one walk pirouette to another, or half pass to canter pirouette to lead change - something in our future, the rider needs to be able to control the outside hind leg and then the new outside hind leg. In the photo above, the red arrow shows the new outside hind, but because I've "lost" the shoulder - see how it's bulging out?, the new outside leg isn't in position to carry Speedy's weight in the new pirouette.
You'll understand the exercise much better if you watch Chemaine coaching me through it.
Then we took that exercise and applied it to the half pass. Chemaine had me "ride a square" - an exercise that fixes so many things. In the corner, we walked and did a quarter pirouette, striking off into the trot and again walking in the corners. In each corner, the walk pirouette told him to sit down, bend, and soften. After going around the square a few times, we then did a trot half pass out of the corner after nearly walking. This really asked him to sit down in preparation for the half pass.
One of the pieces of homework that Chemaine has given me over the past month has been to keep Speedy at the same tempo before, during, and after the flying change. In the beginning, we were just excited to get a change, so we didn't focus on the quality of the canter after. Then Speedy started to anticipate the change, rushing into it. It was a challenge to teach him to wait for my aid, and sometimes, it's still a challenge. As I got the anticipation under control, his next evasion was to bolt through the change which left him unbalanced. Just this past week I have been able to get flying changes that are smooth without any change to the tempo.
The changes are now definitely confirmed and much more quiet, but they're still pretty expressive.
Of course, we still struggle with it because Speedy is not always as light in my hand as he needs to be. To fine tune the changes, Chemaine is now having me focus much more on the preparation before I even think about the change. As we come through the corner, Speedy needs to start getting softer and softer so that I can achieve the new bend more quickly. This will help us in Fourth Level where we'll need to do three changes across the diagonal - a movement we can do about 50% of the time.
In this video, I got him softer, but then he missed the aid for the change. When we tried it again, you can see him start to rush, but with a bit WAIT, he came back to me, and then we got a nice, clean change.
Chemaine rarely rides Speedy, but during this lesson, she asked if she could get on him. I was struggling with the left bend, and she couldn't see why. It wasn't until she got on him that she felt how heavy he actually was. We joked about the fact that I was hiding it quite well. She worked him left and right, pushing him back and forth off both reins and legs. He was happy to be heavy on either rein/leg, until Chemaine convinced him that yes, he could work between the aids.
When she handed him back over to me, she gave us both a lot of praise. "He feels like a dressage horse," she exclaimed. Since she's only ridden him once or twice in the past year, that was great to hear. This will never be "easy" for Speedy, but it's nice to hear that we're on the right track.
If everything goes to plan, we'll have one more lesson before out first show of the year. We're still showing Third Level of course, so maybe this will be the year we get that score ...
Izzy and I had another lesson the other day with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. Because Izzy is maybe too relaxed at home, I've been taking him to my friend Amy's place so that we can see what it's like to work away from home even when you're nervous. And by you I mean Izzy.
When we were there a few weeks ago, I had to switch out his snaffle for my correction bit, borrow some longer spurs from Amy, and then Chemaine hazed him with the whip when he refused to go forward. For this visit, I started with the big guns - correction bit, whip, and long spurs. I needed him to know from the first instant that if he decided to think for himself, I would be there with an immediate correction. He thought about trying to tell me no, but a few jabs with the spurs stopped any jackassery.
Aside from a little tension, from the very beginning of the lesson his brain was engaged, and he was willing to work.
Riding two very different horses has given me a much better education than if I had had only Speedy to ride. Where Speedy wants to be heavy in my hand with his hind end trailing behind, Izzy offers me the opposite problem. He's too light in my hand, and he gets stuck without being able to drive forward. These last few months have been about getting Izzy to reach for the bit as he stretches and rounds his topline.
In every movement that we did, from shoulder-in to half pass to a trot lengthening, it was always the same: push him to the outside rein, let him stretch down, and then drive him forward again. Izzy is so tentative about connecting with the bit, that I almost have to always be thinking about shoulder-in to put him on the outside rein. Once he takes the bit, then I can push him forward.
Besides working on the connection to the bit, we played around with the flying change. I can sort of, almost, was that it? do a change on Izzy. In just a few short weeks he has learned that what I am doing up there is an aid. Now he's trying to figure out the answer.
He doesn't quite have it yet, but he knows that I am asking for something.
There are so many ways to teach flying changes. All it took for Speedy was to head into a corner on a counter canter; he hated that. He gave me a clean change the first time I asked. Izzy is far more talented, but he's a lot less confident. We've tried asking him in the corner, on a circle, going across the diagonal, but he doesn't quite trust that he can or should change leads. Yet.
Chemaine had me try another method for getting a cleaner change. Instead of just counter cantering across the diagonal, like you do in Third Level, she had me leg yield across the diagonal in counter canter. This really forces the new inside hind to step underneath. It took a few tries to get Izzy to cooperate, and I've been working on it since, but it helped him understand what I am asking for. We finally got a change while still cantering, even if it was a little wonky.
It's not that I need the flying change for any particular reason. I am really asking for it because the harder the question I ask, the more focused that Izzy becomes. And frankly, he does need to learn it. His counter canter is confirmed, and he can even pick it up on a circle. I don't plan to work on the changes every time I ride, I don't work on them with Speedy every day either, but it's time to start introducing them.
Izzy has so much natural talent. He can do any of the movements that I ask for. His problem isn't a lack of fitness or muscle; it's a lack of confidence. We're getting there though, and it's all starting to come quicker and quicker. It's a good thing there's no due by date. We'll get there when we get there.
When Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, came out for a lesson on Sunday, I was just expecting to keep chipping away at the movements we struggle with at Third Level, namely the half passes. Along with that though, Chemaine challenged us in the canter with a new exercise to soften our flying lead changes.
Speedy struggles with the right lead canter more than with the left. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that he wants to fall in on his right shoulder and swing his haunches out. When he does that, he doesn't have to cary so much weight behind. Chemaine has really hammered it home that he has to be in self-carriage all of the time. And now that I know that, I am insisting on it.
While we struggle with the trot half pass, we also struggle with the canter half pass, particularly to the right. Until Speedy is fully willing to carry himself, the work done in the canter - the half passes and the flying changes, will be harder for both of us. Fortunately for me, Chemaine always has a new exercise up her sleeve.
To help Speedy sit down in the canter so that I can prepare for the half passes and flying changes, she had us do a brand new exercise. Be prepared for your brain to hurt a bit.
This exercise could probably be used for a lot of different things, but what Chemaine was helping me do was get control after the flying change. Speedy loves to bolt forward after the change in a big yeehaw moment. After using some big half halts in those corners to really rock him back on his end, he quit pulling some much after the changes. I am surprised you can't really see it on the video, but I was using what felt like big, powerful half halts to get him rocked back off my hands.
So instead of a keep working on it post lesson chat, we were suddenly talking about a USDF show next weekend. in some ways, going way sooner than I had planned makes it easier because I have a lot less time to worry about it.
And really, it's not like we're starting a new level, we showed Third last year, it's just that I am desperate to get that one last score ...
Now that we're showing Third Level, I waffle between feeling rushed to get everything perfect, and relaxed knowing that I have all the time in the world. I mean, realistically, how much farther can we go? Sure, Fourth Level is looking like a distinct possibility, but after that? The FEI Level? I am not holding my breath.
So really, what's the rush? Over the weekend, I took some time to shore up some areas that I felt needed patching up, namely our flying changes and the overall quality of our canter work.
Earlier in the week, I broke our left to right flying change which put me in a complete panic since we have a USDF-rated show this weekend. A busted flying change is not what we need right now. I realized that Speedy needed more jump in his canter to get the change, so I played around with some canter to walk to canter transitions insisting that they be crisp and clear.
Wouldn't you know it, but suddenly, our canter had more jump and a much clearer rhythm. Our left lead canter was back on track, but the right lead was being hampered by the fact that Speedy's ribcage was pushing through my right leg. No bueno. So I schooled that a bit. Bend, half halt, MOVE OVER! A few dozen of those and magically our right lead canter got jumpier with a clearer rhythm.
And just like that, the flying changes were back. Who knew that getting your horse in front of your leg with a soft inside bend would fix faulty flying changes? Palm to face moment right there.
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
2022 Pending …
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 (***)
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 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