From Endurance to Dressage
My regular Saturday morning lesson was cancelled this week. It was actually a good thing as 8:30 was getting earlier and earlier. I am at work by 6:10 a.m. every morning, so six early mornings a week has really been getting to me. Of course, in the summer, 8:30 might as well be noon around here. It's not uncommon for it to be well north of 80 degrees by that time of day. In November though, the sun doesn't come up over the small mountain to our east until about 8:00 a.m. With an 8:30 lesson, I am usually at the barn well before the sun rises. I took Saturday's cancelled lesson as an opportunity to sleep in.
I still rode and recorded my ride though. And even though Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, wasn't actually in my ear coaching me, he was definitely in my head. I went through the same work I would have done had we actually had a lesson. The leg yields, shoulder-in, renver, and travers are getting so "good" that there isn't much I can do to improve on them unless Sean is there as my eyes on the ground.
The one thing that I saw while watching the video that is markedly improved is our turn on the haunches. For so long they were pretty sticky. In the turn on the haunches, the hind legs must maintain a steady walk rhythm. Pivoting on a hind leg is not correct and will lower the score considerably. Sean has helped me to first of all feel the hind legs and secondly, keep them moving by doing larger turns. Over time, I have been slowly making them smaller and smaller. This bit in the video below isn't perfect, but they are much better than even two months ago.
I've been schooling the turns on the haunches before and after the canter work as a way to refocus Izzy's attention. Since I am working hard to get the flying changes, he can get a bit anxious before and after the canter. The turns on the haunches encourage him to sit while taking the focus completely off the canter and the changes. Sean's advice to canter anywhere and everywhere in the arena, switching leads through trot or the simple change, has also really helped reduce Izzy's tension in the canter. Over the last week, I have been able to consistently get a right to left change without a leap in the air, grunt, or squeal. It's not on my first aid, but it is definitely there.
In the video below, you can see where I asked for it, but didn't get it. I kept asking though and finally got it in the corner. It looks clean to me, but more importantly, Izzy wasn't at all stressed out by it.
The left to right change is another story. I am not getting that one at all yet, but I am also not getting the leaps, grunts, or squeals either, so that tells me I am on the right track. Although not planned, I asked for it right in front of the camera, so you get a great view of Izzy thinking about it and even trying, but it just never happened. Instead, I brought him back to trot and did a quick change of lead and simply cantered on.
Since I started riding with Sean in the spring of 2021, his advice has proven to be correct again and again. While I am not getting a consistent change yet, it is coming, and that is thanks to Sean's approach. By ignoring the missed changes and treating them like they're no big deal, Izzy is slowly losing his anxiety about making a mistake. I feel pretty confident that we'll have the right to left change fairly soon. The left to right will follow even if it takes longer to get.
In just one week, I have been able to push the fear aside which has probably helped Izzy more than it has helped me. Now that I know Izzy isn't going to explode, I am not riding defensively. I sit up, I help him rebalance, and then I ask. If we get it, great, and when we don't, I again rebalance him and carry on. While I missed having a lesson, I really enjoyed the opportunity to work through it on my own. This next Saturday, I am definitely going to be asking what I need to do to get that left to right change.
We all know that I must be doing something wrong!
Yesterday, I admitted that I have some fear in asking Izzy for the flying change. Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has assured me that Izzy's little leaps are not anywhere near as dramatic as they feel. I've worked with Sean long enough to know that I can trust him. I also know that I am a pretty good rider. I may not be an elegant rider, but it is hard to get me off. Armed with Sean's word and my own resolve, I decided to school the changes on Sunday with Pivo keeping an eye on me.
Sean's advice regarding the flying change was this: don't over prepare and don't react when it doesn't happen. Just keep on riding. I started off with our usual warm up - some walking, trot both ways, and a few leg yields. Then I put Izzy into an easy canter. Instead of coming down to the trot, I used a short diagonal to ask for a flying change of lead. Getting the change wasn't my goal. Instead, all I wanted to do was ask, sit up, and confidently ride whatever Izzy threw my way.
The first "bounce" looked like this ...
Even before I watched the video, I knew it was nothing to get excited about. My plan had paid off - I sat up rather than curling forward (too much) which meant I was able to keep control during the non-change. Not wanting to over-face Izzy but needing some time to work on my own confidence, I kept him in an easy canter down both long sides, sometimes circling, and sometimes asking for a change across a short diagonal. He never really had time to anticipate the change because I just kept cantering along as though nothing exciting were happening. Occasionally he got one, but most of the time he didn't. Either way, I just kept on riding.
Most of the time we didn't get it, but I really didn't care. He won't be able to get the changes if I am tense and worried about an explosion. My goal was to just canter around and around throwing in a request for a flying change here and there. The more I did it, the less anxious I was about them. After only a few minutes, I realized I have nothing to worry about. I did more "asks" in those few minutes than I have done in the past few weeks. Despite combing through the video looking for the "explosions," this was the worst reaction I could find.
So often, once I become aware of "something," it is easy to fix. If it is an issue with my position, simply seeing it will help me address it. I knew I was feeling some fear about the flying changes, but I don't think I realized how much of an affect it was having on my riding until I admitted it to Sean. Getting his honest assessment of my riding and then seeing the "explosions" for what they really were - practically nothing, helped me put the whole thing in perspective. Facing that little bit of doubt head on by deliberately asking for flying changes without a bunch of preparation eased my worry to the point where I think it's pretty much gone.
Now that I'm fixing my part of the problem, maybe I can help Izzy feel less anxious too.
Per our usual, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and I met up virtually for a Saturday lesson. And for once, everything worked right. Doing virtual lessons might have its challenges, but the benefits far outweigh the occasional glitches. Anyhoodle ...
I rarely waste time when a lesson starts. Sean and I spend a minute or two checking in: How is everyone at the barn? Here is what I worked on this week. What are your suggestions? And from there, I ride like it's any other day. Well, mostly. On any other day I don't usually ride for an hour. After work, I keep it to around 30 minutes mostly because I am tired, but it's also to keep from over drilling things.
For this lesson, I had a very clear itinerary - the canter. One issue I have been having is getting a prompt left lead canter when lifting my left seat bone. For the right lead, I can scoop and lift my right seat bone and Izzy knows to pick up the right lead. To the left, it takes more prompting. Of course, with Sean scrutinizing my every aid, Izzy picked up the left lead without the need for any bodily contortions on my part. So, I guess Sean fixed that issue.
That wasn't it for the canter though. I have been working really hard on building a better foundation for the flying change. I had had one nice one on my own since the previous lesson, but that was it. There have been two issues going on. First, I wasn't a hundred percent sure my aid for the flying change was correct. The other issue is that when Izzy does give me a change, and even when he doesn't, he leaps into the air and scares the crap out of me.
I explained all of this to Sean and asked if he had a suggestion. Of course he did because that's what trainers are for. For the left to right change, he had me canter the long side from A to about P. He had me ride a 10-meter half circle to form a tear drop back to the rail with the flying change just before F. Or, conversely, for a right to left change, we cantered from A to about V with the 10-meter half circle to form the tear drop back to the rail with the change just before K.
There are so many reasons to love this exercise. First, if you don't get a change - like me, it's no biggie because you either continue on in counter canter or do the change through trot (which is what I did), but then you're right back to V (or P) where you can give it another shot, which is what I did. Eventually, Izzy figured out that it was all just another canter stride. Canter left. Canter right. Canter left. Canter right. Here's a video of the exercise done the next day.
By doing this exercise, we removed the long diagonal which gives Izzy a lot of time to think about bracing and formulating an evasive strategy. With changes done like this, the horse has to really sit back on his hind end in the 10-meter half circle and then almost immediately straighten up for the change. This keeps the horse from getting strung out and resisting.
Another reason to love this exercise is that it encourages the horse to keep his back moving. Since there isn't much opportunity for the horse to canter straight ahead, it means he is bending his body back and forth which helps to keep him more supple.
It only took me three for four tries before I got the change. Since Izzy's change is so ... boisterous right now, I couldn't feel it. I had to take Sean's word for it. It feels like Izzy launches himself into the air and then bucks. I've been riding this horse a long time, and while I am not afraid, I am respectful of his size and the distance to the ground. After the first change, I asked Sean if it looked like what it felt like. He laughed and said it was actually quite funny. According to him, Izzy lifts his front end, which I can definitely feel, but then his hind legs barely come off the ground. Like this ...
That made me feel a lot better. Just knowing that it is not as dramatic as it feels like encourages me to ride through it instead of bracing for impact. I've been riding the attempted changes pretty defensively, but now I know I can sit up and keep a better feel of his mouth. I also know that my aids have been correct all along. He just hasn't been supple enough nor straight enough to do the change.
After schooling the changes a few times, we moved on to travers in the canter in preparation for the canter half passes. Izzy really did a great job during this lesson. Usually, we can try one "big" thing, but after that, we spend a lot of time getting the hamsters back on the wheel. On Saturday, he kept his mind on his job and focused on what I was asking for. I say this because none of the work we did was easy. It all required a lot of effort on both his part and mine, and yet he did it.
For the canter travers, Sean reminded me that it's just another canter stride. As I used the rail to help keep Izzy moving in a straight line, I kept that reminder running on a loop in my head. Instead of thinking yikes we're doing canter travers, I told Izzy that it was just another canter stride. It didn't take too many long sides before we both let the tension ease itself out as we simply cantered the long sides with haunches in. Once Izzy could canter with less bracing, we turned it into a canter half pass.
Once we had a decent canter half pass, I worked on riding the half pass all the way to the letter without losing the bend in the last few strides. And once we made it to the letter, I asked for the flying change. It wasn't pretty, but I got it! My big take-away for this lesson was all about the idea that it's just another canter stride. Whether it's a flying change or travers or half pass, it's really all about the quality of the canter first. The movements themselves don't need to be so mystical. Recognizing that it's all just walk, trot, canter brings the focus back to correct basics. If your canter is correct and balanced, whatever you do with it will be just another canter stride.
My homework for this week is to work on travers in the canter. This will help improve the canter half pass, and it will also help with the flying changes because the more I can move his body around in the canter, the less tension Izzy will feel as I ask for the change.
If you see me riding and hear me tell Izzy that it's just another canter stride, it's probably more for my benefit than his.
I always learn at least a little during my Saturday lessons, but THIS Saturday was a biggie. Over the past month, Izzy and I have had to tread water so to speak as we waited for that last brutal heat wave to end. I was hopeful that he'd come out on the other side still trusting me. Saturday's ride showed me that my slow and steady approach paid off.
Except for Wednesday, I was able to ride each day during the past week. The weekend before had been terribly hot, so my ride's rides were really short, but we did do a little. By Monday, the temperature dropped more than 30 degrees. Each day, I asked Izzy for a little more, adding new questions each day. By Thursday we were finally schooling movements, and by Friday, the "sas" was really starting to show. I wasn't sure what I'd get for Saturday's lesson, but I knew he was ready to return to work.
With Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, in my ear, Izzy warmed up easily without any tension. I even mentioned to Sean that warming up is now a pleasant experience. Izzy gets right to work. Even after his warm up coughs, he no longer loses his balance and bolts. He has learned how to cough and keep right on going. I know that sounds like a duh moment, but it's sort of huge for the King of Making Me Yell - and yes that's a real place, "Oh, shit!" as I try not to die. Which, by the way, I haven't had to yell in at least a year, probably longer.
Anyway, as we trotted around, I talked about how braced Izzy still is in the right lead canter. He's a bit stiff to the left as well, but until we can get him to let go reliably while tracking right, the flying change will never happen. Sean asked if I am doing simple changes down the long side alternating which lead we pick up. As though we've done it all our lives, I asked Sean, like this? as we be-bopped from one lead to the other, counter cantering the short sides.
I am laughing aloud as I write this because I am not sure who was more surprised by the ease at which Izzy was able to pick up the counter counter and hold it, Sean or me. Or maybe even Izzy for that matter. Either way, it was as though I've schooled them hundreds of times. I had worked on it over the week, but the dude really hit it out of the park. I shouldn't be surprised though as Sean has said from the beginning that if we spend most of our time on the basics, the hard stuff becomes easy.
So there we were picking up the counter canter through simple changes and changes of lead through trot. That's when Sean basically told me to cool my jets, and yes, I am paraphrasing. What he actually said was that he wasn't at all upset by what he was watching. He felt that the small mistakes, like the loss of balance and bracing, would fix themselves with time. He said that I need to be patient and recognize that I am doing everything right. That's when I told him about being the kind of person who looks first at what she might be doing wrong while asking if there is more that she should be doing. I wrote about that yesterday.
He couldn't see anything that I was doing wrong, but he did have a great suggestion. Each month, Izzy comes to a new place in his understanding of his job. As he develops more and more confidence in both himself and me, and by extension, Sean, he allows me to ask more complicated questions and tolerates firmer corrections.
In the right bend, Sean felt it was time to use my spur a bit more strongly. When I said that I was poking Izzy with the spur, Sean said that he wanted me to poke Izzy in the "liver." It should be a clear enough poke that Izzy should feel uncomfortable, thereby causing him to think twice about ignoring my inside leg in the future. I know it sounds harsh to "poke him in the liver," but I understood what Sean meant. I put Izzy on a circle, and lifted my heel up and into his side. It took me a few times to gauge how much poke to give him - not enough the first few times to get a response, but when I figured it out, Izzy wrapped his body around my inside leg and quit bracing.
Sean's purpose was to teach me how to teach Izzy that the bend should come from my inside leg and not my inside rein. The rein should be to guide him, not correct him. If I have to tug his head around, we'll never get a flying change or even a decent shoulder-in or half pass. It only took a couple of "pokes to the liver" before Izzy started bending through his body. To test his new awareness of my inside leg, we did some shoulder-in and travers where I did have to poke him a time or two, but eventually he started anticipating the shift in my weight aid and recognized that a poke would be next if he didn't start bending.
When we moved the "poke him in the liver" idea to the canter, I laughed out loud. For maybe the first time ever, my job as the rider got so much easier. Instead of trying to muscle his neck into bending, I just gave a poked with my spur, and suddenly we had a balanced, adjustable canter. As soon as I felt it, I knew I should ask for a flying change. Sean had the same idea. Before I could ask though, Izzy lost his balance a bit and fell back into a trot. Sean suggested I find that balanced canter again, straighten Izzy by moving his ribcage over, and then quietly ask for a flying change.
I did what Sean suggested. I put my right spur in to say bend around my leg. I kept repeating, it's just another canter stride, it's just another canter stride. When we were ready, I straightened him by pushing his ribcage over with my new inside leg and gave a scoop with my seat. It was a bit wild and wooly with a lot of flying before the change, but he did the change on my aids. It scared the heck out of him, and he shot forward in a bit of discombobulated gallop, but he did it. Once I more or less had him under control, I patted his neck and brought him back to a less chaotic trot.
So yeah. Flying changes are no longer part of our distant future. They're here!
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.
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%
2023 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2023 Show Schedule
*** SCEC 10/15-16/22
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
(***) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 62.115%