From Endurance to Dressage
I had a hot mess of a ride on Thursday - something spooked Izzy down to his bones; I don't know what happened. We were walking along on the buckle in the first minute of the ride when I suddenly found myself hanging off the left side of the saddle. The next instant, I was tossed to the other side. I sat up hard, yanked back on the reins, and found the middle of my saddle.
Izzy spun back the way he had just bolted from and stared fixedly at nothing. All I managed to do for the next half of an hour was walk, and half of it was from the ground. Despite being an actual keg of dynamite, he eventually let out a deep sign, but it took 30 minutes to happen. I have no idea what spooked him, and neither did he. It was just one of those days.
On Saturday morning, he was back to his regular camelephant self. He had one or two naughty moments, but his mental hamsters stayed on their wheel. We didn't do anything fancy, but the ride felt very solid. As Sean Cunningham , owner and trainer at STC Dressage, had suggested the week before, I worked on getting Izzy to lower his neck from the withers as we cantered with a more open frame. To the left, nothing dramatic happened, but to the right, I felt Izzy shift into another gear. He reached forward to the bit and enjoyed a bounding canter. It felt just on the verge of running through my aids, but not quite. We both enjoyed the feeling.
Schooling the minutia can feel slow and tedious, but now that we're not showing, I am never in a hurry. In fact, I now love working on the most basic movements, something I felt was a step backward even a year ago. Today, I understand that continually working on the foundation is like making a bank deposit. It adds up to something really big if you do it often enough.
Since I am still working to reduce Izzy's anxiety about the flying changes, I decided to try a step or two of canter half pass. A step or two is one of Sean's favorite things. He would rather see me ride a step or two of "really great" than an entire long side of meh. I am slowly understanding the value of a step or two. The thing is, a step or two becomes three or four which becomes five or six, and suddenly, you've got a lovely canter half pass across the entire diagonal. That wasn't the point though.
Sean's idea about the flying changes is to teach Izzy that he can move his body in the canter. So instead of asking for flying changes, I am doing a lot of canter work that requires Izzy to move his body without doing a flying change. Crossing the diagonal is what makes him the most anxious, so I decided to ride through the corner in a step or two of canter half pass before over exaggerating the inside bend and then doing a 10- or 15- meter circle. To the left, it worked brilliantly. I was rewarded with a few steps of a nice canter half pass before I circled and did a moment of leg yield or another circle.
The right was a different story; as soon as I left the corner, Izzy began hopping in anticipation of the change. I over-exaggerated the inside bend and rode a small circle. Then I found a place that rode like a corner and got one step of canter half pass before over-exagerating the bend again. After a few attempts, Izzy began to understand that I wasn't setting him up for a change. He began offering a step or two of canter half pass and was noticeably relieved when I turned it into a circle.
With this horse, he needs to be convinced that he can do what I am asking. He doesn't like to try new things because he's convinced that he can't do it. It's a good thing that Sean knows he can do it because Sean is helping me believe that Izzy can do it. It's my job to convince Izzy that he can do it by riding just a step or two at a time.
Two becomes three and three becomes four and four becomes ... the entire diagonal. We'll get there!
Now that we're back to schooling flying changes, or at least the moments before the flying change, Izzy is once again feeling a good deal of anxiety. On Saturday morning, as I put him into a regular working canter during the warm up, he blew through my outside rein because he thought I was going to set him up for a change. When I put him back in position and asked for a right lead canter, he jumped up and then reared. I am not going to lie; I had a definite oh, crap! moment because he felt very close to falling backwards.
He hasn't reared in a number of years, so I took this expression of frustration very seriously. I spent 45 minutes exaggerating the bend - the "take-away" from last Tuesday's lesson. We did lots of 10- and 15-meter circles. When I could feel that he was ready for it, I gently straightened him and rode him forward into both reins. This is the moment that worries him because straightness is the step before the flying change.
Surprisingly, the rear and anxiety didn't bother me at all. In fact, I embraced the opportunity to work on our relationship. The whole time we worked, Izzy kept flicking his ears back at me asking me if everything was going to be okay. I reminded him that I got you, and that I was in control. He didn't need to worry about it. We finished the ride without further incident, but we still have work to do.
Which is perfectly okay because I have nothing but time.
Izzy and I have been working on the flying changes for a what seems like a long time. We made really good progress during the spring, but then the wheels fell off the bus this summer. I wasn't discouraged as I long ago accepted that dressage is a journey with a lot of twists and turns.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has shown me a lot of different exercises for helping the horse to understand the aids for the flying changes. First and foremost is that the flying change is just another canter stride. Another important element is straightness. Once those two ideas are in place, the rider cues the horse - in my case, I simultaneously switch my seat bones, sweep my new outside leg back, and half halt with the new outside rein.
For most horses, simply setting them up correctly will eventually get you the change. Speedy learned very quickly, but then he had to learn to wait. As soon as we would cross a diagonal, he would get very strong in the bridle and try to change as quickly as he could. I never discipline my horses for an unasked for change, but I did have to try to teach them to do it on my aid. Speedy eventually figured it out.
Izzy has not been nearly as easy to teach. As soon as I straighten him, even down a long side, he gets very anxious about even the idea of a change. He'll either plow through my aids in a quasi-bolt, start swapping leads, or fall into a trot. I've learned that he needs to feel very secure, balanced, and in control before he'll do a change. I can't rush it.
With Sean's help and a bit of my own creativity, I now have a pretty good list of ways to tackle the flying changes. In no particular order:
Do I want him to wait for my aids? Of course! But since he's so worried about it, I decided to let him make the choice whether to change or not. I reasoned that we would either do a counter canter, come back to trot, or do the change. I wasn't worried about the change. I was focused on setting him up correctly for the change so that he was balanced, and it worked!
I repeated the process to the other side, but this time, he let me ask for it. It wasn't pretty of course, but by waiting until he was truly balanced, he was able to do the change without any theatrics. The changes are definitely not confirmed, but I am loving that I can once again play around with them and get it more often than I don't.
On Saturday, the ranch owner watched while I rode. It was really helpful to explain to her what i was doing and why. At the end of my ride, we talked about how nuanced dressage is. There is no end to the variety of exercises that you can employ in a single ride. Things are never exactly the same from one day to the next which makes watching out the window of the journey such a pleasure.
You just never know what is around the next corner.
Well once anyway...
My Saturday lesson got bumped to Sunday - show season is well under way and Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage must go where duty calls. That meant that I rode by myself on Saturday, but it was fun to challenge myself to ride with as much purpose as I would have had Sean been coaching us in a lesson. When I rode on Thursday, I focused on our trot work without doing any cantering. On Friday, I focused on the canter work with some time spent doing simple changes with very little trotting. My plan was to go into Saturday's lesson set up to tackle all of the things. Then Sean rescheduled for Sunday; I stuck to my plan and was rewarded with some great work from the big brown horse.
I usually video my Sunday rides, but since my lesson would be on Sunday, I used my Pivo to record Saturday's ride instead. I was pretty eager to look through the video as we had had some pretty good moments, but as luck would have it, Pivo lost me again and again. When I sat down later that day to check my settings, I remembered that had I switched horse mode off in favor of people mode while I was testing my new shade box. I had forgotten to return the settings to horse mode which meant I have no video proof of the great work we had done. Bummer ...
That doesn't mean I can't tell you about it though. Both the trot and canter work left me smiling from ear to ear. I rode shoulder-in to renver to travers to half pass. And while we'll never get 10s for anything, I felt like we were doing solid 6.0 work at the very least. Sean has given me many tools to use over the past two years, and when I use them correctly, Izzy gets pretty darn fancy. Now that I am really focusing on riding him forward into both reins evenly, he is better balanced which makes him more confident.
My goal for the canter work was to get a flying change in each direction. We got one of them, but the other is still a hard no from Izzy. The thing is that now I know how to deal with refusals, and I know what the refusal means. Usually. Izzy really only refuses when he feels out of balance. So rather than feel defeated or frustrated, I know to work the problem from a new angle. As I worked on the right to left change, the one that I can actually get, it occurred to me that I might have better luck doing it from the canter half pass.
I started out with some canter travers down the long side and then did a canter half pass across the whole diagonal. When I asked for the change at M, Izzy fell apart, threw his head in the air, and gave me a big NOPE. Then I remembered that in one of the Third Level tests, you half pass to the center line, ride straight, turn, and then do a flying change. I couldn't remember exactly how it went, but I used the half pass to keep Izzy together across the diagonal. Since he anticipates the change the instant I cross the diagonal in canter, I needed something to distract him.
I had Izzy pick up a right lead canter, and then I had him canter half pass from K to X. I rode straight up the centerline to G and then asked for the flying change where we then tracked left at C. And he did it! Of course, it didn't work so well left to right, but the half pass did force him to think about something other than the change.
Despite not being able to see the work, I was still thrilled with how rideable Izzy was. It's rare that he absolutely melts down anymore, and when I feel as though it might happen, I now have so many ways to change the conversation and diffuse the anxiety. He's happier, and I am much happier. I don't know if we'll ever make it back into the show ring, but I sure hope so. I still have my eye on a Silver Medal, and even though Speedy helped me win so many of the awards that USDF and CDS both offer, I'd like to see even some of that success with my big brown horse.
If we can get this flying change, maybe we can get back on a showing schedule.
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!
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
2023 Completed …
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: