From Endurance to Dressage
I know I am a yoyo - up one day, down the next. But lately, let me tell you about lately. We're not ready to throw down a 70% test, but we're definitely getting a lot closer to that goal than we've ever been before. The last couple of lessons that I've taken with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, have shifted some pretty heft pieces of the puzzle into place.
There have been three major shifts in my thinking. In a nutshell:
That brings me to point number two. What is it that I want? Well, frankly, I am just two Fourth Level scores away from a CDS Sapphire Gem Award. That's what's next on my list of goals. Speedy and I were on track to get there when he was diagnosed with arthritis in his hock back in 2020. I could have tried some pain management strategies or more hock injections to see if I could get just a little bit further, but that wouldn't have been fair to Speedy.
Speedy was so forgiving that even though I didn't - and maybe still don't, ride like a Third Level rider, he winked at the world and said, "I gotcha!" Without him to pick up my slack, I am finding that I am not as educated as I thought I was. Between Sean's coaching and Izzy's feedback, the two of them are doing their best to help me get where I want to go. Over the past year, and I can't believe it's been that long since I started working with Sean, he has slowly reshaped how I ride. He has a lot of work left to do, but suddenly I am seeing my riding through a whole new lens.
I had all of last week off, so I was able to ride each day without feeling rushed to get home to cook dinner or stressed out from a day of trying to answer five bazillion questions. As I rode, I took my time. I spent as much time as it took to get Izzy supple through his neck and back. I moved him around in his neck and body until I felt that he was truly ready to start working.
Throughout every ride, I kept two things in the forefront of my thinking. One, I couldn't let him brace his neck; I had to keep moving him. And two, I needed to feel him evenly on both reins. The right lead canter has been such a struggle lately because he wants to fall in on his inside shoulder. Understanding how to ask him to fill out the left rein has been such a struggle for me. Over the past few weeks though, Sean has coached me to a much better understanding of how to accomplish that.
On Friday, I actually laughed out loud from the sheer joy of having accomplished what I've struggled so long to figure out. Izzy was balanced between both reins, and he was truly trying to work with me instead of fighting against me. We'll have more frustrating days ahead of us, I am sure, but now that I am learning how to better communicate with him, I can actually see our progress.
We're still a good ways from Fourth Level. In fact, we're still a good way from showing at Second Level. I trust Sean when he says that once I get control of Izzy and show him that he can trust me to make good decisions, we won't have any trouble moving up through the levels. Sean is confident that Izzy can already do the movements. I just need to get myself caught up to where my horse is.
Seeing real progress is so motivating!
I am going to be totally honest here. Up until a few weeks ago, I wondered at how a horse could lose the rhythm. Most of the time when that word is used, I suspect most people (like me) mean tempo. Until just recently, I had never felt a loss of rhythm on Speedy. On Izzy, yes. When he gets tense in the canter he feels as though he loses the lead behind which is a major loss of rhythm. That should actually be termed scrambling for footing.
At Third Level, the horse is asked for more collection than ever before. There's a 10-meter canter circle and canter half pass. We're also schooling some of the canter work at Fourth Level, especially the 5-6 strides of very collected canter between quarterlines (test 1) and the partial pirouette at canter (test 2). All of a sudden, I felt what was meant by a loss of rhythm.
When we canter right lead, and I ask for a very collected canter, Speedy feels almost lame. It feels as though he is stuttering in the canter and about to drop to trot. At our last lesson, I asked Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, what we could do about it.
She explained that Speedy has less range of motion in his right hind leg. Over the years, he has successfully cheated by carrying that hind leg, his weaker one, slightly to the inside. As a result, that leg doesn't step as far underneath him. In the collected canter, the horse has to sit more deeply with that hind leg reaching even farther underneath his belly. Since Speedy doesn't use that inside right hind as well, the rhythm of the collected canter feels off.
Chemaine gave me several exercises to help him begin to increase his range of motion. First, we're doing a lot more stretchy trot to the right wherein I ask him to leg yield out on the circle. I am doing the same thing at the canter. Another exercise is to canter a square with canter to walk transitions in the corners to insist that Speedy step over BIG with his inside right hind. Now that I am aware of the problem, I am constantly insisting that he step deeper through corners and that he carry his haunches correctly and not to the inside.
With a show coming in less than two weeks though, I am being careful about not making him sore. Just because I want him to bend over and "touch his toes," it doesn't mean he can do it in one day.
There is always something to fix, isn't there?
I mentioned this the other day, but Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, is already pushing us to prepare for Fourth Level. Since she seems confident that we'll get there someday, I decided to actually read the Fourth Level Tests. And you know what? They weren't intimidating at all!
Even saying that makes me laugh because that probably means I am not doing it right. Back when I was contemplating Second Level, I did the same thing - I read over the tests. When I got to the part about doing a simple change, I figured that part must be easy. Wasn't that what I was doing at First Level already, simply changing the lead through trot? HAHAHA. No.
Chemaine has encouraged me to try some of the Fourth Level movements, particularly the working pirouette at X. On paper, it looked much too hard to even try, but after the counter canter to 10-meter true canter circles she had me doing last week, the movement started to look easy. I gave it a try. Speedy "pirouetted" like he's done it every day of his life. Like I said, I must be doing it wrong.
I checked out a Youtube video of the movement and realized that I am actually on the right track. Our "pirouette" is probably a bit too big right now, but so was our walk pirouette when we first started. Take THAT, Fourth Level. You're not as scary as you thought!
Oh, and that three single flying lead changes thing? We've been doing that for more than a week. We aren't getting it every time, nor are we getting it at the quarterlines and X, but that's mostly because my court is 10-meters too short. When we do it for real, it will seem super easy when I have a full diagonal with which to work. That movement is actually really fun. I save it for the end of our rides because these days, Speedy gets all excited about the changes.
Everything on the Fourth Level Test makes sense to me except one thing. For the love of God would someone please explain this to me? What in the holy hell does this even mean. I am certain it must be a typo.
"Counter change of hand in trot and canter" - those words don't even belong together.
See? I must be doing it 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%: