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!
Speedy and I are still slogging away at Third Level. Everything is improving, and we're even schooling movements from Fourth Level, but it's still a struggle. Even so, once we get to show again, I am feeling pretty confident that we'll get the last score we need for the Bronze Medal. Until then, we just keep working away at helping Speedy be more supple so that the half passes get more fluid. I had a lesson last week with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, where we worked on just that.
I've said this about a billion times: Speedy loves to go forward. He really gets into it, lifting his back and pushing off. His extended trot just gets better and better. It's the lateral work that he's not so fond of. And at Third Level, that means half pass. Every time Chemaine comes, it's the same sob story, help me fix the half pass.
We've been working hard at getting Speedy to engage his hind end so that he can sit and carry more weight. He's still not actively using his hind all of the time, so Chemaine did some tapping with the whip while I kept him at a walk. We're looking for a feeling of piaffe, and he's definitely getting it. I can really feel it in the walk pirouette.
Once his hind end was really engaged, we moved on to the shoulder in. Everything we're working on right now is to increase his overall suppleness. As I ride, I over-flex him laterally and tell him we're doing it just because he can. I don't hold him in the flexion, I just over-flex, and let go. Every time I do, it shows him that he can hold the bend himself without being so heavy in my hand. It's definitely a work in progress.
We're really tackling two big issues, keeping his hind end active and engaged while also being able to bend and stay light in my hand. When we get those moments, they make all of the slogging worth it.
During this lesson, Chemaine had me work on two exercises: using a leg yield or shoulder in the trot half pass, and using walk pirouettes in the canter half pass. Neither one was easy, but they both helped me see why we struggle in the half pass. The main issue we're having is that Speedy wants to lean and fall in on the inside shoulder, particularly the right shoulder.
It's really hard to wrap my head around how switching to a leg yield or a shoulder in during the half pass will help fix it, but it did. Chemaine had me do a half pass right, and the instant I felt like he was heavy on my inside rein, she had me switch to a leg yield left with an emphasis on pushing his inside hind over. With his hind end over, it repositioned his front end for a straighter half pass.
Another thing that helped was as we came through the corner, she had me open my outside rein to draw his shoulders to the rail so that he could pick up his inside shoulder rather than pivoting on it which is why he falls in on that shoulder in the half pass. Here's a quick video of her explaining.
The last exercise we did was using the walk pirouette to help Speedy maintain the bend in the canter half pass. We started with walk pirouette circles. Once he was on my outside rein, I asked for the canter. Anywhere in the half pass that I felt like I was losing the bend, I brought him to a walk and immediately did a walk pirouette. That exercise really helped Speedy understand where his haunches need to be in the canter half pass.
Back when I was just starting out at Intro A, I just knew that once we got to Training Level, everything would fall into place, and things would get easy from there on out. I felt the same way as I was staring down First Level, and then Second Level. The reality is, for me anyway, we're never going to just get it and grab our Gold Medal as we piaffe our way down centerline. No level is going to come easy for us.
While it's highly unlikely that we'll ever earn a USDF Gold Medal, and we might not even get that Bronze Medal, I can say that we're enjoying the journey. While Speedy has never said so himself, I feel safe speaking for him.
Every once in a while I stop and look at all the miles we've traveled. I would have never guessed that here is where that road would lead. I guess my point is this: keep on keeping on as long as you're enjoying what you do, and take time to appreciate your accomplishments.
And if you can find someone with whom to laugh along the way, all the better.
This should really be just a lesson recap, but at the end of Sunday's lesson it was decided that I should do an upcoming February show instead of the later March show. All of a sudden I am in show prep mode.
A few days ago, I was tagged by a Facebook friend when she shared a video of an amazing horse. If you can, watch it really quick; it's worth it. If you can't see it, it's a two minute video of a stallion riding shoulder in to half pass and then extended trot. Not just riding it, but killing it. Oh, to ride that just once.
After watching that video, I swear I rode better. And if I didn't actually ride better, I at least rode with a better idea of what I was trying to achieve. During my lesson a few weeks ago, Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables told me to start the half pass with a shoulder in. She's been saying that for the better part of a year, but I finally stopped Speedy in his tracks and asked, "You mean a literal shoulder in? Not think shoulder in?"
I could feel her eyes rolling in her head. "YES!" she maybe, sort of shouted. From that moment on, our half pass has done nothing but improve. For so long I've been trying to ride a shoulder in while still in the corner rather than as we come out of the corner. By maintaining the bend through the corner and then riding a shoulder in just past K or F before beginning the half pass, I've been able to position Speedy's body in such a way that I have better control over his haunches. Sometimes I am amazed at how stupid I am.
So on Sunday, when Chemaine watched our half passes, I could hear her shouting gleefully, "Now THAT's what I am talking about! You have a half pass!"
She said that would happen. She swore that eventually it would click for Speedy, and obviously for me too and then suddenly, he'd start working like a Third Level horse. We're finally at that point.
To build on the concept of riding the half pass from a shoulder in, Chemaine had me ride a shoulder in to a half pass, and the second he leaned on my inside leg, immediately back to a shoulder in. Part of the problem has been that I am swapping the shoulders in for the haunches in which is most definitely not how a half pass should be ridden. I need his shoulders and his haunches to stay bent around my inside leg.
We have a week until our next show. There's not much I can dramatically improve on between now and then, but you can bet I am going to be riding that shoulder in to half pass like crazy.
Tomorrow, a flying change exercise that might give you a headache, but boy was it ever effective!
For the first time in at least a year, I asked Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, to hop up on Speedy. Not that she doesn't want to ride him, but for the most part, I am doing all the training rides with her coaching and teaching me.
I made sure that Speedy was warmed up before she pulled in for our lesson because while she didn't know it, my plan for the lesson was to finally have her ride his canter half pass to see where we're stuck. Basically, I wanted to know if it was me, the mostly likely explanation, or him. As it turns out, it was mostly him. His canter half passes are weak right now because he just hasn't quite developed the reach and strength for the WOW type of canter half pass that I am expecting.
It only took Chemaine a few minutes to figure out his issue. The main reason his half pass is a bit sticky, particularly to the right, is because I've let him lean on that right rein since the beginning of time. I am working on it, but it's proving much harder to fix than it would have been way back at Training Level. For now, Chemaine's advice is to get what bend I can and not be too hard on him. It'll come.
Chemaine did show me one exercise to help develop his reach and strength though. Just because it's hard for him doesn't mean I'm not going to work on it. Working on it is how it will get less hard. Essentially, the exercise involved half passing to the quarterline, moving his shoulders back toward the rail, and then riding forward in a haunches in. When the bend has been reestablished, move laterally into the half pass again.
The first time I tried it to the right, Speedy ran headlong into to my right rein. We had a little discussion about it, and then we tried it again. The feeling is of moving the shoulders out of the way toward the rail to allow the haunches to swing in. It's very difficult to do when you're falling in on your inside shoulder. Once we tried it a few times, he got much more supple, and the half pass did improve.
We now have several new exercises that we can do to free up his shoulders - counter canter 20-meter circles with 10-meter true canter circles at each "corner," pivoting out of the corner, and now this half pass to haunches in exercise.
We're Not-So-Speedy-Dressage for a reason.
Actually, the exercise does a lot more than collect the horse. It also teaches him to want to move forward and to like it. But first ...
Earlier this week I had a lesson with Chemaine Hurtado owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. I imagine that if it were feasible for me to be in full training, which it's not, Chemaine would probably have a more structured system for my lessons. As it is, she sort of leaves it up to me to let her know how this or that exercise went, what we're suddenly doing well, and where we're stuck. And when I say we, I mean Speedy because he's the other half of this team.
Before we started THE EXERCISE, we did have to sharpen Speedy up to my leg and get him supple. There was a lot of half halt and a SURPRISE! tap with the whip. It didn't take him long to realize that a half halt was going to be followed with a suggestion that he engage his badonkadonk. You can see the result in the medium trot above.
Since Speedy will always take the path of least resistance, we had to do the same sharpening up on the shoulder in. When he got lazy, I surprised him with a sudden tap with the whip to remind him that he is now required to have energy all. the. time.
A favorite suppling exercise of Chemaine's is the shoulder in to haunches in. She loves this for warming the horse up for the half pass. Speedy is not the biggest fan of the work because it's work, but it definitely gets him more supple. It goes like this: through the corner get a deep bend. Ride out of the corner in shoulder in. When you like the quality of the shoulder in - ours always needs more work, but whatever; reverse it to a haunches in. Again, when you like the quality of that, move back into the shoulder in. Ideally you should be able to get several of each down a single long side.
By this point in the lesson, we needed something else to keep Speedy thinking forward and being supple. He can give me one or the other, but he hates doing both at the same time. Chemaine called the exercise passad. I googled the heck out of the term, but I couldn't find any reference to it. If I'm spelling it incorrectly, let me know.
Here's how the exercise goes: pick up a collected canter. On the short side get the horse's stride as short as you can. As you come through the corner get maximum bend, and half halt with an open and back outside rein to really get the haunches under your horse. Then almost pivot through the corner. The point is to get the horse thinking about deep collection like in a canter pirouette. Come out of the corner with the horse deeply bent around your leg and looking at H.
Now you can begin the half pass to centerline. Since the horse has been collected as short as he can, now is the opportunity to open up that canter for a more forward stride in the half pass, something Speedy hates to do. After a few of those super collected canter corners, he started to think that canter half pass was looking a lot easier.
After you half pass to center line, stay on the same lead shortening the stride on a 10-meter half circle back into the opposite corner. Repeat. Here's video of Chemaine explaining the exercise and then coaching me through it several times.
After going through it both directions, we repeated the exercise at the trot. Speedy's trot half passes suddenly developed a bit more impulsion. Funny how something you thought was hard isn't so hard when you replace it with something that is definitely hard!
And then, just to shake off all that "hard," we finished up with some medium trot. Looking pretty good, Speedy G!
Our next show, USDF-rated, is in late October. We were so close to getting that 60% in mid-summer. I think we're definitely better than we were even a month ago. I think we really can do it this next time around.
But if not, there's always a next show!
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%: