From Endurance to Dressage
You Can't Train a Straight Horse
Lois, the dressage trainer in Tehachapi, is fond of reminding me of this fact as I struggle with establishing and maintaining Sydney's rhythm. I think I am finally starting to internalize her meaning.
Don't get me wrong; she's not suggesting that we ditch the training pyramid and toss out straightness. Instead, she means that the horse must have some bend when doing practically every dressage exercise, especially when riding 10 or 20-meter circles.
Maintaining a bend has helped me see that I was pulling back, a lot. When Sydney gets nervous or anxious, which is every time he leaves the property or even while riding in my own arena, his go-to response is to pick up speed at the very least, or bolt sideways with a rear at the worst. Have you ever tried to stop a bolting thoroughbred? I have, and the only way to get the job done is to run him into something, or crank his neck around. Pulling back doesn't work.
Hi, my name is Karen, and I am a recovering "puller of the reins."
Saturday's ride presented me with many opportunities to pull back, but I stayed on the proverbial wagon and used a bend to achieve the relaxation that Sydney needed. JL, my trainer here in town, calls it letting the geometry teach the concept.
A young couple with two little horse crazy girls have been coming to the barn every now and then to groom and ride. I helped get Bailey saddled even though I suspected their presence in the arena might cause Sydney to be tense. I was right.
Dad and the little boy, not much older than a toddler, hung out on the fence while mom helped my barn owner lead both little girls around on Bailey. The girls switched off riding, but the whole time the group was in the arena, they were laughing and enjoying themselves.
Dad and little boy were one thing, but Bailey, and his entourage were yet another. Sydney checked out. He squealed, he grunted, and he tensed his whole body as he prepared to launch himself into the next county. Lois's advice to me during moments such as these was to let Sydney think that he could gallop off across the county line. I wasn't going to hold him back.
Instead, I bent him around my inside leg and put my spur behind the girth to send his haunches around. He could go as fast as he wanted to, but it was going to be in a small circle with a bent neck. I bumped him off both reins and let him just go. As long as he didn't grab the reins, I didn't touch his mouth or have any contact. We circled for a long time.
Every time he softened his body, I reduced the bend and suggested that he move out onto the bigger circle. If he changed the rhythm or grabbed the bit, I tried one half halt. If that was ignored, I immediately bent him into the small circle and continued on as though making 8 - 10 meter circles was my favorite thing to do.
Eventually, he started to listen to my aids, and we were able to ride the larger circle for long and longer. I don't know whether Sydney learned anything, but I sure had quite a few aha! moments. This exercise was boring as hell, but it allowed me to keep perfect control without having my horse run off. It also showed me that Sydney can carry himself and maintain a steady rhythm without me holding on to him. He can do those two jobs himself.
After what seemed like forever, and it really was at least 20 minutes, Sydney was mostly willing to keep a steady rhythm and listen to my aids. His ears started to get floppy and I was able to use half halts to slow him down. I moved on to the counter bent exercise and even got him to canter. The canter transition was explosive of course, and I had to do a lot of canter with a counter bend, but I eventually got a round horse who had released his back.
I changed direction and we started the process over again.
Riding Sydney to the right can be quite difficult. He ignores my inside leg and shoves his inside shoulder forward. Riding the 10-meter circle becomes an exercise in pirouettes. I did several things to fix the problem. First, I bent him around my inside right leg and spurred the heck out of him. He literally grunted in surprise. I could practically hear him yell, WTF? He moved off my inside leg though which allowed me keep the bend as he circled at Mach 10.
I was able to expand the circle enough to ride him in a counter bend. Lois also suggested that I ride the square when tracking right. Knowing it is not very dressage-like, I rode the square completely off my outside aids: outside rein and outside leg. My inside rein simply kept his nose in place; I couldn't get any inside bend. Instead, I worked the problem by having too much outside bend and then gradually got his neck straight.
Eventually, I felt him soften on that outside rein, and I was able to get a little inside bend. I added a tiny bit of inside leg and smiled. Finally; inside leg to outside rein. When my ride first started, I was irritated that our visitors were "ruining" my ride. After a bit however, I was thankful that they were there as they had given me an excellent opportunity to apply my skills and put my horse together.
While Sydney was a complete pain in the patootie, I felt that I at least made tremendous progress in that one ride. I felt a whole new sense of control and purpose. The exercises worked and helped me to balance my horse without pulling back. And instead of pulling, I was able to offer a giving hand whenever he was ready to take it.
Sydney and I made the trek up to Tehachapi for a Saturday lesson. Taking a lesson with Lois requires a good half day commitment. An hour lesson takes at least five hours: 3 hours in drive time, an hour to ride, and an hour or more on either side for tacking/untacking and debriefing. I wish I could do it weekly, but Hubby and home need me on Saturdays, too.
The lesson was a good one. Lois appeared to be impressed with our progress. Our geometry had improved and Sydney was far more adjustable in his trot work. She could see the balance issue tracking right so she moved on to a new exercise. It's one that we've done many times before, but she tweaked it a bit.
She had me start to the left, the easier direction. We started by establishing a 20-meter circle at the trot. She then had me slowly change to a counter bend. We spiraled in to a 10-meter circle; her variation was to take 6-9 circles to arrive at the 10-meter diameter. I appreciated the slowness as it definitely gave Sydney time to develop his balance.
Once Sydney was balanced in the counter bent 10-meter circle, Lois instructed me to gradually return to the correct bend and move him back out onto the 20-meter circle. The result was a much more balanced horse who was really working over his topline.
We repeated the exercise to the right. Sydney definitely had trouble in the spiral part. I had to work much harder to get him to the 10-meter circle. Once he was there, I felt him soften and let go of the left rein. I gradually returned to a correct bend and moved him out to a 20-meter circle. What a huge difference. He couldn't stay on my outside rein for long, but it was an improvement.
We next moved on to the canter work. Sydney exploded into the left lead canter and was very heavy in my hands. I have done the spiral exercise a billion times with JL so before Lois could ask for it, I told her that I needed to try something. I counter bent him and made the circle smaller. With a few encouraging words from Lois, longer leg and a slower seat, Sydeny moved into the lovely canter that I can get at home. I put him on a correct bend and moved him out onto the bigger circle. Lois was quite impressed.
When I asked for the right lead canter, I got the usual oh, crap! launch. I quickly got some bend and urged him into a more normal canter. Lois had me take his unbalanced canter into the 10-meter circle by counter bending him. After going through the exercise, we were able to achieve a balanced, right lead canter.
We probably should have stopped there as the rest of the lesson dissolved into rearing, bucking, and spooking. Neither of us knew it, but Sydney had had his fill for the day. Lois wanted me to repeat some of the trot work to the right since we had just gotten him balanced through the canter. Sydney would have none of it. He shoved his barrel into my right leg and refused to bend. I started getting cranking and he responded in kind.
Not being able to see what I was feeling, Lois finally asked me to explain what was going on. After I told her, she had me work on turns on the forehand. When that continued to piss him off, we had to move to halting as he had decided to ignore my half halts. Within a few minutes, Lois saw that we had pushed him too far.
Rather than continue, she had me trot a few steps, ask for a halt, and let go. We did it several times in both directions until he was willingly halting. That was the end of the lesson. We quit on a good note and he left the arena relaxed and feeling good.
The day was quite cool with a strong breeze blowing so his neck never got wet during the ride. While he might not have been working aerobically, he was using his back and abdominal muscles to a great enough degree to be tired. And he was certainly mentally worn out. When I pulled his saddle off, I was surprised to see that while his neck might have been cool and dry, his back told a different story; the pad was soaked through to the saddle. That doesn't happen to Sydney very often, especially on such a cool day.
He lunched at the trailer before leaving. He traveled quietly and was happy to be home. I hand grazed him for a few minutes and then returned him to his stall. Both boys got some late afternoon beet pulp along with some hugs and kisses. Sydney looked content.
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%: