From Endurance to Dressage
We all know it's a cardinal sin to cross your inside rein over the horse's neck. Moving the rein like that is called an indirect rein. Riders sometimes do it to try and turn the horse, but it doesn't work. It's not done; don't do it. Except, there are times when you can use it, but not to turn the horse.
When Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, was here on Sunday, we used the indirect rein a lot. We've been using an indirect rein on Izzy for a long time, so it's a not a new tool, but Chemaine had me using it more consistently to make a correction that Izzy is now mentally able to accept.
The whole lesson was really about two things. One was to use the indirect rein to take away his ability to brace his neck and swing his haunches out. The other was about using the outside rein to get Izzy to bend his hocks more once he was soft after using the indirect rein. Sounds confusing? Don't worry, I know just how you feel. As always, Chemaine presented me with a new way of looking at things, and even though I couldn't see it or feel it at the beginning, by the time we were through, I was able to (mostly) put all of the pieces together.
We did a bunch of different movements in this lesson including leg yields, shoulder in, ten-meter circles, and the medium trot. In all of them, Chemaine worked me through the idea of using the indirect rein to get softness while applying the outside rein to get Izzy's hocks bending and sitting. One of the ways that Chemaine explained it went something like this: Once he's soft in the bridle, and you apply the outside rein, he can't get softer, and he can't go forward, so his only correct choice is to suck in his belly, lift his back and bend his hocks. When he does that, he's like a bouncy ball.
So here is how we used the indirect rein. Izzy likes to lean on my right rein and and fall in on the right shoulder. When he moves like this, it feels as though we're tipping over. Moving him over with my inside leg doesn't fix the leaning shoulder. An indirect rein however, does move the shoulder back to where it needs to be. There are varying degrees of an indirect rein. I don't need to cross the rein over his neck. Instead, I simply pull it close to his withers which "forces" him to bend without allowing him to brace against it. The important thing to remember though is to let go once he's stopped bracing.
We started in the leg yield which requires a small amount of inside bend. When he wouldn't give it, I moved my inside hand toward his withers creating bend, and then applied the outside rein to say less forward, more sideways. As the lesson progressed, we utilized movements that required more and more bend. In the shoulder-in for example, Chemaine had me use the indirect rein to get more bend and softness. Once Izzy quit bracing, I could then use the outside rein to tell him to bring his hocks underneath himself.
We also applied the indirect rein to a haunches-in. This was when I could finally feel how he has been subtly leaning and bracing on my inside right rein. We've done haunches in on the circle plenty of times to help me achieve bend and softness. But doing it on the long side helped me feel it more clearly. As in all of the other movements, Chemaine encouraged me to use the indirect rein to get him soft, but then I used the outside rein to bring his haunches in. To help me be more effective with the outside rein, she had me think about doing a rein back with flexion while trotting. That was a lot to think about, but I felt an immediate improvement.
As we continued working, I slowly started to put all of the aids together:
Indirect rein to get Izzy to stop bracing.
Outside rein to ask him to step under.
Half halt with a kick, kick when he wanted to brace and hollow his back.
The quick kick, kick sent his hind legs under while the outside halting rein said not forward.
A lot of this work was really done in an effort to get a better and bigger medium trot. What I finally felt during this lesson is how to keep Izzy from losing his balance near the end of the medium trot. As we come through the corner, I already know how to straighten him so that his shoulders are in front of his haunches. I already know to use a big half halt in the corner and to let his nose get longer before asking him to go. A piece that I was missing was how to keep him from scrambling and popping his head up at about the three quarter mark.
Chemaine helped me feel that when I can no longer sit the trot, it's because Izzy has lost his balance and isn't giving me anywhere to sit. To fix that, she encouraged me to do little pulses on the (right) rein to keep sending him a little half halt - stay light in my hand, and bend your hocks. Right now, if he stays in balance, I can't quite get as much reach, but that will come.
I have a lot of homework to do over the next few weeks. The more I insist that Izzy stays off my right rein, the less indirect rein I'll need. As he braces less and softens more, he'll also get straighter which will create more power in the medium (and someday, extended) gaits.
Our progress is slow, but it's progress.
Entire books have been written on the half halt. As any dressage rider can tell you, it has to be the most mysterious element of dressage. When?, how much?, too much?, where?, and on and on. These are all questions I find myself asking Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. When she says more, she either means more half halt or more leg, but usually both. Knowing when and where and how much half halt to apply is probably something that every rider of every level asks themselves. Well, maybe not Carl Hester.
Chemaine came down on Sunday for a lesson. This past two months have been great as we've been able to do a lesson nearly every week. Sometimes I don't need that many, but right now, Izzy and I are in a really good place where he is happy in his work and feeling confident, so I am delighted to build on that confidence while I can. Since I am still not really struggling with anything major, I keep asking Chemaine to come up with new and different exercises to help me create bend and suppleness on a horse whose back tends toward the tighter side of things. As always, Chemaine had something in mind.
After a bit of a stretchy warm up - I continue to be amazed at how happy Izzy is to get started these days, Chemaine suggested we do some test preparation riding. While I probably won't go to a show until March - there's a February show I have my eye on though, keeping the test movements in mind is always a good thing. For this lesson, Chemaine wanted me to string together the shoulder-in to the 10-meter circle to the travers (haunches in) while incorporating half halts before and after each individual movement. She calls it riding your test from half halt to half halt.
To help Izzy understand what we wanted, we started schooling it in the leg yield first. Now, compression is not a new idea for Izzy, and in fact, the exercise wasn't brand new either, but as Chemaine and I talked about it later, she explained that exercises take on new meaning as your knowledge deepens. I am constantly rolling my eyes and accusing her of withholding information. Why haven't you ever told me this before? I'll whine. She rolls her eyes right back and laughs. She knows I am kidding. It's just that things feel brand new when you understand them in a new way.
So in the leg yield, Chemaine wanted me to apply a big half halt in the ten-meter half circle from long side to centerline. In those few strides, I was to compress him and power him up, making him beg for the release. As we started the leg yield, I could release him slowly and send him forward so that in the movement itself, Izzy would stretch forward as he pushed from behind. As we neared the corner, I was to once again compress him and power him up by adding leg so that by the time we started the actual movement again, the leg yield, he would be begging to stretch forward and really go.
Then, we moved to shoulder-in with the same idea. Through the corner I compressed him while adding leg, leg, leg, until he was begging for the release which he got as I sent him into the shoulder-in. Just before B or E, I again compressed him and revved him up so that I could then send him forward into the 10-meter circle. If he resisted, I reminded him how much nicer the release felt by again compressing while adding leg. Once he was softer, I could then give him that release by pushing my hands forward while sending him forward into a new shoulder-in.
Then we put it all together with the haunches in. On the short side, I compressed him while powering him up while also thinking about riding him up. As we came through the corner, I gave him the release he was asking for but it came in the shoulder-in. As we neared E or B, I again compressed and powered him up. The release came as I sent him forward into the 10-meter circle. Before the end of the circle, I again compressed and revved him up before giving him the release while pushing him forward into the haunches in. As Chemaine had described it earlier, this is what is meant by riding the test from half halt to half halt. Each compression is a half halt. Wait while I insert a huge eye roll and whine, why haven't you told me this before?
I write all of this as though I got it all correct the first half dozen times I rode it. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I rode Izzy left, all I could hear on the video was forward, forward, FORWARD! Clearly I wasn't "powering him up" like I thought I was. While I reorganized at the walk, Chemaine went through the exercise again. By the time I did it to the right, the light went on. Oh, you mean half halt right before each new movement? While Chemaine didn't actually do a "palm to face," I know she had to be thinking it.
Then we did a new-to-us exercise called The Ribbon. I am not sure how to explain this, and I certainly couldn't draw it very well, but here goes. It's essentially a bunch of very shallow serpentines done from one long side back to the other. My little sketch looks like how we rode it - wildly inaccurate. The point is to make a tear drop shape and head back to near where you started, doing a half halt, a simple change, or even a flying change at X. Then you continue on looping back and forth a lot like ribbon Christmas candy.
We did it at the canter to school the simple changes. The glory of this exercise is how many repetitions you can do from one end to the other. I think we got close to six or seven because you can keep going back downfield so to speak. After we made our way from A to C, we made a big circle and then cantered the whole arena to give Izzy a chance to unkink his body. That exercise will just about twist them up in a knot, but it does get them sitting on their hind end. And then we did it again.
Even with all of that, we weren't done yet. To finish off the lesson we schooled the medium trot. For a horse who has a perpetually tight back, the medium gaits are nearly impossible to coax out of him, but we're slowly getting it. As Izzy becomes more comfortable with the idea of compression and release, he is now starting to actually reach in the medium trot. A lot of it has to do with how well I can set him up for it.
To the left, his right shoulder wants to leak out which means his shoulders aren't in front of his haunches which means he can't push us forward. When I can correct that, I get more reach. To the right, I have to bring his left shoulder out around just a bit to get him off his right shoulder. And through both mediums, I have to really compress him in the corner and then allow his neck to get longer before I ask him to push.
Izzy is far more complicated than Speedy ever was, but I enjoy the challenge and find every one of his successes so very gratifying. We just need to keep piecing it all together.
Things have been good in my neck of the woods. With such a mild winter, Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, has been able to come down more frequently over the past month, and I've been able to go up to her place. During our lesson on Sunday I told her that it feels as though I've learned more in the past six months than in the past decade. That's not true of course, but it's really motivating to be in a learning phase as opposed to just trying to survive.
Now that Izzy's tummy is feeling better, he's back to being a bit of a jerk. I told Chemaine that it was almost funny that while his tummy was upset, he worked a lot better. Now that he's not thinking about his tummy so much, he's thinking about how hard his job is. I liked him better when he was feeling a bit puny. Sheesh.
Now that he's once again resisting the idea of being supple, I needed Chemaine to jump in with yet a new suppling exercise. I've been doing tons of shoulder-in and haunches in, particularly on the circle, and I've even been playing around with shoulder-in and haunches in to the outside of the circle. Essentially, I am just focusing on getting the different parts of his body to move and loosen up.
Like she seems to do, Chemaine came up with a variation on the exercises I've already been doing. How she does this on the spot, I'll never know. Using the quarterline again, she had me ride Izzy in a haunches in. Every time he resisted the outside rein, she wanted me to halt. No just do a half halt, but to really and truly halt. And while halting, she wanted my leg on and for Izzy to stay in the haunches in.
It sounds easy, but when you have 400 pounds in your hands, it's not. Instead of keeping his hind end underneath himself, he insisted on dropping his back and flinging his head up. It is my tendency to try to make things easier for him, so Chemaine had to insist that I insist that he halt. Not just shorten his stride, but to HALT, DAMMIT!
Initially, I didn't really understand the purpose of the full halt. As we continued trotting up one quarterline and down another in haunches in, Chemaine helped me see that by insisting on a full halt every time he resisted the outside rein, Izzy started to anticipate the full halt which helped him to understand the half halt. And that's why she's the trainer.
As I started to understand the purpose of the full halt, I was able to be more exacting in my riding. Haunches in for bend and to put him on the outside rein, full halt when he resisted. Repeat, repeat, repeat, Change direction. The point was to show him that once he gives, he gets to go on again. When things are crystal clear, Izzy learns so much better. The more clear and consistent I was, the more supple he was willing to be.
Then we did it at the canter. And once again, I tried to make it "easier" for him, but really, I was trying to make it easier on myself. Instead of coming to a full halt every time he resisted, I tried to cheat and just collect him super short. But as usual, Chemaine saw right through me and explained that the full halt made it much more clear to him that resistance is futile. When he resisted, he had to halt with his hind legs underneath him which is much harder than just being more supple through his neck and back.
As we worked, Chemaine asked for more. More what I asked? Her response was more half halt. She wanted me to make him earn the release by using more compression in the haunches in. Eventually, we used the 10-meter circle, something we're struggling with to the right, as a reward. When he was soft in the haunches in on the quarterline (but compressed), I turned it into a 10-meter circle and gave him more room to stretch forward. As soon as he braced, I collected the canter making the last half of the 10-meter circle much harder.
This exercise, trotting or cantering the quarterline with haunches in, is an excellent way to set up lots of other movements like the 10-meter circles, simple changes, and especially the canter half pass. Near the end of the lesson, Izzy was so soft on the left lead that I left the quarterline and floated across an imaginary diagonal line in a lovely canter half pass. For about three strides, and then it was less lovely, but still pretty nice.
Show season is on its way. We're not ready, but we never are. Each week though things get less ugly, and there are actually whole minutes where things are pretty. Not just moments, but strings of moments. As we worked on Sunday, I actually heard myself say, "Do you remember when he couldn't canter on the right lead?"
And now, he has a very pretty right lead canter. The left's not too shabby either.
As an elementary school teacher, I've learned over the years how valuable peer coaching can be. On a typical school day - a day where we aren't teaching remotely, I frequently assign peer tutors. Kids who "get it" help kids who are struggling. This partnering of kids accomplishes several things. First, kids are apt to use kid-friendly language with one another which generally enables the struggling learner to grasp the idea more easily. Second, kids are often less intimidated by their partners and are more likely to ask questions of other kids. Finally, and in my opinion of even more value, the "teacher" usually walks away from the experience understanding the concept even better than before.
"T" reached out to me early in the week asking if she could come out over the weekend to ride Speedy. Of course I said yes. She probably doesn't realize this, but T's "lessons" might benefit me more than they do her. During this weekend's lesson, I found myself really listening to what I was teaching, and I was shocked to discover that I actually know what I am talking about.
T hadn't been out to ride in nearly a month, so I had had plenty of time to think about what to show her next. What's usually fresh in my mind sounds like a great thing to teach her, but then I'll stop and realize that she's not ready for that particular exercise. So instead, I try thinking about what I needed to know in order to do that particular exercise. Those kneed to knows, or building blocks, are what I've been teaching T. They form the foundation of everything to come.
When I first left the endurance world to test out this whole dressage thing, I was essentially on my own. I couldn't find an actual dressage instructor, so I took basic riding lessons from people locally. One of them had some limited dressage experience, but she had never shown up the levels. Another trainer was great with young horses, but she had never ridden past Training or First Level either. A third trainer was actually a hunter/jumper so she left it up to me to tell her what I needed to work on next. That was definitely a case of the blind leading the blind.
In the very beginning, I wasn't ever in what you might call a "program." I wasn't with a trainer who had done it all from start to finish. I couldn't see the intended progression or how one exercise was actually a set up for later movements, and neither did my teachers. It wasn't until I met Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, that I started to understand how each level was designed to prepare the horse for the next level. Chemaine knows how each movement prepares the horse for something else, and she makes sure I know it as well. In Chemaine's "program" I started to learn that the movements at Training Level weren't the end all; they were simply the first steps needed in order to progress to the next level.
Chemaine has had me using the quarterline a lot lately. It's something I forget to use when I am riding alone. With Izzy though, the quarterline has become my best friend. So when T came out, I had an exercise planned that would help her become more familiar with the parts of a dressage court.
I set up cones on both short sides marking the quarterlines. The last time T had ridden, I had her leg yield from the centerline to the rail, but I noticed that she didn't have enough bend to make the 10-meter half circle from the rail to A and up centerline. This of course made the leg yields more difficult as Speedy's shoulders were falling out. For this lesson. I had her ride up one quarterline and down the other. The only thing I asked her to think about was getting enough bend to accurately ride the 10-meter half circles at A and C.
What amazed me was that I was able to diagnose the issue and then devise a strategy to fix it. As T rode through the exercise, I found that I was also able to see when she had Speedy's shoulders in front of his haunches and when she had him collected enough to make those half circles. And when he was strung out or bulging through one shoulder or the other, I continued to astonish myself by being able to coach her through the turns and actually make a difference in her riding.
I am not a trainer, and I don't know know everything, but I do know some things. Having the opportunity to teach someone who is dipping her toes in the dressage waters is very similar to the way I use peer tutoring in my own classroom. My student "teacher" doesn't know calculus, but he or she sure might understand how to simplify a fraction or do long division, and teaching someone else is only going to help both students understand the concept better. I wish that I had more opportunities to coach my peers. When we explain it to someone else, we generally walk away with a better understanding ourselves.
Anybody out there want to do some peer tutoring? We can take turns!
I've been saying this for six years: I finally have a dressage horse, but this time, I really mean it. Not only is Izzy looking like the warmblood he was bred to be, he feels like it, too. The day after Christmas, my friend Wendy and I met up at Symphony Dressage Stables to have lessons with owner and trainer, Chemaine Hurtado.
Like the lesson before, I didn't ask for anything specific. I just wanted Chemaine to offer me some feedback on how to improve the connection, bend, straightness, and so on. Her suggestions were ...
There was not a single bad moment. He never spooked, and there were plenty of reasons to be naughty. It was bitterly cold, the goat was crying, the dogs were zipping around, and the wind was gusting. He never put a foot wrong or said no.
As I watched the video and pressed pause to capture still photos, I was able to use virtually any screenshot I wanted. He never looked hollow or braced or resistant, and the feeling he gave me during the ride was even better. While I look quite determined in most of the photos, inside, I was grinning ear to ear.
My fingers are crossed that we come out of winter show ready and finally able to earn some decent scores.
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%
2022 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2022 Show Schedule
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
(***) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 62.115%