From Endurance to Dressage
Someday, Maybe, Hopefully
Here we go again ... As soon as I get this horse feeling comfortable and happy, we push him just a little and then we're back at a new beginning. Not the beginning, but a new beginning. That's what happened between last weekend's lesson and this weekend's lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage.
It's not a bad thing, but it isn't easy, especially for someone who is struggling to find the joy in riding. That someone would be me. It's not that I am done with riding - at least I hope not, but I am finding my daily rides to be more of a grind than they used to be. I don't laugh nearly as much as I used to, and there aren't days of just silliness. Everything was so much easier with Speedy - or at least time makes them seem so.
So what's new and hard? Well, a few weeks ago I was telling Sean that Izzy doesn't fill up my outside rein consistently, and the contact isn't nearly as steady as it needs to be. Izzy will take the contact for a moment and then drop it. Sean wasn't worried about the issue at all as it's what we've been working towards. For so long, Izzy grabbed the bit and held onto it for dear life. Now, he picks it up tentatively, but we need to swing back to a firmer connection.
When I push Izzy forward towards the bit, he either takes it hesitantly or grabs it and charges forward. Over the past two weeks. I've been trying to help Izzy find a middle ground. It's okay for him to take the bit assertively, I can handle it, but he has to learn how to let me move his poll just a millimeter or two while he does it. I do need some steering after all. Sean pointed out that both of us - Izzy and me, need to figure out how much contact to take. I need to develop a feel for a firmer connection and so does Izzy.
There wasn't a lot Sean could say during Saturday's lesson. It's something I have to figure the feel out for myself. He did help coach me through the worst of the bit grabbing and charging though. Coming out of spooky corner #2, Izzy kept grabbing the bit with an I AM THE BOSS firmness. He hasn't yet learned how to share the contact with me. Sean suggested doing the 10-meter circles exercise he showed me in August. Instead of fighting for some movement in his poll, I moved his whole body back and forth, left to right.
He isn't ready to share the contact yet, but we're both working on it. When I rode on Sunday morning, no matter how hard he made it, I kept reminding myself to help him, not just half halt incessantly. I bent him to put him on my outside rein, and then I half halted while still driving him forward. We did a lot of 10-meter circles and bending lines, but eventually, he gave me some movement in his poll while maintaining the contact.
Someday, maybe, hopefully, we're going to be fantastic! Or not, and that will be okay, too.
There were a few more things I wanted to add about yesterday's post. Things CC said that made a lot of sense about Izzy's frequent need for body work. As cool of a horse as CC thinks Izzy is, he has said from the beginning that dressage is hard for Izzy and not just mentally. CC thinks Izzy has some conformational issues that make the sport harder for him, things like being able to stretch forward and down. I never argue with him because I don't have the training experience that he has, but I do disagree a little. Every horse can do dressage, and Izzy is built better for it than a lot of other horses.
On the other hand though, he is right though: dressage is hard for Izzy, but I don't believe it's for the reasons he thinks. I think CC's under the impression that I ask for a lot more than I do. I think he assumes we're passaging and piaffing in between all the canter half passes and extended trot that we're doing. We're obviously not doing all of those things; we're just trying to walk, trot, and canter without bracing and sticking our nose up in the air like a giraffe. Every horse can do the work we're doing, even his quarter horses.
Whether the work should come naturally to Izzy or not, whether he is built for it not, we're still doing it. Since Izzy is hard on himself, doing it means frequent body work. One of the things CC and I talked about yet again - we have this conversation several times a year, was how to keep Izzy from tweaking himself so frequently.
CC has made suggestions in the past, all of which have been spot on. One in particular was to be super vigilant about not letting Izzy get away from me by jerking the reins out of my hand. Every time he gives that hard jerk to the side, usually to the right, he runs the risk of tweaking the C7, the base of the neck. I have taken that advice to heart. Izzy rarely makes that move anymore.
CC's newest piece of advice was about riding deliberately with tension. I immediately thought of positive tension. CC didn't quite know what to do with that, but I think that is what he meant. He explained that when I get Izzy nice and supple and stretching forward, that is exactly when he is most likely to tweak something. If he spooks while being so relaxed and loose through his frame, he has no tension to protect against something going "out."
Instead, if I ride with some tension, and I understood that to mean with collection, there will be some rigidity in his muscles and tendons to hold everything in place. This is an idea that I will have to work on carefully because when I push Izzy up to the bit and ask for more collection and thrust than he is ready to give, he becomes overly tense and stiff which defeats the purpose. It is something that Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and I have been working on lately.
I am grateful to have such a knowledgable team of professionals helping me. I don't think anyone can do this completely on their own. Between my trainer, CC, my vet, my farrier, the ranch owner, and Reggie - who takes care of the property, I am surrounded by a lot of help and support.
I hope your own team is just as great as mine - better even!
A Western Horse - Part 1
A little business first: Since I am on vacation this week, my posts will be coming a little late each morning because I get to sleep in instead of bolting from the house at 5:45 each morning. One of the perks of being a teacher ...
This whole story actually begins two weeks ago with my regular Saturday morning lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. It was one of those big AHA lessons with fantastic takeaways. Izzy was supple enough that we were able to work on some new and different things. I rode him that Sunday making sure to ride with these new ideas in mind. He had Monday off. I rode lightly on Tuesday, and then gave him Wednesday off. On Thursday we hacked around the property for half an hour. It was an easy week.
On Friday, he was LIT up. Every flutter of a leaf, every scurrying ant, and every car that crept by were sure signs of the apocalypse. He saw death and carnage everywhere he looked. For f*ck's sake was all I could think. I tried every single one of the tools that Sean has given me, but Izzy just would not soften. I rode him for a solid half an hour. I never got mad, and he never got away from me. There was no bolting or spooking, things that he definitely would have done not so long ago. He just wouldn't get on board with doing anything that resembled "dressage."
Very early on Saturday morning, it occurred to me that Izzy probably needed some body work, so I sent an early morning text to the chiropractor asking him to put me on his schedule. Since I have the whole week off, I really hated to waste even a single riding day because Izzy is "sore." He has basically no pain tolerance, so even a bit of tightness in his ribs will cause him to call in for a "sick day." Hoping that Friday's disaster was a one off, I set up my Pivo on Saturday as usual for a lesson with Sean.
To give Izzy some credit, his I am not happy about this would have been an awesome ride a year ago. He went where I pointed him, he stayed underneath me, and he never did anything particular naughty, but after 30 minutes, I called it a day. It was horrible to ride a horse so tight in his back and stiff in his neck. It felt like I was trying to steer a piece of lumber as he jolted me out of the saddle stride after stride. Instead of coaching me through movements, Sean and I talked about the benefits of riding a horse who thinks he is about to die.
Instead of trying to get a perfect shoulder-in or a flying change, Sean suggested that I ride with the idea of helping Izzy's body to let go of the tension by simply getting him moving to warm the muscles up. It wasn't about riding figures or exercises but showing Izzy that I can help him even when he's sore. Sean suggested shallow leg yields, gentle changes of bend, and transitions. As Izzy warmed up and got his circulation going, he would start to feel better. I appreciated coaching during a ride where I knew Izzy was sore. Most of us won't ride a horse who is in "pain," but Sean explained that in the case of body soreness, it can actually help. Which is very interesting, because the chiropractor said very much the same thing the next day.
Sean also pointed out that every time we make a breakthrough with Izzy, he comes up sore. Sean explained that it seems as though every time Izzy learns how to use his muscles differently, it causes some soreness. It's a frustrating cycle in some ways, but in other ways, it shows we're making great progress.
Even though my lesson time wasn't even close to being up, I told Sean that Izzy had had enough. Pushing him too much more would lead to an explosion which would not accomplish what we were aiming for. Sean agreed that it was up to the rider to recognize where that point is. He can only see so much in a video, and without being on Izzy himself, he trusted my judgement.
Part 2 tomorrow ...
Refining the Aids
It's not often that I need to make notes before writing a blog post. Usually, I have a story to tell. Not fiction of course, but the kind you tell to a friend. The oh, my gosh, guess what I saw/found/felt/heard yesterday! kind of stories. For this post though, I had to jot down some notes because it's one of those posts filled with some big AHAs.
The Saturday before last, I didn't have a lesson, so I had two weeks to work on stuff on my own. I am a thinking rider, so the time alone was good for me. I realized two big things:
First of all, none of what I asked for worried Sean. In fact, he knew we would get to this point sooner or later. I am not sure if I just beat him to the punch, but recognizing that I need to fix something makes it easier for me to understand when I do get an explanation. Not surprisingly, all of my concerns were mostly addressed by one thing. Sean explained that I've done my job so well - getting Izzy to quit pushing against me, that it's time to encourage him to start carrying the bit with a heavier feel. By reaching for and holding the contact, he'll naturally fill up both reins and solve the too light issue.
For the first quarter of the lesson, I rode around like a complete beginner trying to feel what Sean was talking about. Since I've worked so hard to get Izzy to quit pushing against me, I too need to learn how to accept some weight in my hands as well. So, we trotted on a 20-meter circle while I felt around for how much weight I was comfortable carrying while Izzy tried to figure out how much he could comfortably hold.
There was definitely some trial and error. Izzy never spooked or bolted, but it was a bit of an awkward dance as we kept putting our figurative hands here there as we tried to find a new level of contact. While it is a contact issue, it's probably better to say that it's more about the connection. The more we worked on the connection, the more Izzy's neck lengthened. It was definitely a new feeling for me to take up that heavier contact, but as I continued to ask for that little bit of malleability, Izzy responded by allowing me to hold him and reposition him as we worked.
I was most excited to try this at the canter. To the left, Izzy has gotten to be pretty sassy, maybe even a bit rude. He shakes his head up and down or side to side as if to say, let me do it my own way. As we all know, he hasn't been one to make good life choices when left to his own devices. Sean suggested I get him even rounder than necessary for the transition to keep him where I want him in the canter. He also reminded me that now that Izzy can handle corrections, I need to show him very clearly what I expect. That meant asking for the canter from a very round frame, and then putting Izzy's nose into his shoulder if needed to clearly show him what I expect. Tossing his head around was not it.
It worked like a charm. All of a sudden, I had control, and Izzy was so balanced that he bounded forward into a much bigger and faster canter. It scared both of us just a little bit. I don't think Izzy knew he could move like that, and when he realized he could, he was all in! We will both need to develop better balance and feel before we use that canter everywhere.
To help with the bracing and spooking in the corners, Sean simply suggested I ride the shoulder-in before I even get to the corner. That way, I already had control coming out of the corner instead of reacting when I didn't. Sean has said again and again that I need to be proactive in my riding, but some of these easy fixes don't occur to me.
You should have seen the look on Izzy's face the first time I rode the shoulder-in that way. He very indignantly asked, what the what is going on around here? I laughed in complete delight. Oh, buddy, I got you that time! And I had. He shoulder-in'ed down that long side with a pretty pouty look on his face, but he did it. Of course, after that, he did throw a bit of a temper tantrum, but thanks to Sean's patient teaching, I know to put him to work doing something else and ignored what Izzy had to say about the whole thing.
We didn't get to work on the flying changes at all, but Sean gave me some good advice for when I do get to work on it. In his opinion, I need to make my aid a bit louder. I'll work on that slowly as I don't want a return to the anxiety Izzy was feeling about the changes. While he's not giving me a left to right change, he's also not anxious about it, so I'll need to tread carefully. What we did work on though filled in such a big piece of our puzzle that it can only help the changes.
In a nut shell, both Izzy and I now need to pick up the contact and carry it. For so long, when he let go, I let go. Now, I need to carry it and ask him to carry it as well without leaning or pushing. Throughout the whole lesson, Sean repeated over and over that it's about refining and enforcing the aids that Izzy knows. And when it all goes to hell, go right back to steps 1, 2, and 3 and build him back up.
Things are getting fun!
On My Own
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%: