From Endurance to Dressage
Not really, but that's the sign I wanted to hang on Speedy's stall on Saturday afternoon.
It started as soon as I haltered him. I could just see that something was brewing. I put him in the cross ties and gave a disgusted snort when he spooked at Little Red Hen who had walked out in the driveway behind him. I started grooming and was baffled as he kept spooking and sitting back on the cross ties. At one point, he was so naughty that I pulled him out into the barn aisle and had a little Come to Jesus meeting. I backed him hard and fast all the way down the aisle (it's dirt) until he dropped his head and did some licking.
I put him back into the cross ties only to have him repeat his shenanigans. For the second schooling session, I picked up the whip and pointed it toward his hind heels. Each time he threatened to jerk backwards, I tapped his heels with the whip. That seemed to get his attention, but it didn't last.
I managed to get him saddled, but since he was still being naughty, I switched gears and decided to do some braiding which he normally finds relaxing. I placed my braiding box/step stool at his shoulder. I had just started when all hell broke loose. Speedy sat back hard, reared, knocked me to the side, kicked the braiding box which them tumbled and rolled beneath his feet. That sent him skyward and out into the aisle. He was now facing the wrong way with the cross ties wrapped around his neck.
Trying to remain calm, I gave a load whoa, whoa while trying to get out of the way of his flying hooves. He managed to spin back around so that he was back in the cross tie area, but his legs were scrambling every which way. I finally heard a loud thwack and assumed the cross ties had snapped, but to my horror, Speedy had simply wrenched his head free of the halter. He was now halterless, but the cross ties were still in place and attached to his dangling halter.
He tried to bolt forward through the thin barricade, but I raised my arms and insisted that he stay put. I quickly freed the halter from the cross ties and managed to get it back on him. I led him forward down the barn aisle while quickly checking his legs for cuts and scrapes.
The braiding box had landed some feet away and was flipped upside down. The mats in the cross tie area had been shoved to the side, and there were several deep divots in the barn aisle from Speedy's hooves. His face was missing small patches of hair, but the skin wasn't broken. He had a look of panic on his face so I just walked him up and down the aisle.
I have no idea what set him off, but it was quite disconcerting. He looked as very tight in his body so I grabbed my lunge line and walked him to the arena. I sent him out at the walk. He was very hesitant to move forward so I let him pick his pace. He didn't seem lame and there were no obvious injuries so I asked him to pick up the trot. There was still nothing obviously wrong.
By this time my BO had appeared at the fence so I walked over to chat and catch my breath. Speedy was immediately happier and began nosing at her and picking at her clothes. I pulled his saddle and sent him to roll and walk around. We watched him shuffle off and roll enthusiastically. I picked up a whip and asked for a trot and canter, but there were still no lame steps.
I eventually re-saddled him and rode him for a few minutes just to see how he felt. There were no further issues. I worried that he would be quite sore and swollen on Sunday morning, but when I arrived, his legs were clean and tight with no sign of heat or swelling. I put him on the lunge line, but no lameness appeared.
I spent a long time saddling him. He was quite fussy about being girthed up. This is an old issue, and one that I thought was long gone. I am not sure what brought it back, but I guess we'll be doing some work on that. Once he was saddled and bridled, I head out for a ride but almost wished I had just skipped the whole day. He was a stinker!
If he gave me an inside bend, he was way behind the vertical. If I got his head back up, he wrenched his nose to the outside. I went through all of the exercises that we've learned, but nothing worked. I gave him several walk breaks and asked again. He finally gave me a somewhat acceptable canter to trot transition so I called it a day.
It's interesting to note that soon after I put him away, a very strong storm system began to move through. We experienced very gusty winds that covered the southern end of the valley in dust clouds so thick you could hardly see across the street. Was he just reacting to the impending weather change? I hope that's all it was. We have a lesson this evening so hopefully JL can help me regain some of the confidence I had after last week's lesson. We have a USDF show on Saturday, and I'd like to go with a positive attitude.
Deep sigh ...
I really need to find a more entertaining way to write about the progress I am making with my Thoroughbred. Since it has become dull for me to write about how well and fast we are progressing, it must be equally uninspiring to repeatedly read, We Cantered! I obviously need another lesson on him so that we can work on something new.
Repetitive as it may be, it is far more fulfilling (for me at least) to write about our new found success than to feel the need to unburden myself about my old frenemies, Fear and Self-Doubt. I haven't seen those dudes in quite a long time to which I say good riddance anyway! If you're new here, or are only an occasional visitor, Fear is a gigantic elephant who likes to occupy the room or arena in which I am working. Over the past six month, it seems that I have kicked his ass to the curb and the taxi that was there waiting. And Mt. Self-Doubt, while still a geographical feature of my learning field, is slowly eroding and being washed away. I've summited it many times now and find it easier and easier to do.
So, monotonous as it is, we had a lovely right lead canter on Saturday! My rides on Sydney now all begin the same way: one walk lap around the outside of my "dressage court" with my hands planted in my thighs; a variety of circles, half circles, long side work at the trot with my hands still in my thighs; and then we canter. I always canter left first as that direction is very relaxing for Sydney. We spiral in and out, go down the long sides, and finish with another circle or two. I bring him back to a trot where we do a little spiral in and out and maybe a change of direction across the diagonal.
After our work to the left, we track right. Since he's already warmed up, we do some spiral work, and then I ask for the canter. Just two weeks ago, getting a canter that was somewhat in a forward direction might take 5 tries. And before we could even think about cantering, I had to work hard to get him rolled outward so that he wasn't leaning/falling in on my right leg and hand. Only when I thought he was properly balanced would I even try for that right lead canter. Most of the time we weren't successful until the 5th or 6th attempt.
That was before. Before what I am not exactly sure. I suspect it has to do with my deepening understanding of the outside rein. You know when you read, the outside rein controls the bend? those masters really meant it. The outside rein does control the bend. Sydney was falling in at the canter and I was helping him by not using my outside rein to control how much bend he had to the inside. The outside leg also helps by not letting the haunches drift out. So by controlling the bend with the outside rein, and keeping his haunches underneath him, he can now go forward into the canter rather than spin and fall into the canter.
I can read it 1,000 times, but it doesn't make sense until I actually feel it.
On Saturday, it took one request to get a nicely forward trot-to-canter transition. And then, since it was so nice, I decided we were ready to try canter to trot to canter transitions. I couldn't even think about doing those before as just getting one trot to canter transition took all day. I was so pleased with the transitions he did. I can see where we have some work as they weren't as smooth as they need to be, but at least I was able to keep him straight in the departures instead of falling in.
Here's to continued monotony and repetition!
So here's where we are.
We're making forward progress. We obviously have a long way to go, but the good news is that we are on the right road.
Just a few months ago I was feeling really, really frustrated. I just couldn't see any forward progress at all. I would think that we had made progress, but then the same crap would present itself again and again. I watched a video from my first ride on Sydney and was so discouraged to see that we looked better on that ride than we do now, a year and a half later.
I started looking at how much I was spending on a horse that was turning out to be a bad fit for me. I wasn't afraid to ride him anymore, but I just didn't seem to be a good enough rider to really ride him well. Selling him seemed like the smartest thing to do. I placed a very lean ad on an online site and decided to leave the whole mess in the Divine's hands. Seriously.
Do you know what happened? Within a DAY of posting that ad, I had one of the best rides I have ever had on Sydney. Of course. I immediately thought about pulling the ad, but then I didn't. One good ride couldn't change a year and a half of not really getting anywhere. I continued to look at him as a sale horse, but I reasoned that I might as well learn what I could from him while I waited for the right interested buyer.
I felt good about my decision and was absolutely honest about giving the issue to the Man Upstairs. I quit "outlining" what I wanted to happen. I never even revisited the ad to see if anyone was showing interest. I simply let the whole thing go.
Hand your problems over to someone else, and all of a sudden you're free of the burden. Figures. Since placing that ad, my rides on Sydney have gotten really, really good. That's not to say that he's soft and round as soon as I get on, but within just a few minutes, he is bending and moving away from my leg, and we are cantering every day.
On Sunday, I rode him in the "scary corner" where little Tommy was climbing the tree right next to the arena. Tommy and I were chatting about how many gifts under the tree were for him while Sydney and I cantered around and around. Take that you puny, little elephant!
After Tommy disappeared to do little boy things, Sydney and I continued to work. I asked for a right lead canter and got a whole lot of oh, my - that's not right. I brought him back to a trot and just focused on rebalancing him to the right. I focused on pushing him sideways, sideways, sideways as we worked on a 20-meter circle. After a few minutes I realized that he was nicely balanced and hitting the rail at exactly the right spot.
I asked for a right lead canter and was pleasantly surprised by what he gave me. At first, I needed to sponge the outside rein to keep him straight, but then I was able to switch to sponging the inside rein to encourage a bit of flexion. It was a lovely, balanced canter. His downward transition was soft and quiet and he immediately stretched his neck down at the walk. I had a huge smile on my face and realized that I had made all of that happen.
So where are we? Sydney is still for sale until he isn't. God will let me know if something changes. My shoulders feel a lot lighter since I ditched that burden of worry. Sydney's demon seems to have been defeated (or was it my own?), my elephant seems to have moved to a new home, and Mt. Self-Doubt is suffering from erosion. Today, all is right in my world.
Not long ago, I wrote about the loss of daylight and how it forces me, and all of you I am sure, to HUSTLE while at the barn in order to get everything done before dark. This is even more important if your barn has no electricity. At all. And I mean none: no lights in the tack room, barn aisle, or feed areas. We have head lamps, battery lanterns, and solar flashlights.
Kelly, over at Princess Diva Diaries wrote about much the same thing the other day, but she added a good metaphor: the stars must align for a ride to happen.
On Monday afternoon, my stars weren't simply mis-aligned, they were shooting haphazardly across the sky in true meteor fashion. I somehow managed to ride anyway.
It all started with a busted garage door opener. The task of calling an installer to fix the problem fell to me. I called in the early morning and left a message. I had to call back at 3:20 when I got off work, but if you'll remember, in order to get in a ride, I HAVE to be pulling out of work on time. As I stood by my car in the parking lot talking to the repair man, all I could do was groan as I saw the minutes ticking by.
Once at home, I should have been throwing boots on and bolting back to my car, but instead, I was once again on the phone with said repair man describing the make and model of the busted garage door opener. I looked at the clock and sighed ... it was only ten minutes lost, but still.
As I zipped down the road toward the barn, my phone rang. With no blue-tooth (my old one broke, and I am waiting for Christmas), I was forced to pull over to answer. It was the repair man; more minutes lost. Once I was back on the road, common sense tried to rationalize why I should just feed and forget the ride, but I was determined.
Over the last two weeks, Sydney has gotten better and better about working in the near dusk, and I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to challenge him. I did my regular barn chores in record time and saddled Sydney even though he had only had a few minutes to work on his dinner.
As I climbed aboard, I kept my own body very relaxed and owned the notion that I was the leader of this little party. We started out at the walk, and Sydney obliged me by being a perfect gentleman. In 15 minutes, we were able to walk, trot, and canter with only one or two fussy moments. I was actually grateful for the fussiness as it gave me the opportunity to persuade Sydney that I had the situation under control.
Each day I am amazed at the difference in him. I know that only part of our success is due to Sydney. Most of it is because my riding is getting better (said with no boasting, only stating the obvious). Sydney demands very correct use of the aides, and ambiguity is not in his vocabulary. Now that my control of the outside rein is so much better, he can hear and understand me.
Here's to the beauty of meteor showers!
Our weather is sinfully lovely, low 70s with a brilliant blue sky. With four full days off, I am using every one of them to put some serious rides on both my boys.
I haven't really shared much on the Sydney front lately as we've just been motoring along pretty steadily. Some days I am frustrated by his inability to relax, and other days I am encouraged when I recognize how much better I am riding him. I know that our problems are actually my problems. Sydney doesn't just give it up; he makes me earn every balanced step.
I can't say it enough times; that simulator changed the way I am riding. My sense of feel has gone supernova. The stiffness in my right wrist is disappearing and my elbows have finally moved to center stage. My core is way more engaged, and I feel like it is stabilizing more and more each day.
This new body awareness has helped me ride Sydney much more effectively. We now canter every ride. We're better to the left, no surprise there, and even though it's not even close to pretty, we're also working on the right. Fortunately, Sydney and Speedy G share the same body issues. Both boys are stiff to the left and limp to the right. This is a god thing as what I learn on Speedy G can be used with Sydney.
Over the last month, my rides on Sydney have gone more or less like this: walk on the buckle one time around the arena. We then begin our trot work with a fairly loose rein, although the rein length is getting shorter each day. Our warm up includes a trot lap in each direction with a change across the diagonal. After the perimeter work, I do a three loop serpentine in each direction. I follow that with a couple of repeated passes across the diagonal and then a canter circle in both directions. By the end of the canter circles, Sydney is usually moving more forward and is ready to start bending.
I spend the rest of the ride asking him to supple his neck and ribs by doing a variety of exercises: random loopy circles, spiral in and out, 20-meter circle with a 10-meter circle at the top, and so on. On Wednesday, I decided to try some canter work after our suppling exercises. I haven't done this with him before as he tends to be anxious about the shortened rein already, and I know asking for anything else leads to blow ups.
I started left and was delighted that he picked up the canter without any fuss. This was a huge accomplishment. For me. He obviously just needed me to ride him better.
On Friday, I decided to test my new-found skills. We started as we always do: walk, loose rein trot, canter, and then on to more connected work. This time, I started shortening the rein early into the warm up. I focused on keeping my fingers closed, especially my ring finger, and I made sure my elbows were moving at my side. I also focused on moving from the elbow as opposed to moving my hands or wrists.
Right away I felt more balanced and much more secure in the saddle. As we rode, Sydney did his usual sometimes balanced, sometimes flipping his nose routine. I continued to move from the elbow asking him to soften to the inside while moving him away from my inside leg. All the while I paid close attention to supporting him with my outside rein; no running through the outside shoulder, please.
As we were nearing the end of the ride, I again asked for the canter. He made the transition willingly. But as I asked for a slightly more uphill canter, he gave a squeal, tossed his head and blew through the outside shoulder. For about three steps. I slid my inside hand down the rein, pulled straight back with my elbow, and bent him around my leg while insisting that he go forward.
My new found strength and balance surprised him and energized him at the same time. All of a sudden he rocked back on his hind end and gave me the most fabulous uphill canter. He also started giving the most adorable race horse snorts. Frankly, he rocked the canter! We made a few circles and transitioned down to trot. I immediately did a change of direction, which when he's anxious is a guaranteed way to get a blow up, but I brought him to me and sat deep on the pull. He made the turn and then gave me a brilliant and connected trot. He was uphill, on the bit, and fabulous. I just sat there supporting him.
We came back to a walk, and I praised him hugely. I hopped off and gave him a big smooch, which he loves, and hoped he felt as good about his work as I did. I wish I could convey how frustrating it has been to have a horse that I can't ride. Oh, don't misunderstand; I ride him all week long. I mean really ride him and make it look pretty.
Every other week I decide that I should just sell him to somebody who can do a better job with him. Then we have a decent ride and I think, well, maybe I can do this. I hope this is more than one of those times. I hope this is me really getting good enough so that he is hearing me and working with me. Either way, my elephant is a pretty distant memory, and Mt. Self-Doubt is looking smaller and smaller.
Can I get a hallelujah, Sister?!
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%: