From Endurance to Dressage
Saturday's ride was crowded. As I summited Mt. Self-Doubt, I had to squeeze past my elephant Fear AND a whirling-twirling demon. The good news? I made it!
An explanation is needed. Mt. Self-Doubt is always in my vicinity. It looms large and in charge when trouble rears its head. It's a steep climb filled with narrow ledges, and slippery sides. There's the I Am an Idiot Step, I am a Terrible Rider Face, and the always terrifying I Hope No One Can See Me Zone. On Saturday however, I zipped right past each of the obstacles and made it to the top without a single mis-step.
When I saddle and bridle, Sydney is always relaxed. He lips the bit into his mouth and sighs. He stands rock solid while I mount. He enjoys working. Keeping that in mind will help me defeat his demon.
I started Sydney out on the same loose rein trot and once again had to kick, kick, kick him around the arena. We did the long sides both directions and 20-meter circles both ways. I kept it in my mind that he needs to feel a sense of well-being with no pressure. While he was still relaxed, I asked for a left lead canter and was rewarded with a nicely controlled gate. We went around once and then walked. All of this came with lots of praise and neck pats.
I then shortened my reins just a bit and started in on the 20-meter circles with a light to medium contact. The demon resurfaced, but I was prepared. No matter what Sydney tried, I was ready for him. When he reared, I cranked his head to the side and gave a loud, NO! I rocked the reins so that he had nothing to lean on, and I kept my legs on him so that I could control that outside shoulder.
I've ridden horses my entire life; I don't remember my first ride. This ride, I'll remember. I had the most amazing sense of feel that I have never experienced before. I knew exactly what he was going to do before he did it. As JL said later, I kept him in the conversation even though he wanted to leave in the worst way.
Throughout the ride I kept picturing what my core and seat should be doing. My rib cage was knit together, my knees were bent, and my heels remained low. My seat was as solid as it has ever been, and I was glued to his back.
This was the first time that I have been able to analyze his scary behavior while also riding. What I saw was that he was certain something bad was going to happen when I shortened his frame even that tiny bit. It seemed as though he was sure I was going to cram him up to the bit in order to "soften and round" him. I could feel that that was what he thinking.
When he tried to speed up, I added a ton of outside leg and rocked the inside rein to get some bend and the outside rein to slow him down. As soon as he slowed down, I stopped asking. When his head shot int the air, I sat up tall and rocked the reins all while keeping my legs on. The instant his head came down, I quieted my hands and opened my legs the least little bit.
In half the time that it took on Friday, I had him going around nicely to the left. His trot was very slow, but it also felt very balanced. As we circled, the worst of the tension left his body. When he was very quiet, I asked for a halt and praised him. When we changed direction to track right, I expected to repeat the whole process, but he surprised me by being much more willing. It didn't happen right away, but within a few minutes, he was accepting the bit and moving better than he ever has.
We finished the ride with a walk on the buckle and then lots of walking while I bent his neck in each direction. He looked tired when we were through, but he was happy and relaxed. I hope he gives me some trouble today so that I will once again have all the time in the world to work on it.
It's much harder to fight a demon as the dark approaches!
During my summer break, I had the luxury of feeling like a true student of dressage. I rode both horses at least five days per week and was never on a time schedule. I could school each horse as long as necessary without the guilt of neglecting my home life as Hubby was safely at work. When a ride didn't go as well as I was hoping, it wasn't a big deal as we easily picked up on the concept the next day. It was a very productive ten weeks.
That feeling of patience, created by all the time in the world, has already left. Sadly, it's been replaced by a well-known acquaintance named Intensity. Frankly, Intensity is a real pain in the butt. When she's around, Fear and Frustration, equally unfriendly twins, are always close behind.
I went back to work on Thursday and Friday and wasn't able to ride in the afternoon due to the heat. I zipped out to the barn on Saturday and Sunday mornings only to find that Intensity was waiting for my arrival. She was leaning smugly against the gate and smiled in a knowing way at all of the dust hanging in the air.
The arena and barn aisle hadn't been watered sufficiently so Speedy started to cough immediately in the cross ties. There are usually two coughs as we warm up, but on Saturday, he coughed for ten minutes. I got off feeling an overwhelming sense of anger. I only had two days to ride and now nothing was going to be accomplished. I was genuinely pissed.
My ride on Sydney wan't all that much better. The neighbors were preparing for a large afternoon party so there were a lot of spooky and distracting happenings coming from the other side of the fence. I finally got off and walked over to JL's. He didn't work as relaxed as he will at home, but he did work through a few tense moments as one of the riders schooled her horse over some jumps.
Intensity just hung out in the shade watching me. She was still there on Sunday.
I brought a book to the barn on Sunday. Take that Intensity! I am glad I did because when I got there, the sprinklers weren't going, and I knew that I couldn't ride Speedy with so much dust. I turned the water on in the arena and then dragged the hose through the barn watering my two stalls and the barn aisle. I puttered around with a few other chores as everything got a good soaking. I was still feeling angry at being "cheated" out of my only good riding days so I sat down in the shade for a few moments with my book and let the tension and anger drift away. See you later, Intensity; keep on walking.
Who was I mad at? I don't know. I finally came to realize that we are not going to perfect anything else in the next two weeks. I have two important shows coming up, but we've learned what we can learn. Getting out of the arena for a few days is probably a good thing for Speedy. With that thought in mind, I threw on my trail bridle and decided to confront all of the regular "scaries" that we meet in the neighborhood. I figured it would be an excellent way to school the pulley rein and for me to really get some good practice maintaining the inside bend.
I was right. Speedy and I had lots of chances for some dressage on the trail. We were able to do a little bit of trotting (there was still a bit of coughing, but it disappeared) and a lot of inside rein work. I simply let him know that he doesn't get to evade me to the right or left and he will maintain the bend.
By the time Speedy and I were finished, the arena was well soaked for Sydney. Just to make sure that I rode him with Patience, and not Intensity, I turned Sydney out while I pulled up a chair to the arena fence and read for 15 minutes. We had a very productive ride.
My homework will now be to keep that sense of "cram it all in" far, far away. I need to remember that sense of patience I got from having all the time in the world, even when I don't have time on my side.
I know this doesn't seem of much interest to most of you, and quite a few probably didn't even make it this far into the sentence. For me? Being able to take Sydney to a lesson is HUGE!!!! I am feeling quite pleased today. Mt. Self-Doubt, prepare to be summited!
I've been working with JL since last summer. She has helped me enormously with Speedy. I started taking Sydney to her last July fully expecting to show him late that summer. That, of course, didn't work out. In fact, the longer I took lessons, the worse he became until finally, it was just too dangerous to ride him in a lesson setting. The pressure and "noise" of the lesson were just too much for him.
I shed a few tears and then devised a new plan. I've spent the past three months teaching Sydney (and me) to just relax. Nothing else. Thoroughbreds are not like Arabs. I've since learned a little about how they think. They don't like to feel pressured and they don't like making mistakes. So, I took off the pressure and gave Sydney many, many opportunities to get the right answer. I learned how much I can push him (not very), and how to reward him when he gets the answer right.
I am happy to say that he is now quite the happy fellow. I took him to a lesson a few weeks ago. JL encouraged me to start turning up the volume, but slowly. Turning up the volume means go a little faster and tolerate the whip and firmer leg pressure. So I did all of those things. We played "Race Horse" - slooooow trot to go, go, go fast trot back to slooooow trot. I started tapping his shoulder with the whip when I needed more go or when I need him to move over. I also started getting firmer with my leg which he learned doesn't always mean GO! Sometimes it means move sideways.
I took Sydney to see JL on Wednesday. I think she was quite impressed with how tolerant he has become. I ride him with quite a loose rein which has encouraged him to go deep and low. JL liked this. He's much looser through his back and swings nicely. Now that I can turn up the volume a little, JL thinks he's ready for more contact. But instead of forward into the contact, which is stressful, we're going to work on sideways to the contact.
We started with the lesson on the pulley halt. This went quickly as I just had that same lesson on Speedy. We started at the walk. Sydney understood it almost immediately. We worked on getting the halt with as little pull on the outside rein as possible. Even if he thought about stopping, he got a release. We then moved on to the trot. Again, piece of cake. His halts started getting quicker and sharper. He understood the purpose of the outside rein. Since he was able to get the right answer right away, he was happy to play the game.
The pulley halt lesson is all about teaching the horse to respect the outside rein. Rewarding even the thought of stopping lets Sydney know that he has the right answer, something an OTTB wants. I could tell he liked the exercise. Once he was stopping smartly with the quietest aid possible, we worked on moving off my inside leg just like we had with Speedy.
The exercise goes something like this: inside leg tap, outside hand squeeze. There can be no forward movement. At first, just Sydney's hind end moved. He still earned a good boy. Next, just his front end moved sideways. He still got a release and a good boy. Little by little I was able to time my leg, seat, and hand aids so that I got a fairly correct lateral movement that included his whole body. That earned a very good boy, and the lesson was over.
My homework is to continue with the pulley halt practice each time he gets ridden. If he responds quickly the first time, move on. If not, continue until he gets it. Then we're to move on to sideways movement until I can continually get the sideways movement while walking in a small circle, spiraling out.
On Thursday morning, I gave it all a try. I could not be happier. The pulley halts went perfectly, even at the trot. The sideways movement was not so easy, so we did a few attempts with some sideways movement, and then we took a nice walk break with some trot circles. After working on the pulley halt and sideways stuff, his trot work was much improved! We then returned to the sideways stuff where I got a decent spiral circle at the walk. Sydney got numerous good boy pats and that was the end of the ride.
What will make this work for us is that I won't take Sydney back for anther lesson until I either feel stuck or ready to move on. With Speedy, I feel like we get it so much faster and are ready for the next week's lesson. Taking away the timetable from Sydney's progress removes the pressure. If it takes me three months to get a good spiral circle at the walk, okay. Interestingly, we actually did two or three decent ten meter circles after the sideways exercises. I think we might be onto something here!
Definitely a two-steps forward kind of day.
First things first. Thank you so very much for refraining from offering advice the other day. Even more thanks go to those of you who kept your criticisms to yourself. Seriously ... thank you. To those of you who commiserated, I really appreciate that you were willing to share your same feelings of suckiness; sucking collectively is far better than sucking alone.
And with that ...
I had THE BEST ride on Sydney on Saturday morning.
During the school year, both boys get ridden about 4 days a week. When school is out, they each go 5 days a week. I try to keep my weekends free so that I can hang out with Hubby, but Friday's weather was so unbelievably hot that I chose to do barn chores instead of ride. It was so hot (and unseasonably humid) that Bakersfield earned the national extreme temperature for the day - 106℉/41℃. No kidding.
So instead of riding on Friday, I squeezed in quick rides on Saturday morning. The weather was seriously improved and almost felt cool. It was 68℉/20℃ when I headed to the barn at 7:00 a.m.
Speedy and I went through our usual practice from our Wednesday lesson. We've been doing some one loop serpentines from the Training Level 3 test. They're fun to do, and Speedy seems to enjoy them. It's also a good way to practice our sideways movement, especially left leg to right right.
When I get to C, I do the other half of the serpentine, H-X-K, and go back to A for more. I also like to throw in a change of direction across the diagonal to reverse the direction of the serpentines.
But on to Sydney!
I really took JL's advice to heart and started asking for more. From the walk, I asked for "quicker" which meant a few taps of the whip. No biggie. Sydney marched forward happily. When we moved on to the trot work, I again squeezed and said, go! Sydney happily gave me more energy. To slow down, I simply sat back, with no rein pressure, and Sydney dropped back into the walk. We did some 20 meter trot circles, both left and right, asking for more activity than we had the other day. Again, no biggie.
Since all was going so well, I decided to use the long sides of my "dressage court" (it's 20m by 45m) to work on maintaining a steady rhythm without the circle. I couldn't have been more pleased. We trot the long side and focused on balancing and slowing for the corners. After tracking left for a lap or two, we crossed the diagonal to repeat the exercise tracking right. I was so proud of how happy and relaxed Sydney was in his work.
And best of all? I truly didn't give a damn what I looked like. It was the most fun I've had in a while.
Pitons back in place ready for a summit bid up Mt. Self Doubt ...
There's bad weather brewing atop Mt. Self Doubt. All the pitons that I had in place have been buried in manure or have simply fallen to the ground.
If you think you are the worst rider on the planet, rest assured, you're not. If you've ever thought that you have no business being on a horse, welcome to the club; I am the president.
For the last two months Sydney's been nothing but mellow and happy. When I ride him, he eagerly shoves his nose into the bridle, and his ears flop lazily to the side. He's had a few reasons to spook and run, but after only a stride or two, he quickly returns to his happy, mellow pace. I know he's not on the bit and he's definitely not forward, but he's relaxed and working with me.
I was feeling so pleased with his progress that I decided to do a video of our riding. I propped my camera up on the mounting block and did my regular morning ride. I tried really hard to ignore the camera and just do what we always do. I finished with a happy horse who isn't anxious anymore. That was enough.
And then I watched 35 minutes of oh geez. Really? That's what we look like? Very deep sigh of frustration. The carabiner broke and I've tumbled back to the bottom of the mountain.
There was no way I was putting that video up on my blog. After a year, this is all we can do? My contact is anything but steady. My seat and legs are anything but solid. My hands are anything but quiet. Welcome to my pity party.
Being a perfectionist has many benefits. I get a lot done and it's always done well. The problem with being a perfectionist is that there's no posing; I can't fool myself. If I know I've failed or haven't done something satisfactorily, it's impossible to shake off the cloak of failure. Out come the boxing gloves and I proceed to beat myself up.
I took Speedy to my regular Wednesday lesson, but I wasn't feeling like taking a lesson. I started by telling JL what Speedy and I had worked on over the week, but then I found myself spilling my guts about the video and how I have no talent and why can't I get this. I even teared up a bit. Admitting that you suck can be a painful experience.
JL is an awesome trainer. She listened intently without placating me or trying to stroke my ego. She also failed to agree with me. One of the first things she did was tell me a quick story: another student made the comment that she was unable to ride and talk at the same time like I do. She needed to stop riding before she could answer JL's questions. When JL finished her little anecdote, I burst our laughing through my tears. I may ride like sh*t, but at least I can walk and chew gum!
The point she was making was that we are all better at some things than others. She asked me if dressage is easy. Of course not. If it were, everyone would be doing it. She then asked me what I didn't like about the video. I told her. Her response had to do with form and function. Of what value is it to look good if our horses aren't moving correctly? She then gave me some suggestions for moving on since Sydney now seems ready for more.
After my lesson was over (more on that in the next post), I rode Sydney and tried some of the things she suggested and quit worrying about how I looked while doing it.
JL's advice was to start riding Sydney with fewer accommodations. He's ready for me to turn up the volume without the need to panic. One problem has been his pokey trot. JL said to go ahead and ask for faster. She suggested I point him forward and ask for GO. Let him go a few strides and bring him back to slow. It worked beautifully!
I asked for a brisker trot and got it. In the past, he would have bolted out from under me. I let him go for a few strides and then slowly sank deeper into the saddle. He immediately walked. We did a few more of these transitions until he was happily trotting around briskly and then slowly. We came back to the walk and cruised around the arena to check out the scary farmer pulling weeds in the orchard just beyond the fence. Sydney gave him the one-eyed ogle but then went back to ambling along his way.
If you're still with me, thanks for letting me vent. I find it humiliating to admit when I am not competent at something. I read quite a few other blogs and get really discouraged to see and hear how fabulous everyone else is doing. Don't misunderstand; I am happy for their success, but it often makes me feel even worse about my own struggle.
Here's a very short clip of my ride on Sydney. Please don't tell me that we look great just because you want to make me feel better. I can see for myself that it's not great. I also don't need a bunch of advice either. I can see what's wrong. Part of it is definitely me, but part of it has been Sydney's inability to relax and trust me. I think the one thing the video does show is that he is a lot more relaxed and mellow now than he has been in any other video.
The pity party's over.
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%: