From Endurance to Dressage
After my lesson on Sunday, I zipped across the street to watch Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, school Laurel's horse Silver. Silver was in need of a bit of a tune up, so Laurel and I stood at the rail watching.
It's easy to feel discouraged watching your trainer ride your horse, especially when she does it so well. Trainers make it look effortless to achieve what you might spend a whole ride trying to catch just one moment of. The trainer gets on and suddenly you own a Valegro.
As Laurel and I watched, we focused on what Chemaine was doing and not on Silver. As spectators, it's easy to get caught up in how beautiful a horse is moving. To learn though, I find it's of much more use to focus on the rider. It's not easy though if the rider's aids are nearly invisible.
As Laurel and I continued to watch and chat, she lamented how much her hands and arms move. I laughed and told her she should have seen the lesson I just finished; talk about wildly moving arms and hands. Then I told her that I see riding as a lot like driving a car.
When you're just starting out as a young driver, you have a million things you're trying to think about because you haven't learned to monitor your driving subconsciously. All of your corrections come a bit too late so they're a bit more dramatic. Young drivers hit the shoulder occasionally and wrecks aren't uncommon. As you gain experience though, you begin to make your corrections sooner and sooner with smaller movements that become difficult to see.
Trainers are like NASCAR drivers. Bubba Wallace can zip through the field while avoiding the wall and other cars all while going 200 miles per hour without causing a wreck. His driving ability requires complete muscle memory and lightening fast reflexes. Trainers ride a horse the same way. Their corrections happen long before the horse actually spooks. They feel the need for a half halt before the horse has had a chance to pop his head up and hollow his back. The horse doesn't get heavy because the trainer doesn't let the horse go round and round leaning on the bit.
The only way to develop those unconscious feels is to practice. The more hours you drive, the better your reflexes become. Riding a horse well needs the same kind of practice and repetition as driving a car.
And you know what? I think you can be a pretty good driver no matter if it's behind the wheel of a Ferrari or a Volkswagen beetle.
I turned 50 on Sunday. Rather than feeling depressed or sad, I found the idea of turning 50 pretty hilarious. It's like somebody just pulled a really good prank. Ha ha - you got me. I am sure the horror of landing undeniably in middle age will eventually hit me, but for now, I giggle every time I think about it.
My birthday is not my favorite day of the year. It's not about being older; the day just comes with a lot of baggage. On Saturday, the day before my birthday, I spontaneously jumped at the idea of going hiking with my husband and the dogs. He goes every weekend while I ride, so he was a little surprised that I wanted to go. Tobias, our black lab, was celebrating his 9th birthday, so it was easier for me to "celebrate" my birthday weekend on someone else's "special day."
We headed out to the Wind Wolves Preserve, a spot my husband enjoys. From the website: Wind Wolves Preserve is in an ecologically unique region where the Transverse Ranges, Coast Ranges, Sierra Nevada, western Mojave Desert and San Joaquin Valley influences converge. Due to elevation ranges from 640 to 6,005 feet, the Preserve has an impressive array of landforms and habitats that serve as a critical landscape linkage and wildlife corridor between the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada.
There is a large network of trails to explore, but my husband had already picked out our hike. With such a beautiful, clear day, he knew that a hike to the top of the ridge would give us an excellent view of the valley below. He was right. With the dogs jogging ahead - Yellow Dog, and sometimes lagging behind - old man Tobias, we made the climb, pausing occasionally to look back.
After a short break to catch our breath, we all hiked back down to the trail head where the dogs played in the creek, very happy to cool off. With all our drinking water consumed and me with the beginnings of a headache, we decided to grab lunch at a taco truck that lives on the corner on Old River Road. That taco truck has been on that corner for as least long as I've lived in Bakersfield. It's literally in the middle of nowhere. The food is excellent though. My husband had a water, but I needed some caffeine. A Coke and three amazing tacos later, and I felt much better. On the way home, we stopped by Nothing Bundt Cakes for some mini birthday cakes.
On my actual birthday, I rode Izzy in the morning, and then my husband enjoyed a burger and fries from my favorite mom and pop diner. Later in the afternoon I visited with my parents on FaceTime while I opened presents. I had forgotten what I had wished for, so it was with real surprise when I opened my gifts and saw a proper stethoscope. My equine medical kit has nearly everything you might need in an emergency, including a stethoscope, but the one I had bought a million years ago was as cheap as I could find. With Izzy's recent bout of colic and ulcers, I had mentioned to my stepmom that I could really use a good quality stethoscope.
My stepmom works in the medical field, so she consulted some of her friends and colleagues and bought the stethoscope that they actually use while treating patients. I immediately tried it out on myself, my husband, and the dog. It was amazing to be able to hear every heart beat without trying to guess as the connection came and went like with my old stethoscope. Not that I want one of my horses to get sick or anything, but I am looking forward to putting it to use.
Among some other pretty amazing gifts, my husband also bought me a new solar charger to replace the one that was stolen while at the Santa Barbara Dressage show. I was really bummed to have lost my other one. I use it to charge my phone at night while camping in my trailer. This is an upgraded model with a few features the other one didn't have.
All in all, turning 50 turned out to be a pretty pleasant experience. I don't recommend it for the feint of heart though. It does take some life experience to make the leap. Like one of my students pointed out, turning 50 means you're half-way there.
And almost done. I teach my students today, tomorrow, and Friday. Three days, and then I am done teaching for 2020. This time of year is always a struggle. Kids are usually rambunctious in the days leading up to Christmas, although I am not seeing any of that behavior right now. I've actually read some things in the chats that have saddened me, things like my mom's not buying me anything for Christmas.
So while the kiddos aren't bouncing off my classroom walls, there's still a lot to deal with. The reduced daylight hours also get me down. I am certain I suffer from some degree of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and working from home means I go outside a lot less often than when I am at my school site. Saddle Up Anyway, the words are live by, are the only thing getting me up and out to the ranch each day.
Even though I desperately wanted to curl up in front of the fire with a good book yesterday - I am currently reading F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, I pulled on my breeches, determined to ride. The Big Brown Horse always fools me. He's really just an over-sized sloth. He lumbers around his dry field in no particular hurry. He happily nibbled my hair and clothes while I groom, hiding the devil that only comes out when it's time to work.
I put him through a series of warm up exercises which he was happy to do. Once the work began though, his devilish self popped out of hiding, and the fight was on. He spooked and bolted and dodged all in an attempt to convince me that he COULD NOT BE RELAXED. And then he let go through his body in a resistance free shoulder-in.
Good man, I told him as I patted his neck. Good man. And then we moved on to the canter where we started it all over again. As I had done in the trot work, I kept both legs on and pushed him forward. And when forward was too much, we circled. 10-meter circles can do a lot to convince a horse that 20-meter circles are a lot easier. Eventually, he let that tension go as well as he cantered politely where I pointed him.
Today is another day and another chance to saddle up anyway. I am always glad I do, but some days, it takes more cajoling than others.
I started riding and showing dressage in 2010. Since then, I've shown one hundred twenty-seven days. One hundred eleven of them have been on Speedy. I showed Sydney nine times and Izzy has been shown seven times. The only horse I've shown at a USDF show though is Speedy. Every one of the scores earned towards my Bronze Medal were achieved with him.
With Speedy, I always went to a show hoping for at least a 60%. At the beginning of each level, we almost always walked away with scores in the high 50s. Eventually we would start earning scores in the low 60s, and later, scores as high as low 70s. But each time we started a new level, we went through the cycle again.
I know many people disagree with that strategy. They think if you're not earning mid-60s, you're showing at the wrong level. That may be true, but for me, I have always used the judges' scores as feedback to guide me through the level. While I am able to take more lessons from Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, than I used to, there are still months where I might only get one lesson. Sometimes, the judge's score is my only feedback. If I waited until we scored in the mid-60s, I'd never show. I'd also never improve. Showing tells me when I am doing it correctly, and it also tells me when I am doing it wrong so that I can fix it.
Over the past two months, I've been schooling Izzy in preparation for our first USDF show. We're doing Second Level. We're struggling. We're probably going to score in the 50s. What I've just this week realized is that there are a lot of reasons to score a 5. With Speedy, a 5 meant we weren't doing the movement correctly. We didn't have enough bend, enough reach, enough length, enough something.
In the seven times I've shown Izzy - Intro and Training Level, we earned the exact same scores that I earned when starting Speedy at a new level, high 50s. That simply baffled me as the rides on Izzy felt like such a hot mess while the rides on Speedy felt at least okay. It seemed as the the scores on Izzy should have been much lower.
In some cases, they were. At Izzy's first two shows - Introductory Level, we earned scores as low as 49%. But in his case, it wasn't because he couldn't do the movements, it was because of tension. Introductory Level is about walking and trotting (and a small bit of canter) with a minimal amount of fuss. If the horse walks and trots in a straight line or on a relatively round circle, you're going to get a 60%. If the horse looks as though he is about to die, a 49% is in your future.
In Izzy's case, he can do the movements. They're not hard for him like they are for Speedy. That won't be why we earn 5s. It will be because of tension. His back will be tight, his neck will be short, and his stride will be three inches long. It's not like I just discovered that he's tense - we've all been watching that since the beginning. It's just that over time, I've been able to work a lot of the tension loose. It's still there, but he's beginning to listen and let go of some of it.
Will he be able to relax at SCEC in a few days? I don't know, but I feel pretty confident that I at least have some tools for working through the tension. Will it work? I don't know that either, but I am hoping that over the two days we show he'll get tired enough to take a deep breath and realize that, no, he is not about to die.
I won't be surprised by a score in the 50s, but I am also hopeful we get that 60%.
One of my favorite quotes is one that is attributed to John Wayne. I don't know that he actually said it, and I don't care because for me, truer words could not be spoken; especially when it comes to horses. The part of that sentiment that inspires me the most is the idea of saddling up anyway. With our smoke filled air, high heat, and daunting list of skills that Izzy needs to master before we can show at Second Level, I've been giving a lot of thought to saddling up anyway.
There have definitely been times when I have been scared to death - facing a hundred mile endurance race will turn most riders' knees to jello. Getting back on a horse who just used you as a lawn dart will also cause you to second guess your life choices. I can't stand fear though. Acknowledging that I am afraid of something presents me with a list of boxes that needs to be checked off, and an incomplete to do list brings out my OCD tendencies like nothing else. And so, I saddle up anyway.
Saddle up anyway means a lot more to me than just getting on when my horse is feeling particularly fresh or boisterous. Those words remind me that if I want to achieve my goals, I had better be willing to work hard even when it gets hard, especially when it gets hard. It's hot, it's cold, it's windy, he's going to be a handful, he can't, I can't ... SADDLE UP ANYWAY.
Being willing to saddle up anyway doesn't mean I am reckless or unrealistic. There are days when I know the conditions aren't safe. It might be too muddy, too hot, or I am simply too tired to be effective. I might be feeling too overwhelmed with work's stresses, or my body might be sore from something as simple as sleeping wrong or as complex as a sprained ankle. The thing is, it's important for me to be honest with myself about why I am not riding. It's okay to take that occasional day off, but for me, I know that the only way to achieve my particular set of goals is if I saddle up anyway.
It's not often, but there really are days that I just don't feel like it. I don't feel like having the same argument again. I don't feel like struggling with achieving the perfect connection. I don't feel like digging deep to get a crisp simple change. Those are the days when it's the most important to saddle up anyway. Because when I do, I get closer to achieving my goals, and then those tedious days, the ones that were so hard to work through, reveal themselves to be the foundation of success. Those are the days that got me to the finish line of that first hundred mile race, to a Bronze Medal, or just to that first USDF show.
Saddle up anyway; you'll be glad you did.
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 Second Level. 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%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2021 Pending …
3/6-7 El Sueño (***)
4/17-18 El Sueño (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
5/23 TMC (*)
6/12-13 SB (***) OR
6/19-20 El Sueño (***)
6/27 TMC (*)
7/3-4 Burbank (***) OR
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
7/25 TMC (*)
8/14-15 RAAC (Q) (***)
8/29 TMC (*)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
2021 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2nd Level Qualifying
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 60.610% Bhathal
2nd Level Qualifying
5 Scores/4 Judges/61%:
Stuff I Read