From Endurance to Dressage
I started this space back in February of 2011, nearly twelve years ago. I know there is at least one person out there who remembers my very first post, but I don't know if she reads anymore. We're still friends, and since those early days, I've made a lot of new friends because of this space.
Back then, my web address was the same, but the blog was simply called Karen's Dressage Blog. I couldn't think of an actual title, and it didn't matter anyway as I never in a million years thought I'd still be writing more than a decade later. Back then, I posted seven days a week. I am not sure when I switched to a Monday through Friday format, but it was probably seven or eight years ago.
After several years, I realized Karen's Dressage Blog was more of a place holder than a title, so I sat down to choose a name that embodied my experiences with horses in general and dressage in particular. Speedy's name has always been a bit of a tongue in cheek name - his dam was named G Im Fast and her sire was named Fast Ptrack. Speedy was my new endurance horse, so the name Speedy G stuck, especially since he wasn't very fast. At all.
Nothing about my dressage journey has been speedy. It took me ten years to earn a USDF Bronze Medal, and Izzy and I have been at this for eight years, and we still don't have scores that would qualify us for anything. While the name is appropriate to our pace of learning, the inevitable meaning of "not-so-Speedy" was not lost on me. I knew that eventually, this space would not include Speedy. Fortunately, Speedy's transition from star-of-the show to supporting character has been slow and gradual. He hasn't died in some freak accident or acute illness. He's still with me even though we don't do much together anymore.
Over the weekend, I pulled him out for a grooming session. I conditioned his mane, tail, and forelock before gently combing them all out. I gave his coat a quick curry - he was actually pretty clean, and then brushed his hair smooth. The entire time he nudged my hands and pockets looking for treats; I will forever be his human Pez dispenser. The next day, I turned him out to graze in the alley in front of his paddock, but when I came back an hour or so later, he had put himself away. If he had had thumbs, he would have closed the gate and clipped the chain on.
He's not nearly so excitable these days, but he does have his moments. On Sunday, I laughed particularly hard at his crotchety old man expression as he followed me while I carried his lunch bucket. He plodded along behind me with his ears flat back as if to warn anyone watching that that bucket was his and his girl had better hurry the hell up.
So here we are. My journey has not picked up its pace, and Speedy doesn't make nearly as many appearances here as he used to. I think the name will be relevant for as many years as I continue to write and post.
Not-So-Speedy Dressage remains true on many levels.
I have been faithfully watching, or at least watching in fast forward, the video I record every Sunday morning. While I was watching the video from the Sunday before last, I actually hit pause and then watched it at regular speed. Who was this gorgeous horse and rider? - less emphasis on the rider. It finally hit me that Izzy is becoming a very nice horse.
A year or two back, Barbi Breen- Gurley, a trainer from the coast with whom I rode with at a clinic, reminded me to go of who my horse used to be. For a long time, I referred to him as a green bean long after he was truly broke. For a long time after that, I referred to him as a very difficult horse. Lately, I've taken to referring to Izzy as complicated, but recently, Izzy's chiropractor refuted that moniker and claimed that Izzy's pretty simple: ride him correctly, and he'll perform.
Of course, believing that is hard to do when you're carrying around eight years worth of bolting, hollowed back, rearing, and spinning memories. This most recent video though showed me a really pretty horse with a lot of talent. Izzy is still not easy, and most likely never will be. That doesn't change the fact that I have a very nice horse that's just not everyone's cup of tea. Neither is Verdades. Remember how many people didn't want him? Laura Graves couldn't give him away way back when.
Each winter I am hopeful that we'll go to that first spring show with the horse I ride at home. We may never get to that point, but I am feeling ever more hopeful about this spring. Izzy is performing downright beautifully for me this past month or two - most of the time. He's still Izzy after all.
So ... no more green bean, difficult, or complicated. Meet my new, nice horse.
Lately, I've been hooked on Mike Rowe's podcast, The Way I Heard It. His guests are from all walks of life and cover the political spectrum. Yesterday, I finished episode number 251, "You Wear 40 pounds of Gear Because, You know, You're on Fire Quite a Bit." Rowe's guest was three-time NHRA Funny Car champion Matt Hagan, who not only drag races, but is a rancher and farmer.
As you probably know, one of the topics near and dear to Rowe's heart is work ethic and dirty jobs. Rowe's foundation grants scholarships to individuals who are looking for a career in what he calls, The Trades - welding, electrical, plumbing - basically any kind of job that requires you to get your hands dirty. As a horse girl myself, I have great respect for people who aren't afraid to get dirty and who have a solid work ethic. To this day I can't sit on my butt watching someone else work. My parents raised me to offer a hand whether it is asked for or not.
That's neither here nor there though. The point that I was trying to make is that this particular episode really resonated with me, and maybe that's because of how we did at this Sunday's show. Which, if you didn't read the last two days' posts (here and here), was not good at all. Mike Hagan, the guest, was talking about how important the mental game is in sports, not just racing. In Funny cars, the driver covers 1,000 linear feet at over 300 miles per hour. Hagan pointed out that if your mental game is not razor sharp (my words not his), you won't just not win, you're very likely to wreck and die.
Hagan went on to explain that he has worked so hard on his mental game that he now sees that 1,000 foot track come at him in slow motion. He described it as letting the track come to him. In the seconds that he runs his race, he is able to make numerous corrections as he pilots his rocket to the finish line. As he shared this, Rowe jumped in and compared it to something his mentor had taught him: What Not How.
I actually hit pause on the podcast when I heard those words. Wow, is that ever applicable to dressage. In fact, it's exactly what Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has been preaching for the past year and a half; scores don't matter; that's how I am doing. What I do in the saddle is what matters. How am I doing? is the wrong question to be asking. Instead, by focusing on what I am doing, the how will take care of itself.
Yesterday, I called it being lackadaisical, but now I see that's not it at all. It's not that I've grown careless, it's that I care a lot more about what I am doing than how I am doing. Maybe that's why the judge's score of 4.5 for my effective use of the aids smarted so much. It felt like a slap in the face when I was deliberately and consciously working so hard at being effective. I wasn't riding for a score; I was riding the horse I had at that particular moment, and what he needed was to feel safe, secure, and reassured. That's what I gave him.
Those moments are difficult to see in the video, but numerous times I reached down to pat Izzy. I also made the decision to ride conservatively which the judge thought was back to front riding. If this horse isn't slowed down when he's pushing against me, he gets even more anxious as he feels the loss of his own balance. Letting him "move out" doesn't ease the tension; it only exacerbates it. Sean's solution is to move him sideways and do lots of bending lines which allows the circle to slow him down without needing to use the hand. Unfortunately, in the middle of a test, it's not exactly appropriate to circle when I feel tension. That means it's probably going to come from the hand.
For maybe the first time ever, I didn't look around at everyone else and think that I was the worst rider out there. That's a monkey that took a long time to be rid of. I have always worried so much about whether I fit in and whether I am good enough. For this show, it never crossed my mind that I shouldn't be there. Instead, I kept thinking about the what of what I was doing. Was I using my aids effectively? Was my inside leg pushing Izzy to my outside hand? Was I keeping him even between my aids? Was he on my outside rein?
For every stride of the schooling ride, the warm up (all 8 minutes of it), and the test itself, I kept up a running commentary that had nothing to do with negative self-talk. I didn't criticize myself, and I didn't compare myself to anyone else. I just focused on the job at hand. In Matt Hagan's world, that means making adjustments for every inch his car travels. For Mike Rowe that meant singing and not wondering if the audience liked it (he was an opera singer in case you didn't know). For me, that meant using every tool that Sean has given me in order to keep Izzy in the conversation. Despite the score, I know that I was successful. What Not How is a new tool that I'll be bringing out every day.
And yet again, onward we go.
Some of you have been here with me from the very beginning, and some of you may have dropped in for your first visit today. If you've been around awhile, you already know about my successes - mostly with Speedy, and my failures - mostly with Izzy. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about my journey with Izzy and how in most ways, it's wildly unlike my journey with Speedy.
As a quick recap ...
After more than 15 years as an endurance rider, I started dabbling in dressage taking lessons here and there while still competing in endurance races. In 2010, after losing my number one endurance mare, I left the endurance world completely and became a dressage rider. Not thinking it would become my new passion, I started out on my endurance Arabian, Speedy G. After ten long years, I earned my USDF Bronze Medal, having earned all of my scores on Speedy. That was two years ago in 2020.
At the very next show, Speedy performed well, but once we got home, he came up lame on his left hind. Several chiropractic and vet visits later, it was revealed that Speedy's left hock was well on its way to fusing. Both my regular vet and the referral vet felt that it was unlikely he could (or should) continue up the levels. I immediately retired him from regular schooling rides and competition. He didn't owe me another thing. Since then, he has spent the past two years very happily being used as an occasional lesson horse. He has excelled at being a schoolmaster.
With Speedy's retirement, Izzy became my main focus. Somehow, I sort of thought I could just take my goals and dreams and carry right on with the big brown horse. I had been riding him for six years, schooling nearly the same things on him as I did with Speedy. Sure, things were rough around the edges, but with all of my focus solely on him, I thought that surely we'd be up to speed in no time. Boy, was I wrong.
In March of 2021, I started riding with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. A year and a half later, I finally feel as though we are climbing out of a very deep hole. Sean has taught me a whole different way to ride this horse, and things are getting better and better. Now that our ridess are no longer about not dying, I am finally back on the regular struggle bus. You know the one - my changes are late, my half pass doesn't have enough thrust, the medium trot needs more reach ... you know, dressage type stuff.
I actually laughed during Saturday's lesson when I said something similar to Sean. I think I said something about how my homework would be to work on travers in canter down the long side and didn't Sean remember how not that long ago we couldn't even canter politely down the long side. Sean laughed and said he could remember when Izzy couldn't canter the long side without freaking out every which way. The point was that a wonky canter travers was a good problem to have. Needing more reach or having exuberant flying changes means that we're actually schooling "the stuff" as opposed to just trying to stay in the ring.
So here I am again. It's slightly disappointing to realize that having a bronze medal doesn't mean diddly squat. Just because I know how to do a flying change, it doesn't mean I am entitled to have an easier go of it on dressage horse number two. Just because I know how to ask for an extended trot, it doesn't mean that horse number two feels balanced or confident enough to give it to me. There is no room for entitlement in dressage. If you want something, you're going to have to earn it. Doing it once doesn't mean you're entitled to a freebie the second time or even the third time around.
As they say, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Last week, while listening to Mike Rowe's podcast, The Way I Heard It (which is fascinating by the way), his guest made a comment that really made me stop and think. The guest, George 'Tyrus' Murdoch, is a regular on Fox News's late night program, Gutfeld. To be honest, I had never heard of Murdoch, I don't know who Gutfeld is, and I can't stay awake long enough to watch anything classified as "late night TV." It doesn't matter though because I enjoy listening to all kinds of points of view, especially so when they're expressed with logic and respect.
Anyway, what Murdoch said was this (and I am paraphrasing): Essentially, there are two kinds of people. The first are those who look outside of themselves for the cause of their hardships or the reason why things happen to them. They also look outside of themselves for solutions. The second type of persons looks within to understand how their own behavior has brought them to the point of wherever they may find themselves. They also look inward to make changes in an effort to change their circumstances. Guess which one I am?
I don't think one is better than the other. I am clearly one of those people who looks inward to figure out what I am doing wrong to cause whatever situation I find myself in. If something is going wrong, it is obviously my fault, and this is especially true when it comes to riding. If one of my horses isn't doing what I am asking, the fault always lies with me. I am not asking in the right way, my aids are unclear, my tension is getting in the way, and on and on.
The great thing about this way of viewing the world is that the solution can also be found within. If I make a change in the way I am riding, if I become better educated, if I seek heIp ... I have the power to fix things. There are pitfalls in living with this point of view though. If everything is my fault - Speedy's physical limitations come to mind, I will continue to look for a solution even if there isn't one. Speedy is one in a million, but even Charlotte Dujardin wouldn't be able to score a 90% on him.
Izzy is full of talent, but he also likes to be in charge even when he has no idea what the hell he is doing. It is difficult for me to admit that sometimes, I am doing all that can be done. During my lesson on Saturday - more on that tomorrow, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, pointed out that in the particular instance of what we were talking about, I was already doing everything right; I just need to be patient. If I keep doing what I am doing, Izzy will get there.
I can't change which type of person I am, and even if I could, I wouldn't want to. Looking to myself for solutions means I have an excellent work ethic. It also allows me to get things done because as we all know, if you want something done right, do it yourself. I don't have to reply on a trainer to fix something. I don't have to wait until my horse matures. I don't have to wait on anyone or anything. If I want something to change, I simply have to take a long look at myself and ask, how can I do this better? And while it might not happen tomorrow, as long as it is possible - I am not making it to the Olympics no matter how hard I work, I can make it happen eventually.
That's an empowering way to live.
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
*** SCEC 10/15-16/22
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
(***) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 62.115%