From Endurance to Dressage
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage sent out an email mid-week last week canceling all lessons at his barn due to rain. Knowing that we don't get nearly as much rain as he does, he told me to keep him posted about my own footing. It was supposed to rain off and on all last Friday night which meant I wouldn't really know about the footing unless I drove out there at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning. I texted him to cancel. I didn't care whether the footing was good or not. I didn't want a lesson.
That's just so unlike me. I am all in all the time. Lately though, as I've already described, lessons have begun to feel like a chore. They're not fun, and I am not feeling energized and motivated by them. I should add that it's not Sean's fault. It's not like he has turned into a jerk over the past month; it's me. I've been putting so much pressure on both Izzy and myself to IMPROVE ALL THE TIME that I am exhausted and not feeling very kindly toward the sport.
Being middle-aged has its advantages. One of which is a certain amount of wisdom as a result of experience and age. I no longer let myself get so far off into the deep end before I start looking for a life preserver. Instead, I start to evaluate which way the tide is going, and I start paddling for shore. While I might have felt a twinge of guilt about canceling the lesson, I knew I had my best interests at heart. I did ride on Saturday, later in the day, but I took Sunday off. Of course it rained off and on all day, so I didn't feel guilty, but it was a nice break from the monotony of having to ride and "succeed."
This week my rides have been a lot less goal oriented. I am riding the horse I have rather than the one I think I should have. We've schooled the flying changes and gotten them. We've schooled the flying changes and not gotten them. I didn't care. I just went on to something else and focused on creating a better connection with my horse. I (mostly) blocked out my inner critic and tried to stay in the moment. It definitely helped. I am supposed to have a lesson in the morning, but I cancelled it and the next three. I talked to Sean last night about cancelling my weekly lessons until the new year. He understood and even said that sometimes a break can be the way to move forward,
I already feel better.
After competing in the sport of endurance for more than sixteen years, I eventually reached burnout. Doing training rides every single weekend, month after month, year after year, finally became something I dreaded. I never went to parties, showers, shopping dates, or anything else that happened on a weekend. Nothing was more important than riding my horse.
Besides all of the conditioning miles we rode, every endurance rider copes with a ton of stress. Endurance rides are hard on horses; so many things can go wrong. Besides the obvious things like trailering accidents and pasture mishaps, endurance horses compete right on the knife's edge every time they tackle a 50 or 100-miler. Colics are a concern, but so are torn tendons, strained ligaments, damaged kidneys, popped splints, tying-up, and regular wounds. Crossing the finish line wasn't enough; your horse had to be fit to continue to get a completion, and then there was the drive back home where the strain of travel might induce a colic or a mystery lameness. For most endurance riders, a horse's health is always the priority - even over a completion, but that responsibility is a heavy weight when you are running at speed over long distances. No one takes it lightly.
Eventually, I just got tired of it. Near the end of my endurance days, I started taking dressage lessons. I had fun, my horse didn't get beat up, and no one almost died. When it came time to renew my membership to the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC), I let the renewal date pass by and instead, I joined the California Dressage Society (CDS).
I started my dressage journey way back in 2010, more than twelve years ago. I am starting to feel that same sense of burn out that I felt while doing conditioning rides. Just like in my endurance days, I spend every single Saturday morning doing a lesson. It has begun to feel like a grind. What makes it worse is that my work-to-reward ratio is way out of whack. I put in a massive amount of work and get no tangible rewards. Nothing that I can look at to prove to myself that the work I am putting in is worth it; that the experiences I miss out on are worth missing. There are plenty of adages that express that lack of balance: all work and no play make Jack a dull boy comes to mind. It's not a good place to be in.
I am looking at solutions. Time off or a change of the view I see between my horse's ears are among the possibilities. When I left the endurance world, it started with a break that turned into forever, but with no regrets. I don't know if I am there yet with dressage, but it's something to consider.
I don't think it will happen this week, but I am leaving myself open to whatever possibilities arise.
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.
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%: