From Endurance to Dressage
Wednesdays have become "S's" lesson day. It works out for me since by the middle of the week I am usually ready to give Izzy a day off. Last week was tough though as I had to solve a week-long crisis which meant I didn't get to ride. Teaching S helped me forget about life for a minute, so it was worth it.
So far, we've been working on building S's leg and core strength. Sustained trotting is still hard work for her, but I've seen tremendous progress in the month or so that she's been riding Speedy. She has also been able to canter on both leads. Each time she comes out to ride, I appreciate Speedy even more. That horse has the most generous nature. He never gives her more than she can handle.
In true schoolmaster fashion, he doesn't do anything that she hasn't asked for. He doesn't spook or bolt, and he will only trot if she really wants it. For this lesson, I had S work on her mental commitment. I think she has had a small amount of fear which Speedy has obviously picked up on. She has to really insist that he trot or canter, or he simply won't. For this lesson, I encouraged her to ask for the trot by simply shouting in her head, TROT!
I knew that Speedy would feel that intensity, and I hoped that her body would sense the empowerment that comes from a strong shout. It worked. The power that it takes to shout, if only internally, gave S's body the confidence that she needed. As we all know, success breeds success. I had her do trot to walk to trot transitions over and over so that she could begin to feel a sense of confidence.
Throughout the lesson, S kept worrying that the lesson was boring for me, and she expressed her gratitude for my patience. My response was always the same. I don't care if she walks or trots or does passage. It's not about me; it's about her journey. Who cares how long it takes?
Knowing that her confidence is just beginning to build,I wanted to make sure she cantered again for this lesson. As in the trot, she continued to have trouble getting Speedy to lift into the canter. Instead of cantering, he just began to trot faster and faster. Since I wasn't sure why, we came back to walk and discussed it. S explained that it was making her tired trying to ride through that faster trot. Oh! That explained a lot.
What I had not thought to say was take your time. How many times has a trainer said that to me? Getting the transition is not important. What really matters is getting a good transition which means not rushing into it. When we started again, I made sure to watch and tell S to slow back down when Speedy started to get quicker. We don't want to chase him into the canter. I told her to take her time, slow him down, rebalance, and ask again. I also reminded her to use the outside rein.
I've taught Speedy to canter with my inside leg at the girth, outside leg back, a scoop with my seat, and a little outside rein that says sit and push with your outside leg. Once S knew that she could take her time, Speedy transitioned into a lovely, collected canter that S was able to ride. As they cantered, I encouraged her to try to go with Speedy's movement and enjoy the moment. Cantering a forward thinking horse can feel like flying, especially when the horse is as well behaved as Speedy.
It was a great lesson for me because I was reminded that taking your time gets you much farther in the end.
Each time one of Speedy's ladies comes out for a lesson, I try to think of something new to teach them. While I feel like I am running out of material, it seems that once someone is riding, a new exercise occurs to me. When "J" came out over the weekend, Speedy wanted to be stuck behind J's leg, so we started off with walk-trot transitions.
Walk-trot transitions can get a horse more forward thinking, especially if they're done quickly. In Speedy's case, I had J count down to a walk ... 3, 2, 1 walk. As soon as Speedy took one walk stride, I had her put her leg on, hard if necessary, to have Speedy bounce back into the trot. I had her repeat the transition every five or six strides. Within a few minutes, Speedy was more in front of her leg and ready to work.
Once Speedy was awake and willing to work, I thought about how to take that idea of the walk/trot transition and make it useful. I decided that J could benefit from working on centerline halts. The pattern I wanted her to ride was this: enter at A, halt at X, proceed working trot, at C track right/left, show a tiny bit of trot lengthening down the long side, turn up the centerline, halt at X. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Partway through the first loop, I could see that the walk/trot transitions were less of a problem than was the steering. While J does a great job of keeping a 20-meter circle round, she was suddenly faced with 10-meter half circles followed by straightness. Trotting down centerline and tracking right or left feels so basic to anyone who has shown a dressage test, but once you see it attempted for the first time, you realize how much preparation those basic movements take.
When J halted at X, I had her stop so we could talk about what aids she would need to apply. Essentially, she needed to start planning for the 10-meter half circle long before she got there. Same thing with the halt at X. Once she had it in her mind what she needed to do, I had her start again. It took her a few loops before she started to feel the rhythm, but she improved each time she halted at X.
Each time I give a lesson, I learn something. Sometimes I walk away with a better appreciation for how difficult dressage really is. For every lesson, I am challenged to articulate the how and the why. If I can't explain it, it reveals a hole in my own foundation. Teaching a concept often makes it clearer for me, so it's not uncommon for me to use the lesson I've taught as inspiration for my next ride on Izzy. I don't think any rider can review the "basics" too often. We all need to keep our horses in front of our leg and able to steer.
We all know that the stronger the foundation is, the higher you can build.
On Friday evening, as I was riding Izzy, I felt a subtle, but important shift in my thinking. I understand what is meant by a steady tempo, but I realized I haven't really been trying to achieve one. For so long, riding Izzy has been about getting his back to loosen up so that I could get a longer stride. What I've been doing is getting the longer stride and then asking for more, and then more, and then even MORE. I am always pushing which keeps the tempo changing.
Over the past few weeks, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has been urging me to get a steady tempo. As I was riding on Friday evening, I wasn't really interested in doing a whole lot, so I asked Izzy to just go long and low. He kept asking for a quicker tempo. I kept saying no. Suddenly, I started to connect some dots. It is only with a steady tempo that Izzy can begin to get a longer stride that is balanced. Sean has been instructing me to ask Izzy small questions like can you lengthen just a little bit, can you collect just a little bit? Now I get why asking for just a little bit is so important with this horse. When I ask for too much, he loses the tempo and his balance.
I didn't get to this realization all by myself though. In my case, it truly does take a village. On Wednesday, "S" came out for a lesson. She didn't tell me until we were all finished, but a few days prior, she had had to bail off when the horse she was riding got a bit crow hoppy while gearing up for a runaway. We've all faced that decision: do I ride it out, or do I bail early? I've done both. In S's case, she chose to bail off.
When S was out with me the week before, she had been able to keep Speedy trotting with forward thinking energy. She had him moving so nicely that I asked if she were ready to canter. She said no, but assured me she would be ready the next time. For this lesson, she could not keep Speedy trotting, and in fact, after a single 20-meter circle, she needed a break. I knew that something was different, so I just kept encouraging S to keep working at it. In retrospect, I think there was some fear riding along with her.
Like most conscientious riders will do, S kept apologizing for bouncing around on Speedy's back. I assured her that he knows his job very well and is happy to be working. After shortening her stirrups, and after realizing that Speedy wasn't going to do anything sudden, S started to relax. I had her look up and to where she was heading, and before S knew it, she was trotting circle after circle without the need to rest and rebalance.
After the lesson, I sat down to thumb through the quick photos that I had taken. The photos showed Speedy with a very short stride until S began to relax and allow him to move forward. That visual helped me understand that when Izzy maintains a steady tempo, his stride will naturally lengthen as well. I don't need to constantly push for it. Like I said, it takes a village.
While I no doubt hold some tension in my body, that's not really what's keeping Izzy from relaxing. He has plenty of tension to spare. I think it is going to make a big difference though if I keep the tempo steady while only asking for a tiny bit more. It doesn't need to be for very long, just a few strides. Sean has mentioned Izzy's balance a number of times. As Izzy gains more confidence and becomes better balanced, he will be able to hold the bigger stride for longer periods of time.
As for S, once she was confidently trotting the 20-meter circle, I talked her through the cues for a canter. I made sure that she asked for the canter as Speedy approached the corner. I wanted to make sure that if something were to go sideways, she would already have him bent which makes a horse easier to stop. It took a few tries before she got her aids organized, but once she did, Speedy stepped into a very polite canter with a slow and steady tempo. By the time S tried it on the other lead, the right, it took her only one ask to get Speedy to canter.
I am sure my jumping up and down while cheering looked ridiculous, but I was so proud of them both. Dressage is hard. It's hard when you're a grand prix rider, and it's just as hard at Intro. It's hard when your body is tense, Izzy - I am looking at YOU!, and it's hard when you don't have all the answers.
I don't have all the answers, but right now, that answer is steady tempo.
Until she disappeared, I followed The Dressage Curmudgeon pretty closely. She's definitely curmudgeonly, which, if you're not familiar with the word, means bad tempered and negative. I like to think that in real life she's friendly and not so caustic, but who knows? In any case, I remember one part of one blog post she wrote because I was terrified that she was talking about me. I can't remember anything about the post other than her writing something about talentless, middle-aged adult amateurs who persist in sticking to their safe little 20-meter circles. Ouch.
Why that bothered me, I'll never know, but it did. The stupid thing is that 20-meter circles are a fact of life, and while you should probably do more than just ride around and around, there is nothing in fact wrong with a 20-meter circle. Her post inspired me to seek out ways to vary the 20-meter circle such as doing them at different letters and including frequent changes of directions. The title of this post is Circles because that's what I wanted to talk about. Not just 20-meter circles though, but 15-meter, 10-meter, and even half circles.
On Monday afternoon, "T" came over to ride Speedy. The last time she had ridden, we worked on riding squares which are certainly more challenging than circles, but both are very useful. Squares are helpful for learning to ride smaller circles. Squares require the rider to utilize the outside rein, and the horse to collect for just a stride or two. In a smaller circle, the rider needs better control of the outside aids which can be learned by riding a square.
As T warmed up, I had her think about turning Speedy with her outside leg. Could she use her inside seat bone and inside leg to get some bend while turning from the outside leg? Could she affect a change of direction? Could she do it all rein-free? The point wasn't to ride bridleless, but the better you are with your seat and legs, the less rein you need. (I've always been a fan of Julie Goodnight; she's thoughtful and down to earth in her advice.)
After a warm up at both the walk and trot, I explained how riding the square can be connected to riding smaller circles. An exercise that I like to do is to ride 20-meter circles at A, B, C, and E with a change of direction across the diagonal with another set of 20-meter circles at A, E, C, and B. Alternately, I like to do 15-meter circles at those four points. That's what I had T do, and once she had Speedy moving in a very consistent tempo, I had her ride 10-meter circles at A, P, R, C, S and V with a change of direction to do it on the other rein.
After a short walk break, I had her pick up a canter and do 20-meter circles at A, E, C, and B with a change of lead through trot across the diagonal so that she could repeat the exercise on the opposite lead. While this might sound boring, for a rider exploring the dressage basics, it's a lot to keep track of. By the time T had ridden each of the patterns, she was sweaty and breathing hard. For an anxious horse or tense horse like Izzy, I find that the repetition of the pattern soothes him a bit and keeps him from getting stuck or hanging on one rein.
For a horse like Speedy, these exercises are relaxing and make him feel quite successful. Never once did he do anything except go where T pointed him. His complete confidence in his own ability to do his job makes it so much easier for his rider to adjust her own position and aids without worrying about upsetting him.
I continue to be grateful to Speedy's ladies. He is living his best life right now because of them. He gets to stay active and engaged without having to do the harder work from Third and Fourth Level. He feels loved, successful, and valued. I think I may love him more in his semi-retirement than I did when he was my main ride.
Speaking of circles, I don't think Speedy minds circling back to the beginning...
Do you remember the first time you learned to trot? I have very vague memories of trotting on my grandma's gray mare, Sissy. My grandma gave riding lessons, and while I didn't get to take them for long - traveling across Sacramento each weekend was a bit too much for my single mom, I do remember how much I loved it. I couldn't have been but eight or nine years old.
Even though I've owned and ridden horses all my life, I didn't take riding lessons again until I was in my late 30s or early 40s. I've ridden thousands and thousands of endurance miles, nearly all of them at the trot, but it wasn't until I started taking dressage lessons that I learned to do a "correct" rising trot. Before then, I just learned to hover. And while I could post the trot, I didn't know which diagonal was the right one or even how to switch from one to the other.
A correct rising trot, or posting, is pretty essential for a dressage rider. I remember many lessons where that was pretty much all I could work on. Even though I had trotted down thousands of miles of trails, keeping my balance on a twenty-meter circle was like trying to walk on a waterbed. Besides keeping my own balance, I had to teach my young horse how to keep his. I knew that green on green wasn't the best combination, but it was what I had, and I decided that while not ideal, I still wanted to try.
Speedy is no longer that green bean. In fact, he somehow become a pretty solid schoolmaster. Each time I give one of his ladies a lesson, I am even more amazed at his generous heart and willingness to show someone the ropes. On Wednesday, that someone was "S." S had been out twice before for lessons, but since Speedy was still working on his latest abscess, we only worked at the walk. Speedy was happy for the exercise, and it gave S an opportunity to get her toes wet.
Speedy is finally sound again, so when S came out, I told her that Speedy was ready to take her to the next step. For two weeks we had worked at steering while at the walk and making sure that Speedy was listening to her leg. We had also worked on getting what I like to call a "smarter walk" - a walk with purpose and intent. It was time to finally start the trot work.
I don't know S at all; we've only met four times. She has ridden, but dressage is very different from trail rides on the beach or along a mountain trail. I explained to S that trail horses don't really need to be told where to go; they either follow the butt in front of them, or they keep their eyes on the trail. In an arena, the horse has no idea where to go, so it is up to the rider to tell the horse where to go, as well as in what gait and how fast or slow.
To those of us that have been riding in the arena for at least a month or so, that sounds ridiculously easy, but if you stop and really think back to when you started trotting, you'll no doubt remember riding what felt like a drunk partner. As your balance shifted from side to side and even forward or backward, your horse no doubt drifted along weaving drunkenly from one long side to the other.
The first difficulty S had was getting Speedy to trot, and once she did, she had to keep him trotting. Speedy's reluctance made me love him even more. I explained to S that he could sense her hesitancy to trot. If she wanted to trot, she needed to think TROT, and then she needed to reinforce her polite ask with a firmer MOVE IT! if needed. Once she felt as though she had permission to cowgirl up and thump Speedy with her heels, he saluted, and gave her a yes ma'am.
For a few rounds, Speedy weaved back and forth not quite sure what she wanted, but then he figured it out. I could almost see the speech bubble pop up over his head. Oh, you want me to just trot around the circle, maintaining a steady tempo so you can get your balance. Why didn't you say so? I got this.
For the rest of the lesson, that's exactly what he did. It almost didn't matter what S wanted. He just kept his nose down and let her sort it out on top. In fact, when she needed a walk break, she almost couldn't get him to walk. I explained that he wasn't intentionally ignoring her. Instead, he thought he was helping. Once she understood, she was firmer with her aids and insisted that he wait for the signal to trot again.
I love this horse to infinity and beyond. The day before, he had been a bit spicy for T, who has been riding him much longer than S. When it came time to do his job on Wednesday, he took stock of who was on him and did just what she needed. S was worried that her perceived bouncing around and loss of balance were going to negatively affect Speedy. I told her that was not even an issue. Not only does Speedy understand his new job, but he loves it! Once he understood that all S needed was for him to trot that circle, he did it without altering his tempo or even lifting up his head. It was the best non-lunge line lunge lesson I could have given.
Teaching others to ride has definitely given me a whole new appreciation for trainers. What a challenging job they have. As a classroom teacher, I know how difficult it is to teach a concept. The difference is that I only have to teach the child(ren) in front of me and not them plus the pet frog in their pocket. Horse/people trainers have to teach the horse and the rider at the same time. If I haven't said thank you to a trainer recently, THANK YOU!
As I've said many times, no matter your level of experience, it's all just walk, trot, and canter.
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 …
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 (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
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