From Endurance to Dressage
"J" came down on Sunday this weekend instead of her regular Saturday. Like always, I tried to think of something to work on that we haven't necessarily tried before. It occurred to me that J was probably ready to play around with a bit of lengthening in the trot.
I love working with J. She's a very receptive student, and she trusts me implicitly. I am not sure I deserve quite that much trust, but since I have it, I treat it with incredible respect. I want to challenge her while never causing her to feel inept or inadequate. As we neared the end of the lesson, my heart just about burst with happiness when I saw a huge grin plastered across her face. She had felt what I was hoping she'd feel. Getting those new feelings is like a drug, and once you've had a bit of it, you're hooked and always looking for your next fix.
Over the past eight or nine months, J has learned a lot. Early on, her center of gravity was too high as she fought her hunter roots, and her aids weren't "dressage" aids. In a lot of ways, she was a "beginner." Most of us know what that feels like. Even though I could ride a horse 100 miles in a single day, riding for 30 minutes in a dressage saddle seemed like a task I'd never be able to do. I was a beginner in every way.
Over the summer, J's skills as a dressage rider have grown tremendously. She is sitting up and back in the saddle - goodbye hunter seat, her legs have lengthened, and she's beginning to self-monitor and correct herself when she feels her position becoming unbalanced. I thought it was time she learn to ride Speedy's bigger trot.
Explaining to someone else how to get Speedy to sit and really push off into a medium trot took a lot more words than I thought. After a not-so-short explanation of what the extended gaits are, I told J that we would just work on feeling a bit of a lengthened trot. I describe what feeling she was looking for: a bouncy trot that goes up that becomes a bouncy trot that goes forward. I explained that it will feel a bit floaty but not quicker.
Speedy hasn't done any extended work in more than a year. He really hasn't done anything from First Level either. All of the work that he's done has been from intro or Training Level. He's pretty well educated though, so I knew he'd give her the right feeling if she put him together correctly. To do that, I had her do a lot of transitions within the gait first.
It didn't take Speedy long to figure out what he was being asked to do. Powering across the diagonal was always one of his strengths, and in a test, I knew that was one place we could make up points. To help J feel the difference in Speedy's length of stride, I had her stay on the circle so that she could use the circle for balance and control. Once she was able to feel Speedy bounce in the trot, I had her ride the corner with the idea that she was coiling him up for a launch. Their first attempt was a bit crooked and braced, but Speedy gave her a sense of being up in the air.
After that first try, J told me what she was going to do; she wanted to cross the diagonal K-X-M and then come back down the other diagonal H-X-F. That has never happened before. I am usually the one suggesting that she circle at B or canter at C. She had it in her mind exactly what she wanted to do. I told her to go for it but to remember to circle if he wasn't put together enough because he wouldn't be able to balance otherwise.
Go for it she did. I haven't seen Speedy look that happy in a while. Finally, he got to do something that he really likes that he also finds easy. It wasn't like Speedy gave her an extended or medium trot, but he did give her a lengthening which gave J the opportunity to feel a bigger gait. I can't say it enough: I LOVE this horse!
By the time she was finished, J was grinning from ear to ear. She's been hooked for a while, but I think that sealed the deal.
Each time that "J" comes down for a lesson on Speedy, I try to have some sort of a plan. On Saturday, I thought we could touch on the leg yield again. But, horses being horses and riders being who we are, a whole different lesson was had.
In the months that J has been riding with me, her position, her aids, and her confidence have grown dramatically. It still shocks me that I know enough to help someone else. I feel like such a struggling rider myself that it seems impossible that I know enough to share, but J's progress is proof that you don't have to be an expert in order to teach. My own 5th graders prove that every day.
As J was warming up, I sent her down the long side, ready to ask for some leg yields. Instead, she stopped and asked if we could raise her stirrups. My feeling on stirrup length is that you need to feel balanced. I'll raise and lower stirrups as many times as you'd like. After checking J's stirrups, I told her that they were both even. Instead of raising one - which wouldn't solve the problem, we worked on getting her legs even.
We all know how one leg can feel shorter. Sitting in a car or at your desk does nothing good for our riding position. Even tension can cause one leg to be shorter than the other. To help J lengthen her inside leg, I had her come back to a 20-meter circle. I told her to weight the inside leg. When I couldn't see it, I told her to stand up on the inside leg. Little by little, she was able to shift her weight to the inside leg.
As she worked, I could see that besides her thigh muscles being tight, there was also a twist in her seat. The inside right leg didn't want to stay at the girth. It wanted to go back while her outside leg was coming forward. All of this had the affect of keeping Speedy from getting round.
Since I am not a "trainer," I don't always know what's blocking the horse, but having the opportunity to practice on a live person is tremendously valuable. As J rode, I kept offering feedback. When we got it right, Speedy told us. While J couldn't always see the change she caused, I could see it immediately.
As J worked on her position, I acted as her mirror. Sit up, inside leg at the girth, bend your elbows, be elastic in your elbows (Sean Cunningham's favorite five words), breathe ... J's position got stronger and more balanced. As we had done the week before, we worked on transitions, but this time, J already knew to take the time she needed in the transition. Rather than let Speedy pop his head up, she told him no while insisting that he step up from his hind end.
Each transition got better than the one before. As she prepared to move into the trot to canter transitions, I told J to just sit up. Speedy rolled into the canter without any change to his tempo. J's face lit up, partly from joy, and I think, partly from an AHA moment. Without even knowing it, she had cued Speedy for the canter. I don't think she knew her aid could be almost invisible and still be so effective.
With this new feeling, I asked J to try to use a mental aid instead of overtly asking for the canter or the canter to trot. As I helped her get into position for the canter, I told her to merely think ... left lead canter. And there it was. Before trotting, I told her to sit on her outside seat bone, add a touch of outside rein, and exhale. And there was the trot.
I don't know who was more excited at the end of the lesson - J for having found a new understanding of her aids, or me for being able to recognize an issue of rider imbalance and then come up with a solution. J's ability to apply a "mental" aid with just come coaching from me speaks volumes about her willingness to learn.
Having someone to "practice on" is an amazing way to learn.
For the past six weeks, I've been taking Saturday morning lessons with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. Immediately after, I give "J" a lesson on Speedy. Working with Sean every week has definitely helped me not only as a rider - and oh, how it has helped me, but also as a "trainer."
Last week, my fifth grade students were working in small groups in Zoom Breakout Rooms; I am still teaching virtually. While I monitored the entire Zoom call and all of the Breakout rooms on my main computer, I joined one Breakout room by logging on with a different computer. This allowed me to both supervise and participate. I have one student that I needed to watch more closely, so this setup allowed me to monitor unobtrusively.
The whole point to telling you all of that was that it also gave me the opportunity to observe the other two kiddos in the group. What I observed was that one of those students is a kick ass teacher. She was modeling my own teaching style, and it tickled me pink to see her manage that group so effectively. As a classroom teacher, I know that a very effective way for kids to learn is to teach other kids. Peer tutoring allows kids the opportunity to teach what they know to a kid who may be shy about asking an adult for help. Kids helping kids creates a lot less pressure for everyone.
While I didn't realize it until this weekend, working with Sean right before working with J gives me the chance to show someone else what I've just learned. I obviously don't teach the same thing that Sean and I just worked on - Speedy's a different horse than Izzy, but I do take the ideas that Sean teaches me and apply them to what I am teaching J.
For the past two weeks, J has been trying to develop the feel for the leg yield. Rather than go over the same material a third week in a row, I decided to try to help her feel the hind legs in a different way. For the entire lesson, we did transitions, but we did very focused transitions. For each walk to trot to walk transition, I encouraged J to keep Speedy's top line round and steady; only his legs should change the rhythm. I wanted her to transition between gaits with no change to the tempo.
If you ride, you know how hard this is. Every time a horse loses his balance even just a bit, he'll likely speed up in en effort to catch up with his front end. I had J resist the urge to allow the transition if Speedy's head popped up or if he rushed. Once she could do the walk to trot to walk transitions without any change in the tempo, we moved on to the canter to trot to canter transition.
Speedy is well educated and has done many, many transitions over his lifetime, but he still needs a rider to help him balance. It took J a few tries before she finally "felt" the hurried steps from trot to canter, but eventually, she did feel them. As I continued to repeat, whoa, whoa, whoa, she began to feel when Speedy was getting quicker in the trot in the last few strides before the canter.
It is very, very gratifying to see how far she has progressed since starting with me earlier this year. I remember when getting a canter at all was a challenge. And now, just a few months later, we're fine turning her aids and focusing on more and more precision. Helping J is not as altruistic as you might think. The opportunity for peer coaching may be helping me more than it is helping her. Teaching several ladies the basics of dressage has taught me so very much.
I never think of trainers in terms of being peer coaches - they tend to know so much more than us, but maybe they, too, learn by teaching. Besides teaching J, I often find myself in a position to teach my colleagues, and they do the same for me, so it seems likely that trainers do learn as they teach.
Any trainers out there who want to share how they learn?
Progress was made, so that's a relief. I worried that I might get fired from my non-paying gig. It's not that "J" expects a whole lot, but I am sure she expects at least a smidgeon of competence.
Thankfully a few different riders and trainers reached out to me offering feedback and some tips for how to help a rider get the feel of the leg yield. Casandra Rabini of First Gem Dressage offered me some excellent advice. She suggested teaching a different exercise that offered a similar feel. For the leg yield, even spiraling in and out on a circle can give the rider a sense of what it takes to move the hind end.
Before J's lesson on Saturday, I decided to make sure I was teaching the leg yield correctly. Amelia Newcomb, who trains and shows in Ventura County, has a really great YouTube channel with videos that teach foundational skills. One video in particular grabbed my attention because it covered the exact issue I was having with J, common mistakes and corrections. Here's that video if you're interested.
When J came out on Saturday, I had a plan of attack. I didn't expect her to create perfect leg yields in 45 minutes, but I didn't want her to walk away without getting at least some of the feel for the movement. With that, I had her start with trot to nearly walk transitions (and back to trot). What I hoped to help her feel was Speedy's hind legs. I wanted her to feel the moment that his hind legs stopped trotting. For each transition, i wanted her to get him as close to walking as possible without actually walking.
This exercise was supposed to do two things. First, transitions help a horse carry more weight behind, and second, getting a better sense of the hind legs was something she needs for the leg yield. Once we worked through a few dozen transitions, I told her we were ready to tackle the leg yields again. I don't know who was more worried about it, J or me!
In Amelia's video, one exercise she showed was riding a square with a turn on the forehand. I had shown J turns on the forehand before, but putting them in a square was a brilliant idea because the horse is walking rather than just standing still. And for a leg yield, the horse will be moving. J very quickly grasped the turn on the forehand while walking. Applying it to the leg yield was a different matter.
I realized that there is no point in trying to do a leg yield from the trot if the rider can't get the hind legs to cross, so we spent the rest of the lesson walking. As we worked, J asked a lot of questions about her position, which forced me to keep my eyes equally on Speedy's and J's legs both. One things we realized was that J was squeezing which pushed her onto the outside seat bone which was making it impossible for Speedy to cross over. Another issue that kept cropping up was that j was trying to use her inside hand to influence the outside shoulder. That too, prevents the horse from crossing over with hind legs.
Eventually, J stopped and asked if she could plant her outside hand. YES! I screamed enthusiastically, and suddenly, they had the beginnings of a leg yield. The whole time I had been yelling HALF HALT with the outside rein; J finally figured out that her outside hand wasn't doing anything. Planting the outside hand isn't a long term solution, but for the short term, it caught Speedy's shoulder, preventing it from falling out which gave his hind end time to cross over.
While J never got a true leg yield, she got a few steps in a row where Speedy's body was straight and both pairs of legs were crossing over. I erupted with YES! YES! YES! every time. The challenge was that it's easier to yell more haunches, but more correct to say, catch the shoulder. I can't say that J finally developed a feel for the leg yield, but I am certain she has a better understanding of it.
Like everything else, it's just another step in the right direction, and it is a very good thing that Speedy is a saint!
I am asking, not telling. "J" has been riding Speedy weekly since last winter. There was a lot she needed to learn, so I was able to avoid working on the leg yield until now.
Last Saturday, after she warmed Speedy up, I stepped in and helped her understand why he was so heavy in her hand. It is amazing how much someone on the ground can see. When I ride, I try a variety of fixes for whatever the issue is, but without mirrors or someone telling me what they see, it really can be a guessing game.
As clear as day, I could see that J was asking Speedy to be rounder in front, but since his back was hollow and his legs were nowhere in the picture, he simply couldn't carry himself. To fix it, I had her do a dozen or more walk to trot transitions where she kept his hind end marching smartly from the walk to the trot to the walk again. In just minutes, Speedy was stepping under with his hind legs, and as a result he got light in J's hand. I only wish I could "fix" all of Izzy's problems so easily.
With Speedy thinking "forward" and traveling well balanced in J's hand, I told her it was time to try the leg yields. In education, we use a technique called "front loading." It's one of those seeing the forest so you can later see the trees type of ideas. When a student gets a sense of the overall plan, sometimes that helps her see the purpose. With that in mind, I explained the aids of the leg yield and demonstrated the movement while walking on the ground.
To make it easier, I had J leg yield from the quarter line to the rail at B. She and Speedy did it perfectly on the first try. Then I asked for a leg yield from the quarter line to P. Again, Speedy made it to the rail without any fuss. Since that went so well, I instructed her to leg yield from the centerline to M, and that's when the wheels fell off the bus.
The leg yield is the first thing I have tried to teach that just didn't go well. It doesn't help that Speedy hates lateral work. And when I say hates it, I mean he really hates it. No matter how many ways I tried to explain that the leg yield is a movement that goes more sideways than forward, J just couldn't get Speedy's hind end to move. Each time she tried, Speedy just rode the line diagonally with his haunches trailing.
We tried it from the walk. We tried it with me walking alongside tapping with the whip when Speedy didn't respond to her leg. We tried doing turns on the forehand so that J could see how much outside rein she needed to prevent Speedy from plowing forward instead of sideways. I even tried walking alongside using the outside rein for her. I yelled MORE LEG. MORE REIN. NOPE NOPE NOPE. START AGAIN. Nothing helped.
In the end, me yelling it more loudly was about as effective as speaking loudly to someone who doesn't speak your language. They can HEAR you, they just don't understand, and saying it more loudly isn't going to change that. We finally called it a day, both of us determined to figure it out next time.
Fortunately, J took it in stride and never got frustrated with me and my yelling. I got frustrated with my inability to come up with a solution though and will be doing some research. How do you teach someone a feeling if they can't ever put the horse in the right position to get the feeling? A conundrum for sure.
I see some leg yields on the circle in our next lesson. At least I won't have to yell from so far away.
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 …
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
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