From Endurance to Dressage
The best thing about Hurricane Hillary was the great shower she gave us. If you live somewhere where it actually rains during the summer, dust probably isn't much of a problem for you. Here, late summer and early fall are usually hot as hades and dry as a bone. Dry and hot equals dust, and lots of it.
Not this year. Everything that can be green is bright and vibrant. Over the weekend, the ranch owner and I took Alli and Speedy for a walk through the old golf course and around the cherry orchard. When we got to the copse of trees on the edge of the golf course,I just had to stop and take a quick photo. It felt like we were swimming in a sea of green. It was stunning!
It was so beautiful that we stopped for several minutes just to breathe in the calm and serenity the place offered. So often I live my life rushing from one thing to the next. These rides the past few weeks with the ranch owner have forced me to take a breath, let it out, and just be.
Who knew that a lack of dust could bring so much peace?
We had a scorcher of a week last week. Each day was well over a hundred degrees. While it wasn't the official reading, there was one day when my truck read 111℉. I'll ride when it's hot, but my limit is 100℉, and the temperature had better be falling. If it's 100℉ and still rising, I'm out.
For the entire week there was nothing I could do with my horses besides wrap Izzy's foot while standing in the shade, feed both boys a super wet beet pulp mash, and freshen up their water each day. So on Saturday morning, I was out there early, determined to ride both horses.
Once again, I rode with the ranch owner. Since her mare, All In, was feeling a bit fresh from the slightly cooler morning, we stopped by the arena so she could work out some of her wiggles. I followed on Speedy who plodded along as though he'd already been ridden. We ambled around the arena while the ranch owner put Allie to work trotting and cantering. When she felt Alli's mind was on her rider, we headed out to the old golf course.
As we were finishing, Speedy got sassy like he always does on the way home. It was our turn to school in the arena while the ranch owner sat watching. Whenever Speedy is a bit of a stinker, my "go to" is to ask for flying changes. It took one or two asks before he gave them to me, but by the last ask, the change was so smooth that I didn't even feel it.
As we worked, the ranch owner asked some questions about both simple and flying changes; she's been working on the simple change. Speedy was more than happy to demonstrate how to set up a horse for either of those transitions. We showed the ranch owner that schooling for any change can be practiced riding two connecting circles. In the place where the two circles meet - I and L in the diagram below, you only need to straighten your horse completely, half halt, and then change the bend as you strike off in the new direction.
Speedy enjoys working especially if he gets to go out with a friend. He's not too keen on being schooled in the arena by me, but as long as he knows it's going to be a short work out, he'll do the thing. And if he thinks his ride is about showing off to one of his gal pals, he's all in.
That's what makes him a rock star.
I don't remember where I read it, but I recently saw an explanation of the canter that made a lot of sense. The canter was described as a wave motion, an undulating up and down. If you ever watch a slow motion video of the canter, you can see the uphill and downhill moments. And just like in a scientific wavelength, a canter can be lengthened or compressed. For a rider to stay connected to the saddle without the saddle smacking her in the butt, she must ride the wave which means following the horse's up and down motion by opening and closing the hips.
I am by no means an expert, but I love a good metaphor or visual. Learning to sit the trot is challenging and so is correctly sitting the canter. Visualizing how to sit the trot or canter helps me actually do it. I used a lot of visuals when learning to sit the trot like pedaling a bicycle backwards and using alternating seat bones.When I heard the canter described as a wave, that description resonated with my visual brain. When I can attach an image to a feeling, it is much easier to imagine myself doing it.
For the past two Fridays, Brooke has been able to come out for lessons on Speedy. I have to feel a bit sorry for Speedy's ladies as I very unapologetically like to experiment with what I am learning. This idea of the canter as a wave was so intriguing that I couldn't help but play around with the idea as I coached Brooke. Fortunately, Brooke is a triathlete so she is more body aware than a lot of other riders might be. While she's still in the early stages of developing a dressage seat, she enjoys the lessons that focus on her position, and she's quick to feel the affects that a new position has on Speedy's way of going.
With that in mind, I spent a good amount of time tweaking Brooke's position as she rode. She's still struggling with her balance, especially in the canter. Like many riders, she wants to lean forward and grip with her lower leg. As she rode, I kept up a steady stream of instruction: Let your inside leg hang. Sit on in your inside seat bone. Sit up. Let your elbows follow. And so on. I know she enjoys riding, but I think I get more out of these lessons than she does. When I see my coaching have an immediate effect on her position and Speedy's way of going, I know that I truly understand the concept of whatever it is that I am teaching.
I am desperate to get a lesson myself, but until Izzy's foot heals up (more on that soon), Speedy is just going to have to put up with me. School is just about to start anyway which means I am about to get busy as all heck. While I am working 12 hour days, Izzy's pastern can heal.
Hurry up, brown horse; I am itching to get back to it!
Brooke came out during spring break for a couple of rides on Speedy. We did a trail ride through Hart Park and Lake Ming, and she came out and did a lesson. I can't say this enough: I am not a trainer, and no one pays me for lessons. With that said, I think I am actually a pretty good coach. Even if you've never given a lesson, you should try it as it is a great way to see what you've learned.
The last time Brooke came out, we played around with the leg yield. It became apparent right away that Brooke still doesn't have enough control over Speedy's individual parts to do a correct leg yield. Like a lot of riders new to dressage, she struggled with controlling the shoulder so that Speedy's hind end could catch up. In the leg yield, the horse should remain nearly straight - think parallel to the rail, so that he can move sideways by crossing his legs. Instead of any sideways movement, Speedy just headed straight across the diagonal. That's not a leg yield.
For this lesson, I showed Brooke how her position and weight aids directly affect how Speedy moves. Brooke is very athletic - she's a triathlete, so it is more about teaching her about what her body should be doing while she's riding. While Brooke has been riding since at least her teenage years - she knows how to stay on, she hasn't yet learned how to use her body as an aid. And since Speedy is a total rock star, he will do exactly what you tell him to, good or bad.
Brooke is struggling with the things that all riders work on:
Since I am not a trainer, I don't always know what to tell Brook to change, but when I get it right, it's obvious to all three of us. After watching her struggle a bit in the canter, I finally realized that she was pinching at the knees for balance. As soon as I told her to ride "bowlegged," she settled into the saddle and Speedy's canter got super quiet. I could actually hear the difference in his footfalls.
One of the hardest things about "training" is knowing how much a rider needs to learn. I don't necessarily know what to help with first, but I know that it can't all be done in one lesson. As an elementary school teacher, I long ago learned which things to ignore in favor of those things that need to be learned first. The plural possessive apostrophe isn't as important as the apostrophe in a contraction. In giving lessons, I've tried to focus on rider position - sitting up instead of curing forward, weighting the inside seat bone and leg, and turning the shoulders in the direction of the circle over any particular movements.
It sounds a bit nefarious, but playing around with a rider's position and aids is a bit like conducting a science experiment. What happens if I move her leg here? What if I have her look there? How much does she need to exhale to get the walk? I know Speedy very, very well, so it's not like I will create any explosions, but it's fun to see if my coaching is right. Will I get the effect that I am hoping for? So far, I have been right every time. My eyes have not been deceiving me. I truly can see when a rider is not sitting with her seat bones evenly weighted or when she is gripping with her knees.
All of Speedy's ladies have felt that I am doing them a favor by coaching them and letting them ride Speedy. I've said this over and over though: I am the one getting the most out of the relationship. My horse gets to feel useful, and I get to play around with what I think I know. I need to start giving them thank you cards. As long as the universe keeps sending me riders, Speedy and I will keep teaching them.
The real truth is that Speedy does most of the teaching; I am just there to dole out the cookies.
You all know how much I love Speedy. He is simply the best horse: patient, kind, and so eager to please. Since his "retirement" back in 2020, there have been at least seven ladies who have either come to take lessons on him or just trail ride him. And for every one of those ladies, he has been a complete saint. He truly loves being a lesson horse.
On Sunday, Brooke came out to ride. I never have an actual lesson plan when someone comes out to ride Speedy. It's partly because I don't know how energetic Speedy will be, and lately, the arena has had standing water so there are just some things we couldn't do. On Sunday, we finally had an arena that was dry enough to allow us into all four corners.
One thing that Brooke has been pretty good at doing is keeping Speedy fairly round. She doesn't let the reins slip through her fingers, so Speedy doesn't get too strung out. With that being said, she is struggling with the idea of following with her elbows. When she doesn't follow, Speedy will open his mouth as he resists the non-elastic contact. The more Brooke gives and follows, the quieter he is with his mouth.
Speedy has always been expressive with his mouth. Even when he doesn't have a bit, he still gapes his mouth and smacks his lips when I ride him in a halter. I don't use a flash on either of my horses. There isn't anything inherently wrong with a flash; I simply prefer riding without one so the horse can tattle on my hands. If my horse needs to gape his mouth, I am probably doing something wrong.
That idea became the topic for the lesson. Brooke doesn't yet have an independent seat, so she's still trying to find her balance which means she occasionally uses the reins for balance. And here is where Speedy really shows how fabulous he is; instead of getting fussy or irritated by that, he gapes his mouth as he searches for the give. I had Brooke try a few different things in order to encourage her to follow at the walk and canter.
One thing I showed her, and we have all done this, is that I had her stop so that she could be "the bit." I held the reins and showed her what it felt like to be both heavy and light. We also practiced flexing to the inside to help Speedy let go of the bit and carry himself. I explained that as long as she let him lean on her hands, he would be happy to let her carry him. If, however, she kept him from hanging on the bit, he would be lighter in her hand, especially if she also gives and follows. It's hard to follow though when you use the reins for balance.
Please don't think I am judging. I've balanced on the reins myself. We all have. I think that I have developed a fairly independent seat, but that doesn't mean I am not making plenty of other mistakes as I struggle with my own balance issues. The thing is, we don't know what we don't know, so unless someone helps us adjust our riding, we never improve.
Because Speedy is such a saint, I had Brooke put him into a canter where she ignored his frame. After all, she's not teaching him anything - he already knows how to canter. Instead, it is Speedy's job to teach her, so by giving Speedy his head and allowing him to canter basically on his own, she was able to focus on her weight aids. What I wanted her to feel was that by weighting her inside seat bone and turning her shoulders to the inside, she didn't need to balance on the reins because Speedy would give her a comfortable place to sit.
Riding only two or three times a month isn't enough to effect a lot of change in a rider's position and balance, but Brooke felt that by cantering on a horse who can maintain the circle by himself, she was able to take her focus away from steering and look inward to search for that elusive "feel" we are always looking for. For me, once I "feel" something, I get it and know what to search for the next time.
The longer I give these lessons, the more I understand how hard dressage really is. If you're a beginner or moving up the levels, and you think you suck, give yourself a break. This is really and truly difficult. I can't believe how much I have learned over the past thirteen years. It's probably a good thing I didn't know how much I didn't know back when I started, or I might have quit. Now, I know that there is a lot I don't know. It's obviously more than thirteen years' worth of learning though.
Maybe in another thirteen years I'll know what it is I don't know. Until then, I'll just be over here in the dark looking for a pinpoint of light.
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%: