From Endurance to Dressage
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.
What We Don't Know
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.
Brooke is turning out to be quite an excellent student. Speedy was pretty sassy on Saturday and gave Brooke a few good hard spooks, but she rode them out gracefully and calmly. I explained to her that Speedy only dishes out as much as his rider can handle. I've never seen him get so naughty with any of his other ladies. He actually humped up his back and threatened to buck or kick, something he's only ever done with me or Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables.
With a quarter of the arena still water logged and the rest barely dry enough to work on, I didn't want them to do anything too dramatic. The last time Brooke rode with me, we worked on doing 20-meter circles at different parts of the arena. What makes this a challenging exercise for riders new to dressage is that there is a lot to keep in mind. The rider has to steer and maintain a steady tempo. Because the arena was short, I told Brooke she would ride 20-meter circles at C and my modified A (L).
I've said this about a million times before, but I am not a trainer. Nobody pays me for lessons; I just want Speedy to get some exercise, and he loves the work. I have discovered though that I know a lot more than I thought, and teaching someone else gives me an opportunity to articulate what I know. As we worked, I told Brooke that I used to think Chemaine was making stuff up. All of that gobbledegook about the inside hind leg and recycling energy and getting your horse "through" were just made up expressions to sound smart. D'oh.
It wasn't until I started teaching others that I started to see these things for my self. While Brooke is riding, I can see when her weight is not on the inside seat bone. I can see why Speedy can't turn when her shoulders don't turn. I can see why the half halt doesn't work when he's not on the outside rein. I can also see him push with more thrust and power when she doesn't allow his energy to leak out his front end. I can also see him sit and carry when she gets his inside hind leg underneath. Saturday's lesson with Brooke made me wish I kept my horses somewhere with other riders so that I could get some peer coaching, too.
The main thing I wanted Brooke to feel during this lesson was tempo. As she left the 20-meter circle and rode the long sides, Speedy would quicken the tempo and basically "run off." I asked her to focus on getting him round and balanced and then holding that together as the transitioned from the circle to the long side. Once she got it, you should have seen Speedy lengthen his stride and give her some nice suspension. Once she was able to keep that control on the long side, I had her cross the diagonal. I wasn't ready for Speedy to be so quick to respond so I didn't have my phone out for their best attempts, but you can definitely see it in the first two photos above.
Since Speedy was willing, we played around with the same exercise at the canter without crossing the diagonal. I had Brooke ride a 20-meter circle and then carry that steady tempo down the long side. By the time we got to that part of the ride, Speedy was on fire. He was feeling good and enjoying the opportunity to feel the wind in his hair. Just for good measure, he also threw in a flying change here and there when Brooke's half halts weren't quite right or when she shifted her weight to the opposite seat bone. Silly horse!
Brooke was very enthusiastic when we were finished and admitted that it was quite a fun ride. Speedy and I agreed.
Now if only the weather will cooperate enough for me to have a lesson ...
Enjoy the Journey
Due primarily to wet weather, Brooke hadn't been out to ride Speedy in a few weeks. We fixed that on Sunday. On the weeks that no one comes to ride Speedy, I try to turn him out - he lives on an eighth of an acre though so it's not like he needs it. I do the turn out so that he gets a change of scenery. On Friday afternoon, along with the turnout, I groomed him and gave him lots of love.
It rained on Saturday night, but it was plenty dry enough for a ride on Sunday morning. While I free lunged Izzy in the round pen, Brooke groomed and tacked up Speedy. As Brooke and I walked Speedy up to the arena, I told her that I had a good exercise in mind. It's one that I use regularly when riding Izzy. I told her she would ride 20-meter circles at the four main letters of the dressage court: tracking right, C, B, A, and E. Tracking left, C, E, A, and B.
While it sounds like a simple exercise, I knew that Brooke would struggle. I did when I was first starting my own dressage journey. What makes this exercise so challenging is that the rider has to maintain her own balance, keep the horse balanced and steady in the tempo, and watch where she's going. For a rider who is still learning the basic geometry of the court, it is really hard to ride a correct 20-meter circle. Harder still to ride four of them when they're each in a new place.
While Speedy is a fantastic schoolmaster, he is not a robot. He went where Brooke pointed, so frequently, I had to yell, TURN as she forgot where she was going. When riding a single 20-meter circle, the rider has time to rebalance herself because a horse like Speedy will stay on the circle for you. When the rider begins stringing movements together, it becomes obvious who has been doing the steering. And often times it isn't the rider.
I had Brooke repeat the exercise several times in each direction. Finally, she began to see the pattern of where to go. I also helped her out by drawing it in the sand and then running down centerline to stand in the center of each circle to give her a frame of reference. Once she had the pattern a bit more memorized, I suggested she do it at the canter which she was excited to try.
For the canter, I called out the directions while running from the center of one circle to the center of the next. Brooke had a hard time remembering where she was on the circle. I've done the same thing at a show before. More than once actually. There have been times when I've panicked, asking myself just how many times I had gone around the circle. The judge never rang me off course for doing a circle too many times, but I knew how Brooke felt.
Giving these lessons affords me an opportunity to develop a deeper appreciation for how much I've learned during my own dressage journey. As I look back, I can see from a new vantage point how hard this sport really is. Riding a horse in such a way as to exert total control while making it seem as though the horse does it on his own is a true testament to the difficulty of dressage. This sport requires total control of one's own body as well as control of your partner's.
I regularly struggle with feelings of ineptitude and general suckiness. I think I need to give myself a lot more credit, and if you're reading about my experiences, you probably feel the same way. Give yourself some credit too. You deserve it. We all do! Not one of us would feel discouraged by the length of a flight to Europe. The trip takes as long as it takes. Why then do we, and by that I really mean me, feel discouraged about how long it takes to get "somewhere" in dressage? It too takes as long as it takes.
Let's enjoy the ride, admire the view, and realize that we'll get there when we get there.
Change of Direction
The thing I most love about giving lessons on Speedy is that I get an opportunity to play around with the ideas that I am currently learning or ideas that I feel are pretty confirmed. On Monday, Brooke came out for another lesson on Speedy. For the past few weeks, I've had her stay on a 20-meter circle, but this week, I thought it was time to play around with straightness, something I am thinking about with Izzy.
The more I learn, the more I forget how hard everything was in the beginning. Making a round circle and doing a change of direction were things that I worked hard to be able to do well. I do them now without needing to think about the aids required to make them happen, but if you really stop and think about it, a change of direction at the trot takes a good half dozen aids. The rider has to steer, watch where she's going, shift her weight aids, change the bend, straighten the horse, change her posting diagonal, and maintain the tempo. Explaining all of this to someone else is no easy task.
To help Brooke figure out how to coordinate her aids, I had her ride more of an oval which included the C end of the arena to E/B. Speedy helped her figure out that as she came through the corner at C/H or C/M, she would ride him straight for a few strides, but then she needed to reestablish bend for the half circle at E/B. Once she had the rhythm of the oval, I coached her through a change of bend through a short diagonal H-B and M - E.
One of the things that makes Speedy such a great schoolmaster is that he pays attention to his rider's level of competence. He only goes as big as he feels is safe for his rider. While Brooke was working on her position in the 20-meter circles, Speedy put himself on autopilot and never deviated. Once he felt Brooke's confidence return, he started to challenge her a bit. I warned her that as she crossed the diagonal, Speedy would start to hustle as he knows where the medium trot should be done. With Speedy trying to change the tempo, Brooke had to really coordinate all of her aids in order to make the half circle at E/B and H-C-M.
I've been really impressed with Brooke's ability to keep Speedy round with a desire to go forward. Every time Speedy gets a new lady friend, I always feel a bit cheated. I jealously wish he had been as easy for me to learn on. But really, it's all good because what he and I learned together, he can now share with other dressage beginners.
Once Brooke looked like she was getting the hang of the change of direction across a diagonal, I had her go back to the 20-meter circle at C for some canter work. She's still struggling with weighting her inside seat bone and stepping into her inside leg, but after just a few short weeks, her balance has improved tremendously. I told her that soon we would do the same oval exercise that we had done in the trot, but we would do it at the canter instead.
She should be out tomorrow morning, so we'll see what other exercises I can throw at her.
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%: