From Endurance to Dressage
Speedy was busy this weekend. "J" took a lesson on Friday afternoon, and then "T" came out on Saturday morning. I don't know what J said to him, but Speedy came out rip roarin' on Saturday. He. Would. Not. Trot. I finally told T to just let him get it out, so instead of trotting, she let him canter big on the long sides while collecting him on the half circle at either end. She didn't use the whole length of the arena because I didn't want Speedy to get any ideas, but after a few minutes of that, he started to rethink his life choices. After blowing off a little steam, he was back to his schoolmaster self.
Since it had been a few weeks since T's last lesson, and since my repertoire of material is rather limited, I figured what was good for one lady was good for the other. We spent a few minutes working on some of T's body mechanics for good measure. She's still trying to feel Speedy's motion, so I draped his stirrups over his withers and had her ride at the walk with no stirrups. I wanted her to have a chance to focus on the way his belly sways back and forth. I also wanted her to feel whether or not she was allowing her arms to follow at the walk.
Since Speedy was feeling really fresh, I decided to try a new exercise with T that would make Speedy work hard so he could focus. It's something Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, showed me years ago. She called it the butterfly, and there are a lot of variations, but I had T ride it like this: From the long side, she trotted to C on a left bend, rode a tear drop back to the rail where she changed the bend and then made another half circle and tear drop at A back to the rail. It rides like a flat figure eight. Once she had the pattern down, we made it a little harder by throwing in a 10-meter circle at B each time she came back to the rail. In no time at all, Speedy's brain was re-engaged. It's a fun exercise that gets both rider and horse thinking.
The last time T had ridden Speedy, we worked on some leg yields. To the left, he was easy, but to the right he just wouldn't go sideways. When J was out a week or two back we worked on turns on the forehand, so I had T give it a go. Of course Speedy remembered me jabbing him in the ribs with the butt end of the whip when he started to ignore J's leg, so he was nice and respectful when T asked him to step over with his hind leg. Speedy being so responsive helped T feel what she needed to do with her outside rein to get the sideways movement we were looking for. The leg yields are still a work in progress, but progress is being made. Teaching someone else really helps reveal how challenging even the most beginning dressage movements really are.
I keep saying this, but "teaching" both T and J is also teaching me. Showing someone else how to do it really gives me a chance to articulate my own learning. I don't know everything, but I do know something. As a classroom teacher, kids will ask questions that I simply don't understand, but other kids do. I will frequently ask another student to explain what the first student was asking. Kids will quite frequently "get" the question because they're much closer to the learning than I am. It's not that a "real" trainer wouldn't understand the question, but I wonder if the ladies riding Speedy get a more digestible answer from me because I understand their question better. Or, if I don't understand it better, I might be able to better translate it because I've had that same question myself.
I know both T and J think I am doing them a huge favor, but the reality is that Speedy and I are getting far more from these lessons than they know. He needs the exercise, and he needs to feel useful. When they finish their rides, both ladies are so appreciative of his efforts, and he feels that. The frequent doling out of treats doesn't hurt either. Keeping Speedy happy and healthy is my number one priority, but if I also get something out of the lessons then they're even more beneficial. Finding something that makes all four us feel good is a win/win/win/win!
I am going to take advantage while it lasts!
Well, sort of. I am not an expert in rider position. We all know that. When I look back at photos of myself riding ten years ago, I cringe. I cringe just as much today even though my position is a heck of a lot better than it used to be. Just because I can't make my own arms and legs behave doesn't mean I can't recognize someone else's rogue right hand or misplaced left leg. Poor "J;" I really socked it to her on Friday evening.
If you know anything about me though, you'll know that I am harder on myself than anyone could ever think to be. Want to humiliate me? Stand back; I'll show you how it's done. Try that with a friend of mine or even someone who hasn't asked for it, and you're in for a world of hurt. And in case you're confused, I'll be the one doing the hurting.
No one deserves to be made to feel bad for their riding, but we've all heard it done. That doesn't mean we don't all desperately crave some constructive criticism though. How are we to learn unless someone gently points out that our right toe isn't even in the same hemisphere as the rest of our leg? Cough, cough - looking at you, right toe from ten years ago. The trick is to point out someone's errant body parts in a way that isn't judgmental. The feedback needs to be clear and honest while also recognizing the rider's strengths.
I may not be a true trainer, but I am pretty good at teaching (kids) without making someone feel bad. As long as your students know you really care about them, feedback is taken as constructive rather than critical. So when I say I gave J a hard time, you know I am joking. J comes from a hunter/jumper background, so she brings a whole different seat and leg position when she rides. I am always very quick to point out that heels down is a great thing for jumpers, but it's not so great for a dressage seat - when it's forced. Also not great for a dressage seat are a smaller hip angle and a lighter seat. It's tough to tell someone that what they're doing is "wrong" when it would be perfectly lovely for a jumper.
When I made the move from endurance to dressage, I about killed myself as I struggled to sit in the saddle inside of above the saddle. Endurance riders go to great pains to get off their horses' backs, so deliberately sitting down into Speedy's back felt like I was abusing him. Closing my fingers on the reins felt dangerous; endurance riders ride with little to no contact. An endurance horse needs his head and neck free so that he can navigate the trail without his rider getting in his way. If anyone can empathize with the frustration a rider feels as she leaves one discipline for another, it's me. I know how hard it is to change your body as you struggle to be effective in a whole new way.
Interestingly, J participated in hula for a long time which taught her a lot about isolating different parts of her body. As an aside, did you know those skirts weigh something like twenty pounds? Sometimes I'll show her something about her seat from the ground, and she'll exclaim, that's a (insert word) move from hula! It's amazing how working your core is done in so many different sports. J's experience with hula is helping her to understand how to position her body so that her weight can act as an aid.
Like most riders who are just beginning their dressage journeys, J is working to sit up, keep her elbows bent, and open her chest all while trying to weight one seat bone or the other. It's hard. Even once a rider gets her sitting trot - everyone's goal, it's still hard. We all have to work to maintain our balance so that our seat and hands are independent. It was only just recently that I discovered that Izzy had very nicely trained me to keep my outside leg hovering off his belly rather than resting it against him. Booger.
J is already a nicely balanced and tactful rider who is also a quick learner. She worries that she's being heavy handed or using her aids unfairly. If anything, she's too gentle with him. Speedy can be a bit of a stinker, and if he knows you won't back up an ignored request with a sharper aid, you're toast. Fortunately, she's got me on the ground shouting out orders. MORE LEG seems to be one of my favorites. That and No! Kick him like you mean it! While I am shouting out those directives, I might throw in a string of Don't forget to keep your elbows bent. Sit on your inside seat bone. Sit back! And of course, I wouldn't be a real trainer if I didn't throw in a million, HALF HALT!
I hope she comes back.
For such a short month, February really packed a punch. As I was finishing up at the ranch yesterday, I looked at my calendar and was shocked to see how full it was. What with Izzy's two week long abscess and giving lessons, I was out there a lot.
I don't have "planned" barn days; every day is barn day. I wake up each morning knowing that I am going out to the ranch unless I know I have an appointment. My husband doesn't ask if I am going, but when. Even though it's my routine to be at the ranch every day, life does happen which means I am usually out there only 25 days out of 30. In February, there were only two days that I wasn't out there - once to celebrate Valentine's Day and again for a meeting with CDS.
During the month, I dealt with Izzy's abscess and the aftermath of the abscess. After eleven days of doing nothing but standing around, he came out of the gate rearin' to go. When he's like that, my notations tend to read braced, spicy, energetic, and so on. It wasn't until the last week of the month that I was able to actually work on anything. Once I was able to dispel all that pent-up energy, we got back to having productive rides. We've been schooling simple changes and flying changes like crazy.
As far as lessons go, I didn't have any, but I did give six of them, and I rode Speedy once myself. Even just being worked once or twice a week is keeping him pretty fit. He does live turned out which also helps, but for Saturday's lesson, he was a bit spicy himself. I am hoping that I can get at least two lessons this month, especially since since we're doing a show at the end of the month. I have a feeling March will come in like a lion, but with any luck, it will go out like a lamb.
That would suit me perfectly!
If we're friends on Facebook, you already know this, but on Friday afternoon, I hopped up on Speedy bareback with his specially knotted rope halter that has rings to attach reins. We walked around the neighborhood brushing off the cobwebs. As we made the turn toward home, Speedy got a little bit spicy. I like spicy Speedy, so when we got back to the ranch, I took him into the arena. Although it came with a sassy attitude, he agreed to pick up a canter. I asked for a flying change of lead each direction, got them, and called it a successful day.
Speedy's little hissy fit only reinforces my belief that he doesn't particularly want to do the hard stuff anymore. He's always liked the flying changes though, so it doesn't hurt him to work for five minutes. When we were done, I gave him lots of pats and walked him over to a patch of grass. I unclipped his reins and gave him the run of the yard. While he gets sassy at times, he also loves feeling successful. I know he doesn't really mean it when he swishes his tail and puffs himself all up. That's just his personality, and he's always been a bit of a drama queen.
"J" came out for another lesson on Saturday morning. As sassy and smart-alecky as he is for me, Speedy is just as patient and steadfast with his ladies. He never pins his ears or swishes his tail. The worst thing he does is try to hollow his back and avoid working hard. When they get their aids correct though, he's all business. My heart just melts when I see how much he enjoys his new job. J asked if Speedy liked her. (What's not to like?) I explained that Speedy knows who is in his tribe, and as far as I know, he's never kicked anyone out. As long as his riders are fair and kind, he'll give them his very best.
Giving these weekly lessons has brought back all kinds of memories. I'm amazed at how far we've come, but I am also reminded of where we began. I started this blog as a way to connect with other riders who, like me, were just beginning their own dressage journeys. It's hard to remember a time before the internet, but in 2011, when I wrote my first blog post, there weren't very many websites yet devoted to dressage. Of course we have the opposite problem a decade later. There's so much to dig through that it can be hard to tell what's good, what's junk, and what you should believe.
Not that I know everything, or even all that much, but I still feel that Speedy and I have an obligation to share what we've learned. I try to remember where we struggled and what things I wish someone had told me. Those are the things that I am showing J and T. Most of my early trainers either didn't have much of a dressage background, or if they did, they hadn't progressed much past First or Second Level. It wasn't until I met Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, that I started to learn how the different movements laid the foundation for harder and more complex movements later on. Chemaine has ridden and trained horses all the way to the Grand Prix, so she knows how the pieces all fit together.
Those are the things that I am showing both J and T. When I present them with a new exercise, I try to always turn the page so to speak so they can see why they need to work on whatever it is that we're doing that day. On Saturday, I had J disengaging the hind end and then doing turns on the forehand. It seems like such a simple exercise until you try to do it for the first time. That very first attempt at "lateral work" shows the rider how effective her aids are. J worked hard for at least 15 minutes trying to get Speedy to step away with his hindquarters without allowing him to swing his front end around. The turn on the forehand involves moving the horse's hindquarters around his front legs. Instead of turning around his forehand, Speedy wanted to spin around an imaginary pole much like a carousel horse.
It took a few minutes, but ultimately she was able to ask Speedy to do a turn on the forehand. Once we finished with that exercise, J looked at me and let out a deep breath. Whew! She loved the challenge of the exercise as it gave her a chance to use all of her aids and allowed her to check her effectiveness.
We then moved on to trot serpentines, something we've been working on already. For this lesson, she had better control almost immediately so we revisited the idea of getting a trot to walk as Speedy crossed the centerline (an exaggerated half halt). After several attempts, I finally stood in her path on the centerline and told her she had better get the walk because she was going to have to run me over otherwise. Suddenly, she got a crisp downward transition without flattening me!
I applauded her effort and asked what she had done differently. Her answer was preparing sooner and being firmer in her request. I had her repeat the transition as I blocked her path until she felt like she had the aids confirmed. Then she asked me to move so that she could try it without me there as a crutch. She got a lovely trot to walk, and I knew she felt good about how effective her aids were.
Wanting her to see why there is a reason for a trot to halt through the walk, we finished the lesson with having her come down centerline with a halt at X. We all know how hard that is in the beginning. Of course, like all of us have done, J over-shot the center line. Before letting her do the transition, I had her repeat the turn until she was able to successfully make that 10-meter half circle. And as I knew he would, Speedy gave her a very nice trot to almost halt at X. In the lower levels, the horses are allowed to halt through the walk.
Teaching J reminds me how difficult dressage is. Now that I've shown to Third Level and have a Bronze medal, I feel so much pressure to be a "good" rider. Isn't that what being a Bronze/Silver/Gold medalists means? J is helping me see that it just means that I've learned a lot, but it doesn't mean that the rest is supposed to be easy. Whether it's your first turn on the forehand or your first canter pirouette, it's going to be hard, and I don't think anyone more accomplished than me is going to criticize me as I continue to struggle. If anything, I think watching a rider struggle through the levels you've already "learned," gives you a new appreciation for how difficult this sport really is.
I love having a schoolmaster to share, but I wish I had two of them!
The California Dressage Society, my USDF Group Member Organization, does an amazing job recognizing its members with a bevy of awards and recognition opportunities. Normally, there is an annual meeting which all members can attend. The chapter chairs participate in round table discussions, there is a silent auction, educational seminars and clinics, and an awards gala.
In 2019, a group of us went to the CDS annual meeting where several of us earned our 2018 Ruby Gem Awards and Horse Performance Awards. It was thrilling for me to step up on that stage to receive the Ruby Rider Award (scores earned at Training, First, and Second Levels) and Speedy's Second Level Horse Performance Award. It was more than I ever thought we might earn. I was grateful we had gotten that far. Little did I know that two years later we'd eventually earn a USDF Bronze Medal and a Third Level Horse Performance Award.
Due to COVID - aren't you sick of hearing that expression?, this year's annual meeting was held virtually. CDS did a great job putting this thing together. All CDS members were allowed to join in by watching the events on the members only Facebook page. The round table discussions were broadcast live and available to watch later. On Friday, there was a lecture by Kristi Wysocki, a Federation Equestre Internationale FEI 4* Dressage and FEI 5* Para Dressage Judge.
On Saturday evening, there was a Kahoot game in which I came in second place! Apparently I won a dressage book which is being shipped to me. I felt like I cheated a bit as I use Kahoot in my classroom, so I am fast at clicking on the answers. It was a legitimate win though, so I'll take it! On Sunday, there was an Educational Session with
Technical Delegate, Doris North. where she spoke about understanding the rules; I missed that session. Shortly after, there was second educational Zoom meeting with "S" Judge Axel Steiner where riders were able to ask Steiner about different movements on the dressage tests. His explanations were very practical and sometimes, downright funny!
On Saturday evening, all of the CDS annual awards were presented live on the members only Facebook page. While I would have loved to have walked cross the stage to receive Speedy's Third Level Horse Performance Award, CDS made it pretty special even though it was virtual. I knew we were getting the award, but to make it more meaningful, CDS sent all of the recipients a letter asking us to submit a photo for the awards night presentation.
Most years, the list of recipients is pretty long. Because of COVID, so many shows were cancelled in 2020 that it made it very difficult for riders to earn the scores necessary for the Horse Performance Awards and Gem Rider Awards. This year, only five riders from the entire state had horses who were able to earn a Horse Performance Award. One rider's horse earned the award at PSG, three riders' horses earned the award at Training Level, and then there was Speedy G. He earned the award at Third Level.
As I eagerly listened to each horse's name being called, I was stunned to feel tears threatening to fall when Speedy's name was announced. My heart swelled with love and pride and gratitude. Each time we've won something, I've cherished it knowing that it was probably the last one we would earn. And yet, year after year there was always one more, something else to hang on our wall. Somehow, I am sure that this will truly be the last one.
When the ceremony was over, I replayed the video, pausing it just before the Horse Performance Awards were given. My husband watched it with me, giving my leg a gentle squeeze when I teared up for the second time. He doesn't quite get the horse thing, but Speedy is part of our family, and I think my husband felt proud to see Speedy recognized so publicly.
I don't know why I was so blessed to have this horse in my life, but I will be forever grateful. He has given me so much, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to repay him. He of course has a home for life doing as much or as little as he'd like. Right now, he seems to love being a school master, cheerfully carrying his ladies around the dressage court. When he's done being a schoolmaster, I'll try to find him an even less demanding job, or he can doze in the sun doing nothing if he likes.
He has more than earned whatever he feels like doing in his retirement.
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 …
3/27-28 SCEC (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
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 (***)
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