From Endurance to Dressage
My life is finally settling back into a comfortable routine after December's "reset." Our daylight hours are increasing, I am volunteering at M.A.R.E., I am back to having weekly lessons, and just as fun and fulfilling, I am giving lessons on Speedy again. I know Speedy's ladies have felt like they get the better end of that bargain - lessons for free, but the truth is, I get way more out of the experience than they do.
Brooke was out to ride on Saturday morning. She's had quite a lot of trail riding experience, and she's had her own horse before, so she's not a true beginner. She is a bit rusty though, and she has definitely never approached riding quite like this. After seeing how well she sat Speedy's shenanigans the previous Monday, I figured she was ready for some canter work.
I don't have a lesson playbook or a prescribed order in what I teach. Frankly, I teach whatever I have been thinking about the most recently. At the CDS Judges Symposium that I attended a week or so back, I heard one statement that really gobsmacked me. The judge was describing the test movements as the rider rode them. The test included a canter down center line with a halt at X. The judge said that the halt will only work if the horse's hind legs are stepping under deep enough.
The idea of collection into the halt isn't new, of course. But for some reason, the way the judge said it, just made a lot of little pieces of my dressage understanding snap into place. So as Brooke was warming Speedy up in the walk, I really watched his hind end closely. I explained the idea to her about the hind end needing to be active in order to achieve smooth transitions up or down. When she had his hind end better engaged, he was able to better lift off into the trot.
When the trot departures were smooth, I had her focus on the transition from trot to walk to trot. The transitions were smoothest when she kept Speedy actively coming through from behind. What amazed me was how clearly I could see all that I have learned over the past decade. Riding the horse from back to front is not just something "smart" to say. It really is the way to create a more balanced horse.
Once Brooked had worked on the transitions from trot to walk and back again, I talked her through the aids for canter. While Brooked has had lots of saddle time, it hasn't been on dressage horses. I explained that when riding Speedy, she wouldn't need to kick or cluck or pull on the reins (unless he was being naughty). To get a smooth and balanced canter, all she needed to do was put her body in the right position and then think, "canter!" For Speedy, the rider needs to look with eyes and shoulders in the direction of the desired lead, keep the inside leg at the girth, sweep the outside leg back, and lift the inside seat bone.
I encouraged Brooke to ask Speedy for a balanced trot. A bad walk to trot transition will not set him up for a good trot to canter transition. Once their walk-to-trot was nice, she thought about the canter for a bit. I don't think she quite believed it would be that easy. As she approached the corner C-M tracking left, I coached her through the ads, and as I knew he would, Speedy picked up a lovely canter. Unfortunately, he also fell in on the circle and spiraled in instead of cantering out on the 20-meter circle.
Once Brook brought him back to the walk, I explained how important it was to sit on the inside seat bone. I could see her struggling with her balance as she let her weight fall to the outside. All that does is push the horse's ribcage in which means he can't stay bent to the inside. The second time she picked up the canter, I rattled off the aids:
For me, being able to "play" with someone else's body in order to affect the changes I want to see in the horse is enormously fun. It is is also deeply gratifying to see the horse that I trained myself be such an awesome schoolmaster. Speedy almost never puts a foot out of place, and he never gets irritated no matter how unbalanced a rider may be. He also won't do it correctly unless the rider's aids are pretty close to right. The better the aids, the better he performs. Brooke is a quick learner. I only hope she doesn't learn too fast, or I will run out of material to teach.Maybe I can talk Speedy into being naughty for a few weeks. That way, she won't learn so fast.
On Monday, Speedy's newest girl came out for a ride. Speedy's abscess hasn't cleared up 100%, but he was sound enough for a trail ride. This horse loves to play so much that a short trail ride is better than most any other medicinal thereapy. On Friday, I had reapplied a fresh poultice and then turned him loose to graze. Instead of grazing quietly while nursing his tender toes, Speedy gave me the look, flipped his tail up, and gaily cantered off down the dirt track to the west of the pastures. When he reached Izzy's end of the fence, he saucily spun around and did an extended trot past me as if to say I still got it!
With a bit of adreniline coursing through his veins, he wasn't a bit off. In fact he looked pretty darn good. By Sunday afternoon, Speedy was sound at the walk and only grade two lame at the trot. I messaged Brooke and asked if she wanted to do a trail ride. She happily agreed; it didn't matter to her whether it was a lesson or a trail ride. She was happy to have any horse time.
With the weather threatening to turn sour at any time, we opted for an earlier ride rather than later. As it was, by about 2:00 it stared to pour, so we chose wisely. I rode Izzy before Brooke came out, and I was pleasantly surprised. I had read on some Facebook page something about fiddling with one's hands - that even a little is too much, so I rode with that intenion in my mind. Every time Izzy braced or popped his head up, I resisted the urge to pull his head back into my atmosphere and instead put my leg on. It's amazing what correct riding can accomplish.
I finished my ride on Izzy just as Brooke was arriving. I tied Izzy up and pulled Speedy out for Brooke to groom and tack up. While she has ridden as a kid and adult both, it has been a decade or so which means she's a little rusty. It doesn't help that I like things done just so. Brooke is still working on mastering the Blocker Tie ring, and the girth for a dressage saddle can be a bit overwhelming with all of its keepers and buckling system. This time, she asked if she could take some photos to serve as a reminder. That's a girl after my own heart.
My plan for the ride was to first circle the ranch. If anybody was going to come off - that included me as well, it would be a lot easier to deal with a loose horse and a potentially sore rider if we were still on the property. As it turned out, Izzy was such a jerk that after circling once, I jumped off, ran into the tack room, and grabbed a whip. We ended up doing a second loop before heading out onto the nieghboring properties.
Izzy never really did straighten up, but I know Brooke enjoyed herself despite his Tom foolery. The first time we made the loop, we startled the horses next door who were in a three-sided, run-in shed. The pinto popped out which scared the bejesus out of Izzy who spooked which startled Speedy. I gave a laugh as both Izzy and Speedy shot forward as though the starting bell at the track had just rung. To her credit, Brooke sat the spook quite well and had Speedy stopped within a single stride.
Hearing her laugh made me feel a lot better about venturing off the property. Speedy is rock solid in the arena, but out on the trail he can be much spicier. The day was blustery with dark clouds hovering as they threatend to let loose their moisture. It was perfect weather for spooking and shying, both of which Speedy did. On our way headed back home, he saw some black weed blocking cloth flutter in the wind. I heard Brooke give an audible oomph as Speedy slammed on the brakes.
Later as we crossed a natural channel that feeds the river on really wet years, Brooke gave a delighted whoop as Speedy tried to launch as he crested the top of the channel. He has always enjoyed the down and up whoop de doos. Sometimes he gets particularly excited which can be a bit scary when he launches on the uphill side. Knowing he was feeling quite sassy, I had both horses enter the wash at a diagonal and then we turned at the bottom to climb back up at another diagonal approach. I didn't feel much like hitting the dirt either.
We finished up right at the forty-five minute mark. After untacking, I checked out Speedy's poultice. It was mostly still on, but after closer inspection I decided to pull it and rewrap it. As I did. he yanked his foot back with an irritated expression. Once I got all of the Numotizine cleared out, I could see that a bunch of Numotizine was matted in his fetlock hair, the more I pulled the more annoyed he became. After using my fingers, a comb, and the scissors, I realized that what he needed was for all of the hair to be cut away so I pulled out my clippers. What I saw was the very tiny beginning of a bandage rub. Sometimes the "cure" causes a new set of issues.
After putting the hoof testers back on and not getting a reaction, I decided that after fourteen days, it was time to let nature take its course. I opted to leave his foot naked with no more poulticing. The poultice had done whatever it could do. He walked off just fine without any obvious soreness. The tiny bit of soreness that he had shown might even have been from the gunk matted in his fetlock hairs combined with the beginnings of the bandage rub. I felt confident that he was just fine.
For now, Brooke is scheduled to come back out on Saturday. I know Speedy will be happy to see her.
Speedy has a way of fulfilling his own needs. I wish Izzy could do that. Whatever Speedy needs seems to make itself available. Ever since retiring him from a competitive working life in 2020, there have been a steady stream of ladies who have used him to relieve their horsey bug bites. Last week, Speedy met his newest lady, Brooke.
Brooke and I actually knew each other about 20 years ago. I was in my early twenties and she was a teenager. That was back when I had just started endurance riding with my friend Marci. Brooke was also riding one of Marci's horses, and Marci was mentoring her in much the same way she had mentored me. One thing led to another and Brooke moved on to college and adulthood.
In December, I was invited to a ladies Christmas social in my neighborhood. I chatted with friends and was introduced to several very interesting ladies, one of whom was Margaret. She's in her 80s, but we hit it off. Who knows how it happens, but horse people always find one another. During the conversation she mentioned Marci's name, and I suddenly realized that she was Brooke's mother. That of course started a whole different conversation. When Margaret said that Brooke still loved riding and wanted to get back to it, I gave her my number and told her to pass it on to her daughter. A few weeks later, Brooke sent me a text.
Without wasting any time, we arranged to meet last Wednesday. I knew that Brooke was a triathlete, but once she was standing in front of me, I felt like the world's chunkiest, out of shape rider. Brooke weighs 100 pounds soaking wet and has zero body fat. Cardio fitness would not be a problem.
Whenever anyone comes to ride Speedy who hopes to become a frequent visitor, I always do my "spiel." I talk about rider safety, horse safety, and how Speedy likes to be treated. I show that person how to saddle him (he's a bit cold backed), and how to bridle him (he likes it done just so). Brooke took it all in with an open and receptive attitude. While we were tacking up, I talked a little about the purpose of dressage, how it benefits all horses, and of course the aids. By the time we walked up to the arena, I am sure Brooke's head was swimming with information.
We had had a record rainfall the night before, so the arena was really wet, but we can almost always use the C end as the arena has a really good sandy base. We had one sloppy spot to contend with, but we used that spot as a natural half halt. It was too wet to do any canter work, and I don't usually like to move on to the canter work until the rider has had at least one walk/trot ride. Speedy has a lot of buttons, so simply working on his different walk and trot gaits is usually enough for one lesson.
It is always so gratifying when a rider expresses joy in riding Speedy. I love sharing him and showing him off. Brooke was amazed at how light and soft Speedy is, and she loved that his gaits were so rideable. She also appreciated how carefully Speedy listened to her. It was obvious to both of us that Speedy was thoroughly enjoying himself.
I was not sure if Brooke found what she was hoping for, but before we were even halfway done, I knew that she wanted to try to make this a regular thing. As we untacked, we talked about schedules and my availability. For now, she plans to come out on Saturday mornings to ride after my own lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. As I told her, this is a win-win-win for all of us. Speedy gets to play regularly again, I get the opportunity to teach, and Brooke gets to ride without any of the expenses normally associated with horses.
Here's to Speedy's new girl, cheers!
It's not like he actually left and came back; Speedy's been around, but "J's" work schedule just hasn't aligned with mine. Speedy's been here the whole time, but he hasn't done much besides eat and beg for treats. Since J hadn't been able to ride for the better part of a month, I actually hopped up on him last week and checked in with his soundness and fitness. Living turned out keeps him fit enough for weekend rides while also keeping him sound. While he was a stinker for me - I rode him bareback in a halter, he was an absolute saint for J on Sunday.
While J hasn't been down to ride Speedy lately, she has been able to get in the saddle here and there over the past month. When she arrived on Sunday, she explained that one of the horses she rides is now in training here in Bakersfield, and she was able to take a lesson from the trainer. Rather than feel as though she had been "cheating on me," I was thrilled that she was getting an opportunity to ride other horses with a "real" trainer.
I immediately asked how it had gone and if there was something she wanted to work on with Speedy. The other horses she rides are well trained but not as schoolmaster-like as is Speedy. He is so reliable that she can use him to work on her position and aids as he never puts a foot wrong. She explained that on the other horse she rides, she has a lot of trouble keeping him on a round circle. So while circles are incredibly boring, we tackled why she was having trouble. As is normally the case, she discovered that her aids needed some tweaking.
Every time I write about J and Speedy I have to remind anyone new that I am not a trainer. After other ladies started riding Speedy, I discovered that I actually know more than I thought I did and that peer tutoring helps the "teacher" just as much (or more!) than it helps the learner. In education circles it is often said that to teach is to learn twice. I can attest to the truth of that statement. While I am coaching J, I often stand back and ask myself, Where the hell did THAT come from? when I've said something rather astute.
Lately, in my own lessons with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, he has helped me adjust my position such that I find I am riding more effectively. Having the opportunity to do the same for J is clarifying a lot of what Sean and I have been discussing. In J's case, I quickly saw that she was having trouble with the roundness of her circles because her weight aids were shifted to her outside seat bone.
While I don't always know how to fix an issue J may be experiencing, I can at least offer a suggestion that has worked for me. One thing I've been doing is riding "bowlegged" to check that I am not gripping with my thighs. The instant that I pull my thighs and calf off my horse, I feel my seat bones plug in and my weight sink back in my feet. To help J feel that same sensation, I had her get out of the saddle and lean into her inside stirrup. She immediately felt how her weight had been to the outside. As soon as she sat back in the saddle and dropped her weight onto her inside seat bone and into her inside leg, Speedy got rounder and his stride lengthened.
Even though the other trainer had had J stay on a circle which J said was a bit boring, we laughed because that's all we did on Sunday - trot and canter the 20-meter circle at E/B. It was almost a lunge line lesson but without the lunge. Speedy is so well educated that he doesn't fuss as J works on adjusting her weight aids and position. He simply motored around the circle rewarding her with more thrust and energy as she sat to the inside and quit "nagging" with her inside leg.
Eventually, we moved on to some canter work with the same ideas in mind. J instantly felt that her weight aids had been on her outside seat bone. When she sat on her inside seat bone, she realized that she could use her inside leg as an aid to tell Speedy to wrap around her leg and stay bent. Suddenly, she was turning with her outside thigh and holding the bend with her inside leg, not the reins.
Peer tutoring gives me the opportunity to articulate what I have learned or am in the process of learning. If I can't explain a concept well, I clearly don't understand it myself ... yet. Fortunately, J hasn't stumped me with a question I can't answer, but that day will come. Even when she asks more challenging questions, I relish the opportunity to stretch myself as I struggle to explain a concept that might not be "confirmed" in my own understanding. J knows that I'll never fake an answer. I am perfectly comfortable saying that I don't know something.
I tell my 5th grade students that all the time. They know that when I say I don't know, it means we had all better consult Google. Just this past week we were doing Google searches on iguanas and pythons. Did you know that iguanas have a large, circular scale on their heads called a subtympanic shield? They don't really have a known purpose, but it is believed that the shield fools predators into thinking that iguanas have a large eye staring back at them. Now we all know a new fact.
Iguanas and pythons aside, I do enjoy teaching whether it be 5th graders or my own peers. Peer tutoring definitely gives me an opportunity to learn twice. And since I have such a fabulous schoolmaster in Speedy, teaching someone else is definitely a win-win-win situation for all of us. I throw this out to the universe every few months, but if you know of someone who would like to give dressage a try, I might know of a horse and "coach" who would like to meet that person.
How did I get so lucky in finding a horse as special as Speedy? Sometimes, it's best not to ask.
Years ago, I needed more intentional feedback from my coach or trainer. Am I really making progress? Be specific, please. These days, I know for a fact that progress is being made, even if it's not slow. I'm greedy, I can't help it.
Anyhoodle, the reason I bring this up is because "J" has been back on schedule riding Speedy, and I hear that same need in her voice. Are you sure I am getting better? People say I am, but am I really? I know what she's looking for. I've been on the path she's traveling, and in fact, I am still there. I may be a bit further ahead, but struggle is struggle no matter your riding level. She wants to make sure she's not wasting her time or mine. No one wants to struggle week after week if there isn't any progress.
The last time she rode, two weeks ago, she had a pretty big breakthrough. It's the same one I once had with Speedy. He's such a diva that he cons everyone into going gently with him. None of his riders ever want to take hold and insist. Halfway through J's last ride, I had her get off and I got on. I showed her how much insisting Speedy could take. When she got back on him, I saw a new level of determination on her face. And you know what, he snapped to and started working for real.
When she came out this weekend, we were able to work on some lateral movements because she finally took hold and asked. She asked so well that Speedy started to anticipate her aids which meant we had to remind him that J could also whisper. I had J think about a completely mental aid, one that is simply the thought ... canter. If Speedy couldn't hear a whisper, then the ask aid - lifting a seat bone. And finally, if he really wasn't listening, the I mean it! aid which might come with a sharper kick.
Wouldn't you know it, Speedy started to look fancy. And I mean hot stuff fancy. The dude is well into his eighteenth year, but you wouldn't know it. So when J asked if she was getting better or not, I told her that the way to know is to pay attention to the kind of lesson you're having. Is it the same thing you've been working on month after month, or are you learning something new? If you're learning something new, you're making excellent progress.
With that kind of thinking, I am making progress too, even though it doesn't always feel like it.
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%: