From Endurance to Dressage
Now that we're back to schooling flying changes, or at least the moments before the flying change, Izzy is once again feeling a good deal of anxiety. On Saturday morning, as I put him into a regular working canter during the warm up, he blew through my outside rein because he thought I was going to set him up for a change. When I put him back in position and asked for a right lead canter, he jumped up and then reared. I am not going to lie; I had a definite oh, crap! moment because he felt very close to falling backwards.
He hasn't reared in a number of years, so I took this expression of frustration very seriously. I spent 45 minutes exaggerating the bend - the "take-away" from last Tuesday's lesson. We did lots of 10- and 15-meter circles. When I could feel that he was ready for it, I gently straightened him and rode him forward into both reins. This is the moment that worries him because straightness is the step before the flying change.
Surprisingly, the rear and anxiety didn't bother me at all. In fact, I embraced the opportunity to work on our relationship. The whole time we worked, Izzy kept flicking his ears back at me asking me if everything was going to be okay. I reminded him that I got you, and that I was in control. He didn't need to worry about it. We finished the ride without further incident, but we still have work to do.
Which is perfectly okay because I have nothing but time.
After Saturday's very disappointing ride, I stoically saddled up on Sunday morning - in front of Hurricane Hillary's arrival. Knowing that Izzy needs to rebuild fitness and suppleness, I planned to work the left lead canter a bit and hoped to remind him that I was there to help.
The ride didn't start out too terribly, but he was behind my leg, confident that I wouldn't press him. He was wrong, and the ride quickly started to go south when I poked him with my spurs. Schooling Izzy takes a very delicate touch. Too little and he blows me off, too much and he's pissed. The problem is that his version of a "try" is often so negligible as to be invisible. As Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has often reminded me, enforcing my aids is different than forcing Izzy to do something too hard. So, I started enforcing.
Izzy is always looking for a fight, so I have to work really hard to not take his antics personally even when bolts, bucks, and tries to launch us to the moon. Instead of engaging in that conversation, I slowed everything way down and rode a ton of bending lines. Just about the time I was wondering how many months it was going to take to get the supple horse of spring back, the ranch owner walked by. I started chatting about something I had thought about in her trouble with making the turns on her mare Alli.
One of the things she was struggling with was trying to turn while her horse just kept going the opposite direction. I had suggested she use more outside rein, but it occurred to me that it might be more of an outside leg issue. So, as she joined me at B, I showed her on Izzy how the turn should actually be done with the outside aids. The inside bend is to show the direction you want to go, but we don't actually turn with the inside rein.
The funny thing was that the more I demonstrated those ideas to the ranch owner, the more relaxed and willing Izzy became. In no time at all, he softened his back and started stretching towards the bit. His tempo got steady and even, and he relaxed into the work. He was so relaxed that we cantered both to the left and right without the violent outburst from the day before.
That doesn't mean he was perfect because he wasn't. He threw in one crow hop that had a lot of air between his feet and the ground. I gave an internal oh, shit! as I sat up and back and slammed on the brakes. Fortunately he doesn't always remember how big and powerful he is. The day that it occurs to him, we're all in trouble.
By the time we were finished, I was thrilled with Izzy's work. While it was pretty simple stuff - canter transitions and spiral in and out on the circle, Izzy let me demonstrate all sorts of weird things as I showed the ranch owner how different parts of our bodies can influence our horses' way of going.
I know why he was so good despite my lowered expectations. While talking to the ranch owner, I kept breathing and kept my eyes up and ahead rather than having a laser focus on the back of Izzy's head. By laughing and talking to the ranch owner while I rode, my body stayed relaxed, and I was much less bothered by Izzy's missteps. I didn't take it personally. Instead, I treated him like one of my 5th grade students - rewarding the correct answers and redirecting when he wasn't "getting it."
I told the ranch owner I need her at the arena with me more often. There I was thinking I was teaching her something when in reality, she was quietly reminding me of what I needed to do to be a better rider for Izzy.
Peer coaching is an underrated strategy!
On Saturday, I finally did a full ride on Izzy. It was terrible. After more than two months without regular work, Izzy has last all of his suppleness. At the beginning of June, we spent 17 days in Europe. When we came back, he stepped on a rock and bruised his foot. While he compensated for being sore, he threw out his ribs, C4, and poll requiring two visits to the chiropractor for body work. Just as he was feeling sound enough for riding, he sliced open his pastern and heel. That wound hasn't healed completely, and I am still wrapping each day, but it is healed enough that I feel comfortable riding him.
Like I do for every ride, I started with some long and low walking. I've been doing 10 - 15 minute walking rides for several weeks, so he feels good at the walk. He's even pretty loose at a slow trot. His leg yield it still good, but it lacks any power. Where he fell apart completely was at the canter. To the right, he just couldn't wrap around my leg, and the very balanced and rideable canter we had in May has disappeared.
To the left was worse; he refused to canter at all. When I asked, he crow hopped, balked, and generally just flipped me the bird. While I was disappointed, I knew what to do thanks to all of the work I've done with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. Instead of engaging in the fight, I went back to the right lead canter. I did a few transitions, and then I asked for canter left. Before he knew what he was doing, Izzy was cantering on the left lead.
It was ugly - his head was straight up in the air and there was no canter rhythm, but at least he was moving. I urged him forward and let him "ugly canter" while slowly helping him to balance. I realized that his resistance was fear-based; he didn't feel safe. Rather than forcing him into a frame, I let him try to find his own balance and as we cantered around and around. The longer he cantered, the more willing he was to let me help him.
This week our temperatures will finally be below a hundred, so I am hopeful I'll be able to ride after work. I have a lesson with Sean scheduled for this week - the first in more than two months, and he's confident we'll get Izzy back on track.
I shouldn't be surprised. With Izzy, it's a dance. Two steps forward and one step back.
I haven't been writing about riding because not much has happened lately other than a lot of unexpected chaos. The one thing I most value about my summer vacation is the opportunity to settle into a routine of nothing but ho-hum. This summer has been anything but.
In the meantime, I am trying to remember what it was we had been working on so hard during the spring. After complaining to Sean some time ago that I always feel like I circle back to basics, he responded that basics are THE BEST. He reminded me that the world's top riders spend a lot of time working on BASICS. So, that's what I have been doing. In each and every ride, I test Izzy's suppleness. Like Sean used to remind me, I ask questions.
This week, I focused on moving Izzy around in the canter. Since he negatively anticipates the flying change, I've been chipping away at the anxiety by not asking for it. Instead of asking for a change, I ride across a short diagonal, straighten him, and then I continue on in the same lead. Yesterday, Izzy hopped and hopped and finally grunted in exasperation when I had him hold the counter counter. I very politely thanked him for the effort and then asked if he would like to change leads. I sat left with a half halt, and he popped over like it was nothing. Good boy!
Today will be more of the same: basics, transitions, and a lot of not asking.
Quite a few years ago I came across the expression, Trust Bank. At the time, I had never had a relationship with a horse where trust was an issue. I don't know if I had always been lucky or whether horses whose modus operandi, skepticism first, had just not yet crossed my path. Sydney was the first horse I'd ever owned who did not trust being ridden.
I feel quite justified in saying it wasn't me. Every trainer I worked with felt the same way about that horse. He had a bit of a loose screw. As long as you didn't ask him to travel in a frame, he was willing to go along to get along. Any kind of contact though, and all bets were off. That's when I first learned about the trust bank. I worked hard to make deposits in that bank, but Sydney made such huge withdrawals on a daily basis that our account was always empty.
I have rarely sent a horse packing. In fact, Sydney is the only one that I ever just got rid of. All of the others either died or I found them a new home with an owner they chose. No, really. I waited until the horse told me they had found their new person. With Sydney, I knew he was too difficult to re-home, so I sent him back to where I had bought him three years earlier. Our trust bank had gone bankrupt.
A month or two later, I found Izzy. I thought that I could just start with him like I had every other horse I'd owned, but I didn't realize how hard (trust) bankruptcy was to overcome. For several years trust was a big issue. I tried hard to develop trust, but Izzy wasn't making any deposits into our account. I wanted to sell him many, many times. It wasn't until I met my current trainer, Sean Cunningham, that things started to improve.
With our trust bank now firmly in the black, I work hard to prove to Izzy that he can trust me, and the more he trusts me, the more trustworthy he becomes. All of this is relevant to our recent vacation. Being gone for two and a half weeks withdrew a lot out of trust account. When I got back, I was very careful to make several deposits before asking Izzy to do anything that might worry him. The first day back, all I did was stuff him full of treats and take him for a walk out on the lawn where he grazed for nearly an hour.
The next day, I led him down to the round pen where we worked on listening quietly. All I asked for were walk transitions with a little trot. Unfortunately, we also had a group of tree trimmers with industrial equipment working on many of the ranch's forest of trees, so asking Izzy to do anything with all of that as a distraction was tough. Since we have built such a good relationship though, he was a very willing partner.
The next day, with the tree trimmers still there, we went back to the round pen, but this time Izzy was tacked up. We did the same work from the day before, and after I felt that he was completely relaxed, I slipped on his bridle and walked him in the round pen doing changes of rein through 10-meter half circles. He was very relaxed and calm.
Over the last few days, we've moved back to the arena. The first day we did some simple walk-trot transitions, and each day after, I added a bit more. We did a pretty normal ride on Monday which included shoulder-in, trot half pass, and even a bit of flying changes. Not every horse has trust issues. Speedy is the kind of horse that can go right back to work after months off. Izzy is not that kind of horse. His trust bank has to be pretty full for him to feel confident enough to work when he hasn't been ridden for a while.
To whomever coined the trust bank expression, thank you.
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%: