From Endurance to Dressage
I am always "trying something new" with the big brown horse. It's not really that I am trying new things; it's probably more accurate to say that we're moving on to something different. This usually happens when we're delving more deeply into something.
The last time I took a lesson with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, she said something interesting. She said that while focusing more on the movements themselves, I might have been ignoring the basics. Not literally ignoring them, and not on purpose, but maybe sacrificing them in an effort to get the movement. She didn't say it exactly like that of course, but it did sound true of my recent riding.
I started to think about what "the basics" would mean for Izzy. The first thing I did was ditch my spurs. I reasoned that more activity or more drive from behind wasn't what he really needed. Instead, I decided to focus most of my efforts on getting softness through his poll, jaw, and neck. When those are locked up tight, it doesn't matter how much leg I apply, nothing good is the result.
I also decided to slow things way down. There is no sense in driving him forward when his back is tight and his neck's under muscles are bulging. That doesn't mean I've been ignoring his hind end though. As I ask for a half halt, I am also tap, tap, tap, tapping with my calves to say keep coming from behind.
Over the past month, our rides now look like this: when Izzy spooks or when his head pops up to stare at something I can't see, I just flex his neck and keep adding leg. I keep his poll and neck bent to the inside until he finally lets the tension go and asks me to let him go straight. Sometimes it takes longer than others. Sometimes we go from one ten-meter circle to another, but it almost always achieves softness.
The beauty of this approach has been that once he is willing to be soft, he also wants to lengthen his stride. Throughout our entire ride, I think softness first, movement second. No matter what I am asking for, whether it's a leg yield or a half pass, I can always flex him to the inside or do a 10-meter circle or just think about shoulder fore until he softens.
I am still trying to get a flying change, but since he is so resistant, I've gone back to just asking for changes of bend in a canter on the circle. As I change the bend while cantering, I am also asking his body to shift over just that little bit like I would in preparation for the change. If he gives it to me, we go straight, trot, and then do a change of lead through the trot. If he resists, I just flex him back to a true bend and start over.
Izzy is so different from Speedy who has always been like riding a bowl of steaming hot noodles. Getting all of the noodles to go in the same direction took a tremendous amount of patience. Izzy's more like a cold block of clay. You just can't do much to it until it has been warmed up and worked back forth. As the potter continues to shape the clay, where once stood a red brick, now stands an elegant vase or pitcher. Of course, there are still those days when the potter presses a little too firmly and the whole thing collapses. We still have those days, too.
Over the weekend, Izzy gave me wonderful rides that felt much more like a partnership. When he spooked or his head shot up, I just refocused him by flexing him to the inside until he let the moment pass. Suddenly we were again dancing. By not driving him forward, I was able to convince him that he wanted to lengthen his stride on his own.
Isn't that the best way to convince someone - let him think it was his idea all along?
Izzy has grown up in so many ways. It has been a long journey however, and we still have so far to go. Whenever I start to feel discouraged, I remember that it wasn't that long ago that we couldn't get a right lead canter, and once we did, Izzy had trouble holding the lead. Now, I am playing around with the quarter-pirouette in canter.
While he has made huge progress, we still struggle. Right now, the struggle seems to be in connecting the dots. We can get a passing medium trot, but in the last five strides, he spooks, jerks his head up, and looks for the monster. He has what feels like a very straight shoulder-in, but when we transition to travers, he again jerks his head up looking for that same monster. We go from lovely to hot mess to lovely to hotter mess. It's an issue I am working hard to resolve.
I am not allowing myself to feel overly discouraged. Each day, he impresses me with something new. His half passes, both at trot and canter are way better than anything I could ever get from Speedy. His canter is so easy to collect which means I can move him anywhere I want to. His simple changes are really nice when he's not worried about me sneaking in a flying change. Don't read more into that than there is; we still don't have a flying change.
I have some new stuff that I am trying, new ways of responding to his imaginary murderous monster in hiding. Getting louder or firmer just doesn't work for this horse. The trick is to figure out how to redirect him while he is in the midst of monsters in every corner! mode. It's hard for him to concentrate on me when he is certain I've forgotten to close the gate on the den of monsters he is sure I am breeding out behind the garage.
When he feels safe, secure, and certain that the monsters aren't about to attack, he's a joy to ride. I just need to convince him that I have not only shut the gate on the monsters, but I've added a chain and padlock. Better still would be to convince him that I am not actually breeding monsters at all. It's early days yet, but I think I might be on to something.
Say it with me, Izzy. There are no monsters underneath the bed or in the closet, and if there were, you're tough enough to kick all their butts back to where they came from.
We may need to repeat it a few more times.
While Izzy is getting a day or three to rest up, I've been watching a Pivo video I shot on Sunday. There are a few things I saw that gave me pause - some good, and some not so good.
The first is that it does look as though I am at least occasionally restricting his neck. While I am riding though, it doesn't feel like it. If I give him more rein, his head shoots up or he runs off. When he's trying to run through my rein or be a giraffe, I flex him to the inside and push him sideways until he relaxes his neck and carries himself. It's easier to "talk" to him on a circle. It's much more difficult on the straight ahead moments, especially the medium trot. I am so eager to give him the rein that I hold them so lightly that he occasionally jerks them free. This is definitely something that I need to figure out: how to give him more room without riding a giraffe.
Besides the restricting thing, there are lots of things that I am really pleased with, and they all have to do with the walk. It was in the walk that we lost a lot of points at our last show. When Izzy is tense and bouncing off the walls, he jigs. Riding him is so different from riding Speedy who LOVES to walk. He always saw the free and extended walks as an opportunity to stretch his neck and catch his breath. Izzy hasn't quite figured that out yet.
Over the past week, I've been focusing on the walk. When he jigs, I compress the walk until he almost halts, and then I let him back out. Collect and lengthen, collect and lengthen ... just like you would do at the trot or canter. I am also focusing on the cues for the free walk. I want him to know that the free walk is a "thing." As we come through the corner, I straighten him by aligning his hips and shoulders, and then I purposefully send him forward with a squeeze from both legs as I let the reins slide through my fingers. We'll see if it helps this weekend.
Another movement that is hugely improved is the rein-back. Two months ago, he couldn't do one. He would scramble backwards with his head in the air and his back hollow. It took a few rides, but he quickly learned what I wanted. I started with asking for only one step and then praising him hugely when he gave it. We did that for several days until he would take one crisp step backwards and halt squarely. Then I added a second step and a third and a fourth. He now backs very purposefully, but his back has been tight. This past week, I worked on getting him really soft and round and then maintaining that during the rein-back. I am learning that with Izzy, the smaller my cue, the happier he is, so now I am asking for the rein-back with the littlest bit of rein possible.
Along with the free walk and rein-back, his turns on the haunches are also getting so much better. For a while, he was just stuck and couldn't move. During that clinic I did with Amelia Newcomb, I showed her what I meant by getting stuck, and she "fixed" the problem in less than 30 seconds. I had been focusing on the hind end, when what I should have been doing was bringing his shoulders around. With Speedy, I had to really keep control of his haunches, or I lost them as they would shoot out to the side. So that's how I learned to ride a turn on the haunches.
Izzy doesn't have the problem of wayward haunches in this movement, so I was unintentionally planting his feet so he couldn't move. Amelia had me think about bringing the shoulders around with an open inside rein. Immediately, he swung around his haunches like a pro. Over the past week, I've been building on that new learning and helping him to bring his shoulders around with a soft neck and loose back.
I just keep reminding myself that we only need to make everything just one point better. It doesn't have to be perfect.
One point is all we need.
... But it's not necessarily a good one. At the SCEC show a week or so ago, Izzy didn't do very well on day 2. Instead of getting relaxed, he got more and more tense until he was nearly unrideable. Rather than continue to push him, I took him back to his stall to rest for a bit before we moved on to test 2. While he didn't score well, his score did improve over the first test of the morning. Letting him "relax" seemed to do more good than continuing to work him might have done.
When we came home from SCEC, I gave Izzy the next day off. Since then, I've ridden him at least five times, some of the rides lasting up to an hour. On Saturday, I schooled Second Level Test 2 until it felt pretty good. On Sunday, I wanted to school the 2-2 test, but the wheels fell off the bus. The more I asked him to lower his neck from the withers, the shorter his neck became. As we worked, his tempo got quicker and quicker, his haunches swung left and right, and he sucked in his neck as tightly as he could. In other words, he tried every evasion he could think of.
I rode test 2, and when it wasn't what I thought he could do, we did it again, but things just didn't improve. He wouldn't let go of his neck, and he leaned harder and hard on my right leg. All of the confidence that we had built from the day before me dissolved leaving me feeling discouraged. I walked Izzy back to the tack room, pulled his saddled, and gave him a quick shower. With only days until our next show, I felt defeated before we had even heard the judge's bell.
While Izzy grazed on the lawn, I pulled out my phone to check my messages. And there, as though it were written just for me, was an email from Amelia Newcomb's Academy. In her article she talked about evasions, and why horses do them. Here's a screenshot:
I suddenly realized why Izzy had been so tough to ride. I always assume it's because he's gone backwards in his training. That may well be some of the time, but in this case, I think he was telling me that he was tired and possibly sore (I've already called his chiropractor, fingers crossed he can make it out before Friday). It's so hard to tell with this horse because his energy never wanes. I can tell when Speedy's tired; he demonstrates all the signs: lazy behind, toes dragging, head hanging, flat gaits ... I've never seen Izzy do any of that. If anything, he gets more and more energized.
Knowing that he's probably tired, he had yesterday off, and I won't ride today either. I'll bring him out for a light trail ride on Wednesday, and then he'll get worked in the warm up on Friday afternoon before the show. I am also going to be very careful in how long I ride him on Friday and during the warm up on Saturday and Sunday. Working him hard to eliminate the tension didn't seem to be the right solution at the last show, so I am going to have to rethink things.
In Izzy's case, less might be better than more.
If Izzy's going to my "new" show horse, I need to start thinking of him as such. Imperioso. That's Izzy's RPSI registry name. Sounds kind of fancy to me. Let's hope he can live up to such a regal name.
It's only been a week since he became my number one ride, and already things are different. It's not like I've been riding him all this time with no goals, but now I'm riding with a lot more intent.
Having ridden through Third Level, my bag of tricks is a lot deeper than when I was bringing Speedy along. Long ago, I chafed at the idea that I was supposed to be schooling a level (or more) above what I was showing. Had I followed that advice, I would never have gotten anywhere. Things are different now. With Izzy, I school everything I know - stretchy trot circles, leg yields, half passes, walk pirouettes, simple changes, flying changes, halting at X, shoulder-in, 20-meter circles, 15-meter circles, 10-meter circles, and on and on.
I am also discovering that Speedy and Izzy are two very different learners. What took me forever to teach Speedy, Izzy often picks up within a day. Take the simple changes. I schooled those things for freaking EVER on Speedy. I've played around with them off and on with Izzy, but over the past week, I've been schooling them in earnest. At the end of the first day, Izzy started to anticipate what I wanted, especially in the canter to walk.
I am not saying Izzy is smarter than Speedy. He's certainly more athletic which helps, but the biggest difference is that I know a heck of a lot more than I did when I was trying to teach Speedy. Bless that pony for being so patient with me.
My local CDS chapter has a couple of clinics coming up - another dressage clinic with Barbi Breen-Gurley and a cavaletti clinic with Erika Jansson. I was slated to do the same cavaletti clinic last winter over in Ventura, but Izzy whacked himself the night before, pulling a shoe and banging his leg all to heck. Besides the two clinics, I am also planning on doing a USDF show in late October. That means I have two months to decided which level to enter. It's funny to be wondering if we'll have a flying change for Third, a good enough simple change to do Second, or be put together enough for First.
Those are good problems to have.
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 …
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
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