From Endurance to Dressage
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.
I attended a clinic with "S" judge, Barbi Breen-Gurley, a week or so ago. She's coming back at the end of August, so I have been particularly motivated to show some improvement in the areas she felt needed some work.
My mom came down to visit for a few days last week, so I asked her very nicely if she wouldn't mind shooting some video. I knew she'd say yes, but still, it's only polite to ask. Barbi's list of "needs to improve" included keeping my left shoulder back, creating the correct bend by looking between Izzy's ears, and following with my hands at the walk and canter. That's all I've been working on over the past week, so those were the things I was looking for on the video my mom shot for me.
I'll be honest; I've either fixed it, or I simply can't see my rogue left shoulder. I looked hard through the videos to find an example of a leading left shoulder, but it must be too subtle for me to see. Either way, I understand what Barbi was getting at, and I have definitely been aware of keeping my shoulders aligned with his.
I will say that she very correctly nailed me on the look between his ears thing. I can't believe how many times I've had to rethink where I am looking. Barbi was absolutely right; I am looking precisely where I want to be going, but my horse most definitely is not. By looking between Izzy's ears, I've noticed a few different things. First, the bend is getting much more correct as is his wayward right shoulder. Second, my shoulders are in a better position when he and I are both looking at the same thing. I can't say I've fixed "it," but I am quickly becoming motivated to keep him looking where I am looking.
It's the following with my hands/elbows thing that is definitely throwing me for a loop, and I don't think it's because I can't. I have naturally soft hands - too soft actually. From all my years of endurance racing, I have a long ingrained habit of opening my hands as I search for no contact. I want my horses to be too light, which is what I tend to get. This has been a tough habit for me to break, and Izzy's not helping any.
Izzy has learned to shorten his neck and duck behind the bit. In an effort to draw him out and forward, I drop the contact, crossing my fingers that he'll find the bit on his own and lengthen his neck. Spoiler alert: it doesn't work. At the walk, we're both getting it. I am no longer pushing my hands forward and allowing a sloppy contact. It's hard, but I keep a soft feel on his mouth no matter how short his neck gets. I think he's starting to trust that I'll follow as his neck is getting longer.
It is in the canter is where I am struggling the most. Since his neck is so tight and retracted, he barely moves it which means there's little to no movement to follow. As Barbi suggested,I keep glancing down at my elbows to see if they're sliding backwards and forwards. Most of the time, they're just sitting there, motionless. When this happens, I flex him to the inside and ask him to lower his head and neck. The instant that he does, I try diligently to follow with my elbows no matter how small his movement.
Am I instantly successful? No, but there is already some excellent progress overall. While I have a great trainer in Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, it never hurts to get a fresh set of eyes. It's been refreshing to tackle our issues from another angle, and I can't wait to get both Chemaine's and Barbi's feedback over the next month.
During all my years of showing - a puny ten, I've rarely practiced the tests at home because Speedy is the king of anticipation. He likes to tell me when we should do a movement. I've always worried that he would memorize the tests and stop listening to me. After looking over my spread sheet of movements however, I could clearly see that we need to practice the tests at home so that I can focus on what is making things difficult at shows.
The analysis of my data shows that our half passes and our left to right flying changes are weak. I decided to ride those sections of the tests at home. Was that ever a great idea. Did Speedy start to anticipate? Why, yes. Yes, he did. I love it though because I was able to school him a bit on waiting for my aids. It's okay if he anticipates. I sort of like that he does because it tells me he's with me; he knows what's happening. Asking him to wait is like building in a half halt.
Schooling the left to right flying lead change has been really helpful. By doing 4 or 5 of them in a row, I am discovering why he doesn't always change. Sometimes, he's just being a stinker, but most of the time it's because I am doing something wrong. Yesterday, I realized that I was losing the new bend, so when I asked for the change to the right, I was letting him look left. Ain't gonna happen like that.
I've also found that by schooling a series of movements in their entirety, like the canter half pass to the flying change, I can really focus on what my aids need to look like. For the canter half pass left, we need to start with a walk to canter at K followed by the half pass left followed by the left to right flying change. If the canter depart stinks, I stop, and we do it again. If the half pass sucks, we stop and do it again. Same thing with the flying change. I am able to isolate each movement when and where it should happen which is helping pinpoint the problems.
Surprisingly, it's not boring either. I offer Speedy lots of praise, and somehow he has stopped feeling picked on for repeating an exercise. In the past, doing it more than two or three times seemed to suggest to him that he was doing it WRONG WRONG WRONG. Maybe I am approaching the repeats differently. I keep telling him that he's a good boy and asking him to try to get it even better. I also feel like I am building his fitness level. Three days of riding at a show - Friday's warm up combined with tests on Saturday and Sunday, was sort of wearing him out. He needs to be able to do more than four flying changes over a weekend.
We'll be going to show next weekend, fingers crossed - damn you, COVID-19! I am feeling better about our chances of scoring closer to the mid-60s. I am hoping that by really honing in on our weak points, it will pay off in higher scores. We'll see.
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 …
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