From Endurance to Dressage
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has worked really hard to help change my mind set about showing. With Speedy, I may have had some show anxiety, but I wasn't really aware of it. Since Speedy was such a complete and total rockstar, he never let my emotions get to him. In his mind, showing was a gigantic party where he was the guest of honor. I always knew that I could count on Speedy to both bring his best work and take care of me along the way.
When I first started showing Izzy, his anxiety, both at home and at shows, combined with mine, served to create a disaster. Each show was worse than the last. I felt as though I was letting everyone down, especially my trainer. I had decided that it was the client's job to make the trainer look good, and I wasn't making anybody look good. in fact, I was a complete embarrassment to anyone who knew my name. It became almost debilitating. The more obsessed with scores I became, the lower my scores were.
After a number of heart to heart talks with Sean, he finally convinced me that not only did he not give a rat's ass about the scores, but that he wasn't going to fire me as a client over my low scores. He was in this thing for the long haul. Little by little, my mind set began to change to the point where I have become nearly lackadaisical as I prepare for a show. I clean my boots and make sure our turnout is clean and tidy, but I no longer obsess over my scores. In fact, on Sunday, once my test was done, we never even talked about what the scores might be. It took us a while to even think about picking up the score sheet. Instead, we talked about my mistakes and why I had made them.
But I am jumping ahead.
My ride time was 8:52 which meant an early departure from STC Dressage. I pulled in right on time, hung Izzy's hay bag, and spent the next 45 minutes grooming, tacking up, and polishing my tack. I bridled at 8:00 and walked down to the ring. As I had done the day before, I hand walked for about ten minutes until spotting Sean. As I attached the Cee Coach, Sean polished my boots, and I sent Izzy off at a walk. He was certainly tense, but he was improved over the day before.
As I walked Izzy around, Sean checked in with the ring steward. I am not sure who freaked out more, Sean or me, when we discovered my ride time had been changed from 8:52 to 8:25! At the same time, we reassured each other that it would be okay. It was what it was so we had better make the best of it. That's what I meant about being a bit lackadaisical. Neither of us had thought to confirm my ride time. In truth, it probably hurt my scores to have such an abbreviated warm up, but I was really proud of myself for not letting it shake me. I did a minute of canter both ways, did a few transitions and leg yields, and then gave Sean my ear buds and the Cee Coach.
As soon as the bell rang, I focused on riding my horse. I didn't freeze up, and I found myself making little corrections every step of the way. I was so focused in fact that at the right lead canter in the first quarter of the circle, a transition that Izzy can get overly dramatic about, I rode it so step by step that by the time I looked up, I realized that I was heading down the long side which did not see correct. I frantically tried to remember where I should be and wondered if there was any way to right the ship. Nope. As soon as the whistle blew, I knew I had missed the part about the first quarter of the CIRCLE. I apologized to the judge and got back on track.
No point in getting upset. It was my mistake, but I did not let it rattle me a single bit. I continued the test and focused on riding it the very best I could on a horse who was still pretty anxious but doing his very best to do what I was asking. While Izzy's concentration wavered every other step, he kept coming right back to me, something that he hadn't done before at this facility.
Our final score ended up being 48.654%. At a training Level Test. Do I think the judge was a little harsh? Absolutely. A 48% at Training Level says you have absolutely no business showing your horse at all. While I've only watched the video twice, it's actually a fairly quiet test. The centerlines are hilarious - so feel free to laugh, and he certainly wanted to carry his haunches to the side, any side. Plus, there was the two point deduction for the off course error. All of that is true and easy to see, but still. I just don't see this as being a 48% ride.
I get that he was tense and lacked some suppleness, but it was just Training Level. What stung the most was the mark for the rider's use of the aids. The judge dinged me pretty harshly with a 4.5. Seriously? That screams complete ineptitude on the rider's part. I've been showing dressage for at least 12 years, and I don't think I've ever earned anything lower than a 5, and even that was rare. I am not saying I deserved an 8.0, but 4.5? I can't help but think the judge must have had an off day because no one who is sitting quietly and piloting their horse in more or less the correct way should ever earn a score that low. The video is below along with the score sheet. You be the judge.
Onward we go ...
All of that feel good stuff from yesterday was real. It didn't come easy at first though because I was stressed out about the uncooperative virtual session with my trainer, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. When it became obvious that technology was not going to be my friend that day, my husband - who never comes to shows, finally told me to ditch the Pivo and focus on my horse. It was the best piece of advice of the week.
I've had Sean in my ear for every warm up ride for the past year. Not having him there was stressful, but my husband's confidence in my ability to ride without the help, gave me the push I needed. I shut everything out and started to really ride Izzy. As though I had been doing it my whole life, I started asking Izzy those little questions that Sean has taught me to ask. Can you give me some flexion? How about a bit of leg yield? Can you walk? Can you do a balanced canter transition? and on and on. Through it all, I kept reassuring him; I got you Izzy, and I will be alright. Every time he lost his balance and threatened to make his own decision, I gave a tiny half halt, and reminded him that I got you. The more times I said it, the more I believed it. As a result, Izzy believed me too.
As we headed up to the show arena, Izzy kept asking are you sure? He gave the bathrooms a stare, the man on the bench looked scary, and the announcer's booming voice over the loud speaker caused him to leap forward. There's always a friend when you need one though. Izzy leaped on top of "J" when the announcer's voice startled him, but instead of running her down, he gave her hair a deep sniff and took a deep breath. My friend Laurel saw the insecure look in his eyes and happily stood next to him while we waited to head into the ring. By the time we were waved in, Izzy was looking to me for direction.
I halted Izzy in front of the judge's booth and gave our number, then I asked for a trot and rode every step of that test. During the test, I recognized every unbalanced step and worked over and over to keep him steady. I knew we were in a bit of trouble when he kept asking to walk, but I put my spur in and told him to keep going. And then I knew why he wanted to walk. Izzy had to poop.
Lord have mercy. Rather than fight with him, I made a decision. I let him poop knowing that it would lower our score, but since the day was not about scores but about me actually riding and making decisions, I knew listening to him was the right decision. I was right. We earned a 4 for that 20-meter circle. For the canter circle at C, He felt terribly off balance, so instead of just trying to make it around the circle, I asked for a half halt and got a downward transition to trot. I didn't care. He was listening, and I wanted him better balanced. We earned a 4 for that movement as well, but we followed it up with a 7 for our working canter, and for the next canter circle, we earned a 7.0 with the comment "smooth depart."
After our final halt, I broke into a huge smile. There were lots of unbalanced moments, but I couldn't have cared less. My goal was to ride my horse rather than sit there frozen, and I knew I had done it. I was pretty sure we had earned yet another mid-50 score, but I didn't care. I had done what I had set out to do.
To my surprise, we earned a solid 62% and change. Not only that, but it was only the two little mistakes that brought the score down. The test was filled will a solid string of 6.0s, 6.5s, 7.0s and even a 7.5 for our first halt. Had we not had the poop incident or the off balance canter, we would have had a 65% or higher. On the other hand, if I had picked a fight over the pooping or not fixed the canter, we might have had yet another 54%. I am more than happy with the score.
Before I wrap this up, there is one more part to this tale of I got you and I'll be alright. Stay tuned ...
Have I ever told you how much I adore Speedy G? If not, man that horse is amazing. For those that may be new here, I bought Speedy G as a three-year old to be my back up endurance horse; he's now 17. When #1 endurance horse had to be euthanized in 2010, Speedy was suddenly my only endurance horse. That summer, I decided to leave the sport after nearly two decades. I looked around for something else to do, and dressage caught my eye. Ten years later, after having started out at Introductory Level A, Speedy and I earned a USDF Bronze Medal. That was last summer.
Shortly after earning that award, Speedy came up lame. After chiropractic work, hock injections, and radiographs, Speedy was diagnosed with advanced arthritis in his left hock. Both vets, my regular vet and the referral vet, felt that Speedy would never be able to continue working at the level I wanted to, so he was semi-retired.
Fortunately, Speedy makes his own luck. Almost immediately, a young woman reached out to me wanting to learn a bit about dressage. After a short rest period, Speedy was again sound (and has remained so), so "T" started coming out once a week or so for a lesson. Speedy loved giving lessons and proved to be a wonderful schoolmaster. This June, just before relocating so that her husband could do his hospital residency, T showed him at Introductory C and Training Level 1. I was so proud of them both.
Throughout the past year, other ladies have come to ride Speedy as well. "J" has really stuck with it though, riding as often as our schedules allow. We both work, and with show season upon us, J has often had to watch rather than ride as Izzy and I do our thing. She has even made the drive to Ventura County just to watch Izzy and I show. According to her, it was worth the trip just to be immersed in dressage. On Sunday, J got the opportunity to show off everything she has learned this past year.
They made me even more proud. I am surprised my head still fits through the doorway. When we went to pick up J's scoresheets, I gasped in delight! She and Speedy earned a 68.75% on her first ever show! The score would have been a 70% had she earned a 6.0 instead of that 4.0 (see the score sheet below). She couldn't get a trot because Speedy decided to take a very long poop all the way from H to M. The judge even went back to note the reason for the low score. On movement (no pun intended) 7, she added in blue ink, "Due to pooping!"
One of the things that made me particularly proud was J's centerline scores. Over the past few weeks, we worked really hard on that 10-meter half circle as well as getting a balanced halt. In the beginning, J's centerlines were really wide or too tight. And once she finally halted, nowhere near X, she would let Speedy root the reins out of her hands so he could stretch or relax. When I saw that 8.0 for her final centerline, I might have let out a celebratory woot woot! It was so very gratifying to see her hard work pay off.
After a bit of a break at the trailer and a very short second warm up, we returned to the ring for the second test, Introductory C. We reviewed a few quick things, and then J took Speedy into the ring. When the judge rang her bell, J got right to work. The second test was nearly as strong as the first, but they had one issue. J just couldn't get Speedy to pick up the first canter, "3" and "0," and then he didn't want to hold the second one, "5" and 4". To J's credit, she shook it off and didn't let it affect the rest of the test where she scored an 8.0 and a string of 7.0s.
We celebrated the scores from the great movements and talked about what we can do to fix the canter. We have several weeks to work on it before the next show. She can get it easily at home, we just need a bit more work to help her get it at the show.
Seeing Speedy work so happily for yet another rider made my heart swell with pride. Every 7.0 and 8.0 J earned felt like a feather in MY cap. Her scores proved that Speedy has had a correct dressage foundation and that my amateur training/coaching has been accurate, thanks to Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. The judge noted that J needs to show more "bend" which is what I've been asking her to do as well. Hearing that come from the judge confirmed that I am on the right track as a trainer/coach. Just as a reminder, none of Speedy's ladies pay me for any of the training or coaching since I am an adult amateur.
I would encourage any adult amateur that has a steady horse to offer lessons to kids or beginner riders. Giving lessons and coaching these ladies through their first dressage shows has taught me far more than I could have ever taught them. We have one more local show to do, and I know J will work hard to get that canter transition down pat. And no matter how she and Speedy do at the next show, I'll be just as proud of them as I am today.
Rock star horse for sale, $10 million dollars; but lessons are free!
I alluded to this yesterday, but the explanation was going to take too long to include in what was already going to be a long post. Even I get tired of reading when my posts get too long.
The reason there were two judges on the second day of the El Sueño show was this: On Sunday, more riders wanted to show than were expected. The judge's flight had already been booked, so it ended up being cheaper for the show manager to hire a second judge for the latter portion of the day rather than change the first judge's flight. The second judge, an "r" judge, agreed to also judge the morning's Second Level tests for "free" since she is still working on getting the requisite judging hours needed to earn her "R" judging license. It was a win-win all around.
When I showed at the CDS/USDF Region 7 Championships in 2014, there were two judges for my classes, but that is the only other time that I've had a second judge. I was actually pretty excited about the arrangement because it gave me twice as much feedback. Besides that, we all know that depending on where the judge is located, she is going to see different things. With a judge sitting at E, a halt at X is going to look different than what the judge at C will see.
I don't know if the way scores are reported to competitors is a California thing, or if this is how they're done at all USDF shows, but each judge's scores appear next to every other judge's scores on the computer generated score sheet. This makes it really easy to see where scores align and where they may be different.
As a self-professed score stalker - yours, theirs, and mine, I love seeing the extra information. For nine of the twenty-eight scores on 2-1, including the collective remarks, the judges saw the exact same thing. The judges disagreed about the other nineteen scorable areas. Nine times there was only a half point difference, but ten times the judges disagreed by a full point or more. In the end, the "r" judge awarded us 209.0 points compared to 197.0 points from the "S" judge, which worked out to be a little more than a 3% difference.
For the second test, 2-2, the judges' over-all scores were separated by a mere 6 points out of 410. That's pretty close! They were in complete agreement ten times and differed twenty-two times. The smallest variability was again a half point and the largest deviation was a point and a half. Even though one judge has more experience than the other, I found it very reassuring that their scores were so closely aligned. The judge at E gave us 245.5 points while the judge at C awarded us 239.5 points.
One thing that I did find interesting when comparing the "S" judge's collective marks on both 2-2 tests was this: on Saturday she gave me a 6.0 & 5.0 for the two rider scores, but she gave me a 7.0 & 6.0 on Sunday. The "r" judge also gave me 13 points on Sunday's test 2, but she split it up evenly with two scores of 6.5. I really wish there had been a second judge on Saturday, especially for the test that felt so much better but scored nearly as low. I'd like to think that both judges would have scored it similarly.
As a teacher, I "judge" student work all day long, and I try to give my kiddos the best score that I can justify giving. Most of my colleagues also "round up" when a score could go either way. I think we all embrace the philosophy of do no harm. I really and truly value the judge's feedback, and I always take it to heart. Judges don't sit out in the heat and cold because they want to be punitive. I know they are there to help, but they're also only human. I've never felt that I've been scored unfairly, but Saturday's second score did hurt my feelings. Judges spend a lot of time and money to be able to sit there and give us their feedback. The least we can do is read what they've written and apply it where we can.
And that's the end of that show recap.
Up until this weekend's show, not one single test we've done together has held even a moment of joy. Quite the opposite in fact. Each time Izzy and I have entered and exited the ring, I've thought to myself, this is not fun. Why am I doing this? The first test on Saturday left me feeling a bit discouraged, but during the second test, I found myself smiling and actually enjoying being in the ring with my big brown horse. It had finally become fun. When I woke up on Sunday morning, I was actually looking forward to showing.
I left STC Dressage and headed to El Sueño with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer, right behind me. His plan for me was simple: just keep chipping away at Izzy's tension. I wasn't to get grabby with the reins, and I was to ignore the spooks and unfocused moments. While that might sound vague, I knew exactly what Sean wanted me to do.
The first test, Second Level Test 1, went better than it had the day before, but it was still weak. I am not putting all of the blame on Izzy, but if he would just dial it down a notch things would be a lot easier. In all honesty, I know the "blame" is really on me. Speedy was so easy compared to the big brown horse. As long as I rode decently, Speedy would give me everything he had. Izzy is much more sensitive, so he needs me to be a much better rider than I am. All I can say is that I am working on it.
It's a complicated explanation, but suffice it to say that the Second Level riders were treated to two judges. I was thrilled by this unexpected gift because it gave me twice the feedback. The judge from the day before was still at C, but a second judge sat at E. For 2-1, the judge at C gave us a 53.243%, and the judge at E gave us a 56.486%. For those who may not know, when there are multiple judges, the scores are averaged. In the end, we walked away with a 54.865% which was a big improvement over the day before (50.405%). Not what I am working towards, but any improvement is is a good thing.
I thought the scores from 2-1 were deserved, and the further remarks from both judges expressed what I felt. The judge at C remarked, "Capable pair but too much tension today, need to develop correct basics of the training scale." This judge really didn't think much of me, and I say that with a laugh. She can only judge what's put in front of her, not what happens at home.
The judge at E said essentially the same thing, but it came across a bit kinder, "Difficulties with relaxation today making straightens, engagement hard to show. Rider quietly encourages horse well but needs relaxed topline and to take weight behind for this level."
Again, we chipped away at some of Izzy's anxiety, but there's more work to be done. One huge improvement overall was the warm up. As on Saturday, but even more so on Sunday, he was very ho hum about the warmup. I am pretty sure he was just over the whole thing which worked in my favor. It was as though he had finally thrown in the resistance towel. I could hear him saying, Okay already. I give up!
While the 2-2 test was MUCH steadier than nearly every other test we've done - no more screaming his head off the entire time, there were still issues. The medium gaits just aren't there yet because of the tension. The simple changes are improving rapidly at home, but again, with his topline tight, he can't sit for the canter to walk. The other issue we're having is the anticipation of the walk to canter at both A and C.
We can't get rid of the tension though unless we go to shows. Unfortunately, where I live, there aren't regular schooling or even small shows; it's either USDF or nothing. Being able to do the movements at home is great, but the point is to show off what he knows in public. So for now, we'll keep taking the hit on our scores until he gains confidence. All of these issues will be resolved once Izzy starts to relax and enjoy himself.
Some of the judges' negative remarks were expected. Sean and I have talked about sacrificing points if it means maintaining control. Yes, I would like him to stretch his neck in the free walk or be less conservative in the medium canter, but right now, maintaining control is more important. Sean cautioned me about letting out too much rein or going too big as a spook and bolt would hurt our scores far more than the 5.5s or 6.0s ever could.
Was 2-2 all bad? Nope. There was so much that was great! The turns on the haunches are really coming along, as are the rein backs. Izzy really struggled with both of those movements just six months ago. Izzy's counter canter is also becoming a strength. I am super proud of his first 8.0, and it came in the counter canter from the judge at C. The bobble in the walk to canter at C, which led to the medium canter, really affected the next several scores. Had we picked up and held that canter, we would have easily scored 60%.
So. Big success or epic failure? My trainer, my friends, and Izzy's fans are thrilled. So am I actually. I know that Izzy is progressing rapidly. I may spend a small fortune this year on entries just to earn dismal scores, but it will pay off as Izzy learns to cope with the show environment. Our next show is back at SCEC on August 7th and 8th. With Sean in my corner as coach, trainer, and cheerleader, I know he'll keep giving me the tools I need to succeed.
One more show post tomorrow ...
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%: