From Endurance to Dressage
Izzy's first ever USDF show is just six weeks away. Of course, telling the universe that I am going to a show is practically a guarantee that something is going to go haywire between now and then. Even so, I like to plan ahead. Universe, please don't hold this against me.
Getting ready to show on Speedy was a liner process. I studied the directives for the level. I practiced the movements for the level. When I felt we were in the ballpark, we went and showed. Usually our scores weren't great. We went home and practiced some more. We scored better the next time. We practiced some more again. Eventually, our scores rose, we won some things, and we started on the next level.
Izzy does not learn that way. His learning path looks more like a kindergartner practicing cursive. There is some up, some down, and a lot of sideways. We go forward five steps, only to reverse ten. We march forward for a few months, and then all hell breaks loose, and I threaten to sell him. All the while though, our scribble moves in a generally upward direction. I frequently forget to stop and think how far we've come.
Right now we're schooling the simple changes, particularly the canter to walk. During our last lesson, Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, said something really interesting. When something catches Izzy's attention, he likes to snap his head up, stop moving his feet, and get a good look. It's a been a problem since the beginning. While Izzy has a pretty decent bolt in his toolbox, his preferred tool is the balk, and he's quite good at it. So when he tried to quit moving his feet, Chemaine said that he is welcome to think about it, but he has to still move his feet.
It's not like I've just been letting him stop to think about things. No. I've tried a lot of different ways to convince him that he still has to go forward. I've used spurs. I've used bigger spurs. I've used the whip. I've tried kicking until I've left dents in his side. None of it has cured that tendency to slam on the brakes, but it's gotten us through.
Izzy is not the same horse he was six years ago or even one year ago. He has learned a lot and grown up some. Now that he is more mature and walking around with a bit more confidence - by comparison, Speedy is flat out arrogant next to Izzy, the balking is something that I need to begin to address again. I put my baby spurs back on.
Outside of the arena we have some of those ubiquitous plastic chairs. I think one of them had fallen over, but I am not sure. Izzy was. Not only had it fallen over, but it was crawling with horse-eating bacteria. He gave that chair some serious stink eye, went into slow-motion, and then pedaled backwards. I goosed him forward with my baby spurs, and he hopped straight up in the air in total shock. Hello, naughty horse, meet my heel.
I've ridden with those baby spurs for the the last fews days, and the desire to balk has steadily decreased. I bring that back to the simple change because it is a movement that requires that the brakes and the gas pedal be pressed simultaneously. In order to go from a canter to a walk, the horse has to be pretty collected with his hind legs active and carrying.
In Second Level Test 2, the simple changes are done in a three-loop serpentine as you cross the centerline. When I was riding those tests on Speedy, I hated that movement because it was so hard. I now see how doing it on the serpentine helps set the horse up for success. As you leave the rail, the horse should be put in a haunches in so that his haunches are already stepping under while the rider collects the horse down to the walk. To do so the rider's legs say keep going while the hand and seat say whoa. My legs aren't strong enough to convince Izzy to keep stepping under, but now that he knows the baby spur is there, he's been much more willing to get that bit of a piaffe feeling in his hind legs.
Over the weekend, we were finally able to ride the three-loop serpentine with actual canter to walk transitions close to the centerline. The walk to canter part is not a problem. Izzy's got Speedy beat there. Every time I finish a ride, I ask if it's good enough and reliable enough yet to take to a show. A week ago, I would have said no. This weekend, I felt like the simple changes were weak, but they are there. My entry for the October show is filled out. The only thing missing is which tests we'll do. We have until the beginning of October to decide.
Will it be First or Second?
HAHAHAHAHA. Wouldn't it be nice, and a lot simpler, to be able to identify and work on problem number one? Problem numero uno is that most of the time,I have no idea what I am doing which means there are actually five trillion problems. But for the sake of time, let's just talk about one of them. It's probably number 456, but who's counting?
Even though last week was a complete shit show (weather, smoke, work), I actually managed at least four solid rides on Izzy. I sincerely apologize for the language, but if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck. I worked on different things over the week keeping in mind that we're preparing for a show at Second Level. The two biggies are the medium trot and getting tidy simple changes. Those things are coming along, but on Saturday, something new cropped up.
The walk pirouette has been a challenge for Izzy because he feels vey trapped in the movement. He has had a difficult time understanding that no, he isn't supposed to walk forward. In the beginning, this caused a lot of balking. He figured if forward was the wrong answer, simply stopping must be the right answer. No, I had to tell him, there is a door number three.
At our last lesson, Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, had me increase the size of the pirouette circle when Izzy starts to feel trapped or stuck. My response when he gets stuck is to let him walk forward out of it, but Chemaine explained that letting him walk forward only teaches him how to get out of the exercise whereas in making the circle bigger, he still has to keep the bend and keep his hind legs engaged.
On Saturday, Izzy decided that not only could he not turn on his haunches to the left in a walk pirouette, but he also couldn't do it on a bigger circle. In fact, he made it quite clear that moving his haunches to the left was something he could no longer do. What the hell, buddy? So of course lots of pony club kicking ensued. Rather than just give in, I applied Chemaine's advice and made the circle as large as I needed to show him that he could step over with his outside hind leg. Instead of a circle I did haunches in down the long side and then moved to haunches in across the diagonal. To the right, his walk pirouette is quite lovely, so we even did a few of those so he could feel successful.
By the end of the ride, he gave me a couple of decent strides to the left, so we called it quits. He is trying so hard right now that I never want to shake his confidence. Any time I can reward him for his effort, I do. His jackassery may return once the weather turns cooler, but for now, his "refusals" are so mild that I am taking the opportunity to work through them in a way that doesn't make him feel like they're a big deal. This horse is just so much fun to ride that even when we do have a problem, I don't mind working through it.
October's show will be here before I know it, and I am already looking forward to it!
I like to have goals. It's actually more truthful to say that I have to have goals. They don't need to be huge, although I always have one or two that are, but I do need a target, something I'm working towards. Right now, Izzy has become my main ride, and so I am trying to figure out what a reasonable expectation is for his USDF debut.
Since he doesn't have a flying change yet, I am shooting for Second Level in late October. If the simple change is not quite reliable, we can always drop to First Level, but for now the goal is Second. Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, was able to come down on Sunday for a lesson. I told her what I was thinking and asked what she thought.
One of the many things I love about Chemaine is that she is always willing to shoot for the stars. She doesn't look at low scores as a negative reflection of her character. She totally gets that some of her clients are risk takers and some are not. If I want to aim for Second Level, she's totally on board to help me get there. Of course, I've made her promise many times to not let me make a total fool of myself, so I trust her to tell me if my goals are not realistic.
So with our rocket ship aimed at a distant constellation, we started tackling some of our weaker areas in preparation for Second Level, namely getting a bit more loft in Izzy's trot work. Chemaine had a great metaphor for upping my game with the big brown horse. She described it as putting him in a box. When he is tense and resisting, the box will be made of steel. The frame is non-negotiable. He simply has to "get used" to working in a more tightly packaged frame. When he accepts the parameters that I've established, I can turn my box into cardboard. He can stretch and push on the box as long as he's lifting his back. If he gets hollow or braces, the box will once again be unyielding.
That sounds horrible, doesn't it? Metal, unyielding, get used to it, but the metaphor made perfect sense. Instead of throwing away the contact because he's tense, she had me firm up the outside rein, slow him down, and add leg. In essence, she had me think piaffe. I wasn't actually asking for piaffe, but in a way, it's the same idea. Engage the hind end which means making it more active and carrying more weight. That's when he's in the metal box. He can't push forward. He has to carry himself. Once I could feel that he was comfortable with that work, I could slowly push my hands forwards and allow the sides of the box to soften like cardboard so that he could push forward and lengthen his stride.
We kept coming back to that idea of a metal box. When he resisted or hollowed his back, she encouraged me to slow down, compress his frame, and ask him to work harder. As he accepted the harder work, I could offer him a release by letting him more forward with a longer stride. Even if he didn't accept my invitation, he knew it was there. Even during just this one lesson, he did start looking for that release.
We used the same idea at the canter. I used a steel box with unyielding sides to say, look, this is where I need you to be. Accept this work, get comfortable with this work, and we'll go big. Physically, Izzy can do everything I am asking of him. He just doesn't know it. Once he sees that he can do it, he trusts me and resists less and less. During this lesson, he showed tons of progress and genuinely tried really hard to do what was asked of him.
He's always been a fun horse to ride, but I think we're going to make a lot quicker progress if he's my only horse to ride. I still adore Speedy, and I am hopeful that he might return to higher level work, but in the meantime, I've got something brewing that might keep him working at least lightly, which will make him a lot happier. My fingers are crossed that it's a good fit for everyone involved.
In the meantime, Big Brown Horse and I have our work cut out for us. I think we're up for the task though, especially since we've got Chemaine guiding our path. I sure do hate Second Level though.
At least I think he's back. Two rides are probably not enough to say for sure. After three weeks of just hanging out, he finally seemed sound on Sunday afternoon.
This lameness happens about once a year in the fall. At least five years ago, I took him to one of California's premier equine hospitals, Alamo Pintado. After extensive tests, Dr. Carter Judy felt that it was either an injury to the collateral ligament or a deep bruise. My own vet confirmed those two options, while my farrier seems certain it's a bruise. Either way, the solution is the same - time off.
After many years of the same pattern, I think I finally have a reason for why it happens. During the summer, I am at the barn every day in the early morning. I am a teacher and have most of the summer off. Speedy knows my schedule and looks forward to my visits.
Once I go back to work in mid-August, I simply can't keep the same schedule. I try to be out there seven days a week, but it's just not possible. It takes a while for Speedy's anxiety to build, but eventually, it reaches a point where he can't contain himself. At the least little provocation, he paces and whirls. When his pasture buddy goes out, he screams and whirls until he comes back. If he runs out of hay in the afternoon, he paces until I get there.
In all of the pacing and whirling he does, he inevitably whacks his own front feet, usually the right one, and comes up lame. The soreness will be quite pronounced the first day, but over two to three weeks it simply fades away.
I've checked his soundness once a week. On Sunday, he finally felt even in his stride. I only rode for twenty minutes, but we did most of the walk and trot work from Second Level. Since he felt good enough for that, I asked for some walk to canter to walk transitions. And then, just because I could, I checked in on the flying change. There was a buck or two in the canter half pass (which could only be called such because we were cantering toward the rail but it was awful), but when I asked for the change, he gave it promptly.
My fingers are crossed that he really is sound and stays that way. I have all week to reassure him that life is still worth living and that he hasn't been forgotten. Arabians are just too darned attached to their people.
If I am frustrated and dejected with where Speedy and I are, I am on Cloud 9 with Izzy's progress. After nearly four years of work, Izzy has finally decided to join my team. My mom and her husband were here over the weekend and even she commented on how obvious it is that he loves me.
My mom is a generous soul. She knows how much I need to ride, so even though they had driven nearly the length of California over the past week, she happily agreed to sit on the mounting block and shoot pictures while I schooled Izzy.
As I rode, I described what I was working on. She loves horses and thinks dressage is pretty cool, but she doesn't yet recognize all of the movements. I am sure it didn't help that we weren't doing them spectacularly either. But even so, it helped her to know what I was at least trying to do.
Right now, my rides on Izzy are no longer about teaching him how to be a good equine citizen. I am now schooling most of the movements from Second Level and even some from Third. The more complicated the movement, the happier he is.
Most days, I can now school the walk pirouettes, the counter canter, and the trot half pass. He loves it all. The turn on the haunches still throws him for a bit of a loop, but if I start it big, he really starts to sit for the second or third stride, and suddenly it's a full pirouette.
The counter canter hasn't come easily, he loves to throw in a flying change, but he now understands it. I simply have to reassure him that I won't let him fall. As long as I have a solid hold on the "inside" shoulder and remind him to stand up on it, he relaxes into the counter canter and holds it easily. We can now do a full lap around around the arena without losing the lead. The flying change is next!
None of what we're doing is fantastic. His stride is still a bit short, but he's begging to stretch, and he is 100% with me. He doesn't check out anymore, and he wants to work. He's enjoying himself, and he genuinely likes what we're doing. I can't tell you how grateful I am that I stuck it out with him. There were many days that I wrote for sale ads with every intention of posting them.
Those days are gone; I've finally decided to keep him. Check back with me next week though. I am enjoying this version of him while it lasts!
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 schooling and showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2020 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2020 Pending …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
2020 Completed …
10/26-27/19 SCEC (***)
6/20-21/20 SCEC (***)
6/29 Ulf Wadeborn (c)
7/11-12 SLO-CDS (***)
7/27 Breen-Gurley (c)
8/30 Breen-Gurley (c)
9/20 Caveletti Clinic (c)
10/11 A. Newcomb (c)
2020 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
3rd Level Qualifying Modified for 2020
2 Scores/1 Judge:
Score 1: 60.405% Atkins
Score 2: 62.432% Atkins
3rd Level Qualifying Modified for 2020
3 Scores/2 Judges:
Score 1: 60.405% Atkins
Score 2: 62.432% Atkins
Score 3: 61.750% Johnson
Stuff I Read