From Endurance to Dressage
Well, pretty low is the answer. After the show we did in July, the one where we didn't score so well but Izzy felt much improved, both my trainer and I were certain things were headed in a very positive, upward direction. We were wrong.
Don't worry, it's not as bad as all that, but I won't lie; I was disappointed and frustrated. Like I had for several shows over the summer, I drove down to the show on Thursday for a lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. We were both really pleased with how well Izzy worked. He was the most "rideable" that Sean has seen so far. The next day, we headed over to Southern California Equestrian Center (SCEC) for a Friday schooling ride. Compared to every other Friday ride, Izzy was fantastic. I explained that Izzy's newest "evasion" was stopping and refusing to go forward. We saw some of that on Friday, but other than that, he was much more focused on me.
By Saturday, the hamsters in Izzy's brain were falling out of their little wheel. By Sunday, they had left the building. It was gut wrenching and demoralizing. Sean described the look on Izzy's face as one that said, I DON'T WANT TO BE HERE. Instead of being anxious, something that we've been working through, Izzy was belligerent and pissed. He couldn't bend left. He couldn't trot or canter without carrying his haunches in. He couldn't do anything but halt, and even that was questionable and often came without my asking for it. For 2-1 (52.297%), we did get a 7.0 for our rein back, and on 2-2 (56.098%) we earned another 7.0 for the travers left, but the rest of Saturday's scores were pretty dismal.
Frustrated, but knowing that progress isn't always perfectly linear, we reviewed the tests, gleaned from them what we could, and prepped for Sunday. The first test on Sunday, 2-1, was maybe one of the worst tests we've done. Izzy balked, refused to maintain the canter, swapped leads, and did everything he could to tell me to "F" off. We did score a 7.5 for the rein back though, so I guess that was one positive. We scored a 50.676%. His submission score was a 4.0; that's pretty low.
I didn't even upload the video, and frankly, I've only watched some of it. He's not overtly misbehaving, and to a casual observer, there's nothing dramatic to see, but you all would see the tension right away. His haunches were all over the places, I was all over the place (it's hard to sit on a plank of wood), and his back is clearly tight. When we walked out of the ring, I was fuming. What the hell, horse?
And then it hit me. When Izzy refuses to do something, it's because he needs body work. Sean agreed. In the week or two before the show, Izzy's first step under saddle would be a bit "hitchy," but there were no other red flags other than a bit of balking. Normally, when he needs work, his "tells" are much more obvious. I could see that Sean felt perplexed and was working out a way to help me. There wasn't a lot we could do, but Sean came up with a solution.
Sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do. Sean's suggestion was to slow everything way down in the final warm up. We did a lot of walking and stretching, and when we did get back to work, Sean instructed me to work Izzy in the longest frame possible. It didn't turn my grouchy horse into a super star, but the more relaxed work told him that we were listening and wanted to support him. We earned a 7.0 for our first centerline, another 7.0 for the rein back, and a lot of 5.0s. We managed to eke out a slightly better 53.537%. Not anything like what we want, but at least we rebounded slightly.
Once Izzy was back at the trailer resting, Sean and I talked about our next steps. We both agreed that a call to my chiropractor was a priority - I did it that day, and then we discussed a plan for the next show. I know many of you have questioned our decision to show at Second Level this summer. Our scores pretty much scream, NOT READY FOR THE LEVEL. Sean and I both knew that Second was going to be a stretch, but we weren't necessarily looking for good scores.
I needed a test that would keep Izzy's brain engaged while I fought for some measure of control. Second Level has a lot going on with all of the changes of direction and transitions. Izzy can do all of the movements, but his tension prevents him from doing them well. Now that he is finally "rideable" on Friday and in the warm up, we're going to take away some of the pressure by going down to First Level in October. Even had we shown at Intro, his scores would have been the same. Tension is tension whether you're walking or pirouetting.
So what did the chiropractor say? Look for that in tomorrow's post.
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.
Spoiler alert: We did not win anything, nor did we get that elusive 60%. Instead, Izzy continued to show great improvement which has been our goal from the beginning. Mission accomplished.
However. While this show had some super great moments - we earned an 8 for our counter canter; there were others that left a bitter taste in my mouth. For the first time ever, I felt that my scores didn't accurately reflect the ride I had.
I know there are many people out there rooting for our success; your support means a lot. There are also those out there who feel vindicated when I fail. My low scores only prove their point. We struggle, and there's no hiding that, so when I say my scores from Saturday were maybe not so fair, many of you will agree while others will say they are exactly what I deserve. I'll let you be the judge.
For the warm up on Saturday, Izzy was game on. He listened and kept his attention on me. Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, was thrilled with Izzy's behavior. Sean worked as coach, trainer, groom, and life coach. Throughout the day he kept both Izzy and me motivated and focused. He reminded me repeatedly that I have the tools to ride Izzy successfully, so when we entered at A, I felt confident that this was it; this was going to be the test where we finally proved that we were where we belonged.
Things didn't go quite to plan. When we walked out of the test, Sean shook his head and sighed. I agreed with the sentiment. The horse I had in the warmup was most definitely not the horse that halted at X. Izzy basically threw a temper tantrum, stamping his feet while sticking out his lower lip and saying NO. It was embarrassing to say the least.
My videographer had some technical difficulties, so the test was recorded in two chunks. If you watch them, I am sure you'll agree with the judge's score of 50.405%
As frustrating as it was, Sean immediately moved on. Yes, Izzy was hot and cranky, but we still had a job to do. We took him back to the trailer where we untacked him and let him eat and drink for a while. There was nothing to do but regroup and try again. An hour later, we were back in the warm up on a horse with a much better attitude. I got some of the best toward the bit feeling that Izzy has offered so far. My earlier disappointment had faded, and I felt we were truly ready to "show."
I finished the second test with a huge smile. It was the best feeling test we'd ridden so far. That doesn't mean it was brilliant, but there were some really good moments and far fewer bad moments. Both Sean and I were certain that we had finally hit a 60%. The judge disagreed. Not only did she think the ride was a failure, but in her further remarks, she basically said we didn't belong at Second Level. She gave us a 52.561%, a mere 2% better than the first ride.
I've since watched the test a few times while reading the judge's comments, and while they may be justifiable, they also feel punitive. It's probably a case of sour grapes, but I truly thought that we deserved better. It felt as though she had made up her mind about us during the first test and simply expected us to perform poorly for the second test. We did have a few rough moments, of that there is no doubt. Would another judge have been able to forgive the earlier ride and score us with a fresh view? I don't know. While it was upsetting, there was nothing to do but go out there the next day and prove her wrong.
To be continued ...
By Sunday morning of a two-day show, I am always tired. When I was showing Speedy, the exhaustion was always physical. Spending three days at a show flitting from stall to stall, visiting with friends and then camping in the trailer never gave me much rest time. Doing it all with Izzy is even harder because he challenges me emotionally. Managing both his anxiety and my stress takes a fair amount of energy.
Tired or not, my attitude had been readjusted the night before, and I was ready. The pep talk, also known as a butt kicking, that I had received the night before from Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and Laura Goodenkauf had freshened my resolve. I felt both gritty and empowered - weird to feel that combo at the same time, but it's probably a lot how Wonder Woman feels after taking an ass-kicking. Suffering Sappho. I decided that I didn't care what it felt like - both Sean and Laura had told me that what it feels like at a show is not always how it looks at a show. The most important thing was to be IN CONTROL by the Sphere of Athena!
I must have done something right because we were able to improve on the previous day's Test 1 score by 10.5 points which gave us a 58.784% - almost 3% better. Sean has told me more than once that one percent better each time will really start to add up. For test 1, we earned 16 scores of 6.0 or better! I've never been happy with scores below 60%, but for this test, I knew we had done better than the day before, so I gave myself a pat on the back for a job (mostly) well done.
With only one ride between my two tests, I didn't bother with another warm up. Izzy was as good as he was going to get. My friend Valerie stood at Izzy's shoulder with the reins in her hand. Every time he tried to snap his head up, she reminded him that the airspace above his ears belonged to me, and he wasn't welcome up there. Having her be the bad guy for those few minutes gave me a moment to regroup and kept Izzy from getting irritated with me.
The second test of the day wasn't brilliant, but it was probably the best test we've done so far. We earned 14 points more than the day before for a score of 59.268% (more than 3% better!). As much as I hate knowing by how much we missed a 60%, I always check. We missed it by a mere 3 points. I refuse to be disappointed though. For the first seven movements we had a string of 7.0s, 6.5s, and 6.0s. For every movement that gave us trouble, we bounced back with another 7.0 or 6.5. In total, we had 18 scores of 6.0 or greater (out of 32). This test showed me that even when Izzy's tense, he can get 7.0s. What will we earn when he's slightly less tense?
We have two more shows to do before the end of the show season. Normally I would be thinking about the Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC), but since we didn't qualify (yet), we won't be going to RAAC or Championships. With that pressure off though, my goal for the rest of the show season is to try to finish with no more 4.0s on our score sheets. I would like to eliminate the 5.0s as well, but one thing at a time.
Yesterday, Sean left me with this final thought ... "The tools are everything! Once you learn to have more confidence in them, it won't matter how he is, you'll know you have the tools to deal with it!"
Showing is hard. Showing an anxious horse makes it even harder. Showing Speedy was often disappointing because our scores tended toward the low end much of the time. After enough persistent work, our scores would eventually come up, but it wasn't exactly easy. Speedy is great fun to ride though. He loves showing and always performs better at a show than at home. I didn't realize how lucky I was to have a horse who wasn't tense and anxious. I always thought having a horse with talent trumped all else. For open riders, that may well be the truth, but for a middle-aged amateur like myself, I realize now that talent isn't always enough. A good mind counts for a whole lot.
Izzy has talent, maybe too much. So far, there hasn't been anything he can't do. When I position him correctly and get out of his way and let him do the movement, he floats. Having a horse that can do it and allowing the horse to do it is a new way of thinking for me. If I took the aids off Speedy for even a second, he fell apart.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, is helping me understand how to ride Izzy. Continuing to ask for the movement without allowing Izzy to just do it causes some of Izzy's anxiety. Not all of it, of course, he generates plenty of his own, but allowing him to half pass or carry himself in the shoulder-in or travers lets him know that that there is a right way to channel his energy. Understanding that was a huge take-away this past weekend.
For the first time ever, I was scheduled to ride the more difficult of my two tests first. Since we haven't been even close to fabulous, I decided to roll with it. It's not uncommon for me to do better on the first test anyway, so if the first test were the harder one, maybe that would help us. It didn't. For Saturday's Second Level, Test 2, we walked away with yet another meager 55.854%. As I look for the silver lining, there were plenty of 6.0s and 6.5s, but there were too many 5.0s and 4.0s which kept us out of the 60% range.
Knowing how tense Izzy was, I had opted for a long warm up, nearly 45 minutes. It didn't rid Izzy of the anxiety, but a shorter warm up would have been even more disastrous. Even as I rode test 2, I knew it wasn't going to be good. How could the judge give us anything but scores and comments that reflected Izzy's tension and anxiety when she could hear him screaming for Speedy the entire time? Speedy was back at STC Dressage, but Izzy, knowing that Speedy was in Ventura County, figured he might be within earshot. He wasn't.
Second Level - Test 2
Our second test of the day, Second Level - Test 1, was nearly an hour and a half later, so we walked back to the trailer to give Izzy a drink of water and untack him for a few minutes. In general, I try to be optimistic, but after scoring below 60% so many times, it's hard to remain hopeful. It's even harder when your horse rears after halting at X at the very beginning of your next test. While test 1 was also a bit of a disaster, there were some good moments. We earned a 7.0 for our walk to canter at A, and we earned a second 7.0 for our final centerline which was a huge improvement over the test's first centerline (4.0 with a 2-point deduction for going off course).
As we walked out of the ring, Izzy screaming the entire way, I felt tears pricking. While my horse can do this, it isn't fun. While Sean was heading our way after reading the test for me, my friend Valerie allowed me to express my frustration. She has felt everything that I am feeling. Having her sympathy as she commiserated with me helped me to feel heard. Yes, pity parties are unseemly, but it's exhausting to always keep your spirits high. Sometimes, it's cathartic to vigorously stomp all over your hopes and dreams.
As we walked back to the trailer, I begin writing Izzy's FOR SALE ad. There's only so much disappointment that a girl can take. I later went to dinner with my friend Jen who manages the show. She's always great at helping me put the disappointment in perspective. Like Valerie, she too knows what it feels like when you just can't seem to get anywhere. When she dropped me off at STC Dressage later that evening, I heard laughter coming from the back of the barn. Knowing I am always welcome, I made my way through the barn to discover my own trainer, Sean Cunningham, and fellow trainer Laura Goodenkauf enjoying an after show beer.
Laura is a Los Angeles trainer who takes lessons from Sean when their schedules permit; he had coached her earlier in the day. We've met a few times, and I have found her to be very friendly and quite positive. I sat down to listen to some trainer talk, but eventually the conversation came my way. My frustration with the day must have shown through because before I knew what had hit me, BOTH trainers were giving me an earful. Both trainers genuinely feel that all horses can succeed- even Izzy. They made sure to let me know that I do indeed have the tools to ride Izzy well. I tried not to roll my eyes too many times as they listed my "strengths," (had they not seen me ride?), but I did listen and take their advice to heart.
Before going to bed that night, Sean encouraged me to watch the videos of my rides and read the score sheets. He insisted that while the rides may have felt terrible, they were nowhere near as bad as I thought they were. He was right. I pulled Izzy's for sale sign from my thinking and instead focused on what I could do better on Sunday.
To be continued one more time ...
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%: