From Endurance to Dressage
We Didn't Die
Like always, I woke just before dawn. I dressed quickly, and headed out to get Izzy. After talking to Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, I had a better plan for day two. Phase one included lunging the heck out of Izzy so that he could get rid of his nervous energy. Doing that under saddle in the warm up ring would have likely interfered with everyone else's warm up. There's no reason every one else should have to suffer.
The lunge line I take to shows is a super long cotton rope. It's a good twenty-five feet long - long enough to really let Izzy run, and it's easy to keep a solid grip on the line. I started the timer on my watch, and sent him forward. He giraffed his neck at a huge trot for five solid minutes. I stopped him, sent him the other way, and watched him do the same thing for another five minutes. I stopped him again and repeated the process at the canter for another five minutes each way. By then, he was pretty sweaty and huffing, but he wasn't ready to stop. For the last ten minutes, I had him trot, canter, trot, walk, changing directions several times.When my timer read thirty minutes, I took him down to the wash rack and hosed off as much of the sweat as I could; it was still pretty cold and windy. Then I left him to think about life.
Again, I had to ride Second Level Test 2 first. I did a short warm up - he was much less tense than the day before, but I knew we weren't going to get a 60%. My friend Jen had gone home, so I didn't have a groom to video the ride, and I have misplaced the score sheet, but before losing it, I saw that we earned 50%. Not what I was hoping for, but it was a 6% better than the day before. That's not worth getting excited about, but I was relatively "happier."
Phase two of the plan also involved spurs. It's really hard to use a spur on a horse that only wants to shoot forward, but the judge from day one had commented that I needed to make a connection from the hind end to the bit. I knew that, but again, I was riding a rocket. I put the spurs on anyway. During the fifteen minutes between tests, I took Izzy to the warm up ring and cantered. That's all we did - canter left lead, canter right lead. Counter canter, true canter. And I did all of it with the spur on. Every time he tried to suck back, evade, or lean away from something, I put the spur on and gave a huge half halt.
For Second Level Test 1, the final test of the show, we earned a 55% and change - that score sheet is lost as well. Now, that doesn't sound very good, and it's silly to think that I was excited about such a not-quite-mediocre score, but it was more than 10% better than the day before. Not only was the score higher, but I truly felt him begin to relax. I really wish I had video from that ride because there were many moments when I felt like we were actually "dressage-ing." His neck stretched forward from his withers, and I was able to lift my hands out of my lap and truly ride him forward.
This show was a hot mess. It was disappointing, expensive, and exhausting. Even so, I walked away with a lot of good information about how to better mange Izzy at shows. Until he learns to be less anxious at shows, there will be a lot of lunging - something I really hate, a lot of cantering in the warm up, and I'll use spurs.
I don't want to do it, but I am also searching for a quick-acting, legal, calming supplement. I used magnesium for over a year and didn't see any changes, but maybe now it might work. I am also going to include some ulcer medication for the weekend of the show. And lastly, I am looking for a bonnet with fabric over the ears that is thick enough to muffle some of the noise while still being legal (DR121.7). I think I've found one that will work; the ear covering is made from high-density drilled cotton.
Dressage is hard. Showing is hard. But it is only through adversity that we reveal our true character. I am not sure that Malcom X said it exactly this way, and I doubt he had dressage in mind when he said it, but this quote has been credited to him ...
"There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time."
Isn't that truth?
After our very stressful journey to the Earl Warren Show Grounds in lovely Santa Barbara, things went downhill, fast and furiously. Stormy weather had been predicted for the weekend, so I was prepared for some tension because of that, but Izzy took it to a whole new level. After being thrown about in a trailer ride from Hell, he was not interested in dressage, especially in stormy, cold weather.
Even though the wind was howling and the sun was beginning to set, I saddled Izzy for a Friday afternoon warm up ride. The Earl Warren Show Grounds has several arenas, but all four of our tests were to be in "The Dome." It's a great arena, but it terrified Izzy. With the heavy winds on Friday afternoon, the ceiling tiles were rattling and crashing. They even made me nervous.
I also schooled him in the warm up arena, but nothing was working to get him to relax even the tiniest bit. He was as tense and nervous as he can be. I kept calm and carried on even though nothing I was doing was helping. After a very disappointing ride, I cleaned him up, put him in his stall, and fed him. There wasn't anything else to do.
Early the next morning, I went out to feed him, but he didn't look very well. Even though it was quite cold and windy, his flanks were sweaty, and he had virtually no gut sounds on his left side. He looked as though he was beginning to colic. I hastily called my friend Jen who was driving up to the show to serve as groom. She works at a vet hospital. I ran his symptoms by her and she thought he might just have an ulcer-y tummy. She agreed to bring some UlcerGard and Banamine. In the meantime, I started walking him.
As we walked near the barns, Izzy started to relax, but if I walked anywhere near the arenas, he got tense and stiff. In between short walks, he hungrily munched on the little bit of alfalfa that I had brought. It makes him high, but I was more interested in soothing his tummy. By the time Jen arrived, a little after 9:00 a.m., it was clear he wasn't colicky, but his tummy was upset. We gave him some UlcerGard, and then we headed up to the show office to complete a Medical Report Form.
Fortunately my first test wasn't until 11:36 a.m., so we had plenty of time to let the UlcerGard begin to do its thing. It also gave us time to evaluate Izzy to see if he was actually colicky. He was pooping normally, drinking, and munching on his hay. By 10:45, I decided to get dressed. My plan was to keep the warm up to a minimum since being in there really stressed him out. I think we could have skipped the warm up altogether as it did nothing to calm his anxiety.
I've only watched the test once, and it doesn't look nearly as bad as it felt. It was like sitting on a rocket. Izzy was as hard-backed and braced as a horse can be. There was absolutely no movement in his back, and his legs jackhammered us around the arena. We earned a 6.0 for our final halt, and eighteen 4.0s. Yes, you read that correctly - eighteen 4.0s. We also earned seven 5.0s which seemed like gifts. Our final score was a 44.146%.
For this show, all of the rides were run in reverse order which meant I rode Second Level Test 1 after riding Test 2. That may have helped, although I can't say for sure, as I was able to finish the day with an "easier" test. The score was still terrible, but at least it was slightly improved at 45.541%. We actually earned two 6.0s for Test 1, but there were still a whole bunch of 4.0s - twelve of them. There were slightly more 5.0s - ten of them.
That evening, I called Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, for some advice. We devised a plan of attack for the next day. I couldn't see how it could get any worse. Here's Test 1 in all its cringe-worthy glory.
Stay tuned for day 2 ...
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.
We're all on our own paths when it comes to horses. Some of us are owners who let someone else do the riding. Some of us don't need a judge to tell us if we're doing it "right." Some of us want to enjoy the beauty of the trail without the distraction of scores. And some of us need, want, and crave those scores.
It's no secret that I am a score stalker. I am a frequent visitor at USDF Scores.com. I analyze my own scores as well as those of other riders, particularly if it's someone whom I admire. I've done a lot of thinking about scores lately, especially since Izzy is now my full time ride. We earned scores in the high 50s at our last show (58.9%, 60.6%, 55.5% 58.1), and I definitely need to push them up into the 60s. Simply wanting it doesn't make it happen though. It takes a concerted and focused effort to raise scores.
A year or two ago, I created a spreadsheet where I could enter all of the scores that Speedy earned at Third Level. I am working on entering Izzy's data as well. By studying Speedy's scores, I was able to see where we were doing really well: centerline, rein back, turn on the haunches; and maximize those scores. I also saw where we struggled: flying change to the right, canter half pass right. For our last show together, we earned a 7.0 for all three flying changes to the right. Identifying your weakness and focusing on it, will help improve your scores.
Another thing I recently realized is that the difference between a 58% and a 68% is just riding each movement one point better. That's it; just one point. If I were to focus on trying to change a 58 to a 68, I could never do it. The gap is too wide, but if I focus on earning just one more point for each movement, a score in the 60s is very attainable.
Izzy and I are going to Santa Barbara this weekend for another two-day USDF show. We'll ride Second Level Tests 1 & 2 again. I've been schooling those tests religiously since we came back from SCEC. For every ride I keep the judge's comments running through my head like a ticker tape. Neck short, angle varies, conservative ... Every time Izzy's neck gets short, I flex him to the inside, put my inside leg on, and push my hands forward. When I come through the corner in the shoulder-in, I pick a post on the fence and ride straight towards it to help maintain the angle. While our medium canter might still be conservative, it's at least getting more supple.
We might not get one more point for every movement, but we're going to do our best. Even a few more points will have us scoring in the 60s. While a 68% would be amazing, my goal is a 60% or better at all four rides. That's a tall order, but we're capable.
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 …
3/6-7 El Sueño (***)
4/17-18 El Sueño (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
5/23 TMC (*)
6/12-13 SB (***) OR
6/19-20 El Sueño (***)
6/27 TMC (*)
7/3-4 Burbank (***) OR
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
7/25 TMC (*)
8/14-15 RAAC (Q) (***)
8/29 TMC (*)
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