From Endurance to Dressage
Lately, I've been hooked on Mike Rowe's podcast, The Way I Heard It. His guests are from all walks of life and cover the political spectrum. Yesterday, I finished episode number 251, "You Wear 40 pounds of Gear Because, You know, You're on Fire Quite a Bit." Rowe's guest was three-time NHRA Funny Car champion Matt Hagan, who not only drag races, but is a rancher and farmer.
As you probably know, one of the topics near and dear to Rowe's heart is work ethic and dirty jobs. Rowe's foundation grants scholarships to individuals who are looking for a career in what he calls, The Trades - welding, electrical, plumbing - basically any kind of job that requires you to get your hands dirty. As a horse girl myself, I have great respect for people who aren't afraid to get dirty and who have a solid work ethic. To this day I can't sit on my butt watching someone else work. My parents raised me to offer a hand whether it is asked for or not.
That's neither here nor there though. The point that I was trying to make is that this particular episode really resonated with me, and maybe that's because of how we did at this Sunday's show. Which, if you didn't read the last two days' posts (here and here), was not good at all. Mike Hagan, the guest, was talking about how important the mental game is in sports, not just racing. In Funny cars, the driver covers 1,000 linear feet at over 300 miles per hour. Hagan pointed out that if your mental game is not razor sharp (my words not his), you won't just not win, you're very likely to wreck and die.
Hagan went on to explain that he has worked so hard on his mental game that he now sees that 1,000 foot track come at him in slow motion. He described it as letting the track come to him. In the seconds that he runs his race, he is able to make numerous corrections as he pilots his rocket to the finish line. As he shared this, Rowe jumped in and compared it to something his mentor had taught him: What Not How.
I actually hit pause on the podcast when I heard those words. Wow, is that ever applicable to dressage. In fact, it's exactly what Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has been preaching for the past year and a half; scores don't matter; that's how I am doing. What I do in the saddle is what matters. How am I doing? is the wrong question to be asking. Instead, by focusing on what I am doing, the how will take care of itself.
Yesterday, I called it being lackadaisical, but now I see that's not it at all. It's not that I've grown careless, it's that I care a lot more about what I am doing than how I am doing. Maybe that's why the judge's score of 4.5 for my effective use of the aids smarted so much. It felt like a slap in the face when I was deliberately and consciously working so hard at being effective. I wasn't riding for a score; I was riding the horse I had at that particular moment, and what he needed was to feel safe, secure, and reassured. That's what I gave him.
Those moments are difficult to see in the video, but numerous times I reached down to pat Izzy. I also made the decision to ride conservatively which the judge thought was back to front riding. If this horse isn't slowed down when he's pushing against me, he gets even more anxious as he feels the loss of his own balance. Letting him "move out" doesn't ease the tension; it only exacerbates it. Sean's solution is to move him sideways and do lots of bending lines which allows the circle to slow him down without needing to use the hand. Unfortunately, in the middle of a test, it's not exactly appropriate to circle when I feel tension. That means it's probably going to come from the hand.
For maybe the first time ever, I didn't look around at everyone else and think that I was the worst rider out there. That's a monkey that took a long time to be rid of. I have always worried so much about whether I fit in and whether I am good enough. For this show, it never crossed my mind that I shouldn't be there. Instead, I kept thinking about the what of what I was doing. Was I using my aids effectively? Was my inside leg pushing Izzy to my outside hand? Was I keeping him even between my aids? Was he on my outside rein?
For every stride of the schooling ride, the warm up (all 8 minutes of it), and the test itself, I kept up a running commentary that had nothing to do with negative self-talk. I didn't criticize myself, and I didn't compare myself to anyone else. I just focused on the job at hand. In Matt Hagan's world, that means making adjustments for every inch his car travels. For Mike Rowe that meant singing and not wondering if the audience liked it (he was an opera singer in case you didn't know). For me, that meant using every tool that Sean has given me in order to keep Izzy in the conversation. Despite the score, I know that I was successful. What Not How is a new tool that I'll be bringing out every day.
And yet again, onward we go.
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 ...
Spoiler alert: This Sunday, I earned the lowest RIDER'S CORRECT AND EFFECTIVE USE OF AIDS score in my 12 years as a dressage rider. I also got some pretty harsh feedback from the judge. Like I told Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, the judge doesn't know how hard I am working and how much progress we're making. He can only judge what he sees. Sean was still pretty annoyed by the scores though ...
So ... Izzy and I attempted yet another 2-day show at SCEC over the weekend. This place is our kryptonite. Izzy just hates showing there, and it hasn't helped that over the past two or three years we've had to show with loud freestyles happening in the ring two feet away or halloween costume parades surrounding us on our walk to and from the ring. After our bit of success at August's USDF show in Tehachapi - where we finally broke 60%, we thought it was time to try another USDF show farther from home. SCEC was pretty much my only choice.
We decided to follow the same plan we had used at the smaller shows up in Tehachapi. I left home early Saturday morning and met Sean at SCEC where we just schooled. The show was smaller than usual which meant there was just one ring going so the warm up was pretty quiet. After schooling, we over-nighted at STC Dressage and then trailered back to SCEC on Sunday for one test, Training Level Test 1.
The schooling ride on Saturday went pretty well. Izzy was super tense and thought about bolting or bucking, and he did get one small bolt past me, but over all he seemed much more aware of me than he has before, particularly at this venue. During the schooling ride, Sean observed that Izzy was finally connecting the pressure and release of my aids to his actions. I hadn't really made that connection yet myself, but it made sense. Each time Izzy thought about exiting stage right, I put my calf into his side, flexed him to the inside, and pushed him to my outside rein. He then thought about what he should do. Most of the time he gave a small oh, crap, I better do what she says.
While Sean was there in my ear offering fairly constant feedback, it was much more of the good, yes, just like like variety instead of very specific directions. At this point, I think he has finally convinced me how to use the tools he's given me so he basically was just confirming that I was using them well. Often times, he would make a comment, and I would roger that, as I had just had the same thought.
I think we were out there less than 45 minutes, and the first 10 or so had been spent hand walking. While we would have liked to have finished with Izzy more supple and volunteering more relaxation, we both recognized that Izzy has a timer which means we need to finish before that timer goes off. I pushed for just a last bit of suppleness and then we walked out.
The next day, as I was finishing the hand walking, the videographer, a woman who had seen some of our rides from two years ago, stopped me and asked if this was the same horse I had ridden two years ago. When I responded that yes, it was the same horse, she shook her head in disbelief. She gushed over how great he looked and she specifically mentioned his muscling and shape. She had watched our schooling ride the day before and couldn't believe the difference we had made in just two years.
I tell this not because I am a fabulous rider with a fabulous horse, but to illustrate how as riders and competitors we can still win while failing epically. This judge hated everything about me as a rider even though I did some of my best test riding. I didn't sit there frozen. Instead, I made constant adjustments as I rode rather than leaving Izzy hanging out to dry. The score didn't reflect it, but I felt like it was a huge personal win.
To be continued ...
Besides having what I considered a really successful show day, I was also lucky enough to find a County Saddle Fitter at the show. A few years ago I retired my Custom Revolution saddle and replaced it with a new-to-me County Connection. I have been pretty happy with this saddle as it has met both Izzy's needs as well as my own. I've had the flocking adjusted a few times, but my previous saddle fitter never loved the fit for Izzy, so I was eager to hear what Tamara Solange thought of the saddle's fit.
First of all, let me just say that Tamara is one of those rarer saddle fitters who will work on any brand of saddle. She explained that wool is wool, so if she can help a client get a better fit in a saddle that she hasn't sold you, she is happy to do so. I really appreciated that about her. My previous saddle fitter felt the same way. Tamara's process was nearly identical to my last saddle fitter's, and she was equally willing to answer questions and explain her process.
Before I rode, I met her at her tent and inquired about a fitting. She volunteered to watch my test to get a feel for how my saddle was working and how it fit me. That was also something I really appreciated. It's clear that Tamara cares about horses and her clients. Once my test was over, she and her assistant brought their materials down to my trailer where Izzy would be most comfortable.
Tamara started off with a hands on diagnostic. She explained that she was feeling for knots or places where the wool flocking had compacted or shifted. Of course my saddle's wool needed to be adjusted. The first thing she found was that immediately beneath my seat bones, the wool was compacted. This is quite normal. She was able to show me how the saddle's panels get flattened on the edge which creates a sort of pleat instead of it being filled out and round. To fix this, she simply pushed the wool back into place so that it rounded the edge of the panel. She then added more flocking to fill in the low spot on the outer side of the panel, being careful to keep it level down the length of the panel.
Each time she made an adjustment, she placed the saddle on Izzy's bare back to see how level it was sitting. She worked on both panels alternately until she felt comfortable with how it sat. She also looked at my pads to see how thick they were. She explained that horses like Izzy, those with steep withers can be harder to fit because the pommel needs to be so high to clear the withers. This in turn requires a rear gusset that broadens and flattens the weight bearing area in the rear panel area.
While my saddle is wide and worked great for my well sprung Arab, it is a tad too wide for Izzy. According to Tamara, this is better for Izzy because if I went to a narrower saddle, I would run into front to back balance issues given Izzy's steep withers. She felt that using my pads to get a level balance ultimately created a better fit for him, and I wouldn't incur the expense of getting a weird shaped saddle that would be difficult to resale later on.
When Tamara was sure she liked her adjustments, she had me girth up Izzy and ride him both directions in a small circle. She wanted to make sure that the points of the tree weren't digging in. When Izzy dropped his head to munch on grass, she cheered. Being willing to stretch down on a small circle with me in the tack proved to her that he was comfortable with her adjustments, and that the saddle fit correctly.
I am excited to find a saddle fitter close to me. She comes to Bakersfield at least twice a year, and if needed, I can always make the hour or so drive to her. If you're anywhere here in Kern County, I can recommend Tamara as an excellent saddle fitter whether you ride in a County Saddle or not. Her fee, $185, seemed quite reasonable considering how high everything related to horses has become.
So, that concludes my weekend of I got you, Izzy, and I'll be alright!
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 ...
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%: