From Endurance to Dressage
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 ...
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 ...
I think this past weekend was about truly believing Sean Cunningham, owner and Trainer at STC Dressage, when he tells me, "You have the tools." What he means is that no matter how tense or spooky Izzy gets, I have the knowledge to work him through it. Izzy may never get untense at a show or lesson, but it doesn't matter because I am now learning how to successfully ride him through it.
I don't know why it didn't occur to me sooner in the season, but like at the show in June, I arrived at STC Dressage two days early so that I could get an extra lesson. Instead of arriving on Friday and taking a warm up lesson at the show grounds, I came on Thursday so that I could get both a lesson and a schooling ride before the show. Besides getting to ride, showing up a day early allows me to study Sean as he rides and teaches throughout the day. Let's just say that Izzy isn't the only tense horse out there. Studying Sean's aids when dealing with resistance gives me a better visual which helps me when I am dealing with similar issues.
Like at every other show this year, I rode Second Level Tests 1 and 2. Like every other show this year, Izzy was tense, but less than at the show before. In fact the overall improvement was huge. To start with, he unloaded at STC Dressage, followed me over to his regular pee spot, and pee'd on command. He then led me straight to "his" stall and marched right in. He nickered at his barn mates, Clooney and Cinco, and then walked over to the automatic waterer and helped himself. In no time he was munching on hay and feeling right at home.
Our lesson that afternoon was one of the most productive we've had in terms of working on actual movements. Throughout the lesson, Izzy's ears hung at half mast as he happily got to work. Sean was quite pleased with his progress which meant he was pleased with how I am applying what I am learning from one lesson to the next. The next day, Friday, we trailered over to El Sueño for our warm up ride.
As an aside, I am having so much fun with the team at STC Dressage. Every month that I come show, the team has welcomed me and made me feel right at home. Everyone comes out to help and watch and then we do a great dinner on Friday night. This time, we did a barn party which was especially entertaining because some of the horses joined in.
The warm up ride on Friday looked like it was going to go great until it didn't. Just as Izzy would start to settle in, a horse outside of the ring would explode. I didn't get to see most of it as I was trying not to die, but both Sean and Valerie kept up a running commentary. Horses outside of the ring were rearing, bucking, bolting, and basically running amok. Poor Izzy didn't stand a chance. His brain just couldn't cope with so many horses in "distress." Even with all of that chaos happing behind us, there were still moments when I felt the horse that Izzy is going to be. His shoulders came up, his croup dropped, and he was swinging freely through his back.
For the first ten minutes of that ride though, I wasn't very happy. I wanted to burst into tears and toss Sean the reins. Izzy spooked really hard again and again so much so that my back took a beating. Sean's attitude does nothing but exude calmness and confidence though. No matter how poorly I was riding, no matter how anxiety ridden Izzy was, Sean never let up. He truly didn't care what others thought of the hot mess that was blasting around the ring. He simply continued his coaching as though we were the only two people out there. "Do exactly what you're doing. Keep chipping away it bit by bit. It doesn't matter."
Once I got control of my emotions and let Sean's words get through that barrier of frustration and embarrassment, because really, who wants to be that rider?, I took a deep breath and started using the tools that he's been giving me. I flexed Izzy to the inside without pulling back. I worked to stay elastic in both my arms and hips. I asked Izzy to focus on me by bending his body and allowing him to go forward. My reward was little moments here and there of a very nice ride. Did it look nice? Not really. He was a mess, but I felt those fabulous moments and held tightly to the feeling they gave me because I know I can get them again.
And then we went to the show. To be continued ...
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 …
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
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