From Endurance to Dressage
So here's where we are.
We're making forward progress. We obviously have a long way to go, but the good news is that we are on the right road.
Just a few months ago I was feeling really, really frustrated. I just couldn't see any forward progress at all. I would think that we had made progress, but then the same crap would present itself again and again. I watched a video from my first ride on Sydney and was so discouraged to see that we looked better on that ride than we do now, a year and a half later.
I started looking at how much I was spending on a horse that was turning out to be a bad fit for me. I wasn't afraid to ride him anymore, but I just didn't seem to be a good enough rider to really ride him well. Selling him seemed like the smartest thing to do. I placed a very lean ad on an online site and decided to leave the whole mess in the Divine's hands. Seriously.
Do you know what happened? Within a DAY of posting that ad, I had one of the best rides I have ever had on Sydney. Of course. I immediately thought about pulling the ad, but then I didn't. One good ride couldn't change a year and a half of not really getting anywhere. I continued to look at him as a sale horse, but I reasoned that I might as well learn what I could from him while I waited for the right interested buyer.
I felt good about my decision and was absolutely honest about giving the issue to the Man Upstairs. I quit "outlining" what I wanted to happen. I never even revisited the ad to see if anyone was showing interest. I simply let the whole thing go.
Hand your problems over to someone else, and all of a sudden you're free of the burden. Figures. Since placing that ad, my rides on Sydney have gotten really, really good. That's not to say that he's soft and round as soon as I get on, but within just a few minutes, he is bending and moving away from my leg, and we are cantering every day.
On Sunday, I rode him in the "scary corner" where little Tommy was climbing the tree right next to the arena. Tommy and I were chatting about how many gifts under the tree were for him while Sydney and I cantered around and around. Take that you puny, little elephant!
After Tommy disappeared to do little boy things, Sydney and I continued to work. I asked for a right lead canter and got a whole lot of oh, my - that's not right. I brought him back to a trot and just focused on rebalancing him to the right. I focused on pushing him sideways, sideways, sideways as we worked on a 20-meter circle. After a few minutes I realized that he was nicely balanced and hitting the rail at exactly the right spot.
I asked for a right lead canter and was pleasantly surprised by what he gave me. At first, I needed to sponge the outside rein to keep him straight, but then I was able to switch to sponging the inside rein to encourage a bit of flexion. It was a lovely, balanced canter. His downward transition was soft and quiet and he immediately stretched his neck down at the walk. I had a huge smile on my face and realized that I had made all of that happen.
So where are we? Sydney is still for sale until he isn't. God will let me know if something changes. My shoulders feel a lot lighter since I ditched that burden of worry. Sydney's demon seems to have been defeated (or was it my own?), my elephant seems to have moved to a new home, and Mt. Self-Doubt is suffering from erosion. Today, all is right in my world.
Our weather is sinfully lovely, low 70s with a brilliant blue sky. With four full days off, I am using every one of them to put some serious rides on both my boys.
I haven't really shared much on the Sydney front lately as we've just been motoring along pretty steadily. Some days I am frustrated by his inability to relax, and other days I am encouraged when I recognize how much better I am riding him. I know that our problems are actually my problems. Sydney doesn't just give it up; he makes me earn every balanced step.
I can't say it enough times; that simulator changed the way I am riding. My sense of feel has gone supernova. The stiffness in my right wrist is disappearing and my elbows have finally moved to center stage. My core is way more engaged, and I feel like it is stabilizing more and more each day.
This new body awareness has helped me ride Sydney much more effectively. We now canter every ride. We're better to the left, no surprise there, and even though it's not even close to pretty, we're also working on the right. Fortunately, Sydney and Speedy G share the same body issues. Both boys are stiff to the left and limp to the right. This is a god thing as what I learn on Speedy G can be used with Sydney.
Over the last month, my rides on Sydney have gone more or less like this: walk on the buckle one time around the arena. We then begin our trot work with a fairly loose rein, although the rein length is getting shorter each day. Our warm up includes a trot lap in each direction with a change across the diagonal. After the perimeter work, I do a three loop serpentine in each direction. I follow that with a couple of repeated passes across the diagonal and then a canter circle in both directions. By the end of the canter circles, Sydney is usually moving more forward and is ready to start bending.
I spend the rest of the ride asking him to supple his neck and ribs by doing a variety of exercises: random loopy circles, spiral in and out, 20-meter circle with a 10-meter circle at the top, and so on. On Wednesday, I decided to try some canter work after our suppling exercises. I haven't done this with him before as he tends to be anxious about the shortened rein already, and I know asking for anything else leads to blow ups.
I started left and was delighted that he picked up the canter without any fuss. This was a huge accomplishment. For me. He obviously just needed me to ride him better.
On Friday, I decided to test my new-found skills. We started as we always do: walk, loose rein trot, canter, and then on to more connected work. This time, I started shortening the rein early into the warm up. I focused on keeping my fingers closed, especially my ring finger, and I made sure my elbows were moving at my side. I also focused on moving from the elbow as opposed to moving my hands or wrists.
Right away I felt more balanced and much more secure in the saddle. As we rode, Sydney did his usual sometimes balanced, sometimes flipping his nose routine. I continued to move from the elbow asking him to soften to the inside while moving him away from my inside leg. All the while I paid close attention to supporting him with my outside rein; no running through the outside shoulder, please.
As we were nearing the end of the ride, I again asked for the canter. He made the transition willingly. But as I asked for a slightly more uphill canter, he gave a squeal, tossed his head and blew through the outside shoulder. For about three steps. I slid my inside hand down the rein, pulled straight back with my elbow, and bent him around my leg while insisting that he go forward.
My new found strength and balance surprised him and energized him at the same time. All of a sudden he rocked back on his hind end and gave me the most fabulous uphill canter. He also started giving the most adorable race horse snorts. Frankly, he rocked the canter! We made a few circles and transitioned down to trot. I immediately did a change of direction, which when he's anxious is a guaranteed way to get a blow up, but I brought him to me and sat deep on the pull. He made the turn and then gave me a brilliant and connected trot. He was uphill, on the bit, and fabulous. I just sat there supporting him.
We came back to a walk, and I praised him hugely. I hopped off and gave him a big smooch, which he loves, and hoped he felt as good about his work as I did. I wish I could convey how frustrating it has been to have a horse that I can't ride. Oh, don't misunderstand; I ride him all week long. I mean really ride him and make it look pretty.
Every other week I decide that I should just sell him to somebody who can do a better job with him. Then we have a decent ride and I think, well, maybe I can do this. I hope this is more than one of those times. I hope this is me really getting good enough so that he is hearing me and working with me. Either way, my elephant is a pretty distant memory, and Mt. Self-Doubt is looking smaller and smaller.
Can I get a hallelujah, Sister?!
Saturday's ride was crowded. As I summited Mt. Self-Doubt, I had to squeeze past my elephant Fear AND a whirling-twirling demon. The good news? I made it!
An explanation is needed. Mt. Self-Doubt is always in my vicinity. It looms large and in charge when trouble rears its head. It's a steep climb filled with narrow ledges, and slippery sides. There's the I Am an Idiot Step, I am a Terrible Rider Face, and the always terrifying I Hope No One Can See Me Zone. On Saturday however, I zipped right past each of the obstacles and made it to the top without a single mis-step.
When I saddle and bridle, Sydney is always relaxed. He lips the bit into his mouth and sighs. He stands rock solid while I mount. He enjoys working. Keeping that in mind will help me defeat his demon.
I started Sydney out on the same loose rein trot and once again had to kick, kick, kick him around the arena. We did the long sides both directions and 20-meter circles both ways. I kept it in my mind that he needs to feel a sense of well-being with no pressure. While he was still relaxed, I asked for a left lead canter and was rewarded with a nicely controlled gate. We went around once and then walked. All of this came with lots of praise and neck pats.
I then shortened my reins just a bit and started in on the 20-meter circles with a light to medium contact. The demon resurfaced, but I was prepared. No matter what Sydney tried, I was ready for him. When he reared, I cranked his head to the side and gave a loud, NO! I rocked the reins so that he had nothing to lean on, and I kept my legs on him so that I could control that outside shoulder.
I've ridden horses my entire life; I don't remember my first ride. This ride, I'll remember. I had the most amazing sense of feel that I have never experienced before. I knew exactly what he was going to do before he did it. As JL said later, I kept him in the conversation even though he wanted to leave in the worst way.
Throughout the ride I kept picturing what my core and seat should be doing. My rib cage was knit together, my knees were bent, and my heels remained low. My seat was as solid as it has ever been, and I was glued to his back.
This was the first time that I have been able to analyze his scary behavior while also riding. What I saw was that he was certain something bad was going to happen when I shortened his frame even that tiny bit. It seemed as though he was sure I was going to cram him up to the bit in order to "soften and round" him. I could feel that that was what he thinking.
When he tried to speed up, I added a ton of outside leg and rocked the inside rein to get some bend and the outside rein to slow him down. As soon as he slowed down, I stopped asking. When his head shot int the air, I sat up tall and rocked the reins all while keeping my legs on. The instant his head came down, I quieted my hands and opened my legs the least little bit.
In half the time that it took on Friday, I had him going around nicely to the left. His trot was very slow, but it also felt very balanced. As we circled, the worst of the tension left his body. When he was very quiet, I asked for a halt and praised him. When we changed direction to track right, I expected to repeat the whole process, but he surprised me by being much more willing. It didn't happen right away, but within a few minutes, he was accepting the bit and moving better than he ever has.
We finished the ride with a walk on the buckle and then lots of walking while I bent his neck in each direction. He looked tired when we were through, but he was happy and relaxed. I hope he gives me some trouble today so that I will once again have all the time in the world to work on it.
It's much harder to fight a demon as the dark approaches!
Last spring, I felt certain that my relationship with Sydney had to come to an end. I was clearly not the girl for him. After nine moths together, our rides were quickly deteriorating. The rearing and bolting were getting so scary that I had to quit taking lessons on him. Each day I was more afraid to ride him than I was the day before.
One evening, I told Hubby that I thought it would be best if I sold Sydney. I am not sure why Hubby didn't secretly do a happy dance at my news while consoling me with thoughtful platitudes, but he didn't. Instead, he encouraged me to keep trying and not give up. He must have known that a failure of this magnitude would have made me very difficult to live with.
I've written about this before so you know that I changed my outlook with Sydney and started riding him in a different way: no expectation of showing, loose reins, just have fun, etc. Six months later, Sydney is a new horse. My ride on Saturday was everything I had hoped for when I bought Sydney: fun, relaxing, "dressagey", and safe.
We have finally arrived at the point where I feel like we are an Intro Level pair. That's good because it means we can eventually become a Training Level pair and then First Level will be within our sights.
I can now reliably and safely hack Sydney around the arena on a loose rein. Just a few months ago, the scary end was simply too scary, and I usually avoided it at the walk and always at the trot. I can now trot on a loose rein anywhere in the arena and guide him with just my seat and legs - no reins to make the turns! We can trot 10 and 20 meter circles, shallow loops, and cross the diagonal without the thought of bolting. We've even made it to a show. Elephant, what Elephant?
I have learned that he needs to move and that he DOES NOT LIKE to feel trapped. If I use too much hand too soon, he becomes worried. So I don't use too much hand. If he is worried, we move in a small circle that requires him to move in a very controlled manner. He wants me to be in control. He wants me to make the decisions. So I do.
While working in his stall this weekend, he stood right behind me nuzzling my hair and arms. It was clear that he wanted to be close to me and that he enjoys my company. Right back at you, Dude, right back at you!
Let the craziness begin, again. I can't believe how tired and burnt out I already am from work. I've been getting to school 2 HOURS early each morning just to try and stay caught up. Out of necessity, this post has to to be quick.
I rode Sydney in the afternoon on Tuesday for the first time since May. I fed him right away so that his food alert alarm wouldn't be activated. I took the lunge line out to the arena just so I would be prepared. It was 100 degrees. I hoped all of that would enable me to have an easy, relaxed 15 minute ride. Nope.
I hopped on and as soon as I tried to shorten my reins he got tense. I sent him forward and rocked the rein to remind him that I wouldn't hold on. He set his jaw and refused to bend to the left.
I immediately hopped off, grabbed the lunge line, and sent him around. And around. And around. Each time he tried to look to the outside, I swung his nose back to me. This started a round of bucking, rearing, squealing, and general disrespect. Each time he "shenaniganed," I jerked him back towards me. It took some time and a lot of sweat, but his expression began to change. I could see him trying to figure out just how in the hell he got in this predicament, and more importantly, how could he make it stop.
I gave him a chance to walk and praised him. I stepped closer and started pushing his hind end over while sending him forward. He finally, finally gave in. He was pretty sweaty, but not blowing hard, and I didn't care. This was his choice.
I hopped back on but felt the same tension. I planted my inside hand and just kept sending him around my inside leg. A couple turns around, and then I changed the bend. I again asked for a nice circle. Every time he fussed or got tense, I repeated the small circles.
Again, it took some time, but I finally outlasted his tantrum. He gave up. He didn't work as nicely as he has been doing in the mornings, but the melt down was far, far less dramatic, and the recovery was much quicker. Once he went to the left for a circle or two without being tense, we walked a bit and then worked to the right. He started out tense this way, too, but quickly gave up. I asked for several circles where he moved off my inside leg, and then we were done.
I was ticked that we were back to this fussy way of going, but I was thrilled that I called his bluff and made him work anyway. I never got mad or scared. I just kept bending, bending, bending. Hopefully I am on to something here. It's going to get cool before too long, and it will be a lot harder to convince him that my way is easier if he's not soaked in sweat!
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%: