From Endurance to Dressage
For those that don't know, this past spring I started riding with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. I have found him to be highly knowledgeable, insightful, talented, patient, and compassionate to both horse and rider. He's never in a hurry. To the contrary; he truly embraces the idea that it takes the time that it takes.
I saw this message pop up on social media earlier this week, and it spoke to me instantly and profoundly. I asked him if I could share it here because I thought you too, might appreciate his message, "don't stray too far from the pitchfork."
It wasn't that many years ago that I lost my way a bit. I was involved with a partner whose goals weren’t aligned with mine & as a result ran my business & my life into the ground. I have been spending a significant amount of my day holding a pitchfork ever since.
The benefit from this reality check - which for me embodies everything this quote is about - is that I've been able to get closer to my horses than ever before. Wearing multiple hats in the barn, mucking out, feeding, grooming, riding, etc. allows me to see the horses from every angle day in and day out.
Knowing my horses' habits in an even more intimate way has helped the details in my riding evolve as well. Time in the barn cannot help but carry over to time in the saddle.
With business expanding, I'm starting to hire help again. While I'm not going to be spending as much time holding a pitchfork anymore, I'll never stray too far from it.
Being a real horseman/woman is about so much more than just chasing the next championship. After all, those championships wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t take hands on care of our horses and know every detail about them. That will always start in the barn, with a pitchfork.
- Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage
I recently reached out to Cassandra Rabini, owner and trainer at First Gem Dressage, for some tips on grooming (here). I have since implemented many of Cassandra's tips, and Izzy's mane (other than the rubbed out parts) and tail are looking better and better. So is his coat, but that might be from the combination of flaxseed (one of Cassandra's recommendations) and the Prednisolone.
Hoping I wasn't bugging her too much, I reached out a second time and asked for some tips on braiding. Speedy's braids were always a thing of beauty, but Izzy's short mane has made that braid impossible. Cassandra answered all of my questions and even provided photos.
Here are her answers to my questions ...
How long and thick should the mane be to get the nicest looking button braids?
The mane should ideally be somewhere between 5-6 inches (see photo below). Thinner manes can get away with a shorter mane, but short and thick braids are very hard to get into a nice rosette shape (though not impossible).
The thickness should be something that makes a braid about a finger's width. The photo below is an example of what the braids should look like with ideal length and density.
I use a pair of scissors and go straight and upwards into the mane and that thins out without pulling or making the length shorter.
Which are better, banded braids or sewn in braids?
I do both banded braids and sewn in (+ band) braids! They both look pretty close but the sewn in ones look a little fancier and stay in better. The banded method can be done in 10 minutes which is great if you are lazy or in a rush!
How to Do Banded Braids:
Step 1 - Braid hair down, fold the "tail" under, then band neatly at bottom.
Step 2 - Stand braid up.
Step 3 - Fold under to about halfway.
Step 4 - Fold under again.
Step 5 - Band halfway through the braid, and voila! done.
How to Do Sewn In Braids:
Step 1 - Braid and band exactly the same as in steps 1 and 2 above.
Step 2 - Thread the needle; the thread should be about twice the length of the braid.
Step 3 - Push the needle through the bottom of the braid just above the band.
Step 4 - Wrap the thread once around the base of the braid.
Step 5 - Push the needle and thread through the back of the braid, about half way up.
Step 6 - which creates this fold ...
Step 7 - Push the needle and thread back down through the base of the braid.
Step 8 - Thread upwards through to the back/top of the braid, dead in the center.
Step 9 - Fold the braid again and tuck it neatly under as you pull the thread through. Keep it very tight.
Step 10 - From the back, push the needle through the center of the rosette.
Step 11 - From the front, push the needle through the center of the rosette. Repeat two or three times, back and forth.
Step 12 - Cut the thread at the back & top of the braid, as close as you can.
Voila! Finished product.
Banded and sewn in from the side ...
Banded on the left, sewn in on the right ...
Cassandra had a few last pieces of advice for me ...
You can find Cassandra in Southern California at First Gem Dressage. She can be reached at (858) 282-7898 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I ask for advice, I usually take at least part of it. This is particularly true at work. If I ask a colleague for a suggestion, I am well known for taking the advice and reworking it to make it my own. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my ideas tweaked and improved because I reap the benefits. That's what Cassandra Rabini, owner and trainer at First Gem Dressage, did for me in the Tips From a Pro post I wrote the other day - she gave me a seedling of an idea. (I always give my colleagues credit for their ideas, especially if I eventually make them my own.)
While I already do many of the things that Cassandra recommended, she had some other ideas that I want to try, but new habits only work for me if they are easy to do. With that, I decided a pampering station might be the answer. See, reworking an idea. What I have in mind will take a little time (and money) to create. Just to get the ball rolling, I dug out a hanging basket that goes with a portable saddle rack I own. While the idea was good in theory, this particular basket won't work.
Besides all of the safety issues with this basket - see the two hooks in the front? Those things will grab a halter and create a giant vet bill along with ruining everything in the basket; Izzy immediately began poking around inside grabbing things. On top of all of that, this basket is collapsible, so the instant anyone/any horse shifts the front panel of the basket, it collapses, spilling everything to the ground. It's a good idea in theory, but this basket won't work.
After thinking about it for a while, I grabbed a small bucket and a two-sided snap and hung that from the fence. While it was much safer, the bucket hung awkwardly, so I swapped it out for a flat-sided bucket which hung much better. I am not loving the bucket idea though because it won't drain. I could punch holes in the bottom, but I am going to continue to look for a better container.
In the meantime, I am gathering the things that I want to keep at the ready: hoof conditioner, hoof pick with a brush, cleansing shampoo, soft cloth, rubber scrubby brush, and so on. While I already have some products that I love, I hate leaving them outside because the pampering station will be in full sun for a good part of the day. Many products have a tendency to leak when they get hot. Fly spray comes to mind.
While I prefer Knotty Horse over Show Sheen or Mane and Tail, both are much cheaper, so I'll buy one of them to leave outside to use for a quick conditioning. I am also going to add some Ivory soap and witch hazel, both of which are cheap and available at the grocery store. While I have a hoof conditioner, the can is less than half full, so I will be ordering something new as it runs out. While I have a half-full bottle of Mane and Tail shampoo, I'll be adding another grocery store purchase recommended by Cassandra - Dove shampoo. For showing, I prefer Ultra Cruz Equine Foaming Shampoo by San Juan. It smells divine, rinses off cleanly, and leaves the coat feeling soft and clean, but I don't want to use it every day. The Dove shampoo is a cheaper and easier for frequent use.
I do all of my grooming at the barn, so the pampering station will be out on the lawn where I give quick showers. If my pampering bucket is easily accessible, I can start some new habits - cleaning hooves of all dirt and manure, conditioning hooves, cleaning tail docks, and more frequently shampooing and conditioning tails.
Let's see if I can start some new habits. I'll keep you posted.
We all know I adore my boys, Speedy and Izzy. They get everything they need from timely farrier work, chiropractic/body work as needed, and visits to the vet for regular care (and emergency treatment when life goes sideways). They also get high quality forage and supplements based on each horse's requirements and overall health. The one thing that I don't spend as much time doing is grooming and pampering. My boys are always presentable, but no one ever oohs and ahhs when one of them walks by.
Speedy always cleaned up nicely, but keeping a gray looking fabulous during the winter is nearly impossible, especially if your horses live outside like mine do. With that being said, that doesn't mean I couldn't do just a little bit more to smooth down some of the rough edges. Izzy's braids were a bit wonky for the last two shows, and his tail just won't get full at the ends. I keep it trimmed, but it is perpetually thin at the bottom. Now that he's on prednisolone for his allergy to the gnats, he's no longer rubbing his mane and tail out, and his skin is free of rubs and wounds. I'd like to keep it that way and maybe even get him looking a little sharper for the rest of the show season.
I recently connected with Cassandra Rabini, a young professional working in the San Diego area. Long before I started training with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, Cassandra had been Chemaine's assistant. As many talented trainers who are just going out on their own will do, Cassandra headed to both Florida and Europe to further her education. As a CDI groom, she's worked with some big names in the sport of dressage and has now gone out on her own. Along with her business partner, Kelly Phillips, the two ladies run First Gem Dressage, a training, coaching and sales barn in San Diego, California.
Knowing that Cassandra has gained a wealth of experience while working with some top riders, trainers, and grooms, I asked if she'd be willing to share some tips with me about how I can get Izzy looking just a bit more polished. To my relief, I am not totally screwing up; I do do many of the things that Cassandra suggested, but after reading her answers to my questions, I realized that there is more that I could be doing. Here are some of Cassandra's tips for bringing out the best in your horse.
What do you recommend for getting a really shiny coat?
"Use a metal curry comb every day in firm, circular motions followed by a stiff, dense brush (I love HAAS brushes) these clean very well and will bring out the coat’s natural oils. I like the Epona Glossy Groomer for face, legs, and for “currying” in shampoo during bath time as well. But for the body/overall coat condition, a classic metal curry with firm pressure in circular motions is the best. It also gives them a great massage and is really good for their muscles."
"Add oil to the diet for lots of shine. Start with a very small amount and work up based on the horse’s weight and energy levels. About 1/4 cup a day will give lots of shine without putting on too much weight, but you can go up to 2 cups a day for a very thin horse. Gradually increase to manage energy levels. I like Havens EquiForce Oil, but flaxseed is also great and seems to be the most palatable for picky eaters. If you are on a budget and buying from the grocery store, choose canola oil over corn or vegetable oil for best omega ratios."
"For scratches/fungus/rainrot, use dish soap! I love Ivory dish soap because it is ph balanced and gentle enough to use daily. I scrub my horses' legs with this every time I shower them, and it keeps any gunk or fungus from forming. For very stubborn spots, I will wash with Dawn dish soap, towel dry completely, and spot treat with witch hazel until it goes away. If the fungus is very bad and already a scab, I will use alcohol on it for the first 1-2 days to really kill it, but then I switch to the more gentle witch hazel, as the alcohol will dry the skin. The most important step when dealing with scratches is to keep it clean and DRY. Keep legs clipped if you can so they dry quickly and completely. Don’t put your horse away wet, towel dry, then sun dry and feel with your hands to be sure your horse is bone dry before putting them away.
What about tails? I would really like to get Izzy's looking fuller and more healthy.
"I wash tails 1-2 times a week with a moisturizing shampoo, followed by conditioner. My favorite is the E3 Elite Equine Evolution Argan Oil Shampoo and Conditioner. It smells amazing and makes the hair so soft and shiny. Another cheap, drugstore alternative I love is Dove Intense Moisture Shampoo. Really scrub the tail dock and get in there with your nails, especially if the horse is prone to rubbing. I also wipe their bums, and everywhere under their dock, every day with either baby wipes or a damp cloth, especially when it’s warm; they sweat and can chafe under there."
"I NEVER brush the tail wet or without spraying some show sheen in. To avoid breaking tail hairs: brush carefully and consistently, every day. Spray Show Sheen in first, then start from the bottom and slowly work up. If the tail is freshly washed, spray with Show Sheen, then brush the next day when dry. For chestnuts with thin tails, don’t brush - just pull the hairs apart with your hands and remove any shavings (tedious but effective)."
Any advice for keeping hooves looking healthy and shiny?
"A step that I think often gets overlooked, and I didn’t completely understand until I worked in Germany, is that they keep the hooves over there PRISTINE. It makes such a difference, both aesthetically and for hoof health. Keep the hoof clean and picked out, as well as brushed-out inside the hoof. This includes after riding; brush/pick out arena footing (there’s always a hoof pick at the entrance of the indoor arenas), and also use a wet, very stiff brush to clean any manure or dirt off the hoof and apply hoof oil. Use the hoof oil inside and out, every day, especially in our dry west coast climate. It keeps the perfect balance of moisture in the hoof which makes them look amazing for show day."
"My hero product is Birdsall's Farrier Barrier - I used this every day in Florida with fantastic results. It doesn’t dry out or harden the hoof, but it really helps strengthen and improve the integrity of the hoof, especially around cracks or for tender feet. It also really helps with thrush/bacteria and is great for muddy winter times, as well as summer when they are having to be bathed frequently. I put it inside the hoof, between the hoof and the shoe, and around the nail holes or any other cracks. Do not put it on the coronary band, as per the label’s instructions. Other great hoof products I like are Absorbine Hooflex Conditioner and good old Rain Maker."
While I certainly don't do all of the things Cassandra recommends (I'm busy, my boys live outside, etc.), there are many that I already do: both of my boys enjoy a gentle curry, but they prefer plastic or gel curries. I also feed milled flaxseed - oil got too messy, and it gets HOT here in the summer time. Oils don't do so well stored in high heat. I also use Knotty Horse Mane and Tail Treatment and Detangler on my horses' manes and tails, and I always start from the bottom and work my way up gently.
There are a few things that I think I can do better, namely keeping Izzy's feet cleaner. While I pick them out, I never add any type of conditioner, but I think his hooves could use it. I also like Cassandra's idea of cleaning the tail dock with a gentle soap. Izzy does rub his tail dock, so does Speedy for the matter. I imagine doing more than a quick hose off might keep that area feeling less itchy. I hate monkey butt myself, but I never really considered that my horses might enjoy getting cleaned up "down there" as well.
I am hoping Cassandra might be willing to answer even more questions. I have a few about braiding and tack cleaning.
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%: