From Endurance to Dressage
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 ...
By Sunday morning of a two-day show, I am always tired. When I was showing Speedy, the exhaustion was always physical. Spending three days at a show flitting from stall to stall, visiting with friends and then camping in the trailer never gave me much rest time. Doing it all with Izzy is even harder because he challenges me emotionally. Managing both his anxiety and my stress takes a fair amount of energy.
Tired or not, my attitude had been readjusted the night before, and I was ready. The pep talk, also known as a butt kicking, that I had received the night before from Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and Laura Goodenkauf had freshened my resolve. I felt both gritty and empowered - weird to feel that combo at the same time, but it's probably a lot how Wonder Woman feels after taking an ass-kicking. Suffering Sappho. I decided that I didn't care what it felt like - both Sean and Laura had told me that what it feels like at a show is not always how it looks at a show. The most important thing was to be IN CONTROL by the Sphere of Athena!
I must have done something right because we were able to improve on the previous day's Test 1 score by 10.5 points which gave us a 58.784% - almost 3% better. Sean has told me more than once that one percent better each time will really start to add up. For test 1, we earned 16 scores of 6.0 or better! I've never been happy with scores below 60%, but for this test, I knew we had done better than the day before, so I gave myself a pat on the back for a job (mostly) well done.
With only one ride between my two tests, I didn't bother with another warm up. Izzy was as good as he was going to get. My friend Valerie stood at Izzy's shoulder with the reins in her hand. Every time he tried to snap his head up, she reminded him that the airspace above his ears belonged to me, and he wasn't welcome up there. Having her be the bad guy for those few minutes gave me a moment to regroup and kept Izzy from getting irritated with me.
The second test of the day wasn't brilliant, but it was probably the best test we've done so far. We earned 14 points more than the day before for a score of 59.268% (more than 3% better!). As much as I hate knowing by how much we missed a 60%, I always check. We missed it by a mere 3 points. I refuse to be disappointed though. For the first seven movements we had a string of 7.0s, 6.5s, and 6.0s. For every movement that gave us trouble, we bounced back with another 7.0 or 6.5. In total, we had 18 scores of 6.0 or greater (out of 32). This test showed me that even when Izzy's tense, he can get 7.0s. What will we earn when he's slightly less tense?
We have two more shows to do before the end of the show season. Normally I would be thinking about the Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC), but since we didn't qualify (yet), we won't be going to RAAC or Championships. With that pressure off though, my goal for the rest of the show season is to try to finish with no more 4.0s on our score sheets. I would like to eliminate the 5.0s as well, but one thing at a time.
Yesterday, Sean left me with this final thought ... "The tools are everything! Once you learn to have more confidence in them, it won't matter how he is, you'll know you have the tools to deal with it!"
Showing is hard. Showing an anxious horse makes it even harder. Showing Speedy was often disappointing because our scores tended toward the low end much of the time. After enough persistent work, our scores would eventually come up, but it wasn't exactly easy. Speedy is great fun to ride though. He loves showing and always performs better at a show than at home. I didn't realize how lucky I was to have a horse who wasn't tense and anxious. I always thought having a horse with talent trumped all else. For open riders, that may well be the truth, but for a middle-aged amateur like myself, I realize now that talent isn't always enough. A good mind counts for a whole lot.
Izzy has talent, maybe too much. So far, there hasn't been anything he can't do. When I position him correctly and get out of his way and let him do the movement, he floats. Having a horse that can do it and allowing the horse to do it is a new way of thinking for me. If I took the aids off Speedy for even a second, he fell apart.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, is helping me understand how to ride Izzy. Continuing to ask for the movement without allowing Izzy to just do it causes some of Izzy's anxiety. Not all of it, of course, he generates plenty of his own, but allowing him to half pass or carry himself in the shoulder-in or travers lets him know that that there is a right way to channel his energy. Understanding that was a huge take-away this past weekend.
For the first time ever, I was scheduled to ride the more difficult of my two tests first. Since we haven't been even close to fabulous, I decided to roll with it. It's not uncommon for me to do better on the first test anyway, so if the first test were the harder one, maybe that would help us. It didn't. For Saturday's Second Level, Test 2, we walked away with yet another meager 55.854%. As I look for the silver lining, there were plenty of 6.0s and 6.5s, but there were too many 5.0s and 4.0s which kept us out of the 60% range.
Knowing how tense Izzy was, I had opted for a long warm up, nearly 45 minutes. It didn't rid Izzy of the anxiety, but a shorter warm up would have been even more disastrous. Even as I rode test 2, I knew it wasn't going to be good. How could the judge give us anything but scores and comments that reflected Izzy's tension and anxiety when she could hear him screaming for Speedy the entire time? Speedy was back at STC Dressage, but Izzy, knowing that Speedy was in Ventura County, figured he might be within earshot. He wasn't.
Second Level - Test 2
Our second test of the day, Second Level - Test 1, was nearly an hour and a half later, so we walked back to the trailer to give Izzy a drink of water and untack him for a few minutes. In general, I try to be optimistic, but after scoring below 60% so many times, it's hard to remain hopeful. It's even harder when your horse rears after halting at X at the very beginning of your next test. While test 1 was also a bit of a disaster, there were some good moments. We earned a 7.0 for our walk to canter at A, and we earned a second 7.0 for our final centerline which was a huge improvement over the test's first centerline (4.0 with a 2-point deduction for going off course).
As we walked out of the ring, Izzy screaming the entire way, I felt tears pricking. While my horse can do this, it isn't fun. While Sean was heading our way after reading the test for me, my friend Valerie allowed me to express my frustration. She has felt everything that I am feeling. Having her sympathy as she commiserated with me helped me to feel heard. Yes, pity parties are unseemly, but it's exhausting to always keep your spirits high. Sometimes, it's cathartic to vigorously stomp all over your hopes and dreams.
As we walked back to the trailer, I begin writing Izzy's FOR SALE ad. There's only so much disappointment that a girl can take. I later went to dinner with my friend Jen who manages the show. She's always great at helping me put the disappointment in perspective. Like Valerie, she too knows what it feels like when you just can't seem to get anywhere. When she dropped me off at STC Dressage later that evening, I heard laughter coming from the back of the barn. Knowing I am always welcome, I made my way through the barn to discover my own trainer, Sean Cunningham, and fellow trainer Laura Goodenkauf enjoying an after show beer.
Laura is a Los Angeles trainer who takes lessons from Sean when their schedules permit; he had coached her earlier in the day. We've met a few times, and I have found her to be very friendly and quite positive. I sat down to listen to some trainer talk, but eventually the conversation came my way. My frustration with the day must have shown through because before I knew what had hit me, BOTH trainers were giving me an earful. Both trainers genuinely feel that all horses can succeed- even Izzy. They made sure to let me know that I do indeed have the tools to ride Izzy well. I tried not to roll my eyes too many times as they listed my "strengths," (had they not seen me ride?), but I did listen and take their advice to heart.
Before going to bed that night, Sean encouraged me to watch the videos of my rides and read the score sheets. He insisted that while the rides may have felt terrible, they were nowhere near as bad as I thought they were. He was right. I pulled Izzy's for sale sign from my thinking and instead focused on what I could do better on Sunday.
To be continued one more time ...
Sunday morning started off super early. My first ride of the day was at 8:52 a.m. which doesn't seem too bad if you're stabled at the show, but we weren't. By 6:00 a.m. I was braiding, and by 7:00, Izzy was in the trailer ready for the short drive to El Sueno. It wasn't until I turned on my truck that I realized I had a flat tire. I never panic in a crisis, but that doesn't mean I don't want to. I knew it wouldn't help, so I just dug deep, and made a plan. When my husband starts to get upset about a situation, my response is always the same, work the problem, so I did.
There's a line in one of Bruce Willis's Die Hard movies that has always stuck with me. It's during a scene with the goofy tech guy that MacClane has drug around with him as he attempts to save the world. The kid asks, "Then why are you doing this?" MacClane answers, "Because there's nobody else to do it right now. That's why."
That's how I deal with problems. If I don't do it, who will? By the time the tow truck came and my tire was repaired, my chances for a Zen day were rapidly diminishing. I may be that guy during a crisis, but afterwards, I tend to fall apart. As much as I wanted to throw a bit of a pity party for myself, I pulled up my big girl panties and got to work. I saddled Izzy and headed down to the warm up ring, flat tire forgotten.
Second Level Test 1 - 53.378%
During our warm up, Izzy was fabulous. It was one of those warm ups where you're looking around for the judge, desperately wishing she could score the movements RIGHT THEN. Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, agreed. He was really happy with Izzy's relaxation, especially compared to just one day before. Without wanting to upset things too much, Sean asked me to think about making the questions just a bit harder. If Izzy was willing to work and listen to me, it would be a good idea to ask for just a little bit more from him.
By the time I made it down to the ring, I was feeling hopeful, but not overly confident. Izzy is Izzy after all. To no one's surprise, the tension slammed into Izzy's body as soon as we entered at A. Our 5% of progress from the day before went up in smoke. At about half way through the test, I finally quit riding him like he was on egg shells and told him to get with the program. It didn't fix the first twelve scores, but it made me feel better, and it was probably a relief to the big brown horse. You can see in the last half of the test that my scores started to get a bit better. Actually riding your horse will do that.
Second Level Test 2 - 58.537%
As soon as we finished Test 1, we went back to the warm up ring as the second test was less than thirty minutes later. Izzy was really braced and telling me that he was grumpy and OVER IT. Mentally, I was in the process of throwing in the towel. Well, this one is going to be a disaster, I said to myself.
For all of the other lessons and warmup rides that I've done with Sean, we've used the Cee Coach two-way communication system. Since we had so little time between tests, I opted to skip the process of putting the earbuds back in. I won't be doing that again. As Izzy and I rode the struggle bus around the warm up ring, I realized how much I missed hearing Sean's quiet feedback. He doesn't say a lot, but what he does say is very meaningful.
So there I was throwing in the towel, wanting the whole show over and done with. Sean must have seen the expression on my face (or possibly read my mind), because as I circled by him, he quietly said, "When Izzy is like this, unable to focus or relax, it's up to you to be the leader. You need to be his support." I don't know how Sean knew to say those words right then, but I needed to hear them. For the second time that day, I was forced to pull up my big girl panties.
As I entered the ring, I changed my game plan. Instead of trying to get more from Izzy, I reverted back to our plan for the last show - get a steady tempo. Nothing was going to be fancy, but we were going to do it right. You can see the results in our test. We earned six scores of 6.0 in the first seven movements, and a long list of 6.0s follow. There were even two 7.0s for good measure. The medium trot is killing us right now (4.0), but in every other area we showed a solid effort. The first simple change was rough (4.0), but we pulled out a 6.0 for the second one and another 6.0 for the quality of the serpentine.
In the end, we missed a 60% by a mere six points. Our score of 58% and some change was six percent higher than Saturday's score, and eight percent higher than the Sunday score from the show in April. We're so close. Will Izzy let all the tension go for our next show? I doubt it. Even Sean said it's probably going to take us a while, but just seeing that little bit of improvement each time is enough to reassure me that we are heading in the right direction.
Izzy and I are scheduled to ride with Sean about every other week for the foreseeable future. Our next show is at the end of June. We were so close to a 60% for this show, so I know it's out there waiting for us.
Just one percent better each time will have us there (and beyond) before the end of summer.
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