From Endurance to Dressage
A week or two back, the ranch owner moved the hay to the top of the property in case the river floods. Some time last last week, someone covered part of it with a blue tarp. I knew that meant trouble. I saddled Izzy on Saturday morning and walked him up to the arena. I pointed him at the hay stack. I walked him towards the hay. We stood and stared at it. He never batted an eye. Until he did.
We had worked for a full twenty minutes before Izzy noticed that tarp. It took me a minute to figure out what he was spooking at. Once he did notice it, it was all he could think about.
When we first started the ride, he was tense and grouchy, but I knew it was because I hadn't ridden all week. We had had several special events at school that I couldn't miss which meant no rides. I was really pleased with my riding though. I immediately put him to work, asking small questions at the walk. Within just a few minutes, he was stretching his neck down and letting out deep sighs. We started the trot work, and he was like butter.
I had him pick up a canter and was delighted with how well he was listening to my seat. My new focus is to keep my canter aids quieter, and I felt I was doing a good job. Then came that spook. Rather than allow myself to feel irritated, I set to work getting him back on my side. I never felt like I got the same level of relaxation that I had before he spooked - he was still keeping his eye on the tarp, but the video tells a different story. He was still being sassy with attitude, but he didn't check out like he would have done even last year.
While I didn't get to school exactly what I wanted to, it didn't matter because we did something else. Something that was probably more valuable anyway. Testing the effectiveness of my aids and discovering that I can positively affect Izzy's attitude is worth more than getting a so-so flying change. Every time that I keep him with me mentally, I make a deposit in his trust bank.
So thank you, Scary Blue Tarp.
If you've been reading my posts for longer than two minutes, you'll know that I am pretty self-deprecating, I deflect, and I have a hard time giving myself credit. For the first time in maybe ever, I am beginning to feel pretty darn good about my riding. The lesson I took with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage on Saturday has a lot to do with it.
For the past eight or nine years, I have been learning how to ride Izzy. He is not easy, not even for a professional. I've always said how much better he would have done had he had a more knowledgeable rider. While that is still true, Sean has helped me so much in the past two years that I am starting to feel like the kind of rider Izzy needs.
Over the past few weeks, I have been sharing posts where-in I have written about the fact that I no longer hate my position. I don't cringe nearly so much as I used to when watching videos of myself riding. That doesn't mean I am brilliant, but it does mean that I don't completely suck.
When I rode on Sunday, I used my Pivo to record the ride. Without needing to watch the video, I could feel that I am making some big progress in my riding. Sean has hammered and bent and coaxed my seat into more or less the right place. Under his coaching, I am feeling new "feels." Out of what feels like nowhere but is really years and years of work, is a new feeling in the shoulder-in. On Sunday, I suddenly felt my inside leg connect to my outside hand which all on its own was controlling the left shoulder and keeping Izzy in a real shoulder-in.
In the canter, I felt my seat bone plug into the saddle, my left leg wasn't swinging like it used to, and I was able to control Izzy's shoulder and tempo. We actually look like we know what we're doing. And without meaning to, I rode straight toward the Pivo for a non-explosive, right to left flying change even though it was late behind.
If you're struggling with your position, if your horse is struggling with your position, or you just need a new set of eyes, call Sean and schedule an in-person or virtual lesson. He has some space opening up in his barn, so I know he has room in his schedule for new clients. I am nowhere near the same rider I was just two or three years ago, and I have Sean to thank for that.
It's a great feeling to have risen above the "wow, she sucks" level. I am thrilled to finally be even mediocre. Isn't dressage fantastic?
On Sunday, the day after that really great lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, I showed up at the ranch ready to get to it. Bust it out. Kick bootie. Or, in my case, get my bootie kicked.
I went through much of the same ride that we had done the day before, but I sped things up a little bit. The truth was that I really wanted to tackle the canter work as the flying change is our big hurdle right now. The day before, Izzy showed us that he knows exactly what we're asking for. As soon as I had asked for a leg yield in the canter, Izzy knew that I was going to ask for a flying change, so he started bouncing before I had a chance to ask. It was funny at the time.
To address the anticipation, my plan for Sunday was to canter, get him straight, but then NOT ask for the change. Even that turned out to be too much pressure for Izzy. He lost his shiitakes as soon as I straightened him in the left lead canter. He has almost lost me many, many times, but this time I knew I was a goner.
And yet, somehow, despite peering dangerously close to the ground over my left leg...
I managed to keep myself upright. Once we had mostly landed, I gave him a pretty good, "HEY!" jerk on the reins, and then we got back to work. He immediately did it again ...
While none of this behavior is condonable, it did give me a lot of information. Izzy is obviously very worried about the flying change. Even though he was clearly giving me a very hard NO, I realized that Sean has given me the tools to work through these problems. Rather than feel frustrated, I dug around in my mental toolbox until I came up with a way to help Izzy through his reluctance.
I put him back on a left lead with an exaggerated inside bend and then ever so slightly straightened him for a single stride. I went back and forth between an exaggerated inside bend to near straightness until I could eventually get some counter flexion on the left lead. By picking at the issue very slowly and deliberately, I was able to deescalate Izzy's anxiety. I also gave him lots of breaks between each effort, and then we did it the other direction.
I never felt frustrated. I was actually excited to finally get close to what feels like the root of this issue. Izzy doesn't think he can do a flying change, but it is really helpful for me to know where the anxiety is coming from. Now I know that it starts as soon as I straighten him. Up until a week ago, I didn't know that it was a lack of straightness that was jamming us up. It is a lot easier to tackle an issue when you know what's causing it.
It would seem that Izzy probably hasn't ever been truly straight in the left lead canter. And if there is one thing I know about this horse, it is this: moving his body in a new way is very uncomfortable for him. Whether that discomfort is physical or mental, it doesn't really matter as the solution is to keep working at it slowly.
To see those spooks in real time, check out the video below. How I stayed on is a real testament to Sean's quality of teaching. Holy cow!
All I can do is keep on keeping on ... and staying on!
A while back I noticed something about my Sunday videos; they aren't filled with (funny) blooper moments anymore. It used to be that I could post some pretty shite riding videos filled with Izzy's spectacular shenanigans. It's been a hot minute since I've watched (or ridden) one of those near death experiences. Anymore, our rides consist of boring, yet solid work.
One thing I did notice about our work on Sunday is that Izzy is finally developing a teeny tiny bit of bounce in his stride. It's not nearly as springy as what Speedy offers even when ridden bareback, but it's there.
I also see a lot of ear flicks and lopsided ears. Ears tell you a lot, and for so long, Izzy's have been pricked solidly forward as he listened to everything but me. Not so these days.
We still have a long way to go, but after eight years, we are finally, finally working on "stuff" instead of me fighting for control. I don't know if we'll ever make it to Fourth Level - my goal, but at least we now look like a dressage team.
Blooper moments are funny, but I am grateful that I don't have any to share.
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 ...
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%: