From Endurance to Dressage
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 ...
After last week's not-so-great work and a bit of a temper tantrum during Saturday's lesson, Izzy came out feeling pretty good on Sunday morning. In fact, as soon as I pulled up he started hollering at me. Because I don't speak horse perfectly, I couldn't be sure whether he was saying, come ride me or come feed me. Since his breakfast was sitting in his feeder, I am inclined to think it was the former.
He was genuinely a different horse from the day before. Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, likes to remind me that if the day after a less-than-perfect ride, Izzy is a willing partner, I am doing something right. Since I didn't fight with him on Saturday, he didn't expect to fight on Sunday. For the most part, our rides over the past six months are pretty ho-hum. Occasionally, we get some great moments, but most of the time we're just putting one foot in front of the other as we constantly strive to make the basics our strength.
As I watched video from Sunday's ride, I was really happy with how steady he is becoming in the movements. Here are a few clips that show his workmanlike attitude, especially in the lateral work.
As I continue to school the basics - transitions and lateral work, our performance at shows will only improve. We're still not showing anything above Training Level, but as soon as we get the show anxiety taken care of, we should be in a position to earn some really solid scores. That's the plan anyway.
Speaking of which, we're doing a Training Level test at a USDF show on Sunday.
As usual, I used my Pivo Pod to record my Sunday ride. While I love having a lesson on Saturday with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, it's my Sunday rides that give me a chance to try out what I learned the day before.
While I have learned to be flexible with each day's riding goals - Izzy doesn't usually read the same playbook as me, I knew that playing around with creating bend from the inside leg was definitely a must do. It didn't matter if we did it in the canter or not, but we were going to work on it. I warmed Izzy up as usual, but I kept reminding him that if he braced and leaned into my inside leg instead of bending around it, a sharp poke would be waiting for him.
Just to be clear, the goal is not the sharp poke. The goal is to encourage softness and bend around my inside leg with the lightest possible aid. Ideally, that would be a weighted inside seat bone. Right now, I haven't made that aid clear enough for Izzy which is why I am helping him to connect the dots: inside leg at the girth means bend. If he doesn't bend, he will feel a sharp poke. If I can become very consistent in asking and reinforcing, he will learn very quickly to wrap himself around my leg and soften through his neck and poll. He is already making those connections.
Early on in the ride, I asked for the right lead canter. As soon as he braced and leaned into my inside leg, I gave him a poke and carried on. It only took three circles for him to make better life choices. In the video below, you can tell right when I put my spur in because he hops away from me, but about the third time around, I had convinced him to stop bracing as we passed the gate end of the arena. Was it perfect? No, but he demonstrated that he was listening. We went on to something else.
Throughout the ride, I put on my teacher hat and presented the idea of creating softness from my inside leg in lots of different ways. So often, my students only learn a new idea after seeing a number of different examples. With Izzy, I walked up each quarterline asking for a change of bend with my inside leg. It was like dribbling a soccer ball: bend to the left, bend to right, bend to the left, bend to the right. Each time I asked for the new bend, I did it by first weighting the new seat bone and then pressing my calf at the girth. Only if he didn't change the bend did I poke him with the spur.
I also asked for some steeper leg yields which he is doing really well. We still have too much shoulder one moment followed by too much haunches the next, but that's really all just pilot error. I need to remember to ride him forward into both reins evenly while monitoring the haunches. I tend to ask for too much haunches which is something Speedy "taught" me.
To finish up the idea of creating bend and softness with my inside leg, we worked on traverse to half pass. The half pass to the right was a real struggle. He kept fighting to take the bend away from me. I had him do the half pass twice, and when he gave me a half pass that was at least better than the first one, I took what he was willing to offer and moved on to the left side. It wasn't great by any means, but I was really encouraged by the effort he offered.
In the video below, his traverse is pretty decent, maybe not super consistent, but the bend is there. In the half pass, the bend is not nearly enough - at least I don't think so, but what I was rewarding was his effort. He didn't take the bend away; instead, he kept trying which is all I ever really want from him - the try.
The one thing that I have learned about this horse is that as he's learning something new, it tends to get worse before it gets better. It might take him a few weeks to accept my inside leg as an aid for bend. And for certain, I know that over-using the spur is a recipe for disaster which is why I've asked Sean to keep an eye on my effective use of the aids (as it were). Even knowing it might get worse for a bit, I am so encouraged by the progress we're making. I know none of this is brilliant, but I am proud of our progress.
Who knows? Maybe we'll get to show Training Level, Test 2 next year!
All of that feel good stuff from yesterday was real. It didn't come easy at first though because I was stressed out about the uncooperative virtual session with my trainer, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. When it became obvious that technology was not going to be my friend that day, my husband - who never comes to shows, finally told me to ditch the Pivo and focus on my horse. It was the best piece of advice of the week.
I've had Sean in my ear for every warm up ride for the past year. Not having him there was stressful, but my husband's confidence in my ability to ride without the help, gave me the push I needed. I shut everything out and started to really ride Izzy. As though I had been doing it my whole life, I started asking Izzy those little questions that Sean has taught me to ask. Can you give me some flexion? How about a bit of leg yield? Can you walk? Can you do a balanced canter transition? and on and on. Through it all, I kept reassuring him; I got you Izzy, and I will be alright. Every time he lost his balance and threatened to make his own decision, I gave a tiny half halt, and reminded him that I got you. The more times I said it, the more I believed it. As a result, Izzy believed me too.
As we headed up to the show arena, Izzy kept asking are you sure? He gave the bathrooms a stare, the man on the bench looked scary, and the announcer's booming voice over the loud speaker caused him to leap forward. There's always a friend when you need one though. Izzy leaped on top of "J" when the announcer's voice startled him, but instead of running her down, he gave her hair a deep sniff and took a deep breath. My friend Laurel saw the insecure look in his eyes and happily stood next to him while we waited to head into the ring. By the time we were waved in, Izzy was looking to me for direction.
I halted Izzy in front of the judge's booth and gave our number, then I asked for a trot and rode every step of that test. During the test, I recognized every unbalanced step and worked over and over to keep him steady. I knew we were in a bit of trouble when he kept asking to walk, but I put my spur in and told him to keep going. And then I knew why he wanted to walk. Izzy had to poop.
Lord have mercy. Rather than fight with him, I made a decision. I let him poop knowing that it would lower our score, but since the day was not about scores but about me actually riding and making decisions, I knew listening to him was the right decision. I was right. We earned a 4 for that 20-meter circle. For the canter circle at C, He felt terribly off balance, so instead of just trying to make it around the circle, I asked for a half halt and got a downward transition to trot. I didn't care. He was listening, and I wanted him better balanced. We earned a 4 for that movement as well, but we followed it up with a 7 for our working canter, and for the next canter circle, we earned a 7.0 with the comment "smooth depart."
After our final halt, I broke into a huge smile. There were lots of unbalanced moments, but I couldn't have cared less. My goal was to ride my horse rather than sit there frozen, and I knew I had done it. I was pretty sure we had earned yet another mid-50 score, but I didn't care. I had done what I had set out to do.
To my surprise, we earned a solid 62% and change. Not only that, but it was only the two little mistakes that brought the score down. The test was filled will a solid string of 6.0s, 6.5s, 7.0s and even a 7.5 for our first halt. Had we not had the poop incident or the off balance canter, we would have had a 65% or higher. On the other hand, if I had picked a fight over the pooping or not fixed the canter, we might have had yet another 54%. I am more than happy with the score.
Before I wrap this up, there is one more part to this tale of I got you and I'll be alright. Stay tuned ...
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%: