From Endurance to Dressage
Cha Ching and his mom on their first field trip last month
How is it possible that some of the absolutely best dressage tips have been shared at, of all places, the Malt Shop? And shared while chowing down a cheeseburger and sundae? The Malt Shop is East Bakersfield's best burger joint - locally owned with food cooked on a grill in front of you. The food is delicious and the atmosphere relaxed, so relaxed in fact that Cha Ching's mom and I met there for lunch after our equine field trip on Monday. With um ... no showers or changes of clothes! Definitely the kind of place for two horse-drunk and hungry girls!
While Cha Ching's mom and I have a lot in common - we work at the same place, we have many friends in common, we love to shop for equine products, our conversations always come back to riding. She rides hunter/jumpers, but she firmly believes in solid basics: good seat and leg position, soft and giving hands, and soft and light horses. Good basics work for any discipline.
So there we were eating burgers and fries, she had the fries, I opted for the sundae, when I started musing about the canter. We discussed what the contact looks like at the walk: hands following the back and forth swing of the head. Think handlebars of a bicycle. And at the trot: hands are more steady, but rocking each rein individually from the shoulder blade as needed to ask for softness. And then we arrived at the canter ... Chirp ... chirp ... chirp of crickets in the silence.
From my side of the table there was a big silence. It didn't last long, however, as I immediately began peppering her with questions. Frankly, I didn't fully understand the motion the arms and hands should make to follow the horse's mouth while cantering. Cha Ching's mom paused for a moment, grabbed two napkins off the table, and held the bottom of each. She told me to take the other ends. I am sure a few eyebrows were raised by the Malt Shops's other patrons, but I was so curious to see what she was going to do that I eagerly grabbed the other ends of the napkins.
So there we sat, facing each other, each of us holding our own ends of the napkins. I held steady while she chanted, give ... and take. Give ... and take. As she said take, she pulled both ends of the napkins to her with my arms following, and on the give, she gave them back. The motion looked like how the arms connecting the wheels of an old fashioned train engine move.
The coupling rods (the straight bars that connect the wheels together) on the engine's wheels don't move forward and backwards in a straight line, but rather move in a circuitous motion. That is to say they circle up and forward and down and back. Up and forward, down and back. Give ... and take. Give ... and take. I guess it's a little like rowing on a boat as well.
As she took and gave back the napkin ends, a gigantic lightbulb flashed over my head. AHA!
Her suggestion for horses that did not yet know how to balance themselves in the canter was to start the canter in a longer frame but move my hands and arms in the give and take motion. She said that Speedy G would begin to trust that I would follow his mouth which would encourage him to soften. As he softens, I can shorten the reins, all the while giving and taking. This made perfect sense!
JL and I have been working on teaching Sydney (and by extension, Speedy G) that there is a release. I will not hold him tightly, but I will move with him and follow his motion. I will ask for softness with my take, but will reward with the give. When he's soft, I will begin shortening my reins to compress his frame and ask him to lift his back with my seat and legs.
So did this actually work? Oh yeah! The next morning Speedy G and I got to work. The first ten minutes were brutal. He. Did. Not. Want. To. Work. Period. Out came the whip. He bucked. I squeezed. He collapsed inside. I pushed HARD with my leg. He pinned his ears and threatened to crow hop. I gave him the rein and said, canter. And he did! There was no bucking or kicking. Just a long and low canter. I relaxed my seat to rock with his motion, and I softened my legs. I gave ... and took. Gave ... and took. Within less than a full circle, we established a soft connection, and he started to truly reach for the contact. Each time I took, I shortened my reins just slightly. Before long, we had a lovely canter going that was soft, balanced, and very uphill. I asked for a trot and he gave it immediately and remained connected.
We worked for a while this way doing figure eights, 20 meter circles, changes of directions, and canter transitions. He was the lightest in my hands that he's ever been. He did fuss at the changes of directions, but I kept my elbows bent, and softly told him that the rules were the same: I would be soft and careful. We ended the ride and I nearly cried with pride. We are truly getting it. And to that think just two months ago I was ready to quit!
Here's to cheeseburgers, fries, and sundaes!
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 …
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
5/23 TMC (*)
6/12-13 SB (***) OR
6/19-20 El Sueño (***)
6/27 TMC (*)
7/3-4 Burbank (***) OR
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
7/25 TMC (*)
8/14-15 RAAC (Q) (***)
8/29 TMC (*)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
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