From Endurance to Dressage
Connection or Collection?
I've been feeling really frustrated with my rides on Speedy G. Something just wasn't right. What happened to the great horse with whom I finished last season? We were scoring in the 70s and high 60s at Training Level and even managed to hold our heads high at the California Dressage Society Championships.
Something was just off.
The more I asked, the heavier he got. I couldn't get a lengthened stride at the trot and our leg yields, never our best movement, had disappeared completely. Things got so bad that I seriously considered throwing in the dressage towel in favor of hunter/jumper land.
When things aren't going well, I always know it's my fault. I started reading a few back issues of Dressage Today hoping for inspiration (I found some), and I even wrote about being the problem a week or two ago. JL really helped me fix a few things by adjusting my upper body, which ultimatley helped me figure out what the heck had happened.
In a nutshell, it finally occurred to me that I've been asking Speedy for a better connection, but I've been expecting collection.
When I realized that I was actually expecting more collection, I sat down and went back over the purpose of each of the lower level tests.
The purpose of the Training Level tests is ...
To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit.
Um ... yeah. We did it, we're doing it, it's time to add more.
The purpose of the First Level tests is ...
To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit.
Again, I feel good about this. Speedy has definitely developed more thrust, but I've started to feel that the energy he's creating is squirting out in front of us and running off. Now I want to take that energy and recycle it. OH MY GOD ... I am having an epiphany as I write this!!!!!
So what's the purpose of the Second Level tests?
To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having achieved the thrust required in First Level, now accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection); moves with an uphill tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage is required than at First Level.
I've been riding my "First Level" horse with Second Level expectations. Is that wrong? Absolutely not! Finally we're to the point where I feel like we're schooling a level above where I want to be showing. But let me back up. We're not schooling Second Level movements exactly, but I can feel where I want to be.
What's happening lately is that when I push on the gas pedal (more impulsion) Speedy GOES forward, but he is on his forehand. He accepts the contact, especially if I am only asking for steadiness in the bridle and rhythm, but we can't get a lengthened stride because his hind end isn't carrying more of the weight.
It was while practicing JL's imaginary whip behind the elbows exercise that I figured this out. With my elbows bent and my hands high and soft, the reins were a bit long. Speedy looked and felt great trotting and cantering around. In fact JL commented on how rhythmic, relaxed, and connected he looked (the bottom half of the training pyramid).
It was only when I wanted him to lift his withers for a trot lengthening or a 10-meter trot circle or a 15-meter canter circle that we reverted back to a hollow back and him flinging his head all over. What I realized is that I need to show him how to take the energy from the new impulsion and use it to sit deeper.
Since my next lesson with JL wasn't for a day or so, I stopped by to ask for some quick advice. She suggested I ask for the "lift" while working in the canter since that gait already has more suspension naturally, and I can feel it more easily.
The next day that I rode, I gave it a try, but Speedy was in a mood. He was bucking, kicking, rearing, pinning his ears ... you name it. It was at that moment that I remembered something Christian had said during my last ride with him a month ago. He chided me for worrying about where Speedy's head was. He pointed out that a horse who is learning to engage his hind end more deeply needs to have his head higher to keep his balance.
So from the canter, as JL suggested, I quit fighting with Speedy's head and simply focused on riding his rear end. I had him pick up a right lead canter and spiraled down to about a 12-meter circle. I didn't care where Speedy's head was as long as he was sitting deeply and working from his butt. I used the outside aids to turn in and to ride the canter as slowly as he could hold.
Holy heck. We got the best counter canter from that small circle that he has ever offered. He didn't magically round his neck, but his withers were up, and he was definitely carrying more weight on his hind end. And, the longer I rode that slow, canter circle, the more his head did start to come down on it's own.
I am once again excited about riding him. Now that I know what I am trying to get, I just need to learn how to ask him for it. And more importantly, I need to give him time to develop the strength to do it.
4/5/2015 11:57:29 pm
A clinician once said (paraphrasing), rider focus should be on what's happening behind the saddle, not in front.
4/6/2015 01:04:21 am
Exactly, Mia. My trainer tells me all the time to quit worrying about his head and ride his butt. She looks for a good connection to the horse's mouth rather than where his neck is. There's a difference though with letting them evade or avoid the contact by deliberately carrying their head sky high. It just took me a while to see that Speedy really was having a balance issue and wasn't simply being a jerk. I am a slow learner! :0)
4/6/2015 09:45:35 am
I had teh best lesson with JL today, Ronnie, and Speedy was SOOOO light in the front end. It was AWESOME!!! :0)
4/6/2015 01:29:43 am
And some of them are smart little buggers and find a way to get you to refocus on the front of the horse because, well, it's Hard! to have to work harder behind =)
4/6/2015 09:40:46 am
I have heard that sentiment SO many times. I had the BEST lesson today though so I KNOW I am on the right track and developing a total new set of "feels like."
Oh yeah! I am super guilty of asking for connection and expecting magical collection! My problem is getting Pig to keep the connection while he collects. A raised head is okay, but Pig tends to throw himself out of the connection entirely, which is not good. Working on maintaining the connection in transitions helps to build up that balance a lot. In fact, at the show this weekend we spent a ton of time just doing walk-canter-trot-halt-trot-halt-back-walk-canter rounds. If he threw the connection away, we went back to the walk and started over.Eventually I had him through his back, but it's SO hard not to throw my own position away when he throws his toys out of the pen.
4/6/2015 09:49:48 am
Oh my gosh! Don't give Speedy any ideas!!!! Fortunately, just bending my elbows fixed a lot of body position issues for me. In fact, JL never had to make one upper body correction today. I think she was pretty surprised that i made such a huge adjustment in a week.
I completely understand this! I have been working really hard with Murray on accepting connection in all different gaits, and now I'm trying to figure out how to get him to lift that front end too. It's hard with such a naturally drag-from-the-front horse like Murray, who isn't naturally inclined to sit behind and push from there. Baby steps... we will get there!
4/6/2015 09:44:22 am
That's exactly how I was feeling before today's lesson. I could not believe how uphill my trainer helped me get Speedy today. Somehow, a big switched was flipped in my brain and I GET IT!!!
Comments are closed.
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%: