From Endurance to Dressage
Thankfully, There is Always Tomorrow
I refused to let myself be discouraged about Saturday's ride. I went out on Sunday determined to try again. Upon arrival, Sydney was his usual gentlemanly self: he greeted me at the gate, stood quietly in the cross ties, reached for the bit, and stood politely at the mounting block. He is not afraid of me, and he is not afraid of being ridden.
I went as far back as I could to find his comfort zone. I walked him aimlessly around the perimeter of the arena allowing him to stop and gawk at whatever caught his eye. He was very relaxed. I asked for a very loose-reined trot which he gave me happily. We did a long series of movements that he seems to enjoy: trot around the dressage court in both directions, changes of direction across the diagonal, three loop serpentines in both directions, 20 meter circle in both directions, and a canter circle on first the left lead and then the right. I do all of this on the loosest rein possible.
When he did all of this, I let him walk and praised him enthusiastically. As soon as I picked up the rein to get back to work, his back hollowed and his head shot into the air. He tried to break into a trot, but I gave him a gentle whoa and insisted that he walk. I had to do this several times. Since it was the trotting that seemed to generate the tension, I shortened the reins and asked for the bend that I wanted while at the walk. We had done this a lot over the summer so I hoped he would remember that it's not scary or hard. In a fairly short time, his neck was again supple and he was moving away from my inside leg in both directions.
When I was fairly confident that he was genuinely relaxed, I asked for a trot from that same rein length. He gave it to me fairly willingly. In fact I was able to very gently shorten the reins even a little bit more. I discovered that I have to be very subtle while I do this. If I drop the connection at all while I am shortening, he becomes very tense when I try to re-estabish the connection. This is clearly a rider error; I will be working on my technique.
After just a few times around the circle with a long and low frame. I asked for a halt and praised him generously. We changed direction and worked the other way. It took a few moments to get the same connection, but the panicked tension from the day before was gone. Again, after twice around in a long and low frame, I halted and let him know that he done a lovely job. I hopped off and gave him a big face scratch.
So, what did I learn? Sydney can do this, but he needs to warm up to it very slowly. I may not be able to do much trot work in the afternoons after work. There simply may not be enough daylight hours. Once the time changes, we may only do the long and low walking with the free trotting. It might be that the weekends will be when we do the real work. I'll have to wait and see.
10/31/2012 01:02:47 am
Have you ever considered trying him in a bitless bridle?
10/31/2012 10:27:53 am
Heather - He actually likes the bit and takes it without me even needing to open his mouth. His problems aren't mouth related - they're more neck related. Shortening his neck makes him brace and tense up ...
I don't have any great ideas to share, but I did want to say I had a similar issue with Ava the first year I had her. And she doesn't have the history Sydney has. What worked was exactly what you did. Lots and lots of time spent getting the horse to bend and relax. It was really frustrating, and I felt like we rarely made any actual training progress. However, over time it has really made a difference. Now when she tenses, we do a few "bend around my leg" walk circles and she settles right down.
10/31/2012 10:25:10 am
Thank you, Mia!!!!!! That is just what I needed to hear. Sydney doesn't have any physical problems that are causing this tension; it's just fear. He really responds well to the bend around my leg walk circles, like Ava. In fact, it's the only way he'll really relax. I just keeping with him. Some days he's brilliant, and other days it's back to the bend, bend, bend thing.
10/31/2012 11:43:06 am
I guess it's a bit like a human with unreasonable fear (phobia) only of course he can't verbalize his history and where the fear began. Like a human getting the best of a phobia, you can't be allowed to avoid the fear as it makes the fear stronger. But safely facing that fear over and over again until you in essence re-program your brain and override the automatic response that the original scary incident(s) imprinted there can help you move past that fear. Sydney will be very grateful that you help him get past this emotional hurdle! Luckily many years of teaching children has helped you develop amazing patience!!
11/2/2012 11:58:55 am
I don't know that teaching helps. Sometimes I dread having to patient at the end of the day. Those are often the days that Speedy gets to go out, like today!
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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.
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