From Endurance to Dressage
When More Leg is NOT the Answer
Can you think of another sport, other than dressage, that makes you feel more stupid the more you learn? Chess maybe. You would think that simply knowing you are going to be made to feel stupid would discourage anyone from trying to move up the levels. Guess what? We're moving up a level! Yes, I know am going to feel really stupid in a few months, but it feels great knowing that stupid is on my horizon.
Unlike most sports, where experience and training make you better and more confident, dressage simply reveals how much you don't know. And once you get a new "feel," or once you have an "aha" moment, you do one of those palm to forehead smacks and ask how you've been doing this for a decade and are just now getting "it" - whatever "it" is in this particular moment in time. If this keeps up, I am going to have an IQ of about 8.
Fortunately, feeling dumb as a rock doesn't happen at every lesson. I am not sure my ego could handle that. As it is, the frequency at which I find myself feeling like the proverbial dim bulb happens enough already. Like last week, I had a lesson with Chemaine Hurtado - owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. I don't think Chemaine arrived with the intention of batting me around with a stupid stick, but she must have sensed that I was in need.
Chemaine arrived as I was finishing our warm up. As usual, she had to hear the whole sob story about our half passes - they're still sticky, Speedy is ignoring my outside leg, I can't get enough bend, please fix it all today. As she began putting us to work, I had to stop and explain one more "issue." The day before, Speedy had been well in front of my leg, but he was plowing through my aids, and I simply couldn't convince him to carry himself. The more leg I applied, the heavier in my hand he became. Of course Chemaine had a remedy.
Chemaine had me put Speedy on the rail, and she took my whip. Speedy knew what was coming; we've done this exercise plenty of times. But this time, Chemaine wanted something different. Yes, she was going to tap him, but instead of sending him forward with more energy, she wanted me to hold him in place so that only his hind legs got more active. If you're thinking piaffe, you're correct.
She asked me to get him round and soft, and then she had me give him a quick kick, kick without letting him go forward. Of course nothing happened which is why she was there with the whip. As soon as he didn't respond, she gave him two quick thwacks with the whip. Of course he gave a big kick, so we did it again. He instantly got the idea; round and soft is going to be followed by a kick, kick which means activate your hind legs.
The problem started because I have been using a ton of leg while half halting. But isn't more leg usually the solution for everything? Not when you're squeezing all the time. What ended up happening was that I was using so much leg that I was driving Speedy so deeply into the bridle that all he could do was crash into it. So to speak.
Chemaine had me separate the two aids - sponging the rein for softness and adding more leg, so that Speedy had a chance to answer. My task now is to get him round with my rein aid followed by two quick sharp kicks to say "now sit and push." Eventually, if I apply my aids correctly, he will start to give himself the "kick" aid because he will know that it's coming. If he can sit and push with his hind end just by listening to my seat and hands, no kick, kick will happen. This is our new half halt.
It was pretty early in the lesson when Chemaine said something like, "this lesson might just be about coordinating your aids." I am pretty sure she was thinking something along the lines of come on, girlfriend, get it together. After softening and kick, kicking at the walk, we picked up the trot. That's when my little freak show really got going. I bet I lost a stirrup about 17 times. Eventually Chemaine got tired of me goofing around and suggested we try to actually do something with all of this softening and kicking, so we started shoulder in.
I have to say, once I got the rhythm of how to coordinate my aids, Speedy got incredibly light while not sacrificing the activity from behind. In fact, he felt downright powerful. That'll happen when you're carrying yourself and not being lazy behind. And when your rider quits squeezing her guts out.
Once Chemaine and I were both certain I could "chew gum and walk a straight line," we did some trot half passes, which were hugely improved, and moved on to the canter work. The aids were the same - ask for round followed by a kick, kick to activate Speedy's hind end without allowing him to shoot forward.
It didn't take much convincing as Speedy is not a fan of being kicked or tapped with the whip. His canter improved almost immediately, and the best part was that he was much more maneuverable, especially in the half pass.
Chemaine described it as folding him up. I knew what she meant. Do you remember those fans you used to make as a kid by folding paper forward and back, forward and back? That's what this feels like. I am basically asking him to "accordion" fold his body, essentially compressing his body so that his back pops up in the middle. You can really see the difference of where his back is when you compare the picture above with the one below. He's uphill in the first photo, but his back is really round in the second one.
With Speedy carrying more weight behind and really using his back, the canter half passes were also a lot easier. They're still going to be a weakness for us, the lateral work is just harder for him, but I am feeling like we can get 6.0s and 7.0s if I can start using this better half halt. What also made the half passes easier was that I figured out how to get the bend I need. This was another one of those Man, I am stupid! moments.
For years Chemaine has been telling me to put the letter (where we're heading) between Speedy's ears. For our half pass from centerline yes, we do head toward S or M, but then we proceed straight to C. Guess which letter I've been putting between Speedy's ears? Right, C. As Chemaine kept yelling LOOK AT THE DIAGONAL LETTER, a giant light bulb went off and I realized what an idiot I've been. If you actually bend your horse to look at S or H, you will get a much better bend than by looking at C which is straight in front of you. Sorry, non-dressage folks, that's a bit more technical than you probably want read about.
Sitting and pushing from behind, and pointing at the right dressage letter, fixes all sorts of problems. Now I just need to work on coordinating my own aids to make it all happen. We have five weeks until our first show of 2020. I am going to be putting those weeks to good use.
After all, Speedy can't be expected to do all the work.
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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.
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%: