Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dressage Fail

Sigh. For two seconds, I thought I might have been making some real headway with O in her dressage work. But.... I suppose I was wrong.

I go through this about once a month, or once every other month.... I get super excited about dressage work/eventing work, buckle down to polishing out dressage work, completely fail, decide she has no real future in dressage, get to doing other things with her, marvel at how well she does other things, get bored, try to do more dressage, completely fail again. I'm a halfway decent jock and have a lot of tools in my toolkit for dealing with evasions and problem horses of all shapes and sizes. But O... O is easily the most difficult critter I've ever sat on.

Some days, her dressage-esque work is en pointe. She relaxes over her back, stretches out, and takes a nice contact. Sometimes, we literally can only trot for about 5-10 strides before she careens out of control again, and we can only go in straight lines along the fenceline, but it feels like something of a victory. Sometimes we can put together a whole walk-trot test. Sometimes. Maybe like, once every few months or so, we can do it. Sometimes we can canter, and the canter is good! But, once we canter, the trotwork totally falls apart, and I have nothing again. The more we canter, the worse everything else gets. 
For every good dressage ride, we have several terrible ones. She came to me a year ago with every evasive trick in the book - that's why I got her for so cheap, after all - and she uses them all at the same time without any particular warning. Ignore your half-halt, curl behind the bit, and take off? Her specialty. If you put your leg on to push her out to the bridle, she takes off. If you release her in front so that she can stretch out to the bridle, she takes off. If you half-halt her to stop her from taking off, she curls behind the bridle and takes off anyway. The more she zooms, the more she wants to continue to zoom. And you just can't wear her out... you just can't. An hour into our ride today, I was so fed up with her zoominess that I just let her gallop on to get it out of her system.... she galloped for at least 15 minutes full out, after a full hour of a completely horrible ride already. I was jelly in the saddle at that point, and she was still galloping as fast she could round and round. She was churning along so fast that I had no brakes anymore, and had to engage my e-brake and pull her around into the fence to stop her before I completely melted into a puddle and fell off. Did she quiet down after that? Of course not. I think this horse would rather gallop until she collapsed rather than put in quiet work. She was lathered in sweat and all she wanted to do was keep running. I managed to get her walking quietly for about 10 minutes, with my usual 5-10 trot steps along the fenceline, before finally just calling it a day. What the hell was the point of all of that?

And yet, I NEVER have problems riding her out along the trail, on a loose rein, at whatever speed I choose. She is ALWAYS perfect. If I choose to take a contact out there, and put her to work while moving along the trail? Always, always perfect. Always. Dressage on the trail? It's always good.

But put her in an arena, or confined area, and go round and round in the same setting? She is an absolute hellish nightmare. This is the only time we fight with each other. This is the only time that she reverts back to all of the horrible evasions that she came with. 

If there was such a thing as trail-ssage, we'd be all over that. We'd win everything. But, there is not. And so, like we do every month, I throw my hands up, again. And as I do every month, I beat myself up about it, because I feel like I am giving up. I feel like any horse can do dressage, dressage is good for every horse, dressage is the foundation for all of everything everywhere. I feel like if I only tried harder, if I only figured out some other way of better explaining things to her, if I only keep at it, somehow I surely will get it with her, someday. But I also feel like every horse has their strengths and weaknesses as well as things they enjoy doing versus things they don't enjoy at all. I know a lot of horses who are arena only horses, and absolutely lose their every-loving minds when you take them out of the arena. I know horses who you couldn't get to gallop if you tried, ones that are super happy to just plod around forever. I know horses who can't stand jumping. I know horses who you can't get down the alleyway for rodeo events. And, I know horses who think arena flatwork is the most boring, miserable thing you could ever do with your life... and O is one of those horses.

Is it training? Is is personality? Past issues? Current issues? Some of the above? All of the above? Yes, to all of it, to some extent.

Could we go event and do ok? Yes, I'm sure we could. Well, I *know* we could. But after doing eventing for so long with such a winning horse, just going in and doing "ok" is not what I want to do. I don't want to waste the money just to do "ok." I was horribly spoiled with having an awesome winning event horse in Gogo. Now, I want to go event and win, if I am eventing. I want to do recognized shows, big shows, if I am eventing. Otherwise, I don't want to waste my money. I've already been there and done that. And everything is different now to me, since I lost Gogo. Some days, I miss eventing something fierce. Some days, I don't think I'll ever want to do it again. On those days when I miss it, I get excited about working on flatwork again. On those days when I don't miss it, I am more than happy to throw up my hands and say *&@! it, I don't want to do this anymore.

Do I want O to event? Of course I do. Am I going to be disappointed if she doesn't event? A little, yes. Maybe not at all. I'm not sure. Am I willing to dump her and go find a different horse that is more suited mentally to eventing? Of course not. I'd rather make some other goal for the both of us to achieve instead, something we both love and want to do. 

I've been going through this sort of identity crisis ever since Gogo died. Am I going to keep eventing or not? I thought I was going to. Now I'm not sure. But who am I, if I am not an eventer? Am I still an eventer if I haven't evented in 5 years? Am I going to event with this horse? Am I going to event with a different horse somewhere along the line? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Where do I go from here? Am I a complete failure, or am I just going in a different direction?

I don't know.

One thing that I do know.... it's deathstorm season here in Texas. This one passed us by, thankfully, but I think Pmare was not impressed...


  1. Definitely so much to think about! I think it is very admirable though that you ARE thinking about it, ARE considering both the horse and yourself, and that you ARE pursuing *all the things* in your quest to find some sort of answer.

    You're definitely an incredibly rider and trainer and O is an incredible horse; I have no doubt that with a little time (why must it always be TIME, time can be such a bitch!) you two will find a thing or a series of things that you can go out and do, have fun, and kick total and complete ass at. ...maybe you'll re-introduce the Pony Express to America, 'cause it sounds like that would please O to no end! ;-)

    1. Time is SUCH a bitch. We're thinking this horse should do Tevis... maybe after Tevis she would finally be tired!

    2. You ought to look into the Pony Express XP; I believe they're putting it on again next year. That would be a super fun goal to work toward. 6 (?) weeks of riding (50 mile days for 3-4 days then breaks) along the Pony Express route from KS to WY, I believe.

  2. Time. More time. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to go event if you can't be quite competitive at rated shows, but I'd still give this lots more time . You really haven't had her THAT long, and while she probably won't do a mental 180 I wouldn't be surprised if she began to tolerate arena work a bit more. Do the fun things, and mix in arena work but maybe don't do "dressage" and just do some other arena work. Barrels? Loose rein hunter pony? You can do it!

  3. Ahhh, I relate here since we got sidelined from eventing last year with all of the hock problems. When people ask what I do with Pongo I want to say EVENT! But, in reality we dressage and that is all we're going to be doing for now. So am I still an eventer because that's all I've been since I was 10 years old and it definitely defines me? Is my horse an eventer even though he's only competed in a handful of recognized shows? Thanks for the inspiration, I'm going to explore all this on my blog today too!

  4. I second every one else, I think you'll get there. Don't lose hope! In the meantime, I'm sure you'll have a blast doing everything else with her. She seems like a really fun horse despite the dressage!

  5. Here's the thing... she can do dressage. You say that yourself in this post: she's great when you ask for it on trails. This means you have achieved the dressage and self carriage as a basis for any healthy athletic horse. She can do the work, so she is properly using her body and responsive to your aids.

    But the arena is clearly a place of total stress for her and she can't relax into the work she can clearly DO in that environment.

    What that tells me is it's a mental thing not a physical thing. Physically? She is a dressage horse and she has that basic training and body control that is the goal in dressage. She can't compete in it yet, she doesn't have the mental strength in a ring.

    I agree totally with SheMovetoTexas. Time. She's not an arena horse right now, so the arena shouldn't be a place of work. Maybe only do slow work in arenas, peppered with outside work (at faster speeds) as the reward. Don't set out to do everything in the arena, set one or two things in the arena and when she gets that, take her out and work her on the trail. Extend the arena work as she gets more comfortable with being in the arena.

    I have to wonder if she has had bad experiences in the arena in the past and her evasions are based on that. So you're trying to retrain her brain much more than her body.

    This vaguely reminds me of the things Peter has talked about with Henny ( Henny doesn't like the dressage ring, but successfully competes as an international eventer.

    You'll work through it.

    1. Laura, oh yes, I definitely agree with you. I bought her a year ago for $500 because she was completely unrideable. When her old owner was pregnant, an ignorant trail rider rode her and tried to teach her sliding stops (read: gallop and shank on her face). Eventually the mare totally shut down. So yes, she definitely has some arena angst!

  6. What about dressage in a field? With no 'ring' per se, but just a flat piece of grassland where you can work on things as if you were in an arena?

    As a person who has a horse with tons of dressage potential but is super tricky mentally in the dressage ring, I know your frustration. There's a feeling of failure that accompanies the mental blow ups...but there's a freedom in knowing that you aren't the only one to deal with a mentally tough one, and sometimes, it's not you, it's them.

    Then comes figuring out how to mentally manage them...something I am still working on after seven years.

    You aren't alone.

  7. Lurker reader here, this post rings many bells for me. My horse is a bit different but on a regular recurring basis I too have the "what the f am I doing with this horse" moments. I think about all the more talented and more willing horses that are out there.

    My horse is different in shape and strength but we have similar symptoms. Curling, zooming, likes to work but to get correct work is a challenge. Tendency towards snarling beast mode (with any small amount of anxiety).

    What helps me is to think: "relaxation is a skill the horse must have." I mean relaxation in the dressage meaning, and I got the idea while watching this video [] and replacing "spooking" with "any stress". I had to go to the lunge line to get it first, and now if a ride goes south it becomes the primary goal ("can we at least have some semblance of relaxation, please?"). Maybe it will be helpful or give you an insight.

  8. My arab mare was like this when I first got her. She was used by a 16 yo boy for barrels prior and was not well cared for. Anyway...she thought the arena and being spurred bloody as the same thing and would just get tense and zoom around. You know far more than I do so please excuse me if my suggestions seem simple or whatever, but what worked for me is blocking off the arena to a small manageable size where she really couldn't safely pick up that much speed. I set up cones in a square and went to the outside at a trot. If she started to zoom on me I would circle the nearest one which forced her to slow down and then we proceeded as if nothing ever happened. Lather rinse and repeat until she learned that it wasn't worth speeding up anymore. Once we established that I expanded the work area to half the arena. I used a TON of serpentines, figure eights and circles. The entire first year I had her I never let her go down the long end straight. That eventually got expanded farther and farther until now she uses a very large arena and while she does fuss at times and speed up she is generally much more relaxed and happier. Hope any of that made sense or helped you! More time is needed!!

  9. Oh I wish you weren't dealing with this, this sucks!
    I wonder if you could set up a dressage arena in your pasture. I don't know what the logistics would be for that but maybe you could slowly acclimate her back into an "arena" - I second/third SheMovedToTexas and Lauraatkins and would also add in that maybe she needs a mental restart for the arena - some "desensitizing" - could you set up trail obstacles in the arena to make a place of interest for her? You could school around them.
    You're in a tough place - go easy on yourself and give yourself a break - you two are accomplishing amazing and incredibly admiral things!

  10. Until *YOU* decide their is some other sport you love more, you are an eventer. Period.


  11. Why do we have to "do" something with our horse? Why not take her on trails? Why not work her through, over and around obstacles?

    I have been working the dressage thing since October and my Arab is fed up. He isn't interested in it any more. HE wants me to learn to canter with him, because that is his most invested gait. The one he likes the most. He is ready to get out on the trails again, to start to learn something other than how to ride in a circle.

    He wants to "do" more/different/better things.

    1. Oh we do! We do trail stuff all the time. Go work cows, play in the pond, climb up rock faces, gallop down the road, stuff. All the time. Which is the stuff she would rather do, for sure!

  12. Hang in there. I spent all of my horse life thinking that eventing was the pinnacle of horsemanship and so on. Cuna HATE HATE HATED dressage and really wasn't that good at it. Didn't matter what I did, it just wasn't his thing. Now I have this drop dead gorgeous horse with a great brain who just LOOKS like an event horse, and I'm realizing I don't really want to event.

    And that's ok.

    He's still gorgeous and great and we'll probably do some low level stuff, but anymore I'm in it to have fun. I don't have to have a label as a rider in order to define myself. If people ask, I tell them I jump. In Idaho, that's good enough. ;-)