The Road to Bronze

author note: I’ve been really busy establishing myself as an equine artist, doing 14 shows in 2014, 2 big exhibitions in 2015, as well as a number of workshops.  As a result of all the exhibitions and workshops, my work can now be found in 4 galleries, as well as online.  To learn more visit:

my talented horse, Monarch

my talented horse, Monarch

Concurrent with the intensive art schedule and goals, I have been riding my horse, Monarch and training seriously with Deborah Hindi of Gunnison, CO for the past 2 years.  Deb has shown me the path to discovering all the hidden talent bred into my horse.  He has made “great strides” in his training, and both of us have had “great leaps” of understanding.  (It’s one thing to quote dressage theory from a book, but to put theory into practice takes understanding, which is greatly facilitated by a sensitive trainer who understands both the rider and the horse.)  Until I began working with Deb, bringing theory to “feel” has been fleeting at best, often times elusive.  With Deborah, I am able to reproduce the good “feels” and put those “feels” into regular & consistent training at home with my horse.   My training with Deborah allows me to integrate what I’ve learned from my extensive dressage study with the feel & timing I learn from our training sessions.  Now training on my own has become effective, and when I train with Deb, we are able to move to the next step.

This spring the USDF published an article encouraging members to pursue their bronze medals.   As I read the article I realized that this is an achievable goal for me.  In the two years we’ve worked with Deborah, Monarch and I have gone from mediocre first level movements to schooling second and third level movements with precision.  Along with my deepened understanding of dressage has come an awakened sense of confidence.  No longer does the mere thought of a horse show reduce me to a dysfunctional set of nerves.  Additionally, the goal of earning a bronze medal is more like achieving a rating and not competing.  I am not a competitive person, so doing something for us, (Monarch, Deb, and I) works for my personality.

Since May, I have been training daily with this goal of earning my bronze “rating” in mind.  Over the course of almost two months, I have gotten physically fit and learned that I can overcome physical limitations of age and injuries.  My atrophied left leg, (a physical disability for the past 40-plus years) is becoming far more obedient- through strengthening, suppling, and balance.  It is about 75% of my right leg at this point in time.  The tear to my illiacus and psoas muscles from this winter is slowly healing, and though I am still sore when I get off my horse at the end of my ride, the searing pain from torn muscles is gone.  I am able to perform cross-training exercises like planks and crunches now.  I have also built up my stamina, from forced physical inactivity this past winter when I was healing from the deep ab tears to presently training 60 minutes each day.

As stated above, I have been really busy with my art career and my training.  Still, I want to take the time to share what I am learning through this “road to the bronze” with other riders who train in the “dressage desert” without a daily instructor.  As dressage is for all horses, regardless of what tack you use or what discipline you pursue, my hope is that readers will share their insights in the comments, as well as share this blog with other riders.

Earning the bronze medal requires a rider to earn 6 qualifying scores from six different judges- 2 qualifying scores at each level: (first – third).  This translates to showing at six USDF/USEF recognized shows, along with submitting all the requisite forms and memberships.   (To learn more about the USDF rider medal program, read the excellent blog post by Horse & a Half:

Today is about two months into our training for my first show (ever!)  The show will take place in Ft Collins, CO at the CSU Equine Center, Autumn Hill Dressage Festival III.  Luckily the following day a second show with a different judge will happen at the same facility, Autumn Hill Dressage Festival IV.  I have 2 opportunities to earn one qualifying score each day.  This month I have set about studying tests and choosing the two tests I will ride at these two shows.  At First Level, test 1&2 have nice rhythm and flow. Test 3 is rather contrived, without flow.  To maximize our showing opportunities- especially since I have never shown and am bound to make some rider errors, I have chosen to ride tests 1&2 at First Level.

The only movement with holes at this level is the 15 meter canter circle on the left lead.  Monarch wants to break after the circle at V & P,  in working canter left lead (test 1 &2 respectively.)  My goal this week has been to improve the 15 meter canter circle.

On Saturday, I devised a series of exercises on the long side.  At each letter, I asked for the 15 meter circle.  To teach him the exercise, we began the exercise in sitting trot.  Before each marker, I prepared Monarch with a 1/2 halt or 2, then used flexion and bend to turn on the circle.  Coming out of the circle, I used a strong inside leg at the girth to engage his inside hind to let him know that he needed to continue with impulsion down the long side.  I repeated my aids for each marker, on the long side: F P B R M – H S E V K.  We rode this exercise in both directions before adding the canter.  I used the diagonal to keep his engine revved, by riding the change of rein through the diagonal in medium trot.

In part 2 of this exercise, I rode the first letter- F in sitting trot.  After the circle, riding toward P, I revved his engine again with my inside leg at the girth and a rhythmic 1/2 halt with my outside rein before cuing the canter at P.  Coming out of the canter at P, I again engaged his motor with my inside leg to remind him not to break to trot.  Approaching B, I rebalanced with a 1/2 halt to transition to trot and circle left at B.  Then canter and 15 meter circle at R, with final circle in trot at M.  This rode quite well, so up the long side I rode canter with 15 meter circles at H S E V K, past A in canter; F to X change rein through trot X to H.  I repeated the exercise on the right rein with 15 meter trot circles at M B F and  15 meter canter circles at R & P.  Up the long side we rode canter circles at each letter: K V E S H.  Again to encourage him not to break after the final canter circle, we rode past C to M.  At M, I asked for working trot.  At R, we did a 20 meter circle on a long rein to stretch the neck and frame.

The next couple of days, I worked on laterals and reviewed his basics- rhythm, suppleness, and contact in working gaits.  Yesterday I revisited the 15 meter canter circles.  Again he broke to trot as he came out of the circle.  It was a bit later in the morning, and already the sun was getting strong, so I understood that he was hot and tired.  I know that horse shows last all day, and weather is never an excuse.  Instead of drilling him to death, I made it my goal to continue working through this particular hole in his training in the days to come.

Today my training journal looked like this:

DATE: 6/30/15

GOAL:  school 10 M collected canter circles through the walk

OUTCOMES:  I came out to the arena feeling rather ill, wondering how well I could train today.  Knowing a lot can be accomplished in work at the walk, I began my normal warm with suppling at the walk, then moving to work in the walk on the circle: shoulder in to counter shoulder-in, then travers to renvers in both directions.  This got him both supple and very engaged.  His motor was revved, so we proceeded work in trot on long lines- leg yield first then shoulder-in along the long side, change of rein through the diagonal with trot lengthening.  Then shoulder-in to travers and shoulder-in to renvers. Monarch was working quite well with focus and effort.  As I paused to reward him with a sugar cube, I let go of the reins and began to unzip the sugar pouch.  At that very moment, the tractor working the adjacent field began to turn around just behind the brush at A where we were standing.  With a clang and thump of machinery, the tractor startled my horse.  I could feel him gather himself under me to bolt.  Instinctively I knew if I left him alone, I could ride out the spook down center line while I gathered the reins.  Monarch felt no rein contact, so instead of continuing to bolt, he put his head down and bucked.  Since I had been so connected to him for the past 30 minutes of training, I just followed the motion without becoming unbalanced.  After the buck, he settled.  I could feel that his engine was really revved at this point, so I decided this would be an opportune time to train the 10 meter circles in collected canter.  After all the excitement with the tractor, my engine was revved too, and my nausea had disappeared.  (Endorphins are great substances.)  After practicing a few small collected canter circles at A where he had spooked, I was able to finally give him the sugar cube I had intended to reward the lateral work.

After his reward, we rode down the long side in collected canter.  We were able to maintain the collected canter and make the 10 meter circles at F B M.  Across the diagonal in a nice extended trot, then collection, 10 meter circles to the right.  A good place to end today’s session with a relaxed circle in the stretchy-chewy trot circle, lots of sugar and praise, and a plan for continuing this training.

REFLECTION:  Lateral work engages my lazy horse and revs his motor.  Doing lateral work in the walk before asking for rhythmic trot is a better option for the warm up than pushing him into a tense trot in the opening phases of our work.  The warm up flows into the schooling with the lateral work at walk to engaged, relaxed trot work.  I can then use lateral work in trot to prepare him for canter work.