The Dressage Dossier

The discerning Diva's guide to the Dressage world

Category: Life with Isley

Managing Frustration

It’s been a while since a “Life with Isley” post, and that’s because quite honestly, life with Isley has been fairly mundane lately.  Young horses go through so many development stages and oftentimes there are stretches of time where nothing particularly exciting happens, and you find yourself in the training trenches going over the same lessons until your baby horse is fitter, more balanced, and ready for the next thing.  Unfortunately repetition can lead to tension, boredom, and anticipation, so these stages should be handled with some imagination.  For me, I have to make sure my cross-training ideas don’t get me into trouble lest Nina come out to discover that I’ve taught Isley to bow at X or some other nonsense that inadvertently creates a problem because now he will ONLY bow at X and not just halt like a normal horse – and I’ve ruined the show season till we sort it out.

I am a huge believer in introducing new exercises and getting out of the same old routine, so while Isley has been in a “baby funk” these past few weeks, I have done my best to keep the lessons from getting repetitive and change things up just enough that he flexes both brain and body.

….Not quite how that’s done.

PHASE ONE a.k.a “Ground poles are not oxers”

The first thing I attempted was pole work.  In the past Isley has shown a natural capacity for extension at liberty, but under saddle when you ask for “bigger” he suddenly has 4 left feet.  Reaching for different stride distances over poles seemed like the perfect exercise to help him start to find the muscles required to open up his stride.

Painfully awkward… rewardingly hilarious

Important fact about Isley, he has two nemesis in this world.  1.) Spray bottles (don’t ask me why, I’ve worked on it since he was 4 months old and he is convinced that battery acid is the only thing they could possible contain), and 2.) Obstacles.  He immediately becomes a snorting, fire-breathing mess when asked to walk over a single ground pole.  I have always ignored his antics and made him do it anyway, but the sudden lack of coordination and complete offense he takes at the suggestion of jumping/stepping/or otherwise crossing a line on the ground is incredibly embarrassing (for him).  Months and months ago Nina suggested we put a pole in

Such a look of concentration. Such a simple task.

the round pen and lunge him over it.  At first she didn’t understand my Cheshire-cat smile and response of “be my guest”, but upon seeing his sudden departure from sanity and snort/bolt/three footed leap 4 feet off the ground with the coordination of a newborn taking its first steps it, was quite clear that jumping is not Isley’s forte.

I made many attempts to re-introduce and incorporate poles into Isley’s day off exercises – letting him romp around the roundpen at liberty with poles set up (FAIL), lunging him over single and double trot poles (NOPE), and riding over single poles at all three gaits (despite an obscene amount of offended snorting surprisingly this was not a disaster).  He had a few good moments, but all in all not great.

PHASE TWO a.k.a “Fine, then I’ll give you something to jump about!”

I thought it might be beneficial for Isley to use his body in a different way, find his feet, and work his hind end.  What better way to do that than over fences at liberty?  If the look on his face was any indication, he strongly disagreed, but I got him to jump little cross rails and it definitely got him thinking different (probably more violent) thoughts during his work outs.


Frustration has no place in the arena.  I tell myself this time and time again – but it is much harder to practice what you preach, and honestly – sometimes I get pretty frustrated.  Fortunately I can commend myself on not taking it out on my horse and trying to manage it in ways that minimize it hindering my riding.  To combat frustration, I always try to break things down to a more simplified version of what I’m aiming for, so success can be had on a smaller scale that will still aid in putting together the big picture in the long run.  Can’t get the trot leg yields today?  Lets get them at the walk.  75% of the time, I’m frustrated with myself – when I feel ineffective or like I can’t get myself together enough to clarify my communication to Isley.  20% of the time I’m frustrated with outside factors – a day where everyone decides to garden, dump stuff with the tractor, or pressure spray the barn, etc. during my ride and any attempted exercise turns into a spook zigzag down the long side with minimal steering and maximum cursing.  5% of the time I get frustrated by my own impatience – I know my horse can do what I’m asking, I know I’m asking him well, and I know that some day soon it will come together, but that day is not today and that just gets my feather ruffled.

I was having one of those 5% days where the canter was just miserable, Isley felt sucked back and tight, and nothing I did at the trot or walk was helping to relax him – he was grinding the bit at the stretch circle even while giving me a good stretch, he would plod along at the walk, but when I asked him to move up and march out he would get immediately tense and shuffle into a trot.  He was fussing around in the cater and I was at my wits end when, on a short side, I had an idea.  I suppled him in front a bit around the corner, picked up my hands, kept my seat light, and gave him a big ol’ “Yee-Haw”.  I’m not sure his reaction could have been funnier – there

Baby versions of canter collection

was a moment of in-air suspension where his body language SCREAMED “wait, you’re not serious?”, but I kept my leg on, gave a big kiss with every stride, sat quiet, and asked him to get his butt FORWARD.  The first long side was a little silly, he barely moved up as he dithered in disbelief – but on the next short side I sat deep, aimed for some baby collection, and cantered a balanced 10-15 meter circle before giving a big “Yee- Haw!” again and asking him to take me down the long side.  This time he pricked his ears forward, opened up the canter, and WENT.  By the time I hit the short side again I couldn’t help but have a huge grin on my face – this was fun!  We did the exercise a few more times, each time coming back easier,  getting more balanced on the circle, and having more and more fun extending down the long side.  We were both enjoying the work and that’s when it hit me – Sometimes the best training for rider and horse is just having fun!

Happy Human, Happy Horse








USEF Young Horse Benefit Clinic – a.k.a – Don’t Fall Off

I was fortunate enough to recently be invited to ride in a clinic that will hopefully be the first of many – the USEF Young Horse Program Benefit Clinic, hosted by David Blake and Rebecca Rigdon at Ad Astra Stables in Encinitas, CA.

Ringside tables


The Details – This lovely and intimate clinic experience was held over two days, with horse and rider pairs representing the following categories on each day – 4 year olds, 5 year olds, 6 year olds, 7 year olds, 8 year olds/PSG, Intermediare II, Grand Prix.  Presentations by USEF Sport Horse and ‘S’ Dressage judge Arlene Rigdon on conformation and biomechanics prefaced the riders, and even when multiple riders were in the arena as was the case with some age groups, clinician and National Young Horse coach Christine Traurig switched off and gave each horse and rider pair ample individual coaching.  Shopping was available with a booth set up by Horse and Rider Boutique, and there was a fundraising silent auction full of luxe prizes like a custom pair of Deniro Boots, a flight up the west coast in a private plane, a weekend getaway vacation package in Las Vegas, and much more.  The $50 auditors fee generously included seating at shaded ringside tables complete with bottles of chilled (surprisingly drinkable) Prosecco, and above average sandwiches, desserts, and other hors d’oeuvres.

Warm up day, I like to call this frame “giraffe”

Day 1, Warm up – My goal for both Isley and my first clinic was simply – to not fall off (of course I always want to learn and have a nice experience and blah blah blah – but mostly, please God don’t let me fall off in front of all these people, amen).  I trailered in with friend and fellow rider Lehua Custer, and while there was no check in (possibly due to a late evening arrival), after a little stroll around the property we easily figured things out.  I could write sonnets about the footing in every single arena on the property – The warm up arena seemed to have an additive of shredded yoga mats – even my boyfriend Heath commented on how nice it was (although I suspect he was referring to the pretty colors), while the clinic arena and the round pen contained a shredded carpeting addition that was fluffy and immaculate, and made me feel better about the prospect of falling off just by walking across it.  At one point I was lunging Isley in the round pen, and Heath and I were dead silent listening to his hooves thudding in the footing – it was that satisfying of a sound.  The arena where the clinic was to be held was already set up, and it was a lot of atmosphere.  Isley was tentative but took everything in stride with only minor “snorkeling” as I like to call it.  While he wouldn’t give me full relaxation, what we have been working on at home is starting to translate to off property work – even if only a little.  I had a long ride and schooled each gait with only one blow up at the canter which we worked through and from which we continued on immediately.  We were still having some residual shoulder control issues from hell-week at home, but for the most part we coped.  For schooling alone in an unfamiliar arena at dusk complete with ringside tables, chairs, umbrellas, and tents set up, he was fabulous. Have I mentioned that I love my baby?

Day 2, Clinic Day – The day of the clinic everything was relaxed and well organized, again without there needing to be anyone bustling around to check in on anything.  David and Rebecca were back and forth getting their various horses ready and participating in the clinic, and were so friendly and helpful in answering any errant questions.  There was a support staff of riders and grooms helping to braid and prepare horses who were capable of fulfilling any request, and my dear friend (and phenomenally talented rider) Anna Buffini was among them.  Upon realizing my bell boots were not quite as white as I could have hoped next to my new white polos, she volunteered herself in between braiding horses to go on a wild goose chase across the property to find me a pair – The girl was a godsend!

Not pictured – me trying to regain my outside stirrup frantically before Christine notices something is awry

I was riding in the first group of the day, a group that consisted of Isley and I, and Rebecca Rigdon on a stellar 4 year old named INXS who had most recently scored very well in the 4 year old young horse classes at Flintridge Dressage Show.  Isley had a mishap in the round pen (he suddenly realized his crazy mother had brought him to a very fancy shindig and attempted an escape) right before my ride time, so I entered the arena after Rebecca had already started, and warmed him up at the walk while Christine coached Rebecca.  Unfortunately it was immediately clear to me that Isley had zero gas in the tank after his long warmup the night before, and his shenanigans in the round pen.  Even getting a forward walk was proving to be difficult, I have not yet introduced him to spurs, so my whip was my only ally.  I also made a mistake at the beginning of my ride – Christine asked me how long Isley had been under saddle and I blanked and responded “about a year”.  Nina reminded me afterwards that while we started him in May of 2016, we spent about two months backing him in the round pen, and then from October 1st to January 1st he went on “winter break” and did not work, which I had completely forgotten about.  Isley did his best to execute and I did my best to not curse aloud as Christine coached us, and the principles that she presented to me (that I could hear above my muttering about spurs under my breath) were incredibly insightful and useful.  Some big takeaways for me are below – bonus points if you can pick out which ones were from Christine.

  • When you pick up the contact from the walk, the horse should feel like they are expecting to move forward, not to stop.  That is key in developing a “forward thinking” horse.
  • Age and stage appropriate contact is always the key, but no Grand Prix has been won with long reins.
  • Gina, see above.

    Reins at questionable lengths

  • If you are having to ask continually to get your horse more forward now, you will be begging for it later.
  • I’m definitely begging now so that can’t be good.
  • I’m more fit than Isley and I can barely get my groceries from the car to the house.
  • Although my horse was not nearly fit enough to present himself at 100%, I couldn’t be more proud of him for not quitting on me, and proud of myself for continuing to do the best I could to ride accurately.

At the end of my ride, Christine told me that Isley’s walk is a 9.  What a feeling to hear those words from someone as knowledgeable about young horses as Christine!  She was such a gracious clinician, and clearly is a huge benefit to the Young Horse Program.

Pretty sure my desperate panting was audible at this point

Overall – I had a wonderful first clinic experience.  My only regret was that I did not have a chance before my ride to communicate with Christine any info/history about Isley and I, what we have been working on and struggling with, and what we are working towards.  I think that I may have been the only rider/horse combo she was not familiar with, I was told afterwards that many of the riders at the clinic had just ridden the Carl Hester clinic, and she was familiar with them either from that or from previous events – so that was most likely an issue exclusive to me, but I would have loved the opportunity to give her a short summary of our past.  It was extremely rewarding to be told after my ride by an auditor that my ride was her favorite, because it’s what she learned the most from.  I am so grateful to Rebecca and Christine for inviting me to ride, and so encouraged that they are welcoming riders like myself to these events!  I’ve attended numerous clinics, and while the horse and rider pairs are often incredible to watch, the takeaway is sometimes discouraging instead of relatable and encouraging.  In my opinion – clinics are most successful when they inspire auditors to go get on their horse and conquer issues with the tools they have learned,  and that can only happen if there are issues presented that they relate to.  I love to support dressage whenever I can, and having an opportunity to ride in such a great clinic as an adult amateur helps to make educational events like clinics relatable to more riders so that the knowledge gained becomes the incentive to attend.  I’ve audited numerous “elite” clinics, and while it is incredible to watch, the takeaways when watching world class horse and rider pairs is sometimes overwhelming instead of relatable and encouraging.

I’m proud of my horse, my trainer was proud of me, and best of all – I’m kind of proud of myself?

And I didn’t fall off.  



The Prep Week From Hell

Before a big event, it’s important for things to go right.  Preparation is key, right?  Right.

Thats why the week before the big clinic that Isley and I had been invited to, I wanted everything to go perfect.  Nina was to ride him Monday and Tuesday, and Thursday I would have a lesson before hauling to the clinic Friday.  It was perfect – He’d get schooled by Nina early in the week, rest up on Wednesday, and then we would have a prep session Thursday.

The disaster started Monday – due to an unforeseen tragedy in the barn family, The training ride was cancelled.  Tuesday was another training ride, but because it had been so suddenly hot, Isley was both tense and very quickly tired.  There was all kinds of commotion at the barn with construction and trailers pulling in and out, so

Isley got a lot of exasperated looks from me after his ride.

he was unsettled nearly the whole ride.  Nina attempted to shake him out of it and use the tension to introduce him to walk-canter transitions, but he did not get the concept and she got a grand total of – 0.  It was not the worst day, but by no stretch of the imagination was it the most successful.   I decided to give him another day off Wednesday since had been so tired and a little cranky Tuesday, and I didn’t want him to have a heavy week right before the clinic.

Thursday is when it all went south.  Upon arriving at the barn, I noticed that they were painting the outside of the round pen.  I tacked him up as usual, not thinking anything of it.  When I went to lead him to the round pen, I was told there was no lunging, as they didn’t want dust in the paint.  Due to his explosive nature, we do not ride Isley without lunging first.  There is a strict no lunging allowed rule in the arena, so I was at a loss.  When Nina arrived I told her the predicament.  Was I going to get on him without lunging – after a day off no less, or was I going to go to the clinic without having ridden my horse all week?  I made the choice to ride.  Immediately his tension from not being lunged was evident.  Outside factors kept worsening the situation – the painter came back from his lunch break, and started re-mixing the paint with an egg beater style contraption, a worker started pressure washing the inside of the barn, a horse trailer pulled in and someone drove a tractor out of it.  Isley never spooked, but ground his teeth and became evasive of the contact through his shoulders, he started popping his shoulder to one side or the other, refusing to bend, and wiggling down the long sides. Without working him to the point of exhaustion, we did our best to get him schooled, but it was apparent that it was not an ideal start to the weekend.

My goal for the clinic was set – Don’t fall off.


The Four Stages

These past few months with Isley have included some pretty big milestones.  I rode him in his very first show under saddle at materiale – without any coaching, as my trainer was out of town.  We moved to a new property and we have worked through the settling in process, which briefly lead to a mini-regression in terms of Isley

Show baby, show!

displaying tension and lack of focus under saddle.  We are preparing to attend our first clinic in early June, and in the meantime are trying to solidify the skills he will need to successfully get through a training level test.  All these challenges – and I don’t use the word challenges negatively – have lead to me really having my eyes opened about how much I love working with young horses, and my young horse in particular.

Oftentimes when riding I am reminded of a scale that I love called “the four stages of competence”. It very accurately describes a riders journey from beginner to skilled equestrian.  I frequently measure myself against that scale, and strive for the next level, but when riding young horses without a schoolmaster to learn from it can be difficult to improve in ways that progress you as a rider.

Isley is so incredibly clever and tries very hard, so when I am given the tools by my trainer to introduce a new concept to him, the feeling of him working through what I am asking, understanding what he needs to do, and responding to those new commands is second to none.  I feel more and more accomplished as a rider, and am quickly becoming addicted to knowing the solution when we run across a training problem.  All credit goes to my trainer Nina in that she has been able to bring both of us along in a way that often I not only understand the types of correction and guidance that he needs without being told, but when and how to apply them, and if he doesn’t understand what I am asking, how to break it down to him successfully.  Now, even when I feel a new challenge developing due to lack of balance, strength, or maturity, its almost exciting knowing that I have been given a new problem to learn how to train through!  I am hungry for the future of his development physically and mentally – the milestones at each new level of training and competing are part of a lifelong journey I couldn’t be happier to be able to experience with my heart horse – one sticky transition at a time!






Pre Show Panic!

Today was Isley’s last ride at home before leaving for his second show ever this weekend.  I had my trainer Nina ride him today as a last minute tune up before I ruin all her hard work this weekend, but even that did not go as planned.  Isley has been fairly tense since moving to a new facility on the 1st of May, and it manifested today with some loose poops and spooks at nothing.  One of the other young horses at the barn has mastered the art of breaking away from his handlers and going for an unguided tour of the property, and he did so while Isley was being ridden.  Thank goodness my trainer had enough presence of mind to cleanly dismount as soon as she saw a loose horse bolting towards her, I most likely would have stared dumbly at the oncoming disaster and promptly gotten dumped on my butt.  Nevertheless, Isley didn’t do much more after that than some trot work and some stretchy walking to combat the tension he was showing.  Fingers crossed he settles at the show tomorrow!

He did look awfully handsome today, it seems like he’s growing every minute – He’s almost 17hh!  Nina wouldn’t let me take a picture unless I wiped off her boots first – its a glamorous life!

Isley today with Nina aboard

My Story

Welcome to Dressage Dossier!

My name is Gina, and I am a Dressage-a-holic.  As a child of an actress and a classical musician, finding ways to worm my way into barn time was always tricky and almost always done on a for trade basis.  I gained the coveted “barn rat” status at the tender age of 8, and due to an overly generous trainer – I was taught the ropes of horse handling, and allowed to “work” in exchange for lessons.  The best weekends and summers of my young life were spent at Will Rogers State park – bathing and grooming horses, learning to tack up and clean tack, learning to load horses on the trailer and being allowed to pony quiet school horses on the extensive trails.  The smell of eucalyptus trees and show sheen, and the purple hands left by washing too many tails with Quick Silver will forever be emblazoned into my memory, and I learned many important lessons such as – making friends with the stall cleaners is as easy as offering them half of the sandwich your mom packs you for lunch, and always be sure to tighten your girth an extra time before you ride double on a fat quarter horse who is prone to bloating.  I went over my first jumps and attended my first horse shows with that first trainer, and even more importantly I learned that kindness, patience, and hard work are the best ways to approach life at the barn.

I was scouted by a modeling agency in High School, and used that opportunity to finance the ownership of my first horse.  She was a green 8 year old (or so), chestnut TB mare who was prone to bolting, violently running out of fences, and launching herself skyward without warning by way of (in retrospect fairly impressive) capriole type maneuvers.  I was 13, and boy did that horse teach me some lessons.  Having a difficult horse that young is the type of experience that will either scare you straight and you lose your love, or teach you how to – defensively – ride a difficult horse.  I was the latter, and while the experience left me with some guts and tricks by the time I gave her to a friend in exchange for a rack of her famous bbq baby back ribs and the promise that she would (please GOD) do something with her that wouldn’t short circuit the poor mare’s brain, it also inevitably left me with a lot of tension – and a reputation as a good “crash test dummy” that has been utilized to this day by trainers and friends that I “hop on” horses for.

River, the quintessential chestnut mare, and my first horse. Not pictured – me passing out of heat stroke in the bushes shortly after this ride.

Modeling continued to pay for my horse experience throughout high school, which is when I began buying project horses, training and showing them, selling, and picking up the next one.  I learned something new from each horse and every success or heartbreak, and making riding work against the odds on a shoestring budget gave me a sense of responsibility and accomplishment that kept me out of trouble as a teenager and into my transition as a young adult.  Because I could only afford to send myself to local shows and work with smaller trainers, attempting to make riding my career was something that seemed impossible.  Any good junior rider needs a show resume, working student experience with a top trainer, and a nice horse of their own if they want to attempt to be a pro.  Because of my situation and my parent’s unfamiliarity with the world of a horse professional, I had no idea how to seek out the opportunities that would point me in the direction of real mastery.  I stumbled into dressage as an accident – when I was 20 I elected to have surgery to fix my crooked spine, even though it would mean a year off from riding.   In the months leading up to my surgery I had decided to use my modeling savings to give myself a “last hurrah” of training and showing to the extent I had never been able to do previously.  The only horse at my barn that I could afford to lease was a 4 year old 17hh Trakehner gelding named Gabe who had been started in Dressage, but was not ready to begin jumping.  I began taking dressage lessons on him and was hooked – I had never had a nice enough horse for the hunters, the jumpers were too stressful, and I was useless in an Eq workoff, but Dressage fit me perfectly.

Gabe, my first dressage partner

I did my best from then on to get on as many Dressage horses as possible, and try and learn something about the sport from any trainer that would humor me.  I eventually found myself in a position to purchase my first Dressage horse, and tried a few 3, 4, and 5 year olds at an auction in Northern California.  Everything was either not quite right or way out of my very modest budget.  At the auction there were two weanling colts by Totilas that were creating quite the buzz, they had been added to the auction fairly last minute and no one really knew they would be there.

Isley on Auction Day – Photocred Tamara with the camera

I, of course, HAD to attend the foal showcase to see them in the flesh.  The first of the two came out with his dam and went around, he was a dark liver chestnut with a nice dam line that I had been expecting to like, but didn’t.  The second Totilas colt came out – leggy and  black with a star and a snip very much like his sire.  He had the attention of everyone at the auction.  He was refined, fancy, and seemed like a total spitfire, he even left his dam and went on a romp to visit the crowd, snorting the whole time.  It was love at first sight, and when the auction ran the next day he was the second in order of go.  No one seemed to be there for a foal, and the few that were seemed hesitant to bid on one of the first horses of the day, so I found myself in a bidding war against someone across the country, bidding through an agent who was talking to them on the phone.  Finally the hammer struck, and “Isley” was mine.

First kiss!

It has been an long and interesting road, and waiting to have a horse to ride felt like it would never end.  I took him to a few shows as a yearling and did in-hand classes, but mostly I worked simultaneously on bringing him along correctly with proper care and nutrition, and learning myself how to bring along a baby from weanling to young dressage prospect.   Being his sole handler for his first three years created an inseparable bond between us, I got lucky enough to end up with my heart horse, and again have been lucky enough to – with the help of my trainer – start him under saddle and be his sole rider for the first few months when he turned three, and more recently take him to his first shows and clinics as a 4 year old.

Our journey has just begun, and I can’t wait to see where it will lead!

Snuggle time is the best time

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