From Endurance to Dressage
Not only am I becoming a much better rider since I started working with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, but I've found myself part of a new team. I am sure it helped that I was already friends with one of Sean's other clients, Valerie, who owns The Dressage Pony Store, but I didn't expect to be included with the entire team so quickly.
In my opinion, the barn's atmosphere is determined by the trainer. A barn full of toxic, catty people are there because the trainer allows it. A barn full of friendly, supportive riders are there because the trainer encourages it. Sean is incredibly professional, and while he is friendly and kind, there is always a sense of boundaries. I like that. While Sean and I are friends on some level, I appreciate that he is always a trainer first.
Being on Sean's team of riders includes some surprising perks. I had never before been to a show where the trainer and other riders tacked up my horse, made sure I drank, and had polished boots. The ladies on Sean's team truly care about horses and their riders, and they want success for everyone on the team.
After unloading Izzy on Saturday Sean presented me with my first STC Dressage branded item and assured me that more is on the way.
Equally as cool is the other side.
I squealed. It was perfect timing as I had forgotten my other one at home which meant drinking out of a coffee mug. It's much cleaner to walk around the barn with a sealed cup for your tea rather than a mug which allows floating barn dust to settle in your cup. Gross.
Since I am now officially on the team, I had better bring it.
There is a lot I love about riding at STC Dressage. First, it's a beautiful place to school your horse. Second, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer, keeps the barn immaculate with deeply bedded stalls that are cleaned twice daily. Besides the amenities, the company is exceptional. On Saturday afternoon, one of Sean's other clients came out and we laughed and visited while she rode her adorable pony, Laddie. I so wish I had taken a photo; he is FANCY. Later that evening, Sean and I set up a table and chairs in the barn aisle and ate dinner and sipped his very fine whiskey all while taking in the view.
With real life beckoning, I forced myself out of bed early on Sunday morning and had Izzy saddled and ready for a second lesson at 8:45. With the previous day's ideas rattling around in my head, I put Izzy right to work focusing on getting the bend with my inside leg. That's when Sean dropped big idea number two on me: now that he's not filled with anxiety, take control and put him to work.
That seems like such a basic idea, but it has only been fairly recently that Sean has helped me begin to reduce Izzy's tension. That has revealed a secondary issue: Izzy's reluctance to give up control. At times, I am so relieved that Izzy isn't tense and spooking that I am afraid to ask for anything out fear of upsetting his apple cart. Sean caught that right away. Sean explained that when Izzy relaxes, it doesn't him take him long to figure out that I am not in control, and if I am not calling the shots, Izzy is going to. Izzy isn't known for making good decisions.
My job as Izzy's rider is being made more and more clear. My first task is to reduce the tension by not over-reacting. Moving Izzy's body around with changes of direction and flexing his neck from true bend to counter bend will also encourage relaxation. And of course, I am now learning how to better utilize my inside leg to encourage the inside hind to step through. This has the added bonus of keeping control when Izzy spooks. My second task is to recognize when Izzy is willing to let me be in control and then take it. I need to ask him questions before he thinks about taking control himself.
There is a lot to be said for mini-boot camps. Riding three to five times a week in a trainer-led program must be amazing. Just being able to take a weekly lesson over the past year has helped me so much. Riding two days in a row with Sean's coaching was a much needed treat. Traveling to STC Dressage is doable, but it's expensive and takes a full day. When you work full time, that's hard to do. Since Monday was a school holiday, I took advantage of the extra day.
Sean has put together a proposed show schedule for 2022 and asked me which shows I might be interested in doing. Just a week or two ago I had given up on doing any shows this season. What's the point? Now, I am seeing more progress than ever before. It wouldn't hurt to give it another go, would it?
Maybe 2022 is our year.
After trying and failing during my two-week Christmas break, I finally made it to STC Dressage for a two-day, mini bootcamp this past weekend. Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer, was super flexible as we rescheduled weekend after weekend. The rain finally let up enough for his arena to dry out, so Izzy and I drove down to Moorpark on Saturday morning. Izzy hadn't been anywhere since Halloween weekend, so I really wanted to get him off the property and working somewhere other than my arena.
While taking lessons virtually with the Pivo Cast app is working fabulously, an in-person lesson was a nice change. Sean was able to watch Izzy's attitude in the barn, in the cross ties, and walking to and from the arena. At one point during the weekend, Sean commented on Izzy's softer eyes and quieter mouth. Those aren't things that are as easy to see (or hear) on a computer screen.
Over the course of the weekend, Sean gave me two new "tools." On Saturday, we worked on Izzy's tension and spookiness. The longer Sean and I work together, the more I learn to ride with less rein. To help Izzy both relax through his back and stop spooking, Sean had me focus on my inside leg. Like most riders, I either use too much leg (you can't push ALL the time), not enough leg, or a leg aid applied too late. Sean talked me through putting my leg on to say bend around my leg and then removing it once Izzy was pushing through with his inside hind. What started to happen was that Izzy began to bend with my leg on before I needed to bend him with the rein. Every time? No, but often enough that I realized I was doing something right.
As I fast forwarded through the hour of video that Pivo recorded, all I saw was a million changes of direction. For the entire lesson, I rode serpentines, ten-meter circles, and leg yields. Izzy wanted to hold his breath and tighten his back every moment we worked. By using my inside leg to say bend your body, Izzy couldn't do anything but breathe and bend. While the softness might have only lasted for a moment, we had an awful lot of those moments.
Life with Izzy isn't always easy though. There were a few spooks to deal with as well, but when used correctly, my inside leg became a way to diffuse the spooks. I probably don't have to tell you that applying a well-timed aid during a spook takes a well balanced rider. Even though I tried to apply the inside leg before the spook gained too much momentum, Sean had to remind me time after time to keep my inside leg on.
With my inside leg on, Izzy can fall out which keeps him from feeling trapped; it's a way out. He can also choose to go forward. Sean explained that as Izzy learns to soften and bend from just the leg, the spooks will happen less and less often as Izzy learns to trust my inside leg. I could feel that start to happen as I focused on using my inside leg more effectively. Many of the spooks just fizzled out, but not all of them. In the spook below, I simply regained control and asked him to stop so I could let him reset his brain. Once he was quiet, we went on as though nothing had happened.
We worked for a full hour with Sean coaching me through the use of my inside leg to ask for bend before going to my rein. By the end of the lesson we had begun to work on some "meat and potatoes," as Sean called it - real leg yields and shoulder in. Izzy wasn't complete putty in my hands, but much of the tension has dissipated, and he genuinely tried to do what I was asking.
Day one's big take away was to use the inside leg to ask for bend and to maintain control during a spook.
To be continued ...
I've shared my weight rollercoaster here for years. I lose weight and then gain it back. I have stacks of breeches ranging from size 28 - 32. Guess which ones I am wearing now? Breeches are cheap(ish) to buy, tall boots are not. At times, my show boots get too tight, and I am forced to show in my schooling boots. I haven't had my show boots on since Halloween, but those still seem to fit. My schooling boots, not so much.
It's not that I can't get them on, but they're pretty tight. These are the same boots that had a zipper blowout in the summer which I had replaced. Did the cobbler need to take them in slightly to replace the zipper? I don't know but they are HARD to zip up around my calf. I've been struggling with them for months knowing that Christmas and my birthday were coming. I generally get some cash and gift cards so my plan was to wait to replace my boots until after the start of the new year.
I've been buying the same boots for the past five or six years, maybe more. For schooling, I ride in the TuffRider Ladies Belmont Dress Boots. I don't know how many pairs I've owned. This is either the fourth or fifth pair. I love them because they are comfortable and wearable right out of the box. There is no break-in period. The leather is buttery soft, and the footbed feels like a pair of tennis shoes although I do add a Dr. Scholl's gel insert to get a perfect fit.
I am really hard on my schooling boots. I brush the dirt off after each ride, and I occasionally rub some leather conditioning stuff over them, but they take a beating. I wear them seven days a week, and while I try not to use them while using the hose, they occasionally get wet. We don't have any pavement at the ranch, so these boots see a lot of dirt surfaces. I generally get at least 18 months out of them, maybe as many as two years. I bought the last pair in July of 2020.
Without any sales or discounts, the boots run $251.42 from the Riding Warehouse, but I can always find a 15% off discount code. (Hit me up if you need one.) Last week I ordered a new pair and they cost $231.34 with a 15% discount. At that price, I can afford to replace them as needed. While I am dying to ditch the old pair, I am going to keep squeezing into them as long as I can. I'd really like a fatal injury to happen before I toss them. Another zipper blowout, a lost heel, or even a hole in the leather would make me feel better about abandoning them.
We'll see how long I can leave them in the box. Any bets?
On Saturday morning as I went to load some stuff for a weekend at STC Dressage, I saw that my truck door hadn't been shut properly. I flipped a U-turn and went back into the house. "I didn't shut my truck door last night," I told my husband. I worried that I might need to jump start it which would have been a big bummer as I had just bought two new batteries in November.
When I went back out to Newt, I noticed a series of things that hit me like the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun.
To each thing I kept repeating, I must have been in a big hurry on Friday night when I got home from work. And then I got in to start the truck to check the battery. My driver side seat was pushed back. I am 5'3". A lightening bolt struck me; someone had broken into my truck. Son of a bleeping beep. Before I touched anything else, I brought my husband out to show him. I discovered that the interior lights had been turned off which is why none of them came on when I opened the door which is one reason I had worried that my battery was dead.
We both stood there shaking our heads, getting madder as each second passed. The front of our house is well lit at night. We have a light post right in front of our house. We have motion lights. We live in a gated community. My community, of which I am a board member, has a contract with a private security firm who does drive-bys throughout the day and night. And yet, someone was able to sneak around my front yard and break into my truck. Fortunately, there was nothing of value to take, and no damage was done, but still ...
Later in the day I posted the break-in on the Nextdoor App. My neighborhood uses it as a sort of neighborhood watch. All of my neighbors post suspicious activity, so I knew I'd get a response. The next day, several other people reported that the same thing had happened to them, and one of them shared a screen shot from his video camera.
Unfortunately, there isn't anything any of us can do except warn each other and be vigilant. We have a board meeting coming up, so I am going to suggest we change our gate code again. We're considering adding an exterior video camera to monitor what's happening outside at night. We have an interior camera for our security system, but it appears we need to do more.
If we weren't truck people, our vehicles would fit in the garage. As it is, my husband's truck does fit, but only barely. Newt is way too long. Our garage is wide, but we'd need at least another three feet to get Newt's big butt in there. She sleeps outside, but I am now worried about her safety.
What's the world coming too? Big, big, sigh.
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 Second Level. 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%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2022 Pending …
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2nd Level Qualifying
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 60.610% Bhathal
2nd Level Qualifying
5 Scores/4 Judges/61%:
Stuff I Read