From Endurance to Dressage
A Lesson in Control
Wow, a lot has happened over the past week or two. Besides going to Nashville for five days - more on that in a day or two, Izzy and I went to STC Dressage for two days of lessons, I took him on a nearly ten-mile trail ride, I roached his mane, and I did some more work on my saddle recoloring project - more on that next week. Today, I would like to reflect on the two-day lesson.
I say this All. The. Time. We are making progress; it's just really slow. Besides being the world's slowest learning team, Izzy and I also do a lot of back tracking. Over the years, Izzy has shown that once we lurch ahead a few steps on our journey, it is nearly guaranteed that the progress will freak him out and he'll try to revert back to what he thinks is his how he should move. That discourages me so I write a for sale ad, cry a few tears, and then get back to work.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and I have talked about this many, many times. Why does Izzy do this? Sean's answer is always the same: Because it's what he knows. For a long time I hated that answer because doing something uncomfortable like stabbing the ground as you fling yourself around the ring is pretty dumb. It also hurts. Even so, that's what Izzy knows. When he feels the need to grab control, he's not worried about how uncomfortable his body feels (or mine), he's more worried about his loss of control. Now that I understand him so much better, I am able to keep control by showing him that I will support him by not asking him to do something that he can't do. The more he trusts me, the more he allows me to make the decisions.
When I started the lesson last Saturday, Izzy was tense and looking for a way out. Following what Sean has taught me, I started asking Izzy little questions while I put him on 10-meter circles. Within just a minute or two, he let out his breath and agreed to follow my lead. Because I was there for him, he worked for nearly an hour trying to do everything we asked. While there were some very good moments, there were also some wonky ones, but Izzy never stopped trying. He tried so hard in fact that we schooled some things that we haven't done in a long while. And really, he was workmanlike for the entire lesson. That is a victory.
Sean just kept adding onto the work we were doing. When shoulder-in looked good, we turned it into renvers. When I had control of the shoulders, Sean asked for travers. And since that went well, we took it into the half pass. Then we did it all at the canter. We haven't schooled travers in the canter ever, but since our struggle isn't with the movements themselves, once Izzy was letting me direct him, I simply put him in position, and he did the movement. Of course when Sean saw that Izzy was willing to accept the canter travers, we turned it into canter half pass. Izzy showed us that he can do the work, he just needs the correct aids from me. Like him, I too am a work in progress.
We did work on one thing in particular that drives me crazy - my swinging left leg. This happens particularly during the left lead canter. Despite working on it for months, it still swings. I finally just stopped, looked at Sean, and told him to be very SPECIFIC. It took him a moment or two, but then he was able to diagnose the problem. Since I too have learned how to protect myself by doing what I know, I have a tendency to ride in a slightly defensive position. I lean forward just a bit and grip with my upper thigh. This means I have less weight in my stirrup which allows my leg to swing.
Sean's suggestion was to ride more confidently by sitting down on my left seat bone, lengthening my leg, and opening up my hip angle in the canter. Of course it worked very well. I am not afraid of Izzy even though he has certainly given me reason to be, but my body knows what he can do, so I instinctively position myself so that I don't get dumped. Now that Sean has made me aware of how I am using my body, I can consciously work to change how I sit.
Besides working on my position in the left lead canter, Sean threw us a whole new exercise to work on: shoulder-in down centerline. Because I try to always be honest here, I am going to admit that I thought I knew how to do shoulder-in down the centerline, but I was very, very wrong. Holy smokes, that is a much harder exercise than you would think. Sean loves to use exercises that show whether or not you truly have control over your horse's body. Renvers is another favorite of his. Now that I understand how to ride renvers, I use it all of the time to get control over Izzy's body. I have a feeling that shoulder-in down centerline will soon be my new best friend.
My struggle with shoulder-in down centerline, or anywhere away from the rail, is that I am actually allowing the haunches to go out instead of moving the shoulders off the track. It took several tries for me to feel the difference. I discovered that I had to hold the haunches on centerline as I moved the shoulders off. When doing shoulder-in down the long side, the rail keeps the haunches from stepping out. This exercise really showed how much more control over the shoulders I need.
While I see how much further we have yet to go, Sean was thrilled with how far we've come. The best thing that has started to happen these past six months is how much more readily Izzy is allowing me to take control. When he trusts me, we get a lot of work done. As long as we're making steady progress, I find the journey to be quite rewarding. So again, when we hit the next rough patch, remind me that the way will smooth out again.
If you're looking for ways to challenge yourself and your horse, work on renvers and shoulder-in down centerline. You'll thank me later.
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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%: