From Endurance to Dressage
A Lesson With Somebody New
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I am so fortunate to have found a trainer who realizes that sometimes, we need to hear her ideas come from someone else's mouth. Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, has been my go-to trainer for several years now. While she's encouraged me to attend clinics, I hadn't ever felt the need to seek another trainer's advice. Until now.
I've taken a lot of lessons with Chemaine. Speedy and I have gone from an Introductory Level pair to a team knocking at the door of Third Level. With Izzy, things haven't progressed in such a linear fashion. Frankly, he and I are more often than not a hot mess. Yes, he can half pass, but half the time I can't get a stretchy trot circle. We're up, we're down, we're all over the place.
For the past month, things have been way more down than up. In fact, I came home a few weeks ago declaring that he was outta here! I was just over it. In desperation, I sent out a message to a fellow trainer of Chemaine's. Someone who I had seen show many times. Someone who knew me, but didn't know me. Someone who didn't know a thing about Izzy or about my relationship with him.
Enter Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage based in the Moorpark area. He is a Bronze and Silver Medalist, and is just two scores shy of his Gold Medal. He is a very quiet, but effective rider, and his teaching style is very similar to Chemaine's.
I sent Sean a message and asked if he would be willing to do a rider/horse evaluation. I wanted to know if I am simply not an educated enough rider for Izzy, or on the flip side, if is Izzy mentally capable of what I am asking. Essentially, I wanted to know who is the problem in this relationship. By the way, the answer is usually me, but I wanted to be sure.
A week or so ago, I loaded up the big brown horse and headed to Moorpark, two and a half hours away. A few days before, I had switched Izzy back to the correction bit. I packed that bit and bridle along with two others. I wanted to give Sean as much information as I could.
To my surprise, Izzy self-loaded in the trailer without needing Speedy as motivation. Besides going to the vet a few times over the winter, he hasn't even been near the trailer. And yet, he made the journey without a peep. When I unloaded him, he looked around for a minute, and then he started munching on the hay I had hung for him. I tacked him up without any fuss and then led him over the arena. While I was very pleased with his happy-go-lucky demeanor, I was also very surprised. Maybe he's matured more than I thought. Point to the big brown horse.
Because it was so windy, Sean had me use a two-way communication system. I mention this because I fully expected the big brown horse to start off with a big spook and a bolt. Windy weather is definitely not his jam. But nope, he just stood there looking around as I dropped my stirrups and climbed on. From there, his tension started to rise, and he gave a few hard spooks. But really, I was quite pleased with the maturity he showed.
Sean watched me ride for a few minutes, and then he started directing me to focus on being consistent and vigilant with the bend. Right away he pegged Izzy as being a horse who lacks confidence. Yep. He pointed out that he carries a lot of tension in his poll and top line. Again, yep. In less than 15 minutes, Sean was able to really hone in on where we both struggle. Point to the trainer.
To my relief, I am not causing Izzy's tension, but I am not necessarily helping it either. Sean suggested some things that I can do to help Izzy build confidence in me as his rider.
1) Insist that he let go through his poll by using lateral flexion with an inside leg. Izzy does not get to deviate from that position. As he releases the tension, I can straighten him for a few strides and let him move into the contact, but then it's back to lateral flexion. As Izzy finds relief in this position, he will seek it more willingly.
2) I need to ride Izzy with contact all the time. He doesn't get a loose, free rein as this is when he looks for things at which to spook. Instead, I can use walk "breaks" to reinforce the idea of letting go through the poll.
3) When Izzy spooks, I am to ignore it completely and ride as though nothing happened.
4) For now, I am to stick with the larger movements: 20-meter circles, serpentines, and figures of eight. These will help keep Izzy balanced as he builds trust in me as his rider.
While Izzy wasn't perfect during the lesson, I definitely felt the tension ease throughout his body simply by insisting that he release at his poll. When I put all of my focus there, he quit stabbing at the ground with hurried steps, he quit looking for things to spook at, and he started taking some deep breaths. Eventually Sean got on him and worked on the same concepts. As a MUCH more educated rider, he got Izzy softer and softer, and his back loosened up. I could see that Izzy felt so much better "supported" - mentally and physically.
Every ride we've had since that lesson has been better than the one before. All of the "pieces" for success have been there - Chemaine's given me the tools I need, it just took someone else to reframe it all for me. Sean didn't whisper any magic words or teach me something that I didn't already know. What he did do was help me connect what I know with a new feeling. And once I feel it, I can't unfeel it.
To contact Sean Cunningham for lessons or coaching:
4/23/2019 06:33:01 am
You did a great job, Karen! As you said, it's nothing you didn't already know from all your work with Chemaine, who is awesome if I do say so myself!
5/17/2019 06:23:41 am
Thank you, Sean. I hope we can get together again. :0)
4/23/2019 12:03:11 pm
I love a trainer who encourages their students to seek outside advice as needed! Sometimes a slightly different perspective can work wonders. I'm glad you had such a good session with Sean and I love all the advice he gave you. A little bit of lateral flexion can go such a long way, especially for a tight horse who lacks confidence. Nice work!
5/17/2019 06:24:52 am
My regular trainer was fine with the idea. That's why I love her so much. She's more interested in my success and my horses' well being than a lesson fee. :0)
4/23/2019 12:13:12 pm
A few times I've had a similar experience, where someone different told me the same thing my trainer had told me a million times, but for some reason the fact that it was someone else saying it, or having it said in a slightly different way, really helped it click for me. Glad you had an aha! moment with the big brown horse!!
5/17/2019 06:25:39 am
Exactly! I often joke with Chemaine: why didn't YOU ever tell me that? She just laughs and rolls her eyes. LOL
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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%: