From Endurance to Dressage
A New Dynamic
I've been working with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, for about two months. For our first lesson, I was worried that he might fire me for not being good enough. He relieved me of that concern before I even got on. The next two lessons were about helping me get through the show at SCEC. With the "first date" awkwardness out of the way, I am starting to relax now that I have a better feel for his style of coaching.
After the last lesson I took with him at his place, I hung around to watch my friend Valerie ride. For the first twenty minutes,I sat there a wee bit baffled. It didn't appear that Sean was even giving her a lesson. He just sat on his bench over-looking the arena, quietly chatting with Valerie through the Cee Coach. By the way, I love that thing and immediately bought my own set of Cee Coach Over-the-Ear Stereo Headphones so that I could not only hear Sean but talk to him as well.
As I listened more closely to Sean's end of the conversation, I realized they weren't just chatting. Sean was coaching her, but not necessarily giving her exercises to do. She was just riding as though she were on her own with Sean offering suggestions for how to get more and better movement from Cinco, Valerie's gelding. Watching that dynamic between coach and rider gave me permission to ride the same way.
I had another lesson on Saturday. Rather than wait for Sean to tell me what to do, I rode like I would at home. As I asked Izzy to stretch in the walk, I gave Sean an update. Izzy had seen the chiropractor who had pointed out that Izzy was sore in his ribs. Sean nodded knowingly. Since Sean has had me really ride from the inside leg to the outside rein, Izzy has been bending in his ribs in a new way. Ah .. that makes sense.
As I continued warming up, I also told Sean that my stirrups had started feeling too short, so I had dropped them one hole. It gave me a feeling of really settling into my saddle. Sean explained that my leg had gotten longer because Izzy is looking more and more relaxed. When Izzy is tight, I don't have anywhere to sit, so I've used a shorter leg to help me balance. Now that his back is starting to lose some of its rigidity, I can sit on it and let my legs relax.
Throughout this discussion, I had been asking Izzy to stretch and move through his body. Sean was very complimentary about what I have been able to achieve with Izzy in just a few weeks. He seemed genuinely surprised by how relaxed Izzy was looking. I laughed and told him that I while am a good student, it was really his feedback that was making the difference.
By that time, Izzy was ready to work. Unlike the last few lessons, I rode Izzy like I would have had no one been there to see. While it felt like Sean wasn't saying anything, afterwards I realized that he did talk to me most of the lesson. His feedback included things like move him a little off your leg, ignore the spook, a little more bend, and so on.
As I've thought back over the lesson, there were two things in particular that Sean pointed out. The first was about asking for the bend with my leg first. One of the things that I've heard Sean say to both Valerie and me is to keep the neck moving so that the horse doesn't get stuck in one place. That's great advice, especially for a horse like Izzy who will quickly lock his neck and poll. Flexing him gently to the inside and outside keeps him softer.
While that may be true, I have a tendency to really take an idea and run with it. Working along the quarter line, I flexed Izzy's neck back and forth in an effort to get him softer. Sean pointed out the bend needs to start with my inside leg because as we all know, the bend should be through the horse's whole body, not just the neck. In retrospect, that seems like such a simple concept. But no, I didn't connect those dots until they were very clearly pointed out to me. I am now putting my leg on at the girth to indicate that I want Izzy to bend around my leg, not just move his neck.
The second suggestion Sean made was to start asking for more power. Over the past few weeks my focus has been on maintaining a very steady tempo. Now that I am more aware of my propensity for asking for more, MORE, MORE, I've fixed that by asking for steady. Sean urged me to start asking for a little more, so that Izzy doesn't think he never has to work harder. But rather than ask for more and insist that Izzy hold the more, Sean suggested asking for just a few more powerful strides and then ask for Izzy to come back to slow and steady.
Sean explained that I need to keep Izzy sharp to my leg. Can I get reaction if I put my leg on? If so, get those few strides that say yes, yes he can, and then bring it back down. It's a process, so I just need to get a little more each time. It doesn't all have to happen this month.
Izzy's chiropractor said something interesting when he was out the other week. He said that riders will often no longer need a "trainer." What they need is a coach, someone that is more often on the sidelines offering feedback. While I have a lot more to learn (so, so much to learn), I think I am ready for this kind of guidance.
Riding with Sean is a different experience. but I really like the new dynamic.
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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%: