From Endurance to Dressage
A Vegas-Sized Lightbulb Moment
Over the past year, I've taken a fair amount of lessons from Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. I've never had a bad lesson, but this last one created a massive lightbulb moment. Sean and I have been teasing back and forth about my "bright" moments; I call them Vegas marquee signs, and he jokes that he'll need to coach me in sunglasses if I keep "getting it." This last epiphany was a Luxor moment. I am sure my lightbulb could be seen from space.
It was really a two-fold AHA. The first was huge, but the second one had a slow burn. I didn't realize how big of an AHA it was until the next day. Before I get too far off topic, let me explain the first one first.
Over the past month or so, I've been working on improving my understanding of keeping Izzy on both reins evenly. That's not a wildly unique concept; everyone knows that's what we should be doing, but some horses achieve that balance more easily than others. Izzy has struggled with it. As I was riding the shoulder-in, I brought Izzy to a complete halt, and told Sean that I needed to ask a question. It was this: How do I keep Izzy even on both reins in the shoulder-in? It is something that I really struggle with. Sean's answer started out pretty simple, but then he said just the right thing at the right time.
In order to get Izzy even on both reins, I can't achieve the angle, bend, and forward if I use only my inside aids. It was as though someone had ripped my blindfold off. I have been using my inside leg and inside rein to try to do exactly that. How many more times do I need to hear inside leg to outside rein? Apparently, a lot. When Sean said that I instantly realized that I have been trying to pull Izzy into the shoulder-in when I should have been using my inside leg to drive him forward while using my outside rein and leg to send him around my inside leg. It's almost like riding a circle where the outside aids make the turn, not the inside aids.
As soon as I started the next shoulder-in, I felt how my inside leg keeps Izzy on the track while the outside aids maintain the angle. I'll admit that I squealed and shouted my own version of Eureka! Then we did another one and then a few more going the other way. It was as though Izzy was on rails. Suddenly, I was no longer blocking him which allowed the movement to flow. When I say it's not him, it's me, I mean it.
The next day, it all went to hell. I was psyched about doing the shoulder-in and was totally prepared to wow myself. That didn't happen, and I felt an incredible sense of disappointment. What the hell? What was the freaking problem, and what was I doing wrong? That's when I remembered the second big thing Sean had shown me.
I had asked Sean why he thought Izzy preferred to go around bracing against me with his back hollow. It's horribly uncomfortable to ride, and it can't feel good to Izzy either. Sean answered very matter of factly, "It's what he knows." Yeah, I get that, but he now knows something better. Sean explained it like this: "Yes, he does know you are asking for something else, but by bracing, he keeps control and can bolt or spook or tuck his bootie and boogie if he feels the need. By softening, he gives up control, and that is not easy for him to do."
Sean has spent the past year helping me understand why Izzy does the things he does. By understanding what Izzy is (probably) thinking, I can apply a different tool to help him feel more confident. This realization helped me understand that it is a trust issue which is very different from being stubborn. Since he has such a dominant personality, giving me the literal reins is really hard for him.
So when the shoulder-in didn't go so well, I immediately realized that several things were happening. First, I didn't have Izzy balanced on both reins, and secondly, he wasn't giving me control as a result. So what did I do? I changed the topic. I went back to moving him around in his neck to see if I could achieve some suppleness. All the while I kept it in my mind that I was asking him if he trusted me enough to let me make the decisions.
It wasn't a perfect ride, but he wasn't upset, and I could see him really thinking about what I was asking him to do. To further convince him that he could trust me, I gave my hands forward every time he offered to soften instead of pushing against me. That's something Sean has been suggesting for a while, but I wasn't quite understanding the purpose until this weekend. Even if Izzy doesn't reach for the bit, even if I lose the contact for a moment, I am giving him the opportunity to seek the bit. One of these times, he's going to realize that the pressure is off, and he's going to follow my lead and reach for the bit.
Having this whole last week off gave me the opportunity for some real consistency. While I normally ride three or four days a week, having ten days in a row to practice what I've been learning helped me put together several new ways of thinking and riding. Whether we are ready to show or not has been pushed to the side. I am more focused on the conversation that Izzy and I have been having. I can't say for sure that he's hearing everything I say, but I know he has been listening more than ever before.
If I need to buy Sean some new Ray-Ban sunglasses because my lightbulb keeps getting brighter, it will be more than worth it!
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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%: