From Endurance to Dressage
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, is like no other trainer that I've worked with. It's not like I've had a huge number of trainers, but the list is longer than you would think.
I first started with a local trainer, AQ, who isn't a dressage trainer, but basics are basics. After approximately a year of monthly lessons, more in the summer, I moved on to SV. SV was a lower level rider with a little show experience, but she knew more than I did, and she could answer most of my dressage questions. After her, I rode with JL, a h/j trainer, for at least a year or two, and I took lessons twice a week. I would tell her which movements I needed to do - this was back at Intro and Training Levels, and she would help me as well as she could.
While riding with JL, I also started riding in clinics. I rode with Betsy Shelton, Marisa Festerling, Peggy Klump, Susanne von Dietze, Hilda Gurney, Christian Schacht, Erika Jansson, Amelia Newcomb, Ulf Wadeborn, Barbi Breen-Gurley, and a few others. After JL, I trained with Chemaine Hurtado for a number of years. All of those trainers were different in their own way. Some were kinder than others, some taught lots of different exercises, and some just left me with a new feeling.
If I had started training with Sean before riding with all of those different trainers, it might be that I wouldn't have felt as though I was getting my money's worth with Sean. Even on his website Sean describes his training system as Dressage Done Differently. It's hard to explain exactly in what way his method is different, but I think it's because he doesn't say a whole lot. He expects me to ride, and he coaches as I go.
During my lesson on Sunday, I actually found myself thinking, be quiet. Let me sort this out on my own. It wasn't that I actually wanted him to stop coaching, but I was at a critical moment and wanted to try to solve the problem with tools he'd already given me. Whether he sensed that or not, I don't know, but he did let me work through it on my own.
Later in the lesson, we were doing shoulder-in to half pass, and our communication wires got crossed. Sean wanted me to track right, but I wanted to ride the left again to really firm up in my mind what he had suggested. When I told him why I had turned left, he laughed and said that was perfectly fine.
When I was a less educated rider, Sean's style of letting the rider make the decisions would have been too hard for me because I needed so much guidance. Of course, it might be that Sean gives beginner riders a more obvious scaffold than he does for more advanced riders. That's what good teachers do; I would find it hard to believe if he didn't.
This weekend's lesson was better than most. Izzy was being a real firecracker, but I found myself laughing over and over again at his silliness; I am not sure that Sean was amused as I was. Despite Izzy's lapses in judgement (and that's putting it kindly), I felt so empowered that nothing Izzy did fazed me which made his jerk moments seem very funny. Again, Sean wasn't laughing, but I couldn't help myself.
Unlike a year ago, I now have much more control over Izzy's spooks. During this lesson I was able to keep him mostly packaged together. Sometimes I had to keep him at a walk as he threatened to explode, but he didn't get to escape the work. Going into the shoulder-in at the corner between C and H was turning into a fight, so I pressed my inside leg in and held steady. He tried to jerk away from me, but I kept those aids on and he did that shoulder-in. It was at the walk, but he did not get away from me.
So what does Dressage Done Differently mean? I think Sean has developed a way of coaching and training that gives the rider tools that she can use when the trainer isn't there. It's almost as though he's trying to educate his clients to not need him. He wants his clients to be able to solve their own problems by being proactive riders instead of reactive riders. In my experience, this is definitely a different way of teaching. It's not that Sean is trying to get rid of us. Instead he is empowering us to make quicker decisions so that our aids become more subtle and even more effective.
A sense of empowerment will solve most any problem.
I know I've talked a lot about poop lately, and I promise this should be the last post for at least a few weeks on that topic (oh, Lord, let it be longer), but I do have some final (for now) thoughts. My one big take away from this recent round of tummy trouble is that one size does not fit all horses. I am not just talking about gastric supplements either.
If you've been reading for any length of time at all (thank you by the way), you'll know that I do my best to be honest. I don't sugar coat things, but I am a silver lining, glass half full kind of gal which means I tend to look for the positives in even the worst of situations. While I don't have all of the answers, I do share my opinions, especially when it comes to equine health care. Which is why I've been talking about poop.
When I finally saw that Izzy's tummy troubles needed a new solution and found the GastroElm, I pledged to give it to him every day for the rest of his life. That strategy ultimately backfired when the product turned out to be too much of a good thing. It also reaffirmed for me that there is no singularly correct way to care for our equine family members.
You've read all the articles: No Blanket Ever, Blanket All the Time. Barefoot is Best, Shod Hooves for Working Horses. No Injections, All of the injections. And on and on and on. Given how politically divided Americans are these days, it's no surprise that we apply the my way is the only way mentality to caring for a living creature.
I've had horses for 40 years, and in all that time I have learned that there is no one right way to do things. There is no one right way to do things for the same horse. One month Izzy needs GastroElm, and the next he doesn't. Izzy has shoes on the front, but he's barefoot in the back. Blanketing him only happens when there is a perfect storm of wind, rain, and low temperatures, all of which almost never happen at the same time where we live.
I may offer advice - usually only if asked, but it tends be of the well, one thing that has worked for me is ... type. Your milage may vary; I know mine sure does. With horses, my solution doesn't preclude yours from also being right. We all have so much good experience - some of it learned the hard way, that it seems a shame to disregard an idea just because it's not how you've always done it. If you think one size fits all, get a horse.
Am I right, or am I right?
I write for a lot of different reasons. I write to teach. I don't just teach elementary school; it's who I am as a person, so writing allows me to share what I know and have learned. I also like to write about particularly useful products or great sales; it's fun to pass that stuff around. I also like turning my disappointments into funny stories. When I tell on myself, someone out there thinks, hey, I am not alone on the struggle bus. And suddenly, we're all on a party bus headed to Vegas.
All of that lends itself to entertaining content - I hope anyway, but the real reason I write is to articulate my learning to myself. While owning and showing horses is great fun, I am determined to do more than just have a good time. I want to be better, I want to ride better, and I want to get all the way to the top. Writing my thoughts down helps me organize my learning, and it forces me to self-evaluate where I am as a rider.
Last week, I wrote this line, Instead of feeling like I am stuck at Training Level, I now see the basics as an avenue for helping Izzy instead of holding me back. As soon as I wrote that line, I realized what the truth was. The real truth is that I have spent this past year and a half feeling like Izzy is holding me back, like he is the reason I am not to Fourth Level yet.
That realization was like a punch to the gut. Oof. If anyone is holding anyone back, it is so obviously me that I can't believe I didn't see it sooner. Izzy has four sound legs and oodles of natural ability. He's not holding anyone back from succeeding. If he had a more knowledgeable rider, he'd have passed Fourth Level long ago. Instead, he's the one stuck at the lower levels with me as his rider.
You would think that realizing I am the weakest link in our chain would be depressing and demoralizing, but it actually has the opposite effect. I can't change Izzy, but I can certainly change myself. I can get better, and in fact, I am doing so every single day. Each week when I ride with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, I see evidence of my progress. And I am not the only one. Sean sees it too. If I want to get to Fourth Level, I have to work harder. That's all there is to it. It's not Izzy's fault that we're not there, and now that I get that, the path forward seems wide open.
Regular servings of humble pie do a body good!
Problems are problems no matter if they are of the First World variety or not. And frankly, I can't help it if I make more money than some because I sure as heck make a lot less than others. Somehow though, if you fall comfortably into the middle class, you don't get to complain about the ridiculous cost of diesel or groceries or your pool guy. My pool guy just raised his rate by 25%. Holy crap; I wish I could get a 25% raise. Right now, I am struggling.
I can't speak to what teachers make in other parts of the country, but for where I live, I make a good living. I also work hard, and I work way past my contracted hours, so my actual per hour pay is a lot less than what my contract says it should be. I also spend a lot of unpaid time over the summer preparing for the next year, and I take continuing education courses during the summer and even during the school year.
This year though, bills have been coming at me from the right and the left. Newt, my new truck, is the biggest culprit, but there have been a lot of other unplanned for expenses as well. With the rising cost of everything, I've had to look for every opportunity to make a few extra bucks. The discretionary portion of my income has been slowly vanishing to the point where I no longer have those extra dollars to play with.
I've picked up a few extra side hustles as they've appeared: I did some work for my attorney friend, I sold a rare book, and I've been taking paid classes on Saturdays. In January, I took two Saturday classes back to back. That was a long work week.
This Saturday I took another one, and I am hurting this morning. While teaching isn't the same kind of tiring that roofing might be, it's still a long day. More than the physicality of it though is the mental fatigue that comes from multi-tasking. I look at five screens all day long, frequently running two online meetings at the same time all while screen sharing, talking, email messaging, monitoring and participating in the chat, and trying not to sound like an idiot.
While Saturday's class was engaging and useful, it still meant a six-day work week. It also meant that most of my chores didn't happen until Sunday which made my one day off feel like anything but.
Nearly all of the extra money I've been earning has gone to pay for Newt's endless list of problems. The extra money I'll receive from this weekend and the money I earned by working for the attorney is all going toward the vet bill I'll have when my boys go in for their spring vaccinations and dentals. I don't have enough yet, so I am keeping my ear to the ground hoping that some other little side gig will present itself. I've also signed up to be a Professional Development Teacher for the summer which would mean a bigger payday than what I am currently getting. I have a meeting on Wednesday night to find out more.
Anyone else feeling like they need a second job just to finance daily life?
This time, I'll try to spare you the photos of Izzy's poop. No guarantees, but I'll try. Here's a quick poop recap:
I looked at the calendar and saw that Sunday was to be the return of the GastroElm. Coincidence or proof of efficacy? My plan had been to give Izzy a 4 week break and then put him back on it based on need. I guess he needs it. Further proof was that after just the first dose, his poop firmed back up by the very next day. My new strategy is to give the GastroElm one week out of every month. This is that week.
Hopefully I can adjust the schedule so that he either gets it the first week of the month or the last. Three weeks off, one week on is a bit harder to keep track of when the week starts on the 20th of the month and the 17th on the next month. Before I make any hard and fast rules though, I'll see how it goes this week. Maybe I'll discover that he only needs 2 or 3 doses to firm his poop back up rather than a full week.
See no poop pictures! You're welcome.
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%: