From Endurance to Dressage
For those that don't know, this past spring I started riding with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. I have found him to be highly knowledgeable, insightful, talented, patient, and compassionate to both horse and rider. He's never in a hurry. To the contrary; he truly embraces the idea that it takes the time that it takes.
I saw this message pop up on social media earlier this week, and it spoke to me instantly and profoundly. I asked him if I could share it here because I thought you too, might appreciate his message, "don't stray too far from the pitchfork."
It wasn't that many years ago that I lost my way a bit. I was involved with a partner whose goals weren’t aligned with mine & as a result ran my business & my life into the ground. I have been spending a significant amount of my day holding a pitchfork ever since.
The benefit from this reality check - which for me embodies everything this quote is about - is that I've been able to get closer to my horses than ever before. Wearing multiple hats in the barn, mucking out, feeding, grooming, riding, etc. allows me to see the horses from every angle day in and day out.
Knowing my horses' habits in an even more intimate way has helped the details in my riding evolve as well. Time in the barn cannot help but carry over to time in the saddle.
With business expanding, I'm starting to hire help again. While I'm not going to be spending as much time holding a pitchfork anymore, I'll never stray too far from it.
Being a real horseman/woman is about so much more than just chasing the next championship. After all, those championships wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t take hands on care of our horses and know every detail about them. That will always start in the barn, with a pitchfork.
- Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage
Progress was made, so that's a relief. I worried that I might get fired from my non-paying gig. It's not that "J" expects a whole lot, but I am sure she expects at least a smidgeon of competence.
Thankfully a few different riders and trainers reached out to me offering feedback and some tips for how to help a rider get the feel of the leg yield. Casandra Rabini of First Gem Dressage offered me some excellent advice. She suggested teaching a different exercise that offered a similar feel. For the leg yield, even spiraling in and out on a circle can give the rider a sense of what it takes to move the hind end.
Before J's lesson on Saturday, I decided to make sure I was teaching the leg yield correctly. Amelia Newcomb, who trains and shows in Ventura County, has a really great YouTube channel with videos that teach foundational skills. One video in particular grabbed my attention because it covered the exact issue I was having with J, common mistakes and corrections. Here's that video if you're interested.
When J came out on Saturday, I had a plan of attack. I didn't expect her to create perfect leg yields in 45 minutes, but I didn't want her to walk away without getting at least some of the feel for the movement. With that, I had her start with trot to nearly walk transitions (and back to trot). What I hoped to help her feel was Speedy's hind legs. I wanted her to feel the moment that his hind legs stopped trotting. For each transition, i wanted her to get him as close to walking as possible without actually walking.
This exercise was supposed to do two things. First, transitions help a horse carry more weight behind, and second, getting a better sense of the hind legs was something she needs for the leg yield. Once we worked through a few dozen transitions, I told her we were ready to tackle the leg yields again. I don't know who was more worried about it, J or me!
In Amelia's video, one exercise she showed was riding a square with a turn on the forehand. I had shown J turns on the forehand before, but putting them in a square was a brilliant idea because the horse is walking rather than just standing still. And for a leg yield, the horse will be moving. J very quickly grasped the turn on the forehand while walking. Applying it to the leg yield was a different matter.
I realized that there is no point in trying to do a leg yield from the trot if the rider can't get the hind legs to cross, so we spent the rest of the lesson walking. As we worked, J asked a lot of questions about her position, which forced me to keep my eyes equally on Speedy's and J's legs both. One things we realized was that J was squeezing which pushed her onto the outside seat bone which was making it impossible for Speedy to cross over. Another issue that kept cropping up was that j was trying to use her inside hand to influence the outside shoulder. That too, prevents the horse from crossing over with hind legs.
Eventually, J stopped and asked if she could plant her outside hand. YES! I screamed enthusiastically, and suddenly, they had the beginnings of a leg yield. The whole time I had been yelling HALF HALT with the outside rein; J finally figured out that her outside hand wasn't doing anything. Planting the outside hand isn't a long term solution, but for the short term, it caught Speedy's shoulder, preventing it from falling out which gave his hind end time to cross over.
While J never got a true leg yield, she got a few steps in a row where Speedy's body was straight and both pairs of legs were crossing over. I erupted with YES! YES! YES! every time. The challenge was that it's easier to yell more haunches, but more correct to say, catch the shoulder. I can't say that J finally developed a feel for the leg yield, but I am certain she has a better understanding of it.
Like everything else, it's just another step in the right direction, and it is a very good thing that Speedy is a saint!
My last lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage was mind-numbing boring. The kind of boring where you want to gouge out your eyeballs. It is really, really hard to watch someone struggle around and around a 20-meter circle. With beginners, it's not boring because the very air is pregnant with hope and expectation. There's a lot less hope when the rider has a Bronze Medal. Watching that student struggle to get her horse's head out of the clouds is enough to make you want to watch paint dry. And when I say that student, you know I am referring to myself. Sheesh.
But! I have good news. On Saturday morning, Sean was finally able to see some progress. I don't know who was more surprised, him or me. I mean, I know I am a hard worker, but hard work hasn't necessarily equated to progress in my little corner of the world. Suddenly though, I am starting to put together what Sean has been teaching me over the past six months.
We're not doing anything earth shattering or new, we're just chipping away at my position and Izzy's tension. We're doing First Level at a show at the end of October, so Sean is working to increase Izzy's balance and ability to carry himself. One way we've been working on that is by riding steep leg yields at the trot and even at the canter. Since our single loop at the canter is improving, Sean had me ride a canter leg yield from the rail. I don't think I've ever done that before.
As we came through the corner on a left bend on the left lead, my brain short-circuited for a moment because I couldn't figure out how to ride a canter leg yield away from the rail. I instantly turned it into a half pass. To be a leg yield, the horse can't be bent in the direction of travel like in the half pass. Here's a description of the movement - As you turn onto the long side of the arena, close your outside leg and gently push the horse toward the centerline, allowing him to straighten his body and lose the natural inside bend and flexion. You can also use your outside rein to gently flex the horse to the outside as he yields sideways away from the outside leg. - source
It took a few tries. If you haven't ridden leg yield that way, believe me when I say it is harder than it sounds. And not just for the rider; Izzy really struggled to maintain his balance. I think it is called counter yielding in canter. Sean cautioned me not to over do it. A couple of repetitions during each ride would be sufficient to help Izzy learn to better balance himself.
Having weekly homework has really helped me remain focused. I've never been one to ride aimlessly - I always have a plan, but being under a weekly microscope keeps me from wandering so far off the path. Besides learning a great deal, I really enjoy my rides with Sean. He has a well developed sense of humor and is quite good at releasing the tension before it raises my affective filter. Stress, anxiety, and embarrassment all contribute to create a mental block in language learners that is referred to as the affective filter. The term is a metaphor traditionally applied to language acquisition for second language learners, but really, isn't dressage about learning a new language?
The other day, I exchanged emails with a reader who is an endurance rider [Hi, April D.!). I told her that while I don't miss endurance racing, I wouldn't trade those years for anything. The same is true of my dressage journey. As hard as it is, and even though I feel like I struggle more than most, I wouldn't trade the struggle because then I wouldn't learn nearly as much. Every trainer with whom I've worked has taught me something new.
Like I said, things have been anything but boring.
Each morning, I hold a morning meeting for my 5th graders who are attending school virtually. I volunteered for the Virtual Academy. The jury is still out as to whether or not that was a wise move. I am quite possibly the most experienced virtual teacher in my district, but experience doesn't necessarily indicate one's level of wisdom. I am questioning some of my recent life choices, especially this one.
When the milk has been spilt, and the water has gone beneath the bridge, the only thing to do is move forward. So despite the twelve hour work days, I am doing the best job I can. Among my many responsibilities, one of my priorities has been to make genuine, emotional connections with my students. I email every student at least once per day, I work with them in small groups, and I let them do as much talking as the schedule allows. During our morning meeting, I always make sure we have time for riddles, a morning corny (or five), and a class favorite, Would You Rather?
To play the game, a person has to address a dilemma, usually between two very appealing, unpleasant, or otherwise tricky choices. The two choices are usually mutually exclusive meaning you can't have both. You have to chose one or the other and then explain why you made that choice. I let the kids choose the dilemmas, and boy are they good at it. In many versions of the game, you get to choose things like being bald or having a hairy body; having chopsticks up your nose, or scissors for fingers; having feet for hands or hands for feet.
In my class, they immediately upped the ante by asking things like: would you rather have world peace or a cure for cancer? Get a million dollars once or start with a penny and double the amount each day for 30 days? Be beautiful and stupid, or ugly and smart? Not joking. These are fifth graders, and they take the answers quite seriously. They are also generous; you're allowed to change your answer after hearing what someone else says. I change my answer all the time.
Besides the would you rather cure cancer or have world peace question, my second favorite has been, Would you rather ride a unicorn or a dragon? I am going to just put this out there. I literally heard tires screeching and brakes squealing. Would I what? Hands down I'd rather ride a ... and then the reality hit me. Yes, of course I want to ride a unicorn. Who wouldn't? But then I realized the truth. Dragon all the way. The unicorn didn't stand a chance. My entire class agreed with me.
That's when I really started to understand how important these Would You Rather? dilemmas are. They challenge our beliefs, they make us articulate why, and they help us to understand the choices that other people make. We all make tough decisions every day. We either pay for a nicer boarding facility or we have more money for lessons. We forego the pedicure for ourselves in order to pay the farrier. We do three schooling shows or only one USDF show. The list goes on and on. Unless you're super wealthy, and not many are, we have to make choices. For me, those choices are almost always of the would you rather variety. and I don't get to choose both.
Just for fun, I threw together a Would You Rather via a Google Form. No need to login or share your email. Just click the link, make your choices, and check back to see how everyone else answered.
I'lll go first.
I am asking, not telling. "J" has been riding Speedy weekly since last winter. There was a lot she needed to learn, so I was able to avoid working on the leg yield until now.
Last Saturday, after she warmed Speedy up, I stepped in and helped her understand why he was so heavy in her hand. It is amazing how much someone on the ground can see. When I ride, I try a variety of fixes for whatever the issue is, but without mirrors or someone telling me what they see, it really can be a guessing game.
As clear as day, I could see that J was asking Speedy to be rounder in front, but since his back was hollow and his legs were nowhere in the picture, he simply couldn't carry himself. To fix it, I had her do a dozen or more walk to trot transitions where she kept his hind end marching smartly from the walk to the trot to the walk again. In just minutes, Speedy was stepping under with his hind legs, and as a result he got light in J's hand. I only wish I could "fix" all of Izzy's problems so easily.
With Speedy thinking "forward" and traveling well balanced in J's hand, I told her it was time to try the leg yields. In education, we use a technique called "front loading." It's one of those seeing the forest so you can later see the trees type of ideas. When a student gets a sense of the overall plan, sometimes that helps her see the purpose. With that in mind, I explained the aids of the leg yield and demonstrated the movement while walking on the ground.
To make it easier, I had J leg yield from the quarter line to the rail at B. She and Speedy did it perfectly on the first try. Then I asked for a leg yield from the quarter line to P. Again, Speedy made it to the rail without any fuss. Since that went so well, I instructed her to leg yield from the centerline to M, and that's when the wheels fell off the bus.
The leg yield is the first thing I have tried to teach that just didn't go well. It doesn't help that Speedy hates lateral work. And when I say hates it, I mean he really hates it. No matter how many ways I tried to explain that the leg yield is a movement that goes more sideways than forward, J just couldn't get Speedy's hind end to move. Each time she tried, Speedy just rode the line diagonally with his haunches trailing.
We tried it from the walk. We tried it with me walking alongside tapping with the whip when Speedy didn't respond to her leg. We tried doing turns on the forehand so that J could see how much outside rein she needed to prevent Speedy from plowing forward instead of sideways. I even tried walking alongside using the outside rein for her. I yelled MORE LEG. MORE REIN. NOPE NOPE NOPE. START AGAIN. Nothing helped.
In the end, me yelling it more loudly was about as effective as speaking loudly to someone who doesn't speak your language. They can HEAR you, they just don't understand, and saying it more loudly isn't going to change that. We finally called it a day, both of us determined to figure it out next time.
Fortunately, J took it in stride and never got frustrated with me and my yelling. I got frustrated with my inability to come up with a solution though and will be doing some research. How do you teach someone a feeling if they can't ever put the horse in the right position to get the feeling? A conundrum for sure.
I see some leg yields on the circle in our next lesson. At least I won't have to yell from so far away.
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
*** SCEC 10/15-16/22
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
(***) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 62.115%