From Endurance to Dressage
On Saturday, I took a lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer st STC Dressage. We've been together for nearly a year now, and I only just this weekend realized how our particular dynamic works. When Sean joins me virtually through the Pivo Pod, it's as a coach or even a more experienced friend. I've learned that he doesn't come prepared with exercises. He's more interested in coaching me through the issues I am having right now. Lately, those issues are behavioral, but I imagine that some day, he'll coach me through a better half pass or a better pirouette.
I've learned that I am in charge of my riding during the lesson. He might suggest we do a change of rein, but ultimately, I realized that he's there to offer support. As I am riding, I tell him what I am feeling or struggling with, and he talks me through my aids. I might ask if I need more outside rein or more inside leg. He responds, and I apply his advice. Nearly always I see an immediate effect. I don't know if this is how he works with all of his clients or not, and it could be that we've developed a more unique system since we work virtually, but it is definitely working for me. Saturday's lesson was more of a conversation than what you'd typically see in a traditional dressage lesson.
To begin with, early in the lesson, Izzy spooked really hard. I lost both stirrups and was hanging on for dear life certain that this was the time I was going to come off. Surprisingly, I hung on, but it knocked the wind out of me. Once I had righted myself and caught my breath, I asked Sean what he thought. He didn't say anything for a moment, and when he finally answered, I could tell that he didn't think much of Izzy at that moment. We both thought it was a pretty dirty move.
As the lesson continued, Izzy threw in spook after spook. It gets a little exasperating, but this is the horse I have, and I am doing my best to figure him out. After one particularly rough spook, Sean thought for a moment and described it as calculated. That descriptor stopped me in my tracks. I realized that calling a spook dirty versus calculated says more about my mindset than it does about Izzy's. Referring to his behavior as dirty implies a sense of meanness as though he's doing things because he's malicious. Calling a spook calculated means that he's thinking about it. Right now, he's obviously figuring out how to get out of the work, but at least he's thinking instead of just reacting.
As Sean and I talked about how much meaning can be attached to a single word, he explained that while it might not look as though we've made a lot of progress in the past year, the way Izzy spooks indicates that we have. Early on, Izzy simply exploded with no rhyme or reason. Now, Sean is starting to recognize Izzy's tells, those little signs he gives before spooking.
I had never thought of it that way. Some of the time I can catch him before he's got me hanging on for dear life, the ground swiftly rising to greet me. Other times, it's only because of my guardian angel's efforts that I am not a lawn dart. Now that Izzy is beginning to have more and more moments of relaxation, a careful observer, someone like Sean, can begin to catch those tells. Often times, just being made aware of something is enough to help you see it clearly. I continued on through the lesson looking for Izzy's tells and watching him as he thought about what was happening.
Sean gave me a lot of other great advice during the lesson, things like how to more effectively use 10-meter circles and how to leave a door open so that Izzy doesn't feel so trapped. While I took those ideas and applied them immediately, it was the use of the word calculated along with the idea of Izzy having tells that really rocked my little world. Just paying attention to those two not-so-little ideas has the potential to really affect big change in how I ride and deal with Izzy. When you choose complicated over simple, you need to view the situations from as many angles as possible.
Now that I realize that Izzy and I are at a poker table of sorts, I just might be able to out think him.
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%