From Endurance to Dressage
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.
I am the first one to admit that I am not the world's best rider, not even close. On a scale of 1 - 10, I doubt I even get to 3. I am mostly kidding, of course, but there's always a bit of truth to every joke.
Now that my summer break is over, I am back to work - have I mentioned that I am working no less than 50 hours a week, and it's usually closer to 60? Anyways, the long hours mean that there is no way I can make the two or three trips a month down to ride with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. Fortunately, Sean is totally comfortable with doing virtual Pivo Meets which means that I have been getting weekly lessons. It has been many years since I've been able to ride every week under the watchful eye of a coach and trainer, and it is FANTASTIC.
While Pivo Meet - recently upgraded to Pivo Cast, is awesome, it still creates opportunities for chaos. Before Sean could connect, I had to get on and off Izzy no less than half a dozen times on Saturday to check the connection and make adjustments. It wasn't until a few hours later that I discovered I had emailed the first link to my husband instead of Sean. Later in the day I had a weird message from my husband asking why I needed his camera and microphone. Oops!
Another time, still before Sean joined in, I had to get off Izzy because my Powerbeats earbuds decided that rather than listening to dead air space, I would be much happier rocking out to some tunes. The problem is that I can't turn off the music while I am riding, so I had to get off, change screens on my phone, close my music app, all without hanging up on Sean who hadn't been able to join the Meet yet - hard to do when the link has been emailed to someone else.
By the time Sean and I had things worked out, Izzy was over it and feeling pretty irritated. When Izzy is annoyed, everyone and their dog can see it. He whirled, he bolted, he jumped sideways. It turned into one of those lessons where all the trainer can really do is continue saying, keep working at getting his neck to let go. At one point, in total exasperation, I apologized to Sean for the exceedingly boring nature of the lesson. As a teacher myself, I know how frustrating it is to keep going backwards in your teaching. When the kids have already learned how to borrow - they call it regrouping now, but then I see them writing 204 - 9 is 205, I want to gouge out my eyeballs.
Riding Izzy while Sean kept repeating just keep working at it, was a lot like watching a kid subtract without borrowing. To Sean's credit, he never seems to lose his patience, and he takes the backwards steps in stride. While it is painful to do 20-meter circle after 20-meter circle, Sean finally helped me talk Izzy off Lose It Ledge.
While it feels as though we're moving in reverse - we're schooling some of the First Level movements, I can tell that we're going backwards to actually move forwards. Sounds confusing, I know, but it's working. Sean has had us doing really steep leg yield at the trot to get Izzy looser through his ribcage and able to work more effectively over his topline. But Sean isn't happy with a so-so leg yield - he wants Izzy straight with no cheating. He wants to see energetic crossing over of that hind leg while still encouraging that stretchier topline.
After the trot leg yields, Sean has had us doing canter leg yields for much the same reason. For this lesson we did a canter leg yield followed by a large circle followed by the single loop that shows up in First Level. Last week, I really struggled with that because Izzy just couldn't do the loop at X without making it so sharp. I've been able to work on it by thinking about the loop as a small hill tipped on it's side. Instead of a "peak" at X, I ride it like a rolling hill.
Izzy showed us that on the right lead canter, he is beginning to try to adjust his balance, but he doesn't recognize how to carry himself if he's not pushing back against me. As we came through the corner, I asked him to stretch down, but instead of cantering straight ahead, I rode the loop. Each time we came out of the corner, Izzy dropped back to a trot. I told Sean that it truly felt like Izzy just couldn't keep his balance while carrying himself through that corner. To make it easier for him, I rode the loop as shallowly as I could make it while still being able to call it a loop.
While the lesson had to be beyond boring for Sean, it was just what I needed. Sean tends to just give feedback on what I am doing rather than telling me what to do. Now that I understand his style of training better, I've realized that he wants to me to ride my own ride while he serves as my eyes on the ground. Lately, he has figured out that my inside left leg swings in the canter. This is not good; I am working on it. He has caught me using too much inside rein while in the leg yield; I am working on that too. Each time he finds something to tweak or adjust in my riding, Izzy benefits.
It's not fast progress, but the progress has been incredibly steady. As Sean likes to say, my graph line is moving to the right and up. It might not be a steeply rising line, but it's taking a lot fewer dips than it used to. Since I am riding with him weekly, it's even harder to see progress because I feel like I am just chipping away at last week's problems. Sean is quick to point out though that each week Izzy looks better than the week before.
If this is what boring gets me, I'll take boring over exciting any day.
Yesterday I wrote about US Equestrian contemplating rule changes for Adult Amateurs. As I had hoped, a number of people commented and shared their thoughts and concerns. On the USEF survey (it closes on Thursday), I voted for change on every question. I don't know exactly what those changes should look like, but it never hurts to take a look at current practices. After reading the comments that were shared on my Facebook page, I decided a few things.
1) It is impossible to get everyone to follow the rules. I am sure we all know of someone who has violated one USEF rule or another. In life, not just in sport, we all break rules. We do it because we think we won't get caught, we think a rule is unfair, or we disagree with the rule. It doesn't really matter what the rules are regarding amateurs, someone is going to disregard them. So not changing the rules because not everyone will follow them doesn't seem like a good reason for maintaining the status quo.
2) What does it mean to be an amateur anyway? Truly, I think this is the real question. Before USEF begins deciding what amateurs should and shouldn't do, maybe we need to rethink what we mean by being an amateur. The generally accepted definition for an amateur is this: a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid rather than a professional basis.
That's not very helpful. If you get paid, you're a professional; If you don't, then you're not. The reason this definition doesn't really serve us anymore is because of the Olympics. For many, MANY years, amateurs could participate in the Olympics, professionals could not. The rules were simple. If you received any payment for playing your sport, you couldn't compete. In the 1980s that began to change. Television realized a lot of money could be made if the world's actual best athletes could compete (NBA players for example). The world's best were quite often professionals, not amateurs. So, things changed. No one cared that Michael Jordan was not an amateur. People wanted to see the world's best play, so that is what happened. This is a good article about this very issue.
I guess my point is this: if professionals are allowed to dominate the Olympics, a place once reserved for amateurs, what does being an amateur actually mean? If it simply means doing something you enjoy without getting paid for it, that seems like a poor division to have in sports. World's best, you play over here. People with deep pockets, you play over there. You poor people who like doing this just for fun, you're in right field.
This idea is especially frustrating since having lots of money is one way for amateurs to stack the deck in their favor. More money means better equipment (aka a nicer horse), better training (aka a world class coach), and probably more time to practice your sport (aka a full time trainer with a full service barn where you aren't doing all of the mucking, cleaning, feeding, etc.).
So really, what it comes down to is that the people most limited by the amateur rules, no remuneration or compensation, are the working amateurs who generally have the least amount of money to spend. And in many (most?) cases, it's those same working amateurs who don't have the best horses or even the finances to compete as regularly as they'd like.
3) I already give lessons. Giving lessons seems to be one of the things opponents of the rule change are citing as proof that the rules shouldn't change. I don't get paid for my lessons, but I still give them. Does that make me a professional? Not according to the definition of amateur. So whether I get paid or not doesn't change the fact that should one choose to, one can still give lessons. What does the act of giving lessons have to do with being an amateur? Nothing. It's the receiving of payment that seems to be causing the issue.
I think what people assume is that if someone is good enough to give lessons, then they should be competing as a professional. Aha! That's where the trouble lies. That's what we need to consider. Maybe being a professional or an amateur shouldn't be determined by whether you get paid or not. Maybe it should be determined by your skill level.
If the world's largest stage for international competition, the Olympics, now demands that competitors be the best of the best regardless of their amateur or professional status, maybe there isn't a need for the amateurs of old. Maybe the current definition of amateur is no longer valid in the world of sport.
I definitely don't have the answers, but I know that with way the system is currently set up, there will always be those with more talent, more money, better horses. In the whole scheme of things, what does it matter if someone makes $25 a weekend teaching someone else to ride? Or $125 to ride? Maybe we need to rework our divisions and not base them on how much you make, but rather how much you know.
You know what? I think they already do it like that in a few other countries. Does it work? I don't know, but it's worth considering.
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 Second Level. 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%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2021 Pending …
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
2021 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2nd Level Qualifying
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 60.610% Bhathal
2nd Level Qualifying
5 Scores/4 Judges/61%:
Stuff I Read