From Endurance to Dressage
Over the past two years, and especially over the past few months, I have seen some profound changes in my riding. For so, so long, I struggled to simply not suck. Forget about being good. Being "good" is of course relative. To my utter embarrassment, my mom constantly tells people - quite often complete strangers, what a fantastic rider I am. In my mom's opinion, I am Olympic material. Compared to non-riders, I am a fantastic rider, but compared to the Charlotte Dujardins of the world, I am just trying not to embarrass myself. Even with understanding that being good is relative, I have begun feeling pretty positive about my effectiveness as a rider.
Over the weekend, Izzy gave me some less than pleasant rides. And even though he was a bit of an ass, I still felt great about what we did. Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has given me some especially powerful tools. And even better is that I know when and how to use them. During Sunday's lesson, Izzy decided to spook at the ranch owner's horse as they walked by. I am okay with spooking at unusual stuff, but a horse calmly walking by is not one of them. I didn't get frustrated or angry; I simply slowed everything down so that Izzy's mental hamsters could get back on their wheel.
I was rewarded with a horse who got right back to work. Now that I have control, Sean is able to help me work on real stuff. Lately, that has meant tweaking my aids and my position which has allowed me to feel some brand new things. The more relaxed and loose I am through my body, the more I have been able to positively affect Izzy's body. I am starting to feel subtle things that simply weren't there even a month ago.
I've always known what was meant by holding the horse with your seat, but I was never strong enough or balanced enough to do it. Now, my seat plugs into the saddle, and I am relying less and less on my reins to slow down or even halt. My control over Izzy's shoulders is also vastly improved. Sean had me really think about how I could move Izzy's shoulders around by riding renvers. To my surprise, I felt exactly what he was talking about.
I've also been working on my chicken wing elbows - I find that my right elbow wants to stick out. After watching me for a few moments on Sunday, Sean pointed out that my right elbow sticks out when I pull on the inside rein. I do that because I can't get the inside bend. Sean commented that it wasn't a bend issue. Instead, he explained that it happens when I let the left shoulder fall out. By straightening the shoulders and getting them in front of Izzy's haunches, I was able to put Izzy on the outside rein which allowed me to carry my right hind in front of myself instead of back and out.
The work I've been doing with Sean has been so subtle and very specific. The more balanced that I get as a rider, the more effective I become with just small tweaks here and there. By staying loose through my ankles, knees, hips and shoulders, Izzy stays softer which gives me even more control. When I watch videos of my rides, I still don't recognize the changes in my riding, but I definitely see how much fancier Izzy is beginning to look. He doesn't have the sewing machine trot from just a year or so ago, and he's beginning to get some bounce in his stride. This tells me I am riding better and better.
When I quit trying to succeed and ride my horse instead, my riding gets a whole lot better.
After my great ride on Saturday, I was prepped to school the flying changes for Sunday's lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. After some warming up exercises, I put Izzy into the canter and tried the left to right change, the one we rarely get. Like I had done the day before, I rode the canter half pass from centerline, hit the rail, and ... got the change! I thanked Sean for the lesson and said we were done. We both laughed, but he didn't hang up. We gave Izzy a walk break and knew there was nothing else we should do with that change for the day.
The good thing is that Izzy definitely knows what he's supposed to do. Just like Speedy did, he anticipates the change, but he won't wait for my aid, and when he does, he gets the flying part, but not necessarily the changing part. I know this is completely my fault. My aids are not yet clear enough for him to simply jump and change.
As Sean and I talked about it, he instructed that I ask with an even quieter aid. He suggested less leg. I explained that I don't really ask with the leg. To do the changes with Speedy, I scissored my legs (inside leg to the back, back leg to the new inside), scooped with my seat, and half halted with the outside rein. It went like this: canter, canter, leg change, scoop, and ... CHANGE! I had to be a bit dramatic with Speedy to get the hop he needed to get off the ground.
That's when I realized that with Izzy, what needed to be quieter was the CHANGE moment of my aid. Instead of the driving scoop, Sean suggested I change my leg position but only shift my weight to sit on the new inside seat bone. To feel that quieter aid, I asked Izzy to simply canter as I focused on just my inside seat bone. As we cantered, I moved his body around doing little leg yields and other straightening exercises without losing contact with my inside seat bone.
When I felt Izzy was ready, I rode a half circle into a tear drop, straightened him, and then shifted my weight the tiniest bit over to the new inside seat bone. Sure enough, Izzy jumped, but he didn't change. I was super excited about the effort he gave because it showed me that my aid has been much too loud. This horse is far more sensitive than Speedy. Once I am able to get the aid that he likes, he easily does what I ask. Now I know that I just need to work a little more on organizing myself, and we'll get the change easily.
Besides just shifting my weight, Sean also talked about two other components of the flying change that I need to work on. The first is of course getting Izzy straight. Izzy likes to fall out on his right shoulder. When we canter left, that means I have to pick up his shoulder to get it in front of his hind end. To the right, I have to work hard to get the inside bend because his shoulder wants to be in the way. I can open my left rein just a bit to draw the shoulder over and out. All of this is important in the flying change because he can't be balanced if he's falling to the right.
The final thing Sean had me think about is when to ask for the change. I am pretty sure I am not alone when it comes to riders knowing which hind leg is on the ground. I've been working on it; a turn on the haunches is a great way to feel the hind legs moving. In the canter though, I can't always feel it. Recently I read something about doing the half halt in the canter when the mane flys up. It was a visual aid to help when doing canter to walk transitions. When I asked Sean about that visual, he explained that the mane is a good visual, but he likes to think about asking when the withers come up which is that same moment. For a struggling rider - me, the mane is easier to see than the withers are.
The reason that moment works to know when to half halt in the canter is because that is when the hind legs are coming off the ground. If you half halt at that moment, you are keeping the hind legs underneath the horse instead of letting them lag behind. This will encourage the horse to step underneath himself to either allow for the canter to walk or to switch leads. That wasn't Sean's exact explanation, but I am pretty sure that's what he meant.
This has been a crazy week at work, so I haven't had time to ride to try all of this out, but I love having homework. When I know what I need to change, it's usually pretty easy for me to do. It's hard to fix something when you don't know it is working right. Now I know that I need to catch that wayward right shoulder, half halt when the legs are coming off the ground (mane goes up), and simply sit on the new inside seat bone as I change my leg position.
How hard can it be?
Well once anyway...
My Saturday lesson got bumped to Sunday - show season is well under way and Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage must go where duty calls. That meant that I rode by myself on Saturday, but it was fun to challenge myself to ride with as much purpose as I would have had Sean been coaching us in a lesson. When I rode on Thursday, I focused on our trot work without doing any cantering. On Friday, I focused on the canter work with some time spent doing simple changes with very little trotting. My plan was to go into Saturday's lesson set up to tackle all of the things. Then Sean rescheduled for Sunday; I stuck to my plan and was rewarded with some great work from the big brown horse.
I usually video my Sunday rides, but since my lesson would be on Sunday, I used my Pivo to record Saturday's ride instead. I was pretty eager to look through the video as we had had some pretty good moments, but as luck would have it, Pivo lost me again and again. When I sat down later that day to check my settings, I remembered that had I switched horse mode off in favor of people mode while I was testing my new shade box. I had forgotten to return the settings to horse mode which meant I have no video proof of the great work we had done. Bummer ...
That doesn't mean I can't tell you about it though. Both the trot and canter work left me smiling from ear to ear. I rode shoulder-in to renver to travers to half pass. And while we'll never get 10s for anything, I felt like we were doing solid 6.0 work at the very least. Sean has given me many tools to use over the past two years, and when I use them correctly, Izzy gets pretty darn fancy. Now that I am really focusing on riding him forward into both reins evenly, he is better balanced which makes him more confident.
My goal for the canter work was to get a flying change in each direction. We got one of them, but the other is still a hard no from Izzy. The thing is that now I know how to deal with refusals, and I know what the refusal means. Usually. Izzy really only refuses when he feels out of balance. So rather than feel defeated or frustrated, I know to work the problem from a new angle. As I worked on the right to left change, the one that I can actually get, it occurred to me that I might have better luck doing it from the canter half pass.
I started out with some canter travers down the long side and then did a canter half pass across the whole diagonal. When I asked for the change at M, Izzy fell apart, threw his head in the air, and gave me a big NOPE. Then I remembered that in one of the Third Level tests, you half pass to the center line, ride straight, turn, and then do a flying change. I couldn't remember exactly how it went, but I used the half pass to keep Izzy together across the diagonal. Since he anticipates the change the instant I cross the diagonal in canter, I needed something to distract him.
I had Izzy pick up a right lead canter, and then I had him canter half pass from K to X. I rode straight up the centerline to G and then asked for the flying change where we then tracked left at C. And he did it! Of course, it didn't work so well left to right, but the half pass did force him to think about something other than the change.
Despite not being able to see the work, I was still thrilled with how rideable Izzy was. It's rare that he absolutely melts down anymore, and when I feel as though it might happen, I now have so many ways to change the conversation and diffuse the anxiety. He's happier, and I am much happier. I don't know if we'll ever make it back into the show ring, but I sure hope so. I still have my eye on a Silver Medal, and even though Speedy helped me win so many of the awards that USDF and CDS both offer, I'd like to see even some of that success with my big brown horse.
If we can get this flying change, maybe we can get back on a showing schedule.
We all know how to do that: win the genetic lottery, have a fabulous horse, and find yourself a great trainer. A large bank account is also helpful. When that doesn't happen though, what do you do? I've been asking myself that same question for more than a decade, so I don't really know, but I did get some really interesting feedback this weekend from Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage.
As Sean joins me virtually via the Pivo + Meet app, we always chat about what my needs are for the day. Since I am not a client in full training, Sean can't see what's happening during my weekday rides, so I always have a report to share which enables him to help me. There were two things I wanted his help with this past weekend: keeping my left arm closer to my body - it wants to wing out to the side which is ineffective and unsightly, and help me remember to let my legs hang without sucking them up.
Sean's response blew my mind a bit. So much so that I had to stop the trot work I had started with Izzy as I tried to reconcile what he was saying with my perception of what a good position looks like. Basically, according to Sean, there's not anything wrong with my position. Yes, there are things that need to be tweaked and adjusted, but overall, my position is hugely improved over two years ago.
He explained it like this: as our aids become more effective, the horse responds and softens which allows the leg to become longer. A long leg doesn't happen because the rider forces it down. It happens when we can give an aid that the horse responds to, and once given and received, we can take the aid off which allows our leg to fall into a neutral position.
The same is true of our arms. When we no longer need to ride defensively - curled forward with a tight upper body that is braced for a deadly spook and bolt, we can sit up, let our arms hang softly from our shoulders, and follow with our seat. When our bodies are soft and not braced, the horse can soften without the need to brace against us.
Sean insisted that my position has improved dramatically over the past two years. He challenged me to find video from two years ago and compare it to recent video. I did what he suggested, but I don't see the changes that he sees. I know he is right though as Izzy is moving and working better than he ever has. Since I no longer have to ride so defensively - my life no longer flashes before my eyes every time I am in the saddle, I can really sit into the saddle and follow which allows Izzy's back to swing and his neck to lengthen.
While I still think that some of Izzy's histrionic behavior was partly due to my tension, unconscious or not, Sean would say that Izzy has not been an easy horse. As such, I didn't cause those meltdowns like the one above. With Sean's quiet and persistent training style, what he sometimes calls dressage done differently, he helped me get control of Izzy while simultaneously refusing to be baited into a fight. Doing that while still being loose in my body has been incredibly difficult to do, but the results prove that Sean was right.
Sean's constant feedback for the first two years together was for me to stay loose even while I was fighting for control. Let me tell you, that is not an easy task. When your horse is trying to bolt out from beneath you, the last thing on your mind is to stay loose in your body. Sean insisted though, and I did my best to make it happen. While I wasn't always successful, I was successful enough that over the past two years, my position has improved so much that Izzy is more and more frequently able to soften his back and work with positive tension.
While I don't see the changes in my position that Sean does, many of you probably do. I know he is right though because I feel so many things that I was unaware of even just six months ago. I feel it when Izzy is moving forward into both reins evenly. I feel it when my seat is truly in the saddle. I feel it when I know when the right moment is to ask for the canter. I feel it when I know when to use my calf and when to use my spur.
Has my position changed so much? I am going to trust that yes, it has. My work is not over of course. Sean reminded me that muscle memory takes a long time to undo. My default is to keep my leg on rather than ask and release. Gripping with my lower leg tightens my hips and has the effect of drawing my leg up, something I am working hard to overcome.
When we worked on the half pass this Sunday, Sean found the perfect moment to illustrate what he meant. In the half pass right, I kept my leg on which blocked Izzy, causing his half pass to peter out. For the next go round, Sean directed me to put my leg on and then take it off but leave it in position. Izzy's half pass still petered out, but Sean said to bump him forward, and then take the aid off again. Aha! Of course the suggestion worked. Izzy will quickly learn to stay forward in the half pass after I remind him a few times. The lesson was to ask, take the aid away, but stay in position. If the aid never comes off, how can the horse learn to move forward into the movement? He can't.
As I promised Sean, here is video from two years ago along with recent video from the past month. Any difference?
My homework isn't to lower my leg and bring my elbow closer to my body. My homework is to ask, get a response, and then remove the aid. As Izzy responds, my leg will lengthen on its own once I am no longer giving an aid the entire time I ride. The same will be true for my elbows. As I remember to sit up and back without the need to ride defensively, my shoulders will lower, and my arms will be in front of me instead of out to the side.
Why couldn't I have just been born a trust fund baby with awesome genes? Life would have been so much simpler.
If you've been reading my posts for longer than two minutes, you'll know that I am pretty self-deprecating, I deflect, and I have a hard time giving myself credit. For the first time in maybe ever, I am beginning to feel pretty darn good about my riding. The lesson I took with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage on Saturday has a lot to do with it.
For the past eight or nine years, I have been learning how to ride Izzy. He is not easy, not even for a professional. I've always said how much better he would have done had he had a more knowledgeable rider. While that is still true, Sean has helped me so much in the past two years that I am starting to feel like the kind of rider Izzy needs.
Over the past few weeks, I have been sharing posts where-in I have written about the fact that I no longer hate my position. I don't cringe nearly so much as I used to when watching videos of myself riding. That doesn't mean I am brilliant, but it does mean that I don't completely suck.
When I rode on Sunday, I used my Pivo to record the ride. Without needing to watch the video, I could feel that I am making some big progress in my riding. Sean has hammered and bent and coaxed my seat into more or less the right place. Under his coaching, I am feeling new "feels." Out of what feels like nowhere but is really years and years of work, is a new feeling in the shoulder-in. On Sunday, I suddenly felt my inside leg connect to my outside hand which all on its own was controlling the left shoulder and keeping Izzy in a real shoulder-in.
In the canter, I felt my seat bone plug into the saddle, my left leg wasn't swinging like it used to, and I was able to control Izzy's shoulder and tempo. We actually look like we know what we're doing. And without meaning to, I rode straight toward the Pivo for a non-explosive, right to left flying change even though it was late behind.
If you're struggling with your position, if your horse is struggling with your position, or you just need a new set of eyes, call Sean and schedule an in-person or virtual lesson. He has some space opening up in his barn, so I know he has room in his schedule for new clients. I am nowhere near the same rider I was just two or three years ago, and I have Sean to thank for that.
It's a great feeling to have risen above the "wow, she sucks" level. I am thrilled to finally be even mediocre. Isn't dressage fantastic?
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%: