From Endurance to Dressage
I know I am a yoyo - up one day, down the next. But lately, let me tell you about lately. We're not ready to throw down a 70% test, but we're definitely getting a lot closer to that goal than we've ever been before. The last couple of lessons that I've taken with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, have shifted some pretty heft pieces of the puzzle into place.
There have been three major shifts in my thinking. In a nutshell:
That brings me to point number two. What is it that I want? Well, frankly, I am just two Fourth Level scores away from a CDS Sapphire Gem Award. That's what's next on my list of goals. Speedy and I were on track to get there when he was diagnosed with arthritis in his hock back in 2020. I could have tried some pain management strategies or more hock injections to see if I could get just a little bit further, but that wouldn't have been fair to Speedy.
Speedy was so forgiving that even though I didn't - and maybe still don't, ride like a Third Level rider, he winked at the world and said, "I gotcha!" Without him to pick up my slack, I am finding that I am not as educated as I thought I was. Between Sean's coaching and Izzy's feedback, the two of them are doing their best to help me get where I want to go. Over the past year, and I can't believe it's been that long since I started working with Sean, he has slowly reshaped how I ride. He has a lot of work left to do, but suddenly I am seeing my riding through a whole new lens.
I had all of last week off, so I was able to ride each day without feeling rushed to get home to cook dinner or stressed out from a day of trying to answer five bazillion questions. As I rode, I took my time. I spent as much time as it took to get Izzy supple through his neck and back. I moved him around in his neck and body until I felt that he was truly ready to start working.
Throughout every ride, I kept two things in the forefront of my thinking. One, I couldn't let him brace his neck; I had to keep moving him. And two, I needed to feel him evenly on both reins. The right lead canter has been such a struggle lately because he wants to fall in on his inside shoulder. Understanding how to ask him to fill out the left rein has been such a struggle for me. Over the past few weeks though, Sean has coached me to a much better understanding of how to accomplish that.
On Friday, I actually laughed out loud from the sheer joy of having accomplished what I've struggled so long to figure out. Izzy was balanced between both reins, and he was truly trying to work with me instead of fighting against me. We'll have more frustrating days ahead of us, I am sure, but now that I am learning how to better communicate with him, I can actually see our progress.
We're still a good ways from Fourth Level. In fact, we're still a good way from showing at Second Level. I trust Sean when he says that once I get control of Izzy and show him that he can trust me to make good decisions, we won't have any trouble moving up through the levels. Sean is confident that Izzy can already do the movements. I just need to get myself caught up to where my horse is.
Seeing real progress is so motivating!
The more I learn from Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, the more I recognize that Izzy will never do this on his own willingly. I don't know if it is because of his body type or his personality, but moving well is hard for him. Speedy on the other hand uses his body so much better. While Speedy was turned out in the yard the other day, I had to shoo him out of Izzy's paddock. As I waved my fingers at him, I saw him lift his back and stretch his neck from tail to poll as he picked up an elastic trot that rolled nicely into a sassy canter. It was effortless; Izzy just can't do that.
I don't mean to pick on Izzy by comparing him to Speedy. Speedy has his own faults, and Izzy has an entirely different type of athleticism that Speedy never had. I point it out only because I have ridden Izzy much the way that I always rode Speedy, but I am learning that I can't do that. They are two very different horses with very different needs from their rider.
As I watched my weekly Sunday video, I noticed a few things that I need to figure out. The first is that Izzy is still very braced in his neck, particularly at the canter. The second is that I am not always able to fix those off balance moments, and I need to be addressing them. As much as I hate those weekly videos, they do help me see where I am being effective and where I am not.
When I started my ride on Monday, my plan was to do a bunch of short canter transitions. But as it was said, the best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry. As it turned out, we didn't do a moment of canter. Instead, I spent the 40 minute ride working on getting Izzy to let go through his neck at the trot. There was no point in working on the canter when he was already so braced. Sean has shown me many different ways to get inside Izzy's brain. I used every single one of those tools. I don't think I ever got Izzy moving as loosely as Speedy did on a bad day, but in the end, I felt like I made some good riding decisions.
I wish I knew why Izzy feels the need to brace so religiously before and after each transition. It's not comfortable to ride so it can't be a comfortable way of moving. To encourage him to stop pushing back against me, I did millions of little halt halts, and I over exaggerated the flexion to the inside on a 10-meter circle. When he let his under neck muscle relax, I let him go forward while pushing my hands forward. As soon as he braced, I over flexed him again to the inside and did another 10-meter circle.
Besides doing a lot of bending lines, I also slowed the trot down to baby steps. When Izzy would let go, I allowed him to go forward, but as soon he pushed against me, I again over exaggerated the inside flexion as I wrapped him around my inside leg in a 10-meter circle. Sometimes all it took was a half circle. Little by little, I did feel an improvement. Besides feeling him let out big deep breaths, the other clues that let me know that I was being effective was that there was no spooking and Izzy's ears were flipped back towards me listening.
As we worked, he became more and more focused. He quit looking for things to jump at and instead he kept asking me questions in the form of little challenges. It was as though he were trying to find the holes in my plan. Would I be consistent, or was there somewhere that I would let him brace and lean? As challenging as it was for me to ride with such careful deliberation, I stuck to my newly adapted plan and just kept asking for him to relax his neck.
I am definitely ready for another lesson. I need to talk to Sean about some of these ideas and find out from him what he thinks the best strategy is to get that suppleness from Izzy that I know is missing. For such a big, athletic horse, he moves a lot more like a tank than a danseur.
Maybe he needs a ballet barre and some tights. A few pliés before we begin might also get him more supple.
Izzy loves to work midmorning under a bright blue sky. Sunday was that kind of day. After some big shifts in my thinking from the lesson the day before with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, I was ready for a fantastic ride, and overall, that's what Izzy gave me.
Keeping everything in mind that Sean and I had discussed the day before, I thought about control as a conversation between Izzy and me. Rather than flipping the control switch, I just asked him questions, something Sean has been saying for six months. Finally though, I understood what he meant. The way Izzy answers those questions will let me know how much control he is willing to let me have. Understanding those words and feeling those words are two totally different things. I finally felt what Sean meant.
The true test came at about twenty-six minutes into the ride. We had just finished some great canter work to the right, and I was hoping to wrap things up with a bit of canter to the left. At the C end of my arena is a tall stand of trees, and on the other side of the trees lies the neighborhood. There is always some movement in that direction, and Izzy long ago decided that the C end of the arena is often times a no fly zone. Using the corner at C-H can be very tricky.
As soon as I started putting him back together for a left lead canter, Izzy decided that there was something behind those trees, and he wanted to look. I knew a fight was brewing. I didn't even need to see one of Izzy's tells to know, I could feel it. I realized I was being given the perfect opportunity to show Izzy that I wasn't going to fight with him nor was I going to force him to give me control. I was going to be patient. In the video below, you can see him flip me off at about 20 seconds.
The whole conversation lasted six long minutes; I only showed you thirty-two seconds. Since I was using my Pivo to record, I was able to watch the entire thing later that day. For six minutes, I sat there quietly and kept asking him to bring his attention back to me. At about five minutes, he took a deep breath, and much of the tension left his body. Thirty seconds later, he took another deep breath, and we got back to work.
As we were finishing with the left lead canter, I reached down to pat him and praise him. I am not sure if he spooked or just lost his balance, but Pivo caught a great video of both of us nearly hitting the ground.
As I watched the video of the ride, I found myself smiling despite the blooper moments. Nothing about the ride was prefect, but I was able to see glimpses of the proactive rider that Sean is teaching me to be. By being a thinking rider, I am definitively cracking through Izzy's shell of resistance and anxiety. Throughout most of the ride we were checking in with each other. How's that? Are you good with this? Depending on the response he gave me, I took more control or took a step back as he worked things out.
It was as though the rough moments were passing in slow motion allowing me to adjust the amount of control I was taking to suit that moment in time. I never lost control; I just never forced it on him. By giving him time to cope with his urge to check things out, the tension de-escalated without much effort on my part other than sitting their patiently; that's really hard for me to do. Sean insists that little by little Izzy will begin to understand that I am not going to force him which will teach him to trust me.
For the first time, I think I really can do this.
After my recent trip to STC Dressage, I came home ready to tackle my homework. It turns out that I still need some tutoring. Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer, has the patience of a mountain. Every time we meet, I grumble about my lack of ability. Each and every time he reminds me that this all takes time. We're teaching Izzy a new way to work, and letting go of the old way is hard for him.
Now that we're eliminating a lot of Izzy's tension, we can now deal with his reluctance to give up control. Izzy has it in his mind that he making the decisions is in his best interest. He's wrong, of course, but convincing him is taking some doing. While I rode last week, I had a pretty big AHA moment. Sean has encouraged me to take control when Izzy is behaving. He has stressed how important this is because there is a moment when Izzy looks to me for direction. If I don't give him something to do right then, if I wait too long, he's going to yank control back, and we know what that looks like.
Even with all of this running through my head, I had a couple of rides that didn't go so well. I felt the moment that Izzy offered me an opening, and I took it. And then I kept it. I started to insist, and I stopped checking to see if he were still on board with me. When he started chomping on the bit, I realized that I had put too much pressure on him. His anxiety returned, and nothing good was happening.
I understood that getting what I wanted was not the point. Building a trusting relationship was more important than getting a soft left lead canter. I stopped asking for anything and returned to the walk. I worked to deescalate the situation which meant a lot of walking and bending. Eventually, Izzy gave me a nice round halt with a smooth, even rein back.
After thinking about it, I realized that control is a two-sided coin. On one side, I can take control, and if I do it gently, I can probably keep it. On the other side of the coin is Izzy giving control. If he doesn't keep giving me that moment, taking the control isn't going to achieve what I want. Right now, we're having a conversation about who should have control. To start out, we just walk and talk about things. Then I start asking whether he is willing to flex left or right. I ask if he can trot. I ask if he can move away from my leg. Depending on how he answers, I either ask for more - that's taking control, or I keep asking until he (hopefully) gives up control.
It's definitely not the kind of riding that most people want to do. Izzy is complicated, but I am ever so slowly figuring out how to work with him. He's not broken or damaged, he just has a personality that takes more rider tact than most other horses need.
Control seen as a two-sided coin makes a lot of sense. Now I just need to figure out whether to call heads or tails.
Izzy is a complicated horse; no one questions that. As I continue to dig for the root of Izzy's anxieties, I am finding more and more hot buttons. The latest one is Izzy's absolute abhorrence of working in the late afternoon. When combined with working past 20 minutes - something else he hates, after-work rides become something I have to really psyche myself up to do. And those aren't the only two things he hates. He also hates working under heavy clouds or fog. Take a guess at what the weather was like this past week.
The difficulty with riding a horse who hates being worked under cloudy skies in the late afternoon for more than 20 minutes is that for four months out of the year, it's cloudy. From September to June, I teach all day which means I have to ride in the afternoon. In order to make any progress, at least some of our rides need to be longer than 20 minutes. Izzy's won't work conditions are just not acceptable.
For a lot of horses, the rider could simply give a sharp kick with a heel and say come on, let's do this. With Izzy, it's not that simple. His bring it mentality is always prepped for a fight, so I have to ask in a way that is firm, but not dictatorial. By Friday afternoon, I was tired and not in the mood for a fight. Even so my response to every balk and spook was to calmly tell Izzy that I wasn't going to be baited. Nothing he could say or do was going to pull me into the fight he so desperately wanted to have.
Did I want to jerk his face off and kick him in the ribs? Absolutely. Would it have helped? Nope. Instead, I just refused to overreact. I kept asking the same questions over and over with the expectation that he would eventually get the answer right.
It took twenty-three minutes, but he finally agreed to go forward without snapping his head around at each little sound. At about the twenty minute mark, that point when he starts to get pissy for real, he gave a deep sigh that either indicated relaxation or acceptance or maybe even both. I didn't care which one it was. I patted him on the neck and finished the ride. I counted it as a win.
This problem isn't solved yet, and I imagine I am going to be pushing that boulder up a hill for a while yet. A win is a win though, and each time I can show him that I am willing to be his partner is one step closer to getting him to join my team.
As they say, what doesn't kill me will only make me stronger.
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%
2022 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2022 Shows Schedule
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
2022 Completed …
2022 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2 Scores/1 Judges/60%: