From Endurance to Dressage
Not mine, at least not in the traditional sense, but I'll get to that in a day or two. First, I have to brag about my"new" trainer and HIS success. Last spring, I started training with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. It has been a year or two since Sean has been able to show. First, COVID caused shows to be cancelled and then he was in an awkward place with several of his horses - they weren't quite ready for the next level and going backwards didn't seem super productive. This weekend's show at Southern California Equestrian Center gave Sean the opportunity to finally show off his stuff.
On Saturday morning, Sean started off with Clooney at PSG. Clooney belongs to my friend, Valerie, owner of the Dressage Pony Store. Check out her site - she has more than just pony stuff, and she is always searching for European styles for both horse and rider. She carries a lot of things that you won't see at the big name retailers, but her pricing is just as competitive. Anyway, she owns Clooney, a Westphalen pony, and he is FANCY. While Valerie does show and ride Clooney herself, she is very interested in seeing Sean get this handsome fellow to the Grand Prix, and they are almost there.
For their Saturday ride, Sean and Clooney knocked it out of the park. Sean rode the most harmonious test possible, and Clooney was rock solid. They ended up with the Open High Point score with a very respectable 73.824%. Later that day, Sean rode Bella, a five year old Hanoverian mare that he has had in training for the past year. This was her first show ever, and she scored a 68% and change for her first test which was the high point for Ring 2.
Sunday's scores were just as fantastic, if not better. Sean rode Bella for a score in the 70s. Bella is for sale by the way. She's a sweet girl who is obviously talented and very willing. She would make a lovely partner for an amateur or open rider. Sean's success didn't end there though. He again rode Clooney at PSG and took home ANOTHER score in the 70s!
It was so much fun to support Sean and see him do so well. Of course, it also reaffirms that I made a good choice in trainer. Seeing him ride so successfully while using the same ideas that he is teaching me only confirms that he knows what he's doing. While Izzy and I weren't so successful in earning good scores, I came home feeling great about the show and am already looking forward to next year.
Congratulations, Sean, you deserve it!
... Level that is. Izzy and I will be at a show this weekend. In an effort to build his confidence and reduce his anxiety - doing BOTH would solve ALL of the world's problems, we'll be showing at First Level. We tried Second last year, and it was an epic failure. He can do the movements, he just can't do them while being relaxed which means our scores really stink. So, First Level it is.
I'll be honest though; life has been pretty hard on me these last few months. I don't even want to go to this show. Frankly I don't want to do anything but get back into bed for three months. I haven't even read through the First Level tests. I finally printed them this morning. I'll read through them tonight, but that's not usually the way I roll. I am a planner, organizer, dot all my "i"s, and cross all my "t"s kind of girl. Being so unprepared is not like me.
Like I always do - until the time that I can't, I'll pick myself up, slap a smile on my face, and power through. Back in my endurance riding days, when the miles in front of you just seemed like too many to travel, we would suck it up and say, You can rest when you die. Life isn't easy. Sometimes, you just have to show some grit and get it done.
Fortunately, I have a great team who I know will pick me up even though they won't know they're doing so. Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer st STC Dressage, and his team of riders are all going to the show. Sean is showing Clooney after a long hiatus, and he is showing a lovely mare that he has had in training for a few months. He'll be there to coach me, and we'll all be there to support him. We're also having a Friday night barn party which has quickly become part of our show weekend routine.
Once I am surrounded by friends and ponies, my outlook will be much brighter; I am sure of it.
I never felt truly successful on Speedy, even so, we enjoyed a ridiculous amount of success. We won at least five neck ribbons. We earned a number of "Year End Champion" trophies from my chapter of the California Dressage Society. From CDS, we earned the Ruby Rider Award and Horse Performance Awards from each level that I entered. We won the CDS Regional Adult Amateur Competition for Intro, Training, and Second Levels and were reserve at First Level. We earned all three of the USDF Rider Performance Awards as well as a USDF Bronze Medal. After such a dismal 2021 show season with Izzy, Speedy and I look BRILLIANT in retrospect.
Spending the last year earning scores in the 50s has been heartbreaking. I don't blame Izzy at all. I've known for a quite a long time that under a more knowledgable rider, he would have been much farther along in his education and would likely have been earning scores that would make him eligible for awards and trophies. With me aboard, that hasn't happened. Yet.
During my Saturday lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, I finally told him that I didn't know why I was going to the show at the end of the month. Not only are we going down a level, but I have no hope of earning a decent score. Sean pulled the plug on that thinking almost immediately. "What's going to happen when you're in the warm up and Izzy gets tense?" he asked. "Will you get mad at your horse?"
"No," I replied. "I'll simply feel frustrated."
"And Izzy will feel your frustration, and he'll feel anxious." Sean replied. "You'll get into the ring already knowing that you're not going to get whatever score you wanted. You'll get more frustrated, tense, and angry and Izzy will feel that. Sunday's ride will be even wore."
"Then why bother spending $700 at all? Why not just skip the whole thing and stay home?" I asked.
"We need to see where he is. A show will show how well we're doing." Sean answered.
We continued to chat about it, but I wasn't feeling any better. Isn't a show the place where you SHOW OFF your horse? I am tired of looking foolish. I am tired of earning scores that clearly indicate we don't belong out there. Why bother?
Sean had me think about reframing my goals. My goal cannot be to go out there and earn high scores. Instead, he wants me to focus on going out there and applying what I've been learning over the past six months. How well can I use the tools that he has given me? What will happen if I do? Instead of going with the goal of earning at least a 60%, he wants me to ditch the idea of scores completely. That is such a hard thing to do, but it did me no good last year. What do I have to lose?
Instead of aiming for a 60%, my goal is to reduce Izzy's anxiety by trying the different techniques that Sean has been teaching me. If Izzy spooks, I'll ignore it. If Izzy bolts, I'll stay soft and follow, but I'll also do what I have to keep control. If Izzy pushes against me, I'll use one of the strategies we've worked on for softening his under neck muscles - halt and get round, over exaggerate the inside bend, and move his body around. When Izzy is round, I'll push the swing once and see what I get. When Izzy focuses on me, I'll reward him with a scratch.
It won't be easy to ignore the scores, but having a different goal gives me a better chance for success. I don't need to win, I just need to feel that I am doing something right. Having Sean determine my goal also takes some of the responsibilities off my shoulders. He wants me to focus on implementing the lessons I've learned. If I do that, then I'll have been successful.
I won't turn down a generous judge or a bit of luck though.
Well, pretty low is the answer. After the show we did in July, the one where we didn't score so well but Izzy felt much improved, both my trainer and I were certain things were headed in a very positive, upward direction. We were wrong.
Don't worry, it's not as bad as all that, but I won't lie; I was disappointed and frustrated. Like I had for several shows over the summer, I drove down to the show on Thursday for a lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. We were both really pleased with how well Izzy worked. He was the most "rideable" that Sean has seen so far. The next day, we headed over to Southern California Equestrian Center (SCEC) for a Friday schooling ride. Compared to every other Friday ride, Izzy was fantastic. I explained that Izzy's newest "evasion" was stopping and refusing to go forward. We saw some of that on Friday, but other than that, he was much more focused on me.
By Saturday, the hamsters in Izzy's brain were falling out of their little wheel. By Sunday, they had left the building. It was gut wrenching and demoralizing. Sean described the look on Izzy's face as one that said, I DON'T WANT TO BE HERE. Instead of being anxious, something that we've been working through, Izzy was belligerent and pissed. He couldn't bend left. He couldn't trot or canter without carrying his haunches in. He couldn't do anything but halt, and even that was questionable and often came without my asking for it. For 2-1 (52.297%), we did get a 7.0 for our rein back, and on 2-2 (56.098%) we earned another 7.0 for the travers left, but the rest of Saturday's scores were pretty dismal.
Frustrated, but knowing that progress isn't always perfectly linear, we reviewed the tests, gleaned from them what we could, and prepped for Sunday. The first test on Sunday, 2-1, was maybe one of the worst tests we've done. Izzy balked, refused to maintain the canter, swapped leads, and did everything he could to tell me to "F" off. We did score a 7.5 for the rein back though, so I guess that was one positive. We scored a 50.676%. His submission score was a 4.0; that's pretty low.
I didn't even upload the video, and frankly, I've only watched some of it. He's not overtly misbehaving, and to a casual observer, there's nothing dramatic to see, but you all would see the tension right away. His haunches were all over the places, I was all over the place (it's hard to sit on a plank of wood), and his back is clearly tight. When we walked out of the ring, I was fuming. What the hell, horse?
And then it hit me. When Izzy refuses to do something, it's because he needs body work. Sean agreed. In the week or two before the show, Izzy's first step under saddle would be a bit "hitchy," but there were no other red flags other than a bit of balking. Normally, when he needs work, his "tells" are much more obvious. I could see that Sean felt perplexed and was working out a way to help me. There wasn't a lot we could do, but Sean came up with a solution.
Sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do. Sean's suggestion was to slow everything way down in the final warm up. We did a lot of walking and stretching, and when we did get back to work, Sean instructed me to work Izzy in the longest frame possible. It didn't turn my grouchy horse into a super star, but the more relaxed work told him that we were listening and wanted to support him. We earned a 7.0 for our first centerline, another 7.0 for the rein back, and a lot of 5.0s. We managed to eke out a slightly better 53.537%. Not anything like what we want, but at least we rebounded slightly.
Once Izzy was back at the trailer resting, Sean and I talked about our next steps. We both agreed that a call to my chiropractor was a priority - I did it that day, and then we discussed a plan for the next show. I know many of you have questioned our decision to show at Second Level this summer. Our scores pretty much scream, NOT READY FOR THE LEVEL. Sean and I both knew that Second was going to be a stretch, but we weren't necessarily looking for good scores.
I needed a test that would keep Izzy's brain engaged while I fought for some measure of control. Second Level has a lot going on with all of the changes of direction and transitions. Izzy can do all of the movements, but his tension prevents him from doing them well. Now that he is finally "rideable" on Friday and in the warm up, we're going to take away some of the pressure by going down to First Level in October. Even had we shown at Intro, his scores would have been the same. Tension is tension whether you're walking or pirouetting.
So what did the chiropractor say? Look for that in tomorrow's post.
Have I ever told you how much I adore Speedy G? If not, man that horse is amazing. For those that may be new here, I bought Speedy G as a three-year old to be my back up endurance horse; he's now 17. When #1 endurance horse had to be euthanized in 2010, Speedy was suddenly my only endurance horse. That summer, I decided to leave the sport after nearly two decades. I looked around for something else to do, and dressage caught my eye. Ten years later, after having started out at Introductory Level A, Speedy and I earned a USDF Bronze Medal. That was last summer.
Shortly after earning that award, Speedy came up lame. After chiropractic work, hock injections, and radiographs, Speedy was diagnosed with advanced arthritis in his left hock. Both vets, my regular vet and the referral vet, felt that Speedy would never be able to continue working at the level I wanted to, so he was semi-retired.
Fortunately, Speedy makes his own luck. Almost immediately, a young woman reached out to me wanting to learn a bit about dressage. After a short rest period, Speedy was again sound (and has remained so), so "T" started coming out once a week or so for a lesson. Speedy loved giving lessons and proved to be a wonderful schoolmaster. This June, just before relocating so that her husband could do his hospital residency, T showed him at Introductory C and Training Level 1. I was so proud of them both.
Throughout the past year, other ladies have come to ride Speedy as well. "J" has really stuck with it though, riding as often as our schedules allow. We both work, and with show season upon us, J has often had to watch rather than ride as Izzy and I do our thing. She has even made the drive to Ventura County just to watch Izzy and I show. According to her, it was worth the trip just to be immersed in dressage. On Sunday, J got the opportunity to show off everything she has learned this past year.
They made me even more proud. I am surprised my head still fits through the doorway. When we went to pick up J's scoresheets, I gasped in delight! She and Speedy earned a 68.75% on her first ever show! The score would have been a 70% had she earned a 6.0 instead of that 4.0 (see the score sheet below). She couldn't get a trot because Speedy decided to take a very long poop all the way from H to M. The judge even went back to note the reason for the low score. On movement (no pun intended) 7, she added in blue ink, "Due to pooping!"
One of the things that made me particularly proud was J's centerline scores. Over the past few weeks, we worked really hard on that 10-meter half circle as well as getting a balanced halt. In the beginning, J's centerlines were really wide or too tight. And once she finally halted, nowhere near X, she would let Speedy root the reins out of her hands so he could stretch or relax. When I saw that 8.0 for her final centerline, I might have let out a celebratory woot woot! It was so very gratifying to see her hard work pay off.
After a bit of a break at the trailer and a very short second warm up, we returned to the ring for the second test, Introductory C. We reviewed a few quick things, and then J took Speedy into the ring. When the judge rang her bell, J got right to work. The second test was nearly as strong as the first, but they had one issue. J just couldn't get Speedy to pick up the first canter, "3" and "0," and then he didn't want to hold the second one, "5" and 4". To J's credit, she shook it off and didn't let it affect the rest of the test where she scored an 8.0 and a string of 7.0s.
We celebrated the scores from the great movements and talked about what we can do to fix the canter. We have several weeks to work on it before the next show. She can get it easily at home, we just need a bit more work to help her get it at the show.
Seeing Speedy work so happily for yet another rider made my heart swell with pride. Every 7.0 and 8.0 J earned felt like a feather in MY cap. Her scores proved that Speedy has had a correct dressage foundation and that my amateur training/coaching has been accurate, thanks to Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. The judge noted that J needs to show more "bend" which is what I've been asking her to do as well. Hearing that come from the judge confirmed that I am on the right track as a trainer/coach. Just as a reminder, none of Speedy's ladies pay me for any of the training or coaching since I am an adult amateur.
I would encourage any adult amateur that has a steady horse to offer lessons to kids or beginner riders. Giving lessons and coaching these ladies through their first dressage shows has taught me far more than I could have ever taught them. We have one more local show to do, and I know J will work hard to get that canter transition down pat. And no matter how she and Speedy do at the next show, I'll be just as proud of them as I am today.
Rock star horse for sale, $10 million dollars; but lessons are free!
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
2022 Show Schedule
(*) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
2022 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2 Scores/1 Judges/60%: