From Endurance to Dressage
I think this past weekend was about truly believing Sean Cunningham, owner and Trainer at STC Dressage, when he tells me, "You have the tools." What he means is that no matter how tense or spooky Izzy gets, I have the knowledge to work him through it. Izzy may never get untense at a show or lesson, but it doesn't matter because I am now learning how to successfully ride him through it.
I don't know why it didn't occur to me sooner in the season, but like at the show in June, I arrived at STC Dressage two days early so that I could get an extra lesson. Instead of arriving on Friday and taking a warm up lesson at the show grounds, I came on Thursday so that I could get both a lesson and a schooling ride before the show. Besides getting to ride, showing up a day early allows me to study Sean as he rides and teaches throughout the day. Let's just say that Izzy isn't the only tense horse out there. Studying Sean's aids when dealing with resistance gives me a better visual which helps me when I am dealing with similar issues.
Like at every other show this year, I rode Second Level Tests 1 and 2. Like every other show this year, Izzy was tense, but less than at the show before. In fact the overall improvement was huge. To start with, he unloaded at STC Dressage, followed me over to his regular pee spot, and pee'd on command. He then led me straight to "his" stall and marched right in. He nickered at his barn mates, Clooney and Cinco, and then walked over to the automatic waterer and helped himself. In no time he was munching on hay and feeling right at home.
Our lesson that afternoon was one of the most productive we've had in terms of working on actual movements. Throughout the lesson, Izzy's ears hung at half mast as he happily got to work. Sean was quite pleased with his progress which meant he was pleased with how I am applying what I am learning from one lesson to the next. The next day, Friday, we trailered over to El Sueño for our warm up ride.
As an aside, I am having so much fun with the team at STC Dressage. Every month that I come show, the team has welcomed me and made me feel right at home. Everyone comes out to help and watch and then we do a great dinner on Friday night. This time, we did a barn party which was especially entertaining because some of the horses joined in.
The warm up ride on Friday looked like it was going to go great until it didn't. Just as Izzy would start to settle in, a horse outside of the ring would explode. I didn't get to see most of it as I was trying not to die, but both Sean and Valerie kept up a running commentary. Horses outside of the ring were rearing, bucking, bolting, and basically running amok. Poor Izzy didn't stand a chance. His brain just couldn't cope with so many horses in "distress." Even with all of that chaos happing behind us, there were still moments when I felt the horse that Izzy is going to be. His shoulders came up, his croup dropped, and he was swinging freely through his back.
For the first ten minutes of that ride though, I wasn't very happy. I wanted to burst into tears and toss Sean the reins. Izzy spooked really hard again and again so much so that my back took a beating. Sean's attitude does nothing but exude calmness and confidence though. No matter how poorly I was riding, no matter how anxiety ridden Izzy was, Sean never let up. He truly didn't care what others thought of the hot mess that was blasting around the ring. He simply continued his coaching as though we were the only two people out there. "Do exactly what you're doing. Keep chipping away it bit by bit. It doesn't matter."
Once I got control of my emotions and let Sean's words get through that barrier of frustration and embarrassment, because really, who wants to be that rider?, I took a deep breath and started using the tools that he's been giving me. I flexed Izzy to the inside without pulling back. I worked to stay elastic in both my arms and hips. I asked Izzy to focus on me by bending his body and allowing him to go forward. My reward was little moments here and there of a very nice ride. Did it look nice? Not really. He was a mess, but I felt those fabulous moments and held tightly to the feeling they gave me because I know I can get them again.
And then we went to the show. To be continued ...
By Sunday morning of a two-day show, I am always tired. When I was showing Speedy, the exhaustion was always physical. Spending three days at a show flitting from stall to stall, visiting with friends and then camping in the trailer never gave me much rest time. Doing it all with Izzy is even harder because he challenges me emotionally. Managing both his anxiety and my stress takes a fair amount of energy.
Tired or not, my attitude had been readjusted the night before, and I was ready. The pep talk, also known as a butt kicking, that I had received the night before from Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and Laura Goodenkauf had freshened my resolve. I felt both gritty and empowered - weird to feel that combo at the same time, but it's probably a lot how Wonder Woman feels after taking an ass-kicking. Suffering Sappho. I decided that I didn't care what it felt like - both Sean and Laura had told me that what it feels like at a show is not always how it looks at a show. The most important thing was to be IN CONTROL by the Sphere of Athena!
I must have done something right because we were able to improve on the previous day's Test 1 score by 10.5 points which gave us a 58.784% - almost 3% better. Sean has told me more than once that one percent better each time will really start to add up. For test 1, we earned 16 scores of 6.0 or better! I've never been happy with scores below 60%, but for this test, I knew we had done better than the day before, so I gave myself a pat on the back for a job (mostly) well done.
With only one ride between my two tests, I didn't bother with another warm up. Izzy was as good as he was going to get. My friend Valerie stood at Izzy's shoulder with the reins in her hand. Every time he tried to snap his head up, she reminded him that the airspace above his ears belonged to me, and he wasn't welcome up there. Having her be the bad guy for those few minutes gave me a moment to regroup and kept Izzy from getting irritated with me.
The second test of the day wasn't brilliant, but it was probably the best test we've done so far. We earned 14 points more than the day before for a score of 59.268% (more than 3% better!). As much as I hate knowing by how much we missed a 60%, I always check. We missed it by a mere 3 points. I refuse to be disappointed though. For the first seven movements we had a string of 7.0s, 6.5s, and 6.0s. For every movement that gave us trouble, we bounced back with another 7.0 or 6.5. In total, we had 18 scores of 6.0 or greater (out of 32). This test showed me that even when Izzy's tense, he can get 7.0s. What will we earn when he's slightly less tense?
We have two more shows to do before the end of the show season. Normally I would be thinking about the Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC), but since we didn't qualify (yet), we won't be going to RAAC or Championships. With that pressure off though, my goal for the rest of the show season is to try to finish with no more 4.0s on our score sheets. I would like to eliminate the 5.0s as well, but one thing at a time.
Yesterday, Sean left me with this final thought ... "The tools are everything! Once you learn to have more confidence in them, it won't matter how he is, you'll know you have the tools to deal with it!"
Showing is hard. Showing an anxious horse makes it even harder. Showing Speedy was often disappointing because our scores tended toward the low end much of the time. After enough persistent work, our scores would eventually come up, but it wasn't exactly easy. Speedy is great fun to ride though. He loves showing and always performs better at a show than at home. I didn't realize how lucky I was to have a horse who wasn't tense and anxious. I always thought having a horse with talent trumped all else. For open riders, that may well be the truth, but for a middle-aged amateur like myself, I realize now that talent isn't always enough. A good mind counts for a whole lot.
Izzy has talent, maybe too much. So far, there hasn't been anything he can't do. When I position him correctly and get out of his way and let him do the movement, he floats. Having a horse that can do it and allowing the horse to do it is a new way of thinking for me. If I took the aids off Speedy for even a second, he fell apart.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, is helping me understand how to ride Izzy. Continuing to ask for the movement without allowing Izzy to just do it causes some of Izzy's anxiety. Not all of it, of course, he generates plenty of his own, but allowing him to half pass or carry himself in the shoulder-in or travers lets him know that that there is a right way to channel his energy. Understanding that was a huge take-away this past weekend.
For the first time ever, I was scheduled to ride the more difficult of my two tests first. Since we haven't been even close to fabulous, I decided to roll with it. It's not uncommon for me to do better on the first test anyway, so if the first test were the harder one, maybe that would help us. It didn't. For Saturday's Second Level, Test 2, we walked away with yet another meager 55.854%. As I look for the silver lining, there were plenty of 6.0s and 6.5s, but there were too many 5.0s and 4.0s which kept us out of the 60% range.
Knowing how tense Izzy was, I had opted for a long warm up, nearly 45 minutes. It didn't rid Izzy of the anxiety, but a shorter warm up would have been even more disastrous. Even as I rode test 2, I knew it wasn't going to be good. How could the judge give us anything but scores and comments that reflected Izzy's tension and anxiety when she could hear him screaming for Speedy the entire time? Speedy was back at STC Dressage, but Izzy, knowing that Speedy was in Ventura County, figured he might be within earshot. He wasn't.
Second Level - Test 2
Our second test of the day, Second Level - Test 1, was nearly an hour and a half later, so we walked back to the trailer to give Izzy a drink of water and untack him for a few minutes. In general, I try to be optimistic, but after scoring below 60% so many times, it's hard to remain hopeful. It's even harder when your horse rears after halting at X at the very beginning of your next test. While test 1 was also a bit of a disaster, there were some good moments. We earned a 7.0 for our walk to canter at A, and we earned a second 7.0 for our final centerline which was a huge improvement over the test's first centerline (4.0 with a 2-point deduction for going off course).
As we walked out of the ring, Izzy screaming the entire way, I felt tears pricking. While my horse can do this, it isn't fun. While Sean was heading our way after reading the test for me, my friend Valerie allowed me to express my frustration. She has felt everything that I am feeling. Having her sympathy as she commiserated with me helped me to feel heard. Yes, pity parties are unseemly, but it's exhausting to always keep your spirits high. Sometimes, it's cathartic to vigorously stomp all over your hopes and dreams.
As we walked back to the trailer, I begin writing Izzy's FOR SALE ad. There's only so much disappointment that a girl can take. I later went to dinner with my friend Jen who manages the show. She's always great at helping me put the disappointment in perspective. Like Valerie, she too knows what it feels like when you just can't seem to get anywhere. When she dropped me off at STC Dressage later that evening, I heard laughter coming from the back of the barn. Knowing I am always welcome, I made my way through the barn to discover my own trainer, Sean Cunningham, and fellow trainer Laura Goodenkauf enjoying an after show beer.
Laura is a Los Angeles trainer who takes lessons from Sean when their schedules permit; he had coached her earlier in the day. We've met a few times, and I have found her to be very friendly and quite positive. I sat down to listen to some trainer talk, but eventually the conversation came my way. My frustration with the day must have shown through because before I knew what had hit me, BOTH trainers were giving me an earful. Both trainers genuinely feel that all horses can succeed- even Izzy. They made sure to let me know that I do indeed have the tools to ride Izzy well. I tried not to roll my eyes too many times as they listed my "strengths," (had they not seen me ride?), but I did listen and take their advice to heart.
Before going to bed that night, Sean encouraged me to watch the videos of my rides and read the score sheets. He insisted that while the rides may have felt terrible, they were nowhere near as bad as I thought they were. He was right. I pulled Izzy's for sale sign from my thinking and instead focused on what I could do better on Sunday.
To be continued one more time ...
What with Speedy having a summer sore on his man parts and my husband and I leaving town for a week right before our next show, I was at a bit of a loss as to how to manage my horses. Speedy needed daily medication, and Izzy really needed to be ridden during the week to be even somewhat ready for the show, so I called Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and asked if I could bring my boys to him for two weeks. Even though Sean was already stretched thin, he agreed to take both horses - Izzy in full training, and Speedy as a boarded horse. In general, Sean doesn't board horses unless they're in training, but he made an exception for Speedy.
Packing for a show is always complicated, but packing for two horses to spend two weeks somewhere else takes a lot of checklists. Not only did I have to pack all of my show stuff, I had to organize two weeks of Speedy's various medications which included syringes, pills, ointments, and sprays. On top of that, I had to mix all of Izzy's various supplements which consist of an ounce of this, an ounce of that, a cup of this, and a scoop of that. On Monday, two days before we were drive to Los Angeles to catch our flight to Nashville, I packed all of it in the trailer, along with both horses, and drove the three hours to Moorpark.
Izzy has been to STC Dressage more than a few times by now, so when he unloaded, he was pretty bored with the whole thing until Speedy got out to join him. Suddenly, it was as if he had never seen the place. Speedy, who LOVES to show and is always a complete rock star when he goes somewhere new, fell apart. Neither horse could tolerate having the other leave their sight. The separation anxiety got so bad after I left that Sean had to rearrange a few horses so that Speedy could have Izzy right in front of him. Every time Sean opened Izzy's stall to clean or feed, Speedy lost his mind thinking that Izzy was going to leave.
Before the screaming got too bad, I packed both boys into their stalls and unloaded all of their stuff. Sean had suggested I leave my trailer while I was gone which meant my drive home and back again would be quicker. I parked it and then went to tack up Izzy. Lessons are still not worry free, but with both horses screaming their heads off, Izzy was a tougher ride than normal. At first, my frustration almost got the better of me. How much more of this could I stand? Then I thought about Sean's plan for us. He's in no hurry, and in fact, he wants us to take our time, slowly chipping away at Izzy's anxiety. Right then and there I gave up on the idea of a pleasing ride. By the time Sean was ready for us, I was focused on riding the horse I had at that moment rather than the one I wish I had.
I won't say I was sorry to finish the ride and hand the literal reins over to Sean. Other than the month I left Izzy with the trainer up north who was responsible for the massive wound he sustained while under her care, I've never before sent a horse for training. My previous experience had left me feeling quite reticent to do that again. Without having anyone else to care for him (and Speedy) while I was gone, I sort of had to do it, but I am glad I did. Sean's daily regimen is meticulous, and the horses really thrive under his watchful eye.
At Sean's place, horses in full training get ridden five days a week. The client either rides in a lesson or Sean schools the horse. I rode on Monday, and then when I came back ten days later, I took another lesson on Thursday. On Friday, we trailered over to SCEC for a schooling ride, and then Sean coached me through the show on both Saturday and Sunday. Sean rode on the days in between which didn't leave him much time to work any miracles. Even so, I knew that if Sean rode Izzy even just a few times, it couldn't do anything but help me.
While I was gone, Sean was able to work Izzy without any interruptions by me. He was able to focus solely on training my horse rather than training ME to ride my horse. He also introduced Izzy to to the vacuum - coolest grooming aid EVER, and Speedy and Izzy enjoyed several hours of turnout each day. Izzy wasn't an entirely new horse when I rode him again, but Sean was indeed able to give me some very helpful feedback. Probably more important was hearing Sean confirm that Izzy can do this, and with a bit more time, we'll be earning scores that are more than just squeaking by.
The lesson I took on Thursday and the schooling ride we did at SCEC on Friday weren't great. In fact, Izzy was a holy terror at SCEC, screaming his head off the entire time. Again, Sean drilled it into me that it didn't matter. Not reacting to Izzy's anxiety and instead showing Izzy that I was in control of the situation were what Sean wanted from me. Well, that and not snatching at the reins every time the big brown horse over-reacted or tried to do the thinking on his own. It is so hard to stay calm and loose through the elbows and hips while riding an aircraft carrier through a storm.
Spoiler alert: we did not get any great scores at the show, but even though my big brown horse was FOR SALE by Saturday afternoon, Sean insisted on an attitude adjustment that really helped turn things around on Sunday.
To be continued ...
Working with Speedy's ladies has given me a whole new way to practice dressage. Doctors practice medicine, attorneys practice law - it only makes sense that we practice our discipline as well. While I will never master the sport as a rider and competitor, I have learned enough that I feel competent to participate in the sport in a whole new way - as a coach and trainer.
I have done other things for the sport. I am the Vice Chair of our California Dressage Society chapter, Tehachapi Mountain Chapter. In that capacity I created and run our website as well as our Facebook page. I put together the show premiums for our summer dressage show series, the first of which "T" just showed in, and I share ride times and publish show results as I get them. I've also been giving lessons since early fall (I am not paid for any of these jobs). But now, thanks to one of Speedy's ladies, I've been able to view our sport through the eyes of a trainer and coach.
As a competitor, I used to feel so much pressure to make my own coach and trainer look good. I always worried that my ineptitude would reflect poorly on her. At one of my very first shows, maybe even the first, a "trainer" - I won't say her name, actually told me not to tell anyone that I had ridden with her. She didn't want anyone to think that my failure in the court was her fault. That left a huge impression on me, and it wasn't a good one.
Since I began showing Izzy in earnest, and since we're clearly not making Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, look good, and since he has yet to fire me, I have finally been relieved of the ridiculous notion that it's my responsibility to make the trainer look good. Now, I feel like it's my trainer's job to make ME look good, not the other way around. I wish I had learned that lesson long ago. Shame on that "trainer" for introducing someone to the sport in that way.
As I coached "T" throughout the day, it never once occurred to me that she might make me look bad. Instead, I endeavored to make sure that she and Speedy shined like the stars they are. Speedy's braids were lovely, his coat gleamed, and T's turnout was impeccable. I was so proud of them as they completed each of their tests. Now I know how Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, has felt watching me show all of these years.
Helping T prepare for the show reminded me why I like dressage; it's fun. It's also stressful, nerve-racking, and anxiety-inducing. I watched all of those emotions play across T's face on Sunday, but I also saw pride, joy, and happiness there, too. Showing gives us the opportunity to show off not only what we've learned, but also how fabulous our horses are.
After T's tests were finished and Speedy had been untacked, we walked up to the show office to gather her tests and ribbons. Both tests sported scores above 60% which made me even prouder. Speedy was a complete rock star for the entire show. He never fidgeted, said no, or did anything even remotely unsafe. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to be owned by such a generous and kind horse.
T's husband joined her for the day as did several other of her friends. I slso invited "J," one of Speedy's ladies, as well as "K," a friend who has done some trail riding with me in the past to join us for the day. I may or may not have had an ulterior motive.
T and her husband are starting the next phase in their life together - home ownership and his medical residency, all of which will not be happening in Bakersfield. This means T will be leaving us in just a few weeks. Hopefully J and S (who isn't pictured) will continue taking lessons on Speedy, but with T leaving, I may have room for one more.
Now that I've been bitten by the trainer/coach bug, I am hooked!
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