From Endurance to Dressage
Begin out of the saddle for any length of time always knocks me a bit off kilter. Whether it's because we've been on vacation or a horse is recovering from an injury or I've been sick, it always takes me a few days to remember where I left off. This most recent break has been a little tougher than usual to come back from because my last ride was at a show. That means my last few rides were not aboard a happy, relaxed partner.
The first day I rode after being sick, my goal was not to fall off. I mean that literally. I knew I was pretty weak, and as we all know, Izzy isn't the most reliable of horses. After a three-week break, I worried that he might feel a bit ... fresh. I got on did some walk/trot, and got off, mission accomplished.
The second day, I decided to add in a bit of canter. There were no dramatic moments, but Izzy was tight, hollow, and extremely braced through his poll, neck, and back. Knowing that I didn't have the strength to survive any major spooks, I still tried to insist that he let go through his neck. He never did, but I never lost control either.
By the third ride, I started to remember where we left off. From the moment I sank into the saddle, I started to ask Izzy to let go of the bit and relax his neck. At the mounting block, I asked for flexion and softness, and I didn't quit asking until he finally gave it to me. For the next 30 minutes, that's all I focused on.
At the show we did at the end of October, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, really pushed me to have confidence in the effectiveness of the tools that he has been giving me. Since they're new to me though, I don't have perfect muscle memory yet. I don't just go to those tools with automaticity. I still have to ask myself, what would Sean say to do here? As I let Izzy trot around, I started a dialogue with myself. Why are you letting him hang on that inside rein? What should you do to get him off of it? Why are you letting him rush onto his forehand? Above all else, keep control!
Rather than let myself feel discouraged, I started to honestly assess my riding. The first thing I did was better control the tempo with my seat. Letting Izzy pick up speed does nothing for his balance. Instead of letting him fall on his forehand, I sat up and imagined picking up his shoulders with my thighs. When he tried to brace against my rein, I over flexed him to the inside and then let it go. With nothing to lean on, he got softer in his neck.
As I started to get him sorted out, my confidence in the choices I was making began to grow. Riding a particular figure stopped being important. Who cares if I make it all the way to M in the leg yield if he's braced through his neck? Instead, I started focusing solely on the quality of his movement, and I made immediate adjustments to get the results I wanted.
It wasn't as though I "fixed" anything, but he did get softer and best of all, nothing escalated. He didn't get anxious or worried, and I finished up with a happy horse. That's when I remembered where we had left off. For now, every ride is about developing his confidence and proving to him that he can trust me to ask only what he is capable of doing. I've been so worried about finding my motivation and getting back on track. Who knew it would be so easy to step right back into the habit?
As Laura Goodenkauf quoted in a recent post, "The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It's remarkable what you can build if you just don't stop."
Like all of you, I follow a lot of big name trainers on social media. While they often write a lot of really great stuff, it can often feel a bit out of my league. They have horses that move in ways I'll never experience, access to money that provides the absolute best in nutrition and stabling, and teams of professionals to care for every facet of their horses' lives. That's why I also follow a lot of local trainers on social media. These are people who I know in real life and can watch without them knowing I am watching. I get to peak behind the curtain so to speak to see if they truly live what they share on social media. And if they do, does it work?
Sometimes, they don't. I've seen more than one local big name trainer cheat or treat her students rudely. Seeing those behaviors lets me know that in all likelihood those big name, international competitors probably make bad choices too. So who do I look to for encouragement and advice? Reading articles online about great dressage is good, but watching local trainers who are successful helps me more than any YouTube video or Facebook article.
A local trainer who I have had the opportunity to meet and follow is Laura Goodenkauf, Head Trainer/Owner at Laura Goodenkauf Dressage. I've never had a lesson with her since I now ride with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, but I have seen her ride at shows, and we've met more than a few times. Sean coaches her a few times a month. While hanging out at shows, Laura has been free with her advice, especially the kind about rider confidence. She recently shared some thoughts on Facebook and her website that really resonated with me, so I asked her if I could share them here.
This is what she wrote:
How being an Entrepreneur Has Made Me a Better Horseman
By Laura Goodenkauf
Happy Women's Entrepreneurship Day! Cheers to all you amazing women out there running your own business and absolutely killing it! I admire you all!
(Also, a shout out to our fellow Team LGD woman entrepreneur, Lauryn, and her equestrian-inspired company Elcee Equestrian. Check out their new products just in time for the holidays!)
Being a horse trainer/entrepreneur is one of the most challenging things I've ever done. It's also, by far, one of the most rewarding. And it's helped me grow as a horseman... er... horsewoman!
Three truths I've learned from being an entrepreneur that have immensely improved my relationships with my horses:
1) Accept Failure as Part of the Journey
One commonality between successful entrepreneurs and top riders - they have failed many, many times! For every successful business venture, there have been just as many products or investments that didn't pan out. But as Mark Cuban says, "You only have to be right once!"
Listen to top equestrians talk about their journey and their horses and you'll hear similar stories. For every big win, there was time that a horse was out of commission with an injury or a horse had an unfortunate meltdown in the show ring.
The important thing we must remember is that failure is part of the journey. And a failure is not the end. It is an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve!
2) Surround Yourself with a Team That Inspires You
The people you surround yourself with will have a huge impact on the way you think, act, and feel. As the saying goes, "You are the sum of who you surround yourself with."
So many barns are full of drama. And, hey, who doesn't love a little drama? But I prefer to keep my drama to reality TV. Drama should stay on The Real Housewives and out of the barn. The barn is a place to develop my relationship with my horse, both in and out of the saddle, and enjoy time with beautiful, like-minded souls who support me and my goals.
Make sure the people in your barn family are contributing to and supporting your growth - both in and out of the saddle.
3) Patience and Consistency are Key
A few quotes from Atomic Habits written by James Clear (a fantastic book, by the way!):
"The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It's remarkable what you can build if you just don't stop."
This sounds great and it's easy when things are going well. But what do we do when we're going through a really rough training patch with our horse? Or when we've had a horrible day at work and we just don't have the energy to saddle up today?
"The bad days are more important than the good days. If you write or exercise or meditate or cook when you don't feel like it, then you maintain the habit. And if you maintain the habit, then all you need is time."
Be consistent with your riding and your routine with your horse. And then be patient and trust in your work. You will get to where you want to go. And the journey will be worth it!
"Small habits don't add up. They compound."
Cheers to all my fellow bad ass women equestrians! Keep celebrating you, your wonderful horses, and the amazing journey we're on!
The line that most speaks to me is this one: Small habits don't add up. They compound. My own motto is Saddle Up Anyway because I know that you can't get there if you only ride on the good days, the days where you feel powerful and competent. I don't have very many of those days. Most of the time, I am tired or discouraged or lacking direction. Knowing that those "do it every day habits" do a lot more than just check off a box puts the idea of doing the little things in a whole new light.
I think my new motto is now this: Saddle up anyway because small habits don't add up. They compound.
On Sunday, Speedy was once again the star of the show. Have I ever said how much I adore that horse? I have? Well, let me say it again; Speedy is a rockstar. The Tehachapi Mountain Chapter of CDS has been doing shows and clinics all summer long. This event was a two-day clinic instead of a show/clinic combo. I felt that one day was plenty for Speedy, so on Sunday morning, we made the drive to Tehachapi.
The clinic was with Cassandra Rabini, co-owner and trainer at First Gem Dressage. Cassandra helped me with a few blog posts earlier in the year when I wrote about grooming and braiding. I know her to be a very friendly trainer, but I hadn't yet seen her at a clinic or a show. Given her extensive experience, I knew she'd be a great clinician. I didn't ride however, "J" did. It was her first clinic experience, and she and Speedy did great together.
Since J lives in the Tehachapi area, she met me at the equestrian center where we tacked Speedy up and then walked up to the arena to meet Cassandra. While J walked over to the mounting block, I re-introduced myself to Cassandra; we've really only communicated through emails and Facebook. I gave her a quick recap of what J and I have been working on as well as Speedy's general limitations - no real collected work. I knew that Cassandra would see immediately where J was in her riding after a quick observation, but I knew some feedback wouldn't hurt.
Cassandra immediately put J to work. The first thing they tackled was getting Speedy round and on the bit. It was great to see a professional working with J because Cassandra was watching with fresh eyes. I am always careful to not pick on everything because you can't overwhelm a student with too much or they're likely to quit. Cassandra was able to hone in on new things, so I watched with my own "trainer's eye" to see how I can better help J the next time she rides.
Most often with Speedy, the thing we work on first is getting him in front of the leg. Cassandra tackled softness first. She had J flex Speedy to one side or the other until he released through his jaw. When he was a little sticky, Cassandra had J flex and then leg yield Speedy out onto the outside rein. She also had J do some counter flexing and then they repeated the exercise in the opposite direction. Ultimately they moved to the trot and then finished up with a bit of canter.
As I watched the lesson progress, I kept thinking how I would love to take a lesson from Cassandra. For every attempt, she gave J a lot of verbal praise, but it was always constructive, Yes! That was 50% better. Now, let's add a little more. Next time, try to ... Besides being very supportive in her verbal feedback, Cassandra also focused on J's position. As a rider, I always love it when a clinician addresses my position; it isn't only about my horse. So much of how our horses go is caused by how we ride, so fixing the rider will invariably fix the horse. Cassandra obviously knows that.
Besides some takeaways for how to better teach J, I noted a few things that Cassandra said that I could use in my own riding. My favorite was this: sponge the half halting rein in time to the tempo that you want your horse to travel. Speedy likes to quicken his pace, so Cassandra had J think about sponging in time to an internal metronome. Besides regulating the tempo with her seat, she could time her half halts to slow the tempo as well. While using a half halt to regulate the tempo isn't a new idea for me, the way in which Cassandra said it caught my ear.
I took video clips of most of the lesson, but I haven't yet had time to process them or share them with J. You can be sure that I'll be watching them myself to see what other nuggets I can clean from Cassandra's teaching. If you're in the San Diego area and are looking for a clinician or trainer, give Cassandra a call. She is a really supportive and encouraging trainer. I know J wants to ride with her again.
J said to me in our "debrief" afterwards, she said everything you say and more! Gotta love that!
Over the past few weeks, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has written some really thought provoking essays that have resonated with me and touched on some of my insecurities. It's almost as though he has been peeking inside my head. He wrote this one about the importance of being part of every aspect of horse ownership and this one that explains how slowing down is actually the quickest route to success. His most recent essay was about failure, and it hit me hard. Tell me if this doesn't reveal a little about you as well.
"You're probably going to fail, and I hope you do."
Written by Sean Cunningham
Did that first statement trigger you? Did you immediately get defensive, and question why anyone would wish you to fail?
Why are we so afraid of failing? We go out of our way to shelter ourselves from situations that will make us look like a failure. We will carry on in a state of barely making it, avoiding taking the very step that may change the course of our lives and/or careers for the better, because that step may also lead to failure.
When faced with failure, our internal dialog goes something like "What will my friends say? What will my clients think? I don't want to disappoint anyone."
Or perhaps worst of all, "they were right about me."
We need to change that.
Failure gets a bad rap. There are a number of things I wish I had learned earlier on in my life. Learning to embrace failure ranks near the top.
Pick your favorite successful person in any walk of life, and really go read their story. I guarantee you their path is full of failure, and then using that failure to learn how to do it better.
I'm no different. I failed 3 years ago, hard. Once I finally found and applied the lessons from it, every aspect of my life dramatically improved and business has been stronger and more profitable than ever.
Failure is the ultimate learning tool. Failure is only bad if you stop there. Failure is part of that test we talked about last week.
Go fail. Again and again and again. Celebrate it. Dance with it. Embrace it. It's there to make you better.
Take the risk. Make the leap. When you fail, and I hope you do, I hope you also learn to see it for what it is. Not something to make you feel small and defeated, but something to help you grow and become who you're meant to be.
The line that really stopped me in my tracks was this one, "I don't want to disappoint anyone." Oh man, that is so me. Disappointing my trainer is one of my greatest fears. Disappointing all of you. Disappointing my 5th grade students. Disappointing my husband who doesn't even care about dressage. Disappointing my horse. Disappointing myself. I feel so much pressure to be successful because so many people are watching and waiting for me to ... to what? Fail? Succeed?
First of all, there is probably nobody watching and waiting for me to do anything, so whether I fail or succeed is really only important to me. But still, I write so publicly about my journey that I feel as though there must be this expectation that since I talk so much about riding and showing that I must therefore be good at it. Spoiler alert: I am not.
Is failure helping me as Sean suggested? I don't think I have yet let it. I need to do something about that.
One of my favorite things about Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, is his patience. Patience is a virtue I definitely do not have, I am impatient by nature. Not Sean. In contrast to how I do most things, hurrying and rushing, Sean takes his time.
He's deliberate and systematic. When I "help" him clean stalls, I start in the middle and haphazardly fling the shavings here and there, searching for the pee spots and road apples. Sean starts in one corner and methodically works his way through leaving not a single stray poop. Guess who finishes more quickly with a better result? If you said me, thank you, but you'd be wrong.
Sean doesn't post a lot of his thoughts on social media - unlike me who can't stop jabbering, but what he does share is always full of insight and meaning. Earlier in the week I came across this gem and asked him If I could share it.
“You’ll Get There Faster by Taking Your Time”
by Sean Cunningham
This seems counterintuitive. It would make more sense to go faster if you want to get somewhere faster. If we were talking about drag racing, that would certainly be the case; but we’re talking about training horses.
The essence of this quote is that the horse will set the schedule for how quickly they progress, not you. They will decide when they’re ready to move on to the next task, not you. They will decide when they need a break, not you. If you try to push them through any of those places when they’re not ready for it, you’re bound to get into trouble.
That’s not to say that you should never challenge your horse. Quite the contrary. They will never get stronger, build muscle, or progress in their training if you don’t push them outside their comfort zone systematically. What does this mean then?
It means you listen to them. If you’re paying attention, they’ll let you know when they’re ready for a challenge. If you listen closely, they’ll tell you they need a break. If you’re focused on your horse and not on your cell phone, you’ll see where they are instead of where you think they should be.
Listening to your horse allows you to put the right pressure on them at the right time. As a result, there will be fewer setbacks in your training. With fewer setbacks, you’ll progress faster.
Thus, by taking your time, you’ll get there faster.
Thanks, Sean, Izzy is definitely benefitting by following your lead.
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
*** SCEC 10/15-16/22
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
(***) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 62.115%