From Endurance to Dressage
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, is like no other trainer that I've worked with. It's not like I've had a huge number of trainers, but the list is longer than you would think.
I first started with a local trainer, AQ, who isn't a dressage trainer, but basics are basics. After approximately a year of monthly lessons, more in the summer, I moved on to SV. SV was a lower level rider with a little show experience, but she knew more than I did, and she could answer most of my dressage questions. After her, I rode with JL, a h/j trainer, for at least a year or two, and I took lessons twice a week. I would tell her which movements I needed to do - this was back at Intro and Training Levels, and she would help me as well as she could.
While riding with JL, I also started riding in clinics. I rode with Betsy Shelton, Marisa Festerling, Peggy Klump, Susanne von Dietze, Hilda Gurney, Christian Schacht, Erika Jansson, Amelia Newcomb, Ulf Wadeborn, Barbi Breen-Gurley, and a few others. After JL, I trained with Chemaine Hurtado for a number of years. All of those trainers were different in their own way. Some were kinder than others, some taught lots of different exercises, and some just left me with a new feeling.
If I had started training with Sean before riding with all of those different trainers, it might be that I wouldn't have felt as though I was getting my money's worth with Sean. Even on his website Sean describes his training system as Dressage Done Differently. It's hard to explain exactly in what way his method is different, but I think it's because he doesn't say a whole lot. He expects me to ride, and he coaches as I go.
During my lesson on Sunday, I actually found myself thinking, be quiet. Let me sort this out on my own. It wasn't that I actually wanted him to stop coaching, but I was at a critical moment and wanted to try to solve the problem with tools he'd already given me. Whether he sensed that or not, I don't know, but he did let me work through it on my own.
Later in the lesson, we were doing shoulder-in to half pass, and our communication wires got crossed. Sean wanted me to track right, but I wanted to ride the left again to really firm up in my mind what he had suggested. When I told him why I had turned left, he laughed and said that was perfectly fine.
When I was a less educated rider, Sean's style of letting the rider make the decisions would have been too hard for me because I needed so much guidance. Of course, it might be that Sean gives beginner riders a more obvious scaffold than he does for more advanced riders. That's what good teachers do; I would find it hard to believe if he didn't.
This weekend's lesson was better than most. Izzy was being a real firecracker, but I found myself laughing over and over again at his silliness; I am not sure that Sean was amused as I was. Despite Izzy's lapses in judgement (and that's putting it kindly), I felt so empowered that nothing Izzy did fazed me which made his jerk moments seem very funny. Again, Sean wasn't laughing, but I couldn't help myself.
Unlike a year ago, I now have much more control over Izzy's spooks. During this lesson I was able to keep him mostly packaged together. Sometimes I had to keep him at a walk as he threatened to explode, but he didn't get to escape the work. Going into the shoulder-in at the corner between C and H was turning into a fight, so I pressed my inside leg in and held steady. He tried to jerk away from me, but I kept those aids on and he did that shoulder-in. It was at the walk, but he did not get away from me.
So what does Dressage Done Differently mean? I think Sean has developed a way of coaching and training that gives the rider tools that she can use when the trainer isn't there. It's almost as though he's trying to educate his clients to not need him. He wants his clients to be able to solve their own problems by being proactive riders instead of reactive riders. In my experience, this is definitely a different way of teaching. It's not that Sean is trying to get rid of us. Instead he is empowering us to make quicker decisions so that our aids become more subtle and even more effective.
A sense of empowerment will solve most any problem.
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%