From Endurance to Dressage
Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway
I was going to say, I had a great lesson this weekend with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, but then I asked myself, are lessons ever bad? And then I remembered a clinic that I had done years ago that both left me in tears and feeling pretty angry. So yes, I suppose that sometimes a lesson is not such a great thing. I've worked with quite a few different trainers over the years, but there have been only five with whom I rode regularly, and I never had bad lessons with any of them.
Riding with Sean is certainly a different kind of training than I have ever had before. He admits that he does do things differently than a lot of other trainers, but I might see it that way simply because I only work with him once a week. Either way, his lessons feel far more student-centered than what most trainers offer. As a classroom teacher myself, my pedagogical style leans toward a student-centered approach where students and teachers work together in a collaborative process. While I have very specific curriculum that I am required to teach, I prefer to offer my students choices in what they learn, and I am very easily led off topic when kids ask questions. Just last week, in a discussion aimed at understanding where water vapor condenses, we went from condensation to a kilometer to mile conversion chart which led us to heights of mountains to figuring out the height of the world's tallest mountain, Everest. Eventually we circled back to condensation. Since I encourage students to be active participants in their own learning, digression is a regular part of our day.
Other pedagogical styles are more teacher-centered where the teacher gives lectures and shares content through direct instruction. This is not an inferior pedagogy, and many students actually prefer this style of instruction. I am not that type of learner, so I can't be that type of teacher. As a learner, I need to experience and explore the ideas for myself and to have a say in which direction my learning goes. In fact, I wouldn't want full training even if I could afford it. I need time to work it out for myself. So whether Sean realizes that, or it is just fortuitous that he's a student-centered teacher, his instructional style works perfectly for me.
Each week, I ride and Sean watches. I show him what I've worked on all week, and he offers constructive feedback that includes theoretical explanations, metaphors, and plain talk. I ask questions, and occasionally, he suggests a new exercise. That's exactly what happened on Saturday.
Izzy was motoring along pretty consistently, happy to do his job. There was the occasional silliness - remember when I used to refer to it as jackassery?, but it was nothing that forced me to abandon what I was working on. His little spooks and jumps just showed when I wasn't being proactive enough. Through it all, Sean praised Izzy's newfound work ethic all while expressing his desire to see Izzy a bit more round and through. I agreed and shared that it is starting to happen, just not consistently.
During the second half of the lesson, we really got to work. The flying change is my most pressing goal right now, but since I can't force it to happen, I am always schooling the foundation of the changes. Izzy needs to be able to shift over so I showed Sean our work in the simple changes. As we continue to work, Izzy is showing that he understands the flying change, but he also worries about it. He's afraid of making a mistake, so Sean stressed that it's important to ask for it without an excessive amount of build up. It's also important to ignore the missed changes by coming back to trot or walk and carrying on as though nothing happened.
Hard as it was, I had to admit that some of Izzy's anxiety was probably my fault. I am a little fearful to ask for the flying change unless Izzy feels perfectly balanced. His style of change is to push up instead of forward, so it feels as though I am riding a keg of dynamite. Speedy's exuberant changes involved a dramatic kick, but it was easy to ride as he never lost his balance. With Izzy, I know how much air he can get, so I am very hesitant to deliberately ask him to do any "flying." Sean assured me that Izzy's little "oomphs" as he tries to change are nothing compared to the things he has seen me stick over the past year and a half. I can only take his word for it, and I AM going to take his word for it which means asking for the flying change with the confidence that I can stick the rodeo, get the change, and land somewhere in the vicinity of where we took off.
I was feeling like we had asked all we needed to of Izzy even though we had only worked about a half an hour. Sean admitted to feeling a bit greedy and asked if we could try one more thing. He is rarely teacher-centered, so I readily agreed even though I knew I might need to dig deep for that confidence in my ability to ride it out. Sean asked for some canter travers down the long side with as small a circle as I could get with haunches in on the short side. I tried for 10-meters and got closer to 20.
I've been schooling the canter travers to improve the canter half pass, so it only took one long side for me to get the haunches in on the smaller circle. We never got to a 10-meter circle, but I did get a brand new feeling on a 15-meter circle. When Izzy carried his haunches in and gave me the inside bend, I could feel the new "line" I was riding towards. He was even between my aids, and I was riding toward both reins. It lasted only a few strides before I straightened him back out, but I felt how he could carry himself in a new way. Sean suggested I change directions with a flying change. We got it, but it was ugly. That was when I had to admit to being a little afraid to ask for them.
I can't remember if we did the exercise in both directions, but while I was walking Izzy to let him stretch, I asked Sean how this exercise connected to the flying change. He laughed and said it didn't. It was the beginning of the canter pirouette. All I could say was, oh!
Okay, so now we're really schooling above where we are showing. I can't wait until we can show Training Level Test 2!
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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
2023 Completed …
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: