From Endurance to Dressage
We all know how to do that: win the genetic lottery, have a fabulous horse, and find yourself a great trainer. A large bank account is also helpful. When that doesn't happen though, what do you do? I've been asking myself that same question for more than a decade, so I don't really know, but I did get some really interesting feedback this weekend from Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage.
As Sean joins me virtually via the Pivo + Meet app, we always chat about what my needs are for the day. Since I am not a client in full training, Sean can't see what's happening during my weekday rides, so I always have a report to share which enables him to help me. There were two things I wanted his help with this past weekend: keeping my left arm closer to my body - it wants to wing out to the side which is ineffective and unsightly, and help me remember to let my legs hang without sucking them up.
Sean's response blew my mind a bit. So much so that I had to stop the trot work I had started with Izzy as I tried to reconcile what he was saying with my perception of what a good position looks like. Basically, according to Sean, there's not anything wrong with my position. Yes, there are things that need to be tweaked and adjusted, but overall, my position is hugely improved over two years ago.
He explained it like this: as our aids become more effective, the horse responds and softens which allows the leg to become longer. A long leg doesn't happen because the rider forces it down. It happens when we can give an aid that the horse responds to, and once given and received, we can take the aid off which allows our leg to fall into a neutral position.
The same is true of our arms. When we no longer need to ride defensively - curled forward with a tight upper body that is braced for a deadly spook and bolt, we can sit up, let our arms hang softly from our shoulders, and follow with our seat. When our bodies are soft and not braced, the horse can soften without the need to brace against us.
Sean insisted that my position has improved dramatically over the past two years. He challenged me to find video from two years ago and compare it to recent video. I did what he suggested, but I don't see the changes that he sees. I know he is right though as Izzy is moving and working better than he ever has. Since I no longer have to ride so defensively - my life no longer flashes before my eyes every time I am in the saddle, I can really sit into the saddle and follow which allows Izzy's back to swing and his neck to lengthen.
While I still think that some of Izzy's histrionic behavior was partly due to my tension, unconscious or not, Sean would say that Izzy has not been an easy horse. As such, I didn't cause those meltdowns like the one above. With Sean's quiet and persistent training style, what he sometimes calls dressage done differently, he helped me get control of Izzy while simultaneously refusing to be baited into a fight. Doing that while still being loose in my body has been incredibly difficult to do, but the results prove that Sean was right.
Sean's constant feedback for the first two years together was for me to stay loose even while I was fighting for control. Let me tell you, that is not an easy task. When your horse is trying to bolt out from beneath you, the last thing on your mind is to stay loose in your body. Sean insisted though, and I did my best to make it happen. While I wasn't always successful, I was successful enough that over the past two years, my position has improved so much that Izzy is more and more frequently able to soften his back and work with positive tension.
While I don't see the changes in my position that Sean does, many of you probably do. I know he is right though because I feel so many things that I was unaware of even just six months ago. I feel it when Izzy is moving forward into both reins evenly. I feel it when my seat is truly in the saddle. I feel it when I know when the right moment is to ask for the canter. I feel it when I know when to use my calf and when to use my spur.
Has my position changed so much? I am going to trust that yes, it has. My work is not over of course. Sean reminded me that muscle memory takes a long time to undo. My default is to keep my leg on rather than ask and release. Gripping with my lower leg tightens my hips and has the effect of drawing my leg up, something I am working hard to overcome.
When we worked on the half pass this Sunday, Sean found the perfect moment to illustrate what he meant. In the half pass right, I kept my leg on which blocked Izzy, causing his half pass to peter out. For the next go round, Sean directed me to put my leg on and then take it off but leave it in position. Izzy's half pass still petered out, but Sean said to bump him forward, and then take the aid off again. Aha! Of course the suggestion worked. Izzy will quickly learn to stay forward in the half pass after I remind him a few times. The lesson was to ask, take the aid away, but stay in position. If the aid never comes off, how can the horse learn to move forward into the movement? He can't.
As I promised Sean, here is video from two years ago along with recent video from the past month. Any difference?
My homework isn't to lower my leg and bring my elbow closer to my body. My homework is to ask, get a response, and then remove the aid. As Izzy responds, my leg will lengthen on its own once I am no longer giving an aid the entire time I ride. The same will be true for my elbows. As I remember to sit up and back without the need to ride defensively, my shoulders will lower, and my arms will be in front of me instead of out to the side.
Why couldn't I have just been born a trust fund baby with awesome genes? Life would have been so much simpler.
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%: