From Endurance to Dressage
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage has the patience of a saint. He's also my kind of teacher. As a teacher of kids, I know that if you keep explaining something in a new way with different words, your student will eventually get it. For some, it takes longer than others, but they're all capable of learning.
In education circles, we call this a growth mindset. Teachers who do not believe that all students can learn will end up with just what they expect; kids that don't get it. With a growth mindset, you truly believe they can learn, but you recognize and understand that it might not be today. Sean's patience with me is paying off. Over the past month or so, my mind feels like a blooming flower. Each week I feel my understanding broadening and deepening.
I don't know if things just come in threes or whether three ideas in a week is all I am capable of learning, but that seems to be my magic number. On Saturday, I left the arena with three solid pieces of homework.
1) Move My Right Shoulder
This was one of those body mechanics ideas that you never see or feel until someone points it out. For MONTHS, like 12 months, Sean has asked over and over that I be elastic in my arms. I know I am much improved in that area, but when he said it again on Saturday, I finally asked him to be more specific.
Where am I not being elastic? I asked him. Did he mean in my elbow or my shoulder? Arms only move at the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, so without some specificity, I can't be sure what is not moving. Sean explained that it was my right shoulder. And with just that point of reference, I felt it. I am right handed, so it only makes perfect sense that the muscle memory and strength of that arm is going to be different than the left.
It was an immediate moment of self-awareness. I instantly felt how my left arm is weaker and naturally stays "looser." The right arm stays more braced against my body even when I feel as though I am being elastic. Over the past few days I've been walking around shaking out my right shoulder trying to copy the looseness that I feel in the left shoulder. I doubt Izzy will feel the difference immediately, but I am definitely working on it.
2) To Engage His Brain, Walk the Smallest Walk Possible
Oh, this one was fun! Six months ago, this would have caused a massive explosion, so to be able to ask for a smaller and smaller walk proves how much improvement Izzy has made. After losing his marbles a bit, Sean suggested I change the subject and get Izzy to refocus. Instead of merely doing walk to halt, Sean encouraged me to see how slow I could make Izzy's walk without actually halting.
Every time I thought it was as slow as it would go, Sean said, slower! He wanted me to feel each and every footfall. Could I make it slower still? Once Izzy could hold the tiniest walk possible without pushing against my hand, I let him walk normally. We repeated that exercise over and over until Izzy was once again completely focused on me. This is obviously an exercise that can only be done if Izzy can handle it. Holding him back for too long will only make the explosion that much bigger, but on that day, it really helped him stop trying to trot away from me.
3) Inside/Outside Aids In the Half Pass
Speedy's half passes were never brilliant. It was a difficult movement for him, so I never learned how to finesse my aids. With Izzy as my dance partner now, I am learning how not to step on his toes. If I want to be the one leading the dance, I need to learn how to better move his body around. No one wants a dance partner that can't do the moves.
Now that I am riding the movement more correctly, Sean asked me to start finessing the half pass. The first thing was to use my inside leg to push Izzy forward toward both reins. With more energy, Izzy will show more expression and crossing of the legs. Of course that's not what happened. Instead, he cantered which was super exciting because it meant that he accepted my inside leg and did what I asked. It was a simple mistake, and one I actually praised him for. We tried it a few more times with me trying to ask but not over-ask. He still offered to canter, but we both started to understand how much leg to use and how much to respond.
Along with more inside leg, Sean encouraged me to use more outside rein to move the haunches. When I asked how much outside rein to use, Sean's reply was less specific than I had hoped for. Essentially, it is something to play around with because it's about asking for a degree of movement. Just a touch more haunches with a touch more power. It's a dance - a little with my inside leg, a little with my outside rein - all of which will have Izzy dancing much more elegantly across the diagonal.
We're not really dancing yet, but we're both feeling the rhythm.
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%