From Endurance to Dressage
During my lesson on Saturday with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, we came up with a new theory about Izzy's recent anxiety. Sean is always very diplomatic when talking about a rider's or horse's weaknesses. He never calls Izzy names. He never says Izzy was a bad purchase or that I should cut my losses. Instead, Sean explains that Izzy is complicated and a tough nut to crack. He constantly reminds me that with the right tools, we will get to the root of Izzy's anxiety and tension. It's just going to take time.
Through all of the yeas that I've owned Izzy, we've been through this up and down thing dozens of times, probably more. We make great progress, and then the wheels fall off the bus. We spend months working on the tension, and then comes another period of wonderfulness. Each time we find ourselves back at the tire repair shop dealing with those missing wheels, I write imaginary (and sometimes real) for sale ads. Last Friday, I replaced the For Sale sign with one that read Free to Good Home.
When Sean joined me on Pivo Cast on Saturday, the first thing I did was let him know how frustrated and discouraged I have been feeling. There are so many things I appreciate about Sean's training style, and one of them is how even-keeled he remains no matter how close I am to throwing in the towel. Rather than agreeing with me, Sean just listens and watches. Then he reminds me that this is a process, and it's one in which we're making progress. Since I know his methods work, it doesn't take much to bring me back to center.
Just as an aside, if you can't find a trainer in your area, invest in a Pivo Pod and find a trainer willing to work remotely. I can give you the name of two, Sean Cunningham and Cassandra Rabini. I can guarantee that there are a lot of other trainers who would happily give you a lesson from their computers.
As soon as I put Izzy to work, the spooking started. He spooked so hard during the first few minutes that I was 100% sure I was about to hit the ground. I am knocking on wood as I write this, but so far, Izzy has yet to dump me despite some massive efforts to do so. That spook was so hard that I lost both stirrups and the reins. I don't know if gravity just took a coffee break or if my guardian angel had a hand in it, but either way, I stuck the spook. What made it so frustrating is that those really hard spooks come when I give the reins forward or when I give Izzy a walk break as a reward.
I explained to Sean that it feels as though Izzy is waiting for those moments when I've let down my guard. It's as though he sees his opportunity to escape and takes advantage of those moments when I am rewarding him or giving him a break. Sean thought about what I said, and suddenly a new thought occurred to him. We both know how trapped Izzy can feel which is why I am constantly looking for ways to give him as much rein as I can.
Thinking out loud, Sean wondered if Izzy is feeling more trapped than we know. It might be that he uses those breaks to escape because he is feeling confined and truly does see a moment to get away. On the spot, Sean proposed a new strategy. He asked me to make my corrections as small as I could while still being safe. Instead of asking for three inches of give, he suggested I ask for a single inch and then release the rein immediately. Sean hoped that this strategy would keep Izzy from feeling so "trapped."
I work very hard to ride with elastic elbows and soft hands, but Sean wanted me to be even more subtle with my aids. The thinking was this: if my corrections were very small, they became much more of an ask which would make the decision to join me, Izzy's idea.
It wasn't easy to ride a spooking horse with only the most minimal of aids and contact, but it did seem to work. We started at the walk with me just barely asking for anything and then immediately giving the rein. Izzy tried to avoid working by evading the E side of the arena. Rather than muscle him over with my inside leg and a firm half halting rein, I let him avoid the rail, but I asked lightly for him to yield just that little bit.
The longer we worked with me making only tiny corrections, the more relaxed he became. Instead of violent sideways spooks, he started squirting forward instead. Both Sean and I recognized that the change in the degree of his spooks showed that we had the right idea. We moved on to some trot work with me doing the same thing. Keeping my corrections super small was very challenging on a horse who wants to bolt forwards or sideways. Each time he tried, I kept control without really correcting him.
It wasn't pretty to look at of course, but like Sean said, we're not really working on the dressage movements right now. Instead, we're working on getting Izzy to accept the work without feeling trapped. The more we talked about it, the more it started to seem that the past seven years have been about finding the root of Izzy's tension and then dealing with it.
I think that for so long, I've ridden without knowing where the problem was coming from. When I started riding with Sean, he started cracking through Izzy's tough outer shell and has been able to find the first hint of the origin of the tension. Rather than getting better, things have been getting a bit worse as we dig deeper into Izzy's issues. It's an abscess of sorts. Once you find the sore spot with your hoof testers, you dig down following the track of the infection. Once you get deep enough, the abscess is revealed and drains.
It sounds gross to compare Izzy's anxiety to an abscess, but I truly think Sean is finding the root of the problem. It is Sean's belief that we are getting closer and closer, and once we get there, Izzy's talent will take over, and I'll have a horse to ride. That's hard to believe of course, but I am an optimist, so I am willing to keep working on it. Sean reminded me that this horse is making me a much better rider, and that's really why I do this. It's all about learning and improving.
I guess I can take down that For Sale add - today anyway.
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%: