From Endurance to Dressage
Over the past few weeks, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has written some really thought provoking essays that have resonated with me and touched on some of my insecurities. It's almost as though he has been peeking inside my head. He wrote this one about the importance of being part of every aspect of horse ownership and this one that explains how slowing down is actually the quickest route to success. His most recent essay was about failure, and it hit me hard. Tell me if this doesn't reveal a little about you as well.
"You're probably going to fail, and I hope you do."
Written by Sean Cunningham
Did that first statement trigger you? Did you immediately get defensive, and question why anyone would wish you to fail?
Why are we so afraid of failing? We go out of our way to shelter ourselves from situations that will make us look like a failure. We will carry on in a state of barely making it, avoiding taking the very step that may change the course of our lives and/or careers for the better, because that step may also lead to failure.
When faced with failure, our internal dialog goes something like "What will my friends say? What will my clients think? I don't want to disappoint anyone."
Or perhaps worst of all, "they were right about me."
We need to change that.
Failure gets a bad rap. There are a number of things I wish I had learned earlier on in my life. Learning to embrace failure ranks near the top.
Pick your favorite successful person in any walk of life, and really go read their story. I guarantee you their path is full of failure, and then using that failure to learn how to do it better.
I'm no different. I failed 3 years ago, hard. Once I finally found and applied the lessons from it, every aspect of my life dramatically improved and business has been stronger and more profitable than ever.
Failure is the ultimate learning tool. Failure is only bad if you stop there. Failure is part of that test we talked about last week.
Go fail. Again and again and again. Celebrate it. Dance with it. Embrace it. It's there to make you better.
Take the risk. Make the leap. When you fail, and I hope you do, I hope you also learn to see it for what it is. Not something to make you feel small and defeated, but something to help you grow and become who you're meant to be.
The line that really stopped me in my tracks was this one, "I don't want to disappoint anyone." Oh man, that is so me. Disappointing my trainer is one of my greatest fears. Disappointing all of you. Disappointing my 5th grade students. Disappointing my husband who doesn't even care about dressage. Disappointing my horse. Disappointing myself. I feel so much pressure to be successful because so many people are watching and waiting for me to ... to what? Fail? Succeed?
First of all, there is probably nobody watching and waiting for me to do anything, so whether I fail or succeed is really only important to me. But still, I write so publicly about my journey that I feel as though there must be this expectation that since I talk so much about riding and showing that I must therefore be good at it. Spoiler alert: I am not.
Is failure helping me as Sean suggested? I don't think I have yet let it. I need to do something about that.
It has been a long week, but it seems as though they're all long. On Wednesday, it felt like Thursday all day, so today somehow feels like Monday. I am all messed up! I did ride a few days this week though. On Monday, we had horribly high winds that caused hazardous blowing dust. Our air quality hit 500 which is nearly as high as the gauge goes. I didn't ride that day.
I did ride on Tuesday and Wednesday, but not yesterday. I just had too many loose ends that simply had to be tied up. I serve on two different community boards, and both are having social events and elections. Instead of riding, I came home to do some middle aged adulting which is different from getting your bills paid or calling your mom. Middle age has some great financial benefits, but they come at a cost. Somebody has to do the work.
When we visited Tennessee this past summer, I discovered that I really like whiskey. I've always been a red wine type of girl, but no longer. My go-to Friday night let-it-all-go drink is now a whiskey Old Fashioned. If you're looking for a way to celebrate the end of a long week, might I suggest the following?
Whiskey Old Fashioned
After my ride this afternoon, I can guarantee there will be one or two of these bad boys in my future.
Enjoy your weekend!
Until this week, I hadn't seen video of me riding Izzy for three or four months, Even though I use my Pivo Pod weekly, it can't yet cast and record at the same time. The Pivo Peeps know riders want that - how awesome would it be for Pivo to record the lesson?, but the code hasn't yet been written. So even though I use my Pivo regularly, I haven't been using it to record video.
For several weeks in a row I tried to record video, but I kept leaving my phone at home. I think my brain was begging for a technology break. My entire life is being lived online right now since I am teaching virtually. Even out at the ranch I am dragging around all of the gear needed for virtual lessons. On Sunday though, I forced myself to get better organized because I really wanted to see what we look like after seven months of working with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage.
Do I now look like a graceful, talented rider? Does Izzy float in all of his gaits? Well no, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. When I ride, he feels so tense and timid. As we approach each corner, I always feel as though I am preparing for an explosion. He vibrates beneath me. When I watched the video, none of that came through. His giant spooks, the ones that feel as though I've been hit by a truck, come and go in seconds. He jerks me right, and then we're once again trotting. They happen so quickly that I can barely capture them in a screen shot.
I rode for about 40 minutes. While there were a few head flinging moments, see above, most of the video showed a horse who was pretty steady, not fantastic, but steady. I am in a hurry this morning, it's 5:41 and I usually leave by 5:45, so in effort to speed things alone, I scrolled through the video to about a third of the way through and clipped a random 30 seconds of video. I didn't look for anything good or bad, just random. I uploaded it, and here it is.
It's an uncomfortable feeling to share video because there are so many railbirds who love to criticize, but my skin has grown pretty thick. I only share the video so that long time readers can evaluate the progress Izzy and I are making. I see it for sure. This clip shows a much more willing horse than I have had in the past. If I have the time, I'll grab a few more sections of video and post those later.
It has been a long road, but the ride is getting smoother.
"J" came down on Sunday this weekend instead of her regular Saturday. Like always, I tried to think of something to work on that we haven't necessarily tried before. It occurred to me that J was probably ready to play around with a bit of lengthening in the trot.
I love working with J. She's a very receptive student, and she trusts me implicitly. I am not sure I deserve quite that much trust, but since I have it, I treat it with incredible respect. I want to challenge her while never causing her to feel inept or inadequate. As we neared the end of the lesson, my heart just about burst with happiness when I saw a huge grin plastered across her face. She had felt what I was hoping she'd feel. Getting those new feelings is like a drug, and once you've had a bit of it, you're hooked and always looking for your next fix.
Over the past eight or nine months, J has learned a lot. Early on, her center of gravity was too high as she fought her hunter roots, and her aids weren't "dressage" aids. In a lot of ways, she was a "beginner." Most of us know what that feels like. Even though I could ride a horse 100 miles in a single day, riding for 30 minutes in a dressage saddle seemed like a task I'd never be able to do. I was a beginner in every way.
Over the summer, J's skills as a dressage rider have grown tremendously. She is sitting up and back in the saddle - goodbye hunter seat, her legs have lengthened, and she's beginning to self-monitor and correct herself when she feels her position becoming unbalanced. I thought it was time she learn to ride Speedy's bigger trot.
Explaining to someone else how to get Speedy to sit and really push off into a medium trot took a lot more words than I thought. After a not-so-short explanation of what the extended gaits are, I told J that we would just work on feeling a bit of a lengthened trot. I describe what feeling she was looking for: a bouncy trot that goes up that becomes a bouncy trot that goes forward. I explained that it will feel a bit floaty but not quicker.
Speedy hasn't done any extended work in more than a year. He really hasn't done anything from First Level either. All of the work that he's done has been from intro or Training Level. He's pretty well educated though, so I knew he'd give her the right feeling if she put him together correctly. To do that, I had her do a lot of transitions within the gait first.
It didn't take Speedy long to figure out what he was being asked to do. Powering across the diagonal was always one of his strengths, and in a test, I knew that was one place we could make up points. To help J feel the difference in Speedy's length of stride, I had her stay on the circle so that she could use the circle for balance and control. Once she was able to feel Speedy bounce in the trot, I had her ride the corner with the idea that she was coiling him up for a launch. Their first attempt was a bit crooked and braced, but Speedy gave her a sense of being up in the air.
After that first try, J told me what she was going to do; she wanted to cross the diagonal K-X-M and then come back down the other diagonal H-X-F. That has never happened before. I am usually the one suggesting that she circle at B or canter at C. She had it in her mind exactly what she wanted to do. I told her to go for it but to remember to circle if he wasn't put together enough because he wouldn't be able to balance otherwise.
Go for it she did. I haven't seen Speedy look that happy in a while. Finally, he got to do something that he really likes that he also finds easy. It wasn't like Speedy gave her an extended or medium trot, but he did give her a lengthening which gave J the opportunity to feel a bigger gait. I can't say it enough: I LOVE this horse!
By the time she was finished, J was grinning from ear to ear. She's been hooked for a while, but I think that sealed the deal.
Each week, I take a lesson from Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. Each week, it seems as though Izzy and I take yet another step backwards. I know this isn't true; it can't be. Sean calls it digging into the problem bit by bit. Or chipping away at it. Or really getting in there. Basically, what he means is that we're undoing a lot of mistakes, but by doing so, we're going to have a much better horse in the end.
Sean hasn't come right out and blamed me for anything, he would never do that, and I know that if asked, he would say there is no blame to assign. We do our best with what we have. Izzy and I have been at this for a really long time. His early fear and tension wouldn't have been easy for any rider to overcome. Not to get defensive or anything, especially since I know I've made plenty of mistakes, but Izzy hasn't necessarily made things easy for me either. And while I've made plenty of mistakes, I've also done some things right.
Every Saturday, what Sean shows me is a better way to communicate with Izzy. So while it feels like we're going backwards - we spent nearly an hour trying to get a single, balanced stride that was longer than the one before it, Sean would definitely say we're progressing forward. Every time that I try to complain about how sloooowwwwwllllly we're moving - snails are running marathons while Izzy and I "improve," Sean tells me how thrilled he is with Izzy's increased willingness to let me in and take control.
This weekend, Sean wanted to come back to the idea of lengthening Izzy's stride. The weekend before, Izzy would have none of it. He melted down as I tried to build the positive tension needed for more thrust in the lengthening of stride. On Saturday, instead of waiting until later in the ride, Sean suggested we play around with the lengthening idea while Izzy was still fresh.
Izzy is pretty talented. The movements themselves aren't tricky for him, but doing them with relaxation terrifies him. I can "package him up" for shoulder-in, half pass, etc., but when it comes time to let him "go" in a forward and straight movement such as the medium trot, he just doesn't know how to let his body relax enough to make it happen.
Week after week, Sean continues to coach me, reminding me to ask for just a stride or two and then allow Izzy to come back to a more collected gait on his own. Yeah, yeah, yeah ... I get it, and then it just doesn't happen. What happens is I ask for that tiny bit extra and Izzy flings his head up and tightens his back. But this week, somewhere during Sean's coaching and Izzy's head flinging, I had a slow motion moment where I thought, wait, you mean just try to keep his neck longer and let it happen? I don't know why that sounds so epiphanous, but suddenly, it seemed much clearer than it had the day before.
Everything that Sean has me do is slower and in much smaller parts. Sometimes, Sean will watch me spend entire minutes at the halt as I ask Izzy to truly let his under neck muscle go. It doesn't matter how long it takes. Spending 5 minutes today will pay off tomorrow because it will only take 4 minutes. That's how I finally understood what Sean wanted in the medium gaits. It isn't that he wants to see a medium trot. Instead, he wants to see the foundation for the medium trot. He wants to see Izzy say, roger that, let me just get soft so that my body can do that.
It isn't really about the medium trot or canter at all. Well, it is of course, but right now it's about showing Izzy that he can trust me not to ask him to do something that he can't do and to be there for him as he needs help. I won't say that suddenly a fantastic medium trot came the next time I asked, but I can say that I have a better understanding of how that will eventually happen. Before anything great does happen though, there is still quite a bit that needs to be fixed. It's been six months. How long will it take? I don't know, but the farther Sean helps me break it down, the better things are getting.
For all the backward steps, the demolition of old habits, and the rebuilding, I think I am seeing what this remodel will eventually look like.
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 Second Level. 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%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2021 Pending …
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
2021 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2nd Level Qualifying
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 60.610% Bhathal
2nd Level Qualifying
5 Scores/4 Judges/61%:
Stuff I Read