From Endurance to Dressage
I've been in the dressage world for more than a decade. By some standards, that's a long time. Compared to others, I've just barely knocked at the door. One things is for sure: no matter how long you've been at it, dressage is a discipline that just keeps offering something new the longer you work at it. When I feel something new, even after ten years of sitting in that black saddle, I get goosebumps. It's an amazing sensation to get a new "feel."
Since working with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, I keep circling back to a couple of new ways of riding that have given me some extra special, touch-feely moments. It's not that Sean has said anything completely new or unique; it's just that he's been able to say them at just the right moment in my journey. Maybe I am now ready to hear and feel them. Or maybe Izzy is finally in a place to give me those new sensations. Either way, every time one of those new impressions makes itself known, it feels like Christmas.
The first thing Sean helped me feel was how not to shut down Izzy's energy by pulling back. Instead, Sean showed me that I can ride Izzy through those out-of-control moments by flexing him around my inside leg rather than pulling back. By putting some pressure on with my inside leg to outside rein, Izzy can find a comfortable place to go. Once he goes where I want him to, I can remove the pressure and allow the forward energy. Who doesn't know that? It's a simple concept, I know, but on a horse as tight backed and stiff as Izzy, it's really hard to ride that rocket with your leg on inside of trying to slow him down (by pulling back). Izzy is finally in a place where he can now hear my aids.
Back when Izzy was more often on the verge of being out of control, just bending him around my leg wouldn't have been enough. Sean has made it perfectly clear that first Izzy has to be under control. If I feel things going south, I need to get Izzy under control however necessary, but then I have to go right back to channeling that energy in a positive way. And it's working. At home, I never feel the need to pull back to stop the freight train. Now, I just put my leg on and push him into the outside rein while letting the circle slow him back down so he can rebalance himself.
The second big idea that Sean has helped me see is where Izzy's resistance truly lies. I've always felt it as a neck/poll blockage. Sean has shown me that Izzy is actually pushing against me with his under-neck muscle. When he pushes that muscle out, his back gets hollow, and his legs stab at the ground. It is only by getting that under-neck muscle to release that I can get any movement in Izzy's poll, neck, or back. This sounds so simple, but once I actually felt it, I had a whole new feeling.
So what is the solution to the tense under-neck muscle? That brings me to another Sean idea, move the bit in Izzy's mouth. This is different from sawing on the reins. By gently sliding the bit around in Izzy's mouth, he doesn't have anything to push against. Sean calls it "having a conversation." Sean is also encouraging me to ride Izzy rounder, rounder, rounder. Every moment of every ride, I am aiming to get him round so that Izzy stops pushing against me and instead, begins to reach for the bit. When Izzy reaches, that under-neck muscle lets go. When he braces, he is pushing against the bit which locks his neck and poll.
We've recently added a new way of showing Izzy that it is far more comfortable to let that under-neck muscle take a break. No matter what we're doing - walk, trot, or canter, if Izzy braces against me, I bring him to a halt and work the bit in his mouth until he lets it go. Then we stand there for a moment on the bit, and then we proceed. Repeat, repeat, repeat. By doing it this way, I don't have to fight with him. We talk about it quietly until he understands, and then we try again. Until very recently, Izzy couldn't hear me in a halt. He would have felt trapped being "forced" to stand there. Now, he halts willingly, listens, and lets his neck relax.
Over the past four months, Sean has slowly but surely helped me chip away at Izzy's resistances. There is no fighting, no arguing, and no lost tempers. When he spooks, I ignore it. When he rushes, I put my inside leg on and bend him around it until he's back under control. When he pushes that under-neck muscle against the bit, I halt him and move the bit in his mouth until he softens that muscle and begins to reach for the bit instead.
Sean told me that this process wouldn't be easy or short. It's certainly taking longer than I had hoped, but Sean seems to feel that we're making excellent progress. Each time he sees us we're able to dig deeper and push a bit more. We're heading to STC Dressage this morning for a lesson/show weekend. This will be the last time (until next year) that I can spend four days in a row there as I go back to work on Monday. I'll have four days to not only have lessons and show, but I'll also get to watch Sean ride and teach which is just as beneficial as when I am in the saddle.
Hopefully I'll be able to post tomorrow, but if not, wish us luck!
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%