From Endurance to Dressage
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, is the Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid. You know, Show me sand the floor. Now show me wax on, wax off. Show me paint the fence. You've seen it; you know what I mean. Karate Kid is one of my favorite movies to think about when I am trying to understand dressage. If a kid from Reseda, CA can win the All-Valley Karate Championship after just a few months of lessons, this middle-aged rider can at least ride her horse from A to C without all hell breaking loose. That's why I call my AHA moments, "take aways." You know, as in Chinese take out containers.
I had a long week - you might hear about it later this week, so I was not my usual, over-achieving self for Saturday's lesson. This was a good thing because I am a better listener when I don't have so much energy. I was also more introspective than normal which meant I was more interested in talking about effectiveness of aids than actually riding. No way Sean was going to let me spend an hour talking though, so there was also plenty of riding. I had two things that I wanted to focus on, and Sean threw in a third.
1) Pushing My Hands Forward
For an entire year, Sean has encouraged me to push my hands forward. It wasn't until this last lesson that I actually attached some meaning to what he had said. If you're anything like me, you nod and agree with most of what your trainer says because you're pretty sure you ARE doing what he's asking for. But then, you stop and think: If I am doing what he's saying, why the H E double hockey sticks does he KEEP telling me to do it? Ruh-roh. Yeah. Probably not really doing it.
So, as soon as we started the lesson, I admitted all of the above and then explained how I had played around with the idea over the past week. Sean was (probably) happy to hear that I am now aware that I haven't been putting my hands forward and jumped in with some very animated explanation. I know I geek out completely when my own 5th grade students ask a question that reveals deeper cogitation on their part. Anyway, his explanation went something along the lines of this:
It's not throwing the reins away though. When Izzy gives after an ask, I should push my hands, or maybe even just one hand, forward an inch or two for just a single stride. If he takes that invitation to reach for the bit, go with it. If he doesn't, no big deal. Just come back to where he is to reestablish the contact and ask again. And again. And again. The hope is that eventually, he will reach forward when asked, and maybe even reach forward on his own. We're not there yet, but at least I am now conscious of the need to keep asking and have a plan for what to do when he does. Or doesn't.
2) The Shoulder-in
During the lesson from the weekend before, Sean helped me "fix" some of what was wrong with my aids for shoulder-in. I was using mostly inside aids rather than inside leg to outside rein. Given that it's me we're talking about, it should come as no surprise that I turned a pretty good understanding to total shite the very next day. Suddenly, I couldn't keep Izzy in the shoulder-in at all. I was riding inside leg to outside rein so hell bent on getting it right that I managed to spectacularly destroy even the crappy shoulder-in I had been riding before "getting it."
Sean had a fix for that too. He explained that I was now using my "correct" aids too strongly. Just like we've talked about in the leg yield, I need to put my aids on, and then LET Izzy do the movement, finessing it as needed. He was right. I had my aids so firmly in place that I was blocking Izzy's ability to go forward. Once I put him in the shoulder-in and then quit asking for it, he started to move forward instead of bracing and leaning on me. This horse is an excellent barometer for reading the effectiveness of my aids. If I don't ask correctly, and then allow him to answer, he lets me know it.
3) The Half Pass
I hadn't planned on asking about the half pass, and actually, it's something I never work on anymore. I have become so obsessed with rhythm, tempo, and suppleness that I forget to work on any of the "tricks." Once my shoulder-in was looking better, Sean instructed me to ride travers. And once I was sitting to the inside and riding forward into both reins evenly - to the best of my ability anyway, Sean had me ride the half pass. He teaches that the half pass is really just travers on a diagonal line.
I learned to ride the half pass on Speedy, and it was always so difficult. Speedy's strength was in the forward movements rather than the lateral ones, so I am learning to change my aids while riding Izzy. To ride a half pass out of the corner with Speedy, I had to keep him well bent around my leg as I came out of the corner, or I couldn't get the haunches to follow. They would trail along with very little likeness to a travers. I had to really over-ride the movement. With Izzy, he can almost wrap his haunches around to touch his shoulder. This means I am now under-riding the half pass. I need to ride him out of the corner as though in shoulder-in but head toward M or H on the diagonal line, and then ask for the travers, not before. If I start with the haunches in, those same haunches are likely to get to M before his nose does.
After a few attempts, Sean thought it was much improved. Not a Third Level half pass, but a developing one. I explained that rather than over-riding the movement, I am under-riding it. Once I figure out my aids, the half pass will be really pretty. Izzy can already do it; he just needs me to ask him correctly.
With my recent obsession with the basics, the Karate Kid metaphor is even more appropriate. In the scene where Daniel is frustrated about doing all of Mr. Miyagi's chores, Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel, "Not everything is as seems." Then he shows Daniel how painting the fence, waxing the car, and sanding the deck - the most basic of movements, are the foundational skills for karate. It's an inspiring moment in the movie and one that I think about when the basics start to seem boring. At the end of the scene, Mr. Miyagi, with quiet confidence, tells Daniel, "Come back tomorrow."
My own Mr. Miyagi, Sean Cunningham, always finishes with, "Come back next week." With take aways like these last three, he doesn't have to tell me twice.
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%: