From Endurance to Dressage
Ever since Izzy joined my family, I've perpetually asked, "but why does he do that? I reasoned that if I understood why he was so braced in his neck or why he spooked for no apparent reason, I could fix things. The trainers, coaches, and clinicians with whom I've ridden have never really had an answer for me. Most of the time, I was told that it didn't really matter why. That's the way he is, so all I can do is ride better. That's an oversimplification of course and not really fair to a clinician who has just met Izzy, but still, my why question never really got an answer - until now.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, seems equally interested in the why as I am. In his experience, there are many, many horses like Izzy - horses that are complicated for one reason or another. In his experience, he has learned that if you really get to know the horse and work diligently to figure him out, you can get inside his head and find a way to work with the horse instead of just insisting he comply. I like the way Sean thinks.
Sean and I have been working together now for ten months, and while we haven't solved all of my problems, we're getting a better understanding of what makes Izzy tick. The latest strategy has been about using the smallest, most subtle aids possible. It doesn't make anything look good, but it seems to be helping Izzy to feel less trapped. It's challenging to ride an unpredictable horse with such a light contact, but so far, he has yet to dump me.
Here's where the "I am just thinking aloud" comes in. Ever since Sean made the suggestion that I make my rein aids even more subtle and my contact even softer, I've come to realize that I've been holding Izzy up. He hasn't been carrying himself at all. For so long he has pushed back against me instead of reaching for the bit. By pushing back, he has been able to use me for balance. I can really feel this in the canter. The first few times I asked for the canter while letting Izzy have his head, he simply couldn't hold the gait.
It dawned on me that he was looking for something to push against, and when he couldn't find it, he would fall out of the canter. That was a huge AHA moment for me. Now that I know he is having trouble balancing himself without me as his crutch, I've realized how important it is that I NOT allow him to push against me. Insisting that he carry himself is accomplishing several things. For one, he can't feel trapped if I am not closing the door in his face. If he doesn't feel trapped, he's less likely to bolt or spook. Second, he can't push against me if that door is standing wide open. This means that I have to learn a new way to help him be balanced, and he has to learn how to carry his own head and neck without falling on his face. This all means that we have a lot to work on over the winter.
Over the weekend, we had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ride. The neighbor was using his riding mower to grind gravel and sticks while occasionally cutting some grass. Izzy used the noise as an excuse to check out. He was perfectly fine for the first twelve minutes, and then the tantrum started. I tried doing everything I could to diffuse the tantrum, but nothing helped. I eventually pulled his tack and put him in the round pen while I went and had a chat with the neighbor. When I came back fifteen minutes later, Izzy was wringing wet. He had run himself into a lather.
I gave him the next day off, but on Sunday, I knew I had to try again. Without the mower growling at us, Izzy was less annoyed, but he still wasn't fully on board. I didn't care because I knew exactly what I had to do. As I asked for the trot, Izzy tried to fling himself forward instead of lifting his back and pushing from behind. Without being able to push against me, he had a lot of trouble figuring out how to transition to the trot by lifting his back and pushing off. I was patient though, and after a number of attempts, he finally started to figure it out.
After several walk breaks, we moved on to the canter work. The transitions there were even worse. Izzy looked like a dolphin as he flung first his front end up and then his hind end. As ugly as the transitions and canter work were, I was actually thrilled because I could feel him trying to find his balance. While I was still trying to ride with as soft a contact as possible, I found that he accepted a strong half halt with my rein, especially if I let it go immediately after.
Other than for the half halts, I avoided using my reins for control. Instead I focused on using my seat to hold the tempo of the canter. Surprisingly, Izzy will allow me to use a fair amount of leg to both push him over and to lift his shoulders, so I used those aids instead of my reins. As we worked on the canter, I let Izzy have as much rein as I felt safe giving while asking for bend with my inside leg and steering with my seat and body.
In the end, Izzy finally found some balance and as a result, he settled into a working canter where he was reaching for the bit instead of pushing against it. We have a long way to go, but getting such obvious results without the reins only confirmed for me that Sean is on the right path.
I've never blamed Izzy for our lack of success. Yes, he's complicated to ride, but that just means I have to keep learning how to be a better rider. I want to help him trust me and feel confident that I'll get us from A to C safely. Right now, I am enjoying this little peek that he is giving me into how he feels. Understanding that he has been pushing against me in an effort to balance himself gives me a lot of information.
It is information that I plan on using wisely.
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%: