My last lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage was mind-numbing boring. The kind of boring where you want to gouge out your eyeballs. It is really, really hard to watch someone struggle around and around a 20-meter circle. With beginners, it’s not boring because the very air is pregnant with hope and expectation. There’s a lot less hope when the rider has a Bronze Medal. Watching that student struggle to get her horse’s head out of the clouds is enough to make you want to watch paint dry. And when I say that student, you know I am referring to myself. Sheesh.

But! I have good news. On Saturday morning, Sean was finally able to see some progress. I don’t know who was more surprised, him or me. I mean, I know I am a hard worker, but hard work hasn’t necessarily equated to progress in my little corner of the world. Suddenly though, I am starting to put together what Sean has been teaching me over the past six months.

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I really need new photos.

We’re not doing anything earth shattering or new, we’re just chipping away at my position and Izzy’s tension. We’re doing First Level at a show at the end of October, so Sean is working to increase Izzy’s balance and ability to carry himself. One way we’ve been working on that is by riding steep leg yields at the trot and even at the canter. Since our single loop at the canter is improving, Sean had me ride a canter leg yield from the rail. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.

As we came through the corner on a left bend on the left lead, my brain short-circuited for a moment because I couldn’t figure out how to ride a canter leg yield away from the rail. I instantly turned it into a half pass. To be a leg yield, the horse can’t be bent in the direction of travel like in the half pass. Here’s a description of the movement – As you turn onto the long side of the arena, close your outside leg and gently push the horse toward the centerline, allowing him to straighten his body and lose the natural inside bend and flexion. You can also use your outside rein to gently flex the horse to the outside as he yields sideways away from the outside leg. – source

It took a few tries. If you haven’t ridden leg yield that way, believe me when I say it is harder than it sounds. And not just for the rider; Izzy really struggled to maintain his balance. I think it is called counter yielding in canter. Sean cautioned me not to over do it. A couple of repetitions during each ride would be sufficient to help Izzy learn to better balance himself.

Having weekly homework has really helped me remain focused. I’ve never been one to ride aimlessly – I always have a plan, but being under a weekly microscope keeps me from wandering so far off the path. Besides learning a great deal, I really enjoy my rides with Sean. He has a well developed sense of humor and is quite good at releasing the tension before it raises my affective filter. Stress, anxiety, and embarrassment all contribute to create a mental block in language learners that is referred to as the affective filter. The term is a metaphor traditionally applied to language acquisition for second language learners, but really, isn’t dressage about learning a new language?

The other day, I exchanged emails with a reader who is an endurance rider [Hi, April D.!). I told her that while I don’t miss endurance racing, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. The same is true of my dressage journey. As hard as it is, and even though I feel like I struggle more than most, I wouldn’t trade the struggle because then I wouldn’t learn nearly as much. Every trainer with whom I’ve worked has taught me something new. 

Like I said, things have been anything but boring.