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.

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From Sunday

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.

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Also from Sunday.

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.

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Ever so slowly, we’re getting it.

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.