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Gifted Memorial Fund for Adult Amateurs Recipient: Shonnessy Gilmore (Region 6)

The plan: Six lessons with my trainer Patricia Schaefer (Peaches) on the flying changes, on my horse High Altitude (Allie), while boarding at her barn, as well as two virtual sessions with Stephanie Seheult, equestrian physiotherapist. 

The goals: My original goal was a bit lofty, perfect the flying change and possibly start working multiple flying changes. I also wanted to work on the other 3rd and 4th Level movements. I was able to make huge progress on my flying changes, my confidence, my physical strength, and my relationship with my horse, but we aren’t ready for multiple flying changes…yet. 

The expectation: My horse knows the flying changes, so I thought it would be as simple as me learning the aids and timing and we’d be flawless from that point onwards. I have permanent disabilities, but have had years of physical therapy, so I thought sessions with Stephanie would be minor tweaks to perfect my aids.

The reality: While we had huge breakthroughs in training, and in my understanding of my own body, it takes at least 30 days to make a habit, and we both need a bit more time and practice for these newer ways of using our bodies.

The best part: I have so much more faith and confidence in myself and my wonderful horse. 

My grant start date was pushed back several times; we’d planned for February or March, pending snow, but there was still snow on the ground in April. We finally were able to start in late April. I used the winter to get Allie as physically fit as I could get her, upping our cantering time each ride, and working on small physical therapy type movements such as walk lateral work and pole work to get her as strong as possible. I also worked on my own strength and fitness. I was so excited to get this grant, and I didn’t want anything holding us back from doing our best.

Allie loves to do cavalletti, so for the first few days of the grant we worked a fun grid pattern to get her loosened up, then we started cantering through an 8x8 foot cavalletti square. We worked in one of my favorite exercises, a canter square with quarter pirouettes at each corner going over the cavaletti on the long side of the square. At the end of the first session, I asked for a flying change in the cavaletti square and got a beautiful left to right lead change. The second day made huge progress as well, but my physical limitations from spinal injuries and hip surgery made the right to left change harder. We made a video to send to Stephanie. The third day we decided we needed a break from cavalletti, as Allie started jumping them! She was having fun, but tired after three straight days of flying change/cavalletti work. We decided it would be best for her to have a little break from training, and not work more than two days in a row on changes for the rest of our time. I took her home for a chiro session with her vet (and spring shots) and a massage, with plans to return in a few days. 

Allie had a massive reaction to her shots and was lethargic and blah for almost two weeks. This was unexpected, so we decided to wait to finish the grant, and let her get back to 100%. In the meantime, I wanted to work on me. Stephanie had given me seat, leg, and hand exercises while she reviewed my video. I started doing those, and then Stephanie and I did an hour-long video call. So amazing and enlightening. It turns out my more severely nerve damaged side, where I had arthroscopic hip surgery, my leg stays in a correct but neutral position. It doesn’t move when I’m asking for the changes and has a much slower reaction time. Stephanie felt like my compensatory leg was also slower and less mobile than it should be. In addition, my spine had no flexibility where I had old herniated and bulged discs, remaining rigid in my low back when Allie does her extended gaits. She gave me a series of five daily exercises to target my lower abdominals, glute meds, improve quickness, and went over my gym and daily routine. Beyond helping my riding, this is helping my day-to-day life. Things like sitting in a chair or driving are always very painful for me, and already Stephanie’s exercises have reduced my pain. 

Before finishing the grant, I had a couple schooling shows at 3rd Level. It was nice to get feedback, and even get some beautiful flying changes in the classes (and some instances of nothing happening, and sometimes extra changes). Allie’s lateral work has improved so much, her overall fitness is so much better, and things are clicking. I have found the more I fuss with her, the less likely she is to change, instead doing an extended counter canter. When I keep things simple and focus on keeping her straight, her changes are effortless. We also started playing with a double bridle at this point, something Allie is familiar with, but I still needed to learn.

When I brought Allie back to my trainer to finish my training, I wanted to work different ways of asking for the changes. We knew cavaletti worked well for Allie, but you can’t have those in a test. We also knew she could do them as asked for in a test, as long I as I didn’t get in her way. At home, my arena is too small to practice flying changes where the test asks for them, so I needed some go-to exercises I could do on my own to practice. 

We already know the exercise on the rail of canter, simple change, counter canter, then repeating and asking for a change, and that’s a good one for us as it keeps her straight and not rushing (she associates going across the arena with mediums and extensions). We worked a bit of that, then decided to try a half loop serpentine with a simple change and a flying change. This was NOT the exercise for Allie. She somehow interpreted this as a signal to do a counter canter gallop. I learned she can do endless 10-meter counter canter circles, so I definitely reached my goal of getting her fit!

We tried cantering haunches-in on a 10m circle, then a flying change and picking up the travers on the new 10m circle. This seems like it’s going to be Allie’s go-to for practicing at home, along with on the rail, for the timing of the aids, and forcing me to move my legs into a new position. We also worked on other double-coefficient moves, the walk pirouettes, the trot and canter half pass, renvers, and always, shoulder-in. My work with Stephanie allowed me to have a more mobile seat, which showed in a much more expressive shoulder-in and renvers. Our half passes are getting very solid, and Allie feels so supple and flexible through her body. 

All in all, I got seven lessons with Peaches, I was able to board Allie there, saving me approximately two or more hours of drive time per lesson. Stephanie built me a library of probably 20 exercises for all riders, and then five or more just for me, as well as personalized stretching and gym routines. This was a huge privilege for me as an amateur, as a person with disabilities, and as someone who wants to keep growing in dressage. I kept a journal and took video of each lesson, so I have a lifetime resource to use for planning future rides, as well as analyzing my aids and position. 

The biggest win was in confidence. It’s important to me to compete as able-bodied as long as possible, but also be healthy for my day job as a Certified Industrial Hygienist. I need to feel safe when I ride, because I don’t want new injuries or to flare existing conditions. For this reason, I was afraid to start practicing my flying changes, especially alone at home. Allie has been good natured, fun, and completely safe during this whole experience. I’ve gained the confidence to start regularly practicing them at home, as well as in lessons. It's nice to know the very worst my horse will ever do when asked for a change is…nothing at all. The feeling of our clean changes, the effortless motion, that was the most amazing thing to me. I’m excited to go out later this summer and try our hand at finishing our USDF bronze medal. And if that’s not in the cards until next year, I’ve still gained everything I could want from this experience.

I had hoped to start training with my grant months earlier, so I would be ready by show season, but everything happens on the timeline it needs to happen on. I’m so grateful I got the opportunity, and I have learned so much and gained so much confidence, dressage knowledge, and body awareness. Allie had a lot of fun with the whole experience, and it was fully positive for her, which was my main goal. She enjoyed having me to herself while we were at the trainers, and special experiences like having her massage therapist come to the trainers to help her feel good while she was working so hard. As I get stronger and more accurate from Stephanie’s PT work, I think she’ll also appreciate clearer aids.

Thank you for providing this opportunity to train in an intensive format. I would not have been able to make this level of progress even through weekly lessons, and it gave me the opportunity to try virtual sessions with Stephanie. I’m going to commit to working on myself and my horse on the daily, and I think I’ll be seeing the benefit of this grant for years to come.