By Suzanne Buzek
Marge Cunningham has a lot of four-legged friends. In particular, the assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship has an affection for horses and for competing in dressage, a sport built around five progressive levels?training and first through fourth?that test the horse?s flexibility and movement accuracy. Cunningham sees dressage as both a hobby and an extension of her work with improving quality in management.
?As someone working a job and raising a family, I decided as an adult that I could allow myself one hobby,? Cunningham says. ?That one hobby was horses, because it is ideal. Horse riding is a sport, you get exercise, and you also are interacting with another living being.?
Cunningham?s love for horses started at an early age. Growing up in Clermont County, she spent a lot of time as a toddler gazing at her neighbors? horses.
?When I was a preschooler, our backyard connected with a farm and there were horses in the field,? she says. ?I wasn?t supposed to go to the fence that separated our yards unless I had an adult with me, but I spent a lot of time at that fence trying to entice the horses to come over to me, and they often did.?
From that point on, Cunningham was hooked. She read all of the fiction and nonfiction books about horses at the Green Hills library. She started riding lessons in the sixth grade. By the time she was 14 years old her family owned two horses.
?My family moved to a farm in Lebanon when I was 16 and we had our own barn,? she recalls. ?From then on, my sister and I did all of the horse care. I picked the vet and decided on the food.?
Caring for and riding horses soon evolved into participating in dressage. French for ?training,? dressage has national and international tiers. Cunningham is currently competing at the third level in the national tier, with her horse, Lyra. She has also competed at the elite Prix St. Georges level, earning her top hat and tailcoat. Within the national tier, each level has its own set of tests that rate the horse's flexibility, strength and attentiveness to the rider. These drills must be mastered before the horse and rider can advance to the next level.
?Dressage, at its highest levels, is very artistic, almost like dancing with the horse,? Cunningham says. ?I was attracted to it because there is always room for continuous improvement. It ties into my area of teaching, quality management. I am a goal-oriented person and enjoy working towards something.?
Cunningham?s favorite aspect of dressage is the musical freestyle.
?After meeting certain criteria in dressage, rides can be put to music for the competition,? says Cunningham. ?The music suggests what you?re doing with the horse and what you?re doing should interpret the music. It is a lot like ballet.
?You have to find music that matches the different gates of the horses in terms of tempo,? she continues. ?It?s difficult to find a good piece of music for that, and it?s challenging to put together a musical ride, so I?ve had some help with the musical editing from a dressage freestyle designer, Cynthia Collins. With Lyra, we are riding to Scott Joplin ragtime music, which suits her really well.?
Riding and competing as an amateur, Cunningham holds titles and awards from several nationally recognized shows. Her favorite horse, Dragonfire Ladyhawke, has won national awards within the Morgan breed. But Cunningham isn?t getting complacent: She trains and practices with Lyra in hopes of excelling in the higher tests within the third level and ultimately qualifying to compete at the Grand Prix level.
?I've learned to not talk to the horse in words,? she explains. ?You have to talk to them with your reins, seat, and legs, and explain exactly what you want them to do. It?s a balancing act between drills and just going out in the field for a ride, so that the horse doesn?t get burnt out physically or mentally, and you don?t, either.?
In all, Cunningham has worked extensively with more than 14 horses?horses owned either by her or members of her family. She approaches her horses as friendships in which they can learn from each other.
?I?ve gotten horses at various stages of life?from newborn foals to ones that have never been ridden to ones that have already been trained, and I was learning from them,? she says. ?There are horses I?ve had only for a few years, and others I have kept for their whole lives. Some of the horses I have trained and some of them have trained me.?