Dressage Training for Western Horses
How to Get Started in Western Dressage by Mary Knetter

Sure, it sounds like an oxymoron - a "Western dressage" horse, but if you think about it many Western disciplines have similarities to dressage, and if you do it right your horse can benefit from the classical training dressage provides.

What is classical training ?  It's not your typical "kick the horse to go, pull the reins to stop" theory.  It takes into account the horse's ability and temperament, and creates a balanced, cadenced horse and rider that work with instead of against each other.

It takes years of study and dedicated training to achieve advanced manoeuvres in dressage, but training your Western horse won't involve thousands of dollars and decades in training.  It just takes a little study and some practice.  You don't have to practice the piaffe in your cutting arena or airs above ground in your round pen.  We're just talking basics here.

Evaluating the Horse

The first part to remember is that horses bred for Western disciplines are built differently from horses bred for dressage.  Many are built with a high croup and low withers, which makes it difficult to get the collection and lightness on the forehand that dressage requires.

However, cutting, reining and competitive trail training involves a lot of the same manoeuvres as beginning dressage, so even though a Western horse might not be built for dressage they can do the basic manoeuvres reasonably well and that's what the goal is here.

Before you get started, write down what your horse can and can't do.  Think of it as a resumé for your horse's skills, temperament, personality, training, etc.  When you evaluate your horse's abilities like this you'll learn your horse can do more than you think.

When you're finished you'll use it to "apply for a job" - in this case, dressage.  Like any "job" you apply for, you need to accept that not all horses are entirely suited in ability, temperament and training.  Knowing your horse's limitations lets you determine from what training it will benefit and how.

What to Work For

You've probably seen it in Western horses, but probably don't define it the same way.  You know a relaxed, balanced horse that works with little or no help from the rider.  That's what all riders work for.  It looks natural, easy and beautiful.

You've also seen how it's done wrong.  It looks choppy, forceful and unnatural.  The horse's back is tight, sometimes rounded, the neck is short and held awkwardly and the hindquarters are so tight the legs don't reach and swing naturally.  The rider's back is stiff, the hands are held in tight fists, and the look on their face shows they don't enjoy it either.

To get the flowing, balanced and enjoyable result you want, the two of you need to get it out of your head that dressage is difficult or restricting.  Dressage riders and trainers spend years teaching people and horses only to make it look that way.

Training a horse in dressage develops muscles not used in Western riding, so when you start it might be foreign to both of you.  In teaching dressage to a Western horse you want to teach forward motion, improved flexibility and dead-on transitions.  In the meantime you'll also improve your relationship with your horse.

Before you begin, the horse has to trust you, and you have to show it to them in a way they will understand.  The goal is to improve the horse's Western way of going.  Many of the aids are the same so it emphasizes to the horse how to do it right.

Saddles

Ok, I'm going to say it.  The statement many Western riders cringe at and sends shivers down the spines of British riders:  You don't need a dressage saddle to teach your Western horse dressage, but you DO need a saddle that won't restrict the horse's movement.  Many Western riders will also have to abandon the "behind the movement" seat for a more "English" seat, at least for what you plan to do.

Your horse's movement is affected by your position, so you will have to sit in a traditional "English" style.  Think of a straight line from your shoulders, down through your hips and to the point of your heels.

You will have to sit centered in the saddle, with your butt away from the cantle.  This is where a flat-seated saddle will help you and the horse relax, open up and reach out willingly.  To help the horse open up in the shoulders and hindquarters, you'll need to sit deeper in the saddle and open your hip angles more.

Bits

The curb bit is a prerequisite for most Western events, and because of that many horses become dependent on if not afraid of them.  Horses won't take contact with the curb bit or test it because of its leverage and severity.  Many Western horses are trained in curb bits from the wrong hands.

For beginning dressage, a simple snaffle is the norm.  You can outfit a Western bridle with a half- or full-cheek snaffle and use it instead of an "English" bridle.  The difference here is to encourage the horse to take contact with the bit and to respond to the smallest adjustments of the reins.  You want the horse to bend, flex, and do everything else with the smallest effort on your part.

Finding More Information

Western riders can train their horse to dressage in many ways.  One of the best ways is to find a reputable trainer that will teach you and help you teach your horse.  The best trainer is one who will explain it to you but won't scoff at you for riding Western.

Another way to go is do lots of reading on the subject.  A great place to start is by reading Xenophon's "The Art of Horsemanship" which will give you a lot of background information on dressage theory.

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