Dressage Training for Western Horses
How to Get Started in Western Dressage by Stacie Moyle

Dressage is for every horse, even Western horses.  Horses competing or being used for western disciplines can benefit from dressage training.  Though most finished or fully trained western horses are ridden in a curb bit with the reins in one hand, to implement dressage strategies, during training sessions the horse should be ridden in a snaffle bit with the reins held separated, right rein in right hand and left rein in left hand.   A western saddle is fine so long as the rider is easily balanced in the saddle and it fits the horse.

What is Dressage ?

Dressage is the systematic training of the horse to re-establish its purity of movement under the rider, compensate for natural weaknesses in its way of going and athletically maximize the horse’s potential.  Every rider wants to achieve these ideals whether the aim is to jump a cross country course or be able to work cattle and ride out on the ranch.

How to “Dressage” the horse ?

Training in dressage follows a training scale, or pyramid of development.  At the very beginning is the familiarization and habituation phase of training where the horse is made accustomed to human handling.  The horse learns to follow the lead of his handler, stand quietly for grooming, trust day to day routines and respect the space of people who work around it.  Next is the rhythm stage where the horse learns to find his naturally balanced tempo at each gait.

The rider’s weight unbalances the horse and our first goal when working a young horse is to help it find a pure rhythm (correct sequence of footfall) in all three gaits, and the tempo or speed of footfall.  As the horse finds the correct rhythm it will automatically begin to relax and become more supple in its body.  To develop even more suppleness, which both makes a horse more agile and less prone to injury, we focus on the ability to bend the horse through the body equally capably in both directions.  Since horses and humans each have a dominant side, this will be a life-long process of gradual improvement towards an almost unattainable perfection.

When this happens, horses also begin to engage or bring the hind legs under the body more in a flexed position.  They can carry more of the rider’s weight and that of their own body over the haunches.  The haunches then become powerful lending to strong departs, smooth rollbacks and easy slide stops.   In dressage this element of collection is what is used to coil the horse for extensions, pirouettes and piaffe, the sister movements to those previously listed in the western world.

To begin, it’s important to focus on basics.  Developing a strong athlete in any discipline requires attention to the building blocks.  In dressage they are rhythm, suppleness, and connection.  Follow the plan below to introduce these ideas to your western horse.

Sample Training Session:

  • Begin by riding the horse for 5 minutes at a walk on a long rein taking equal time in both directions.

  • Take up a jog staying a few feet off of the rail.  Go large around the whole arena, but vary the speed.  On the long sides increase the jog by a notch, then on the short sides decrease it by a notch.  Then try to increase and decrease by two notches.  Take note of how the speed effects the way the horse moves.  Does the horse fall more on the forehand in a particular speed, or feel as if it lifts up and becomes more balanced in a particular speed.  This is the speed you want.  Where the horse has the best balance, or feels the most horizontal to the rider, will become a neutral (working or regular) jog - 5 on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the smallest jog and 10 being the largest.

  • Give the horse a walk break for a minute on a long rein.

  • Move onto a large circle and take up a lope.  Lope a few laps in each direction doing a similar exercise.  Increase the lope by a notch for half a circle and decrease it for half a circle.  Find the lope which is both active and controlled, where you can sit up and enjoy the ride while the horse feels as if he has his legs under him and is still covering good ground.

  • Give the horse a walk break for a couple of minutes on a long rein.

  • Move back to a large circle and take up the jog.  Shorten the reins just to where all slack has been taken out of them, then shorten them another half inch.  This is where you can feel the corners of the horse’s mouth and now are able to send discrete messages down the reins.

  • On the circle begin to ask the horse to shape his body to match the arc of the circle travelled.  The inside rein leads the horse on the turn by opening slightly to the inside.  Further, massaging the rein in the fingers encourages the horse to flex at the poll joint so that you can see the bridge of his eye and the top of the nostril.  The horse is beginning to bend.  Next, the inside leg offers a pulsing pressure to ask the horse to bow the rib cage towards the outside of the circle.  This leg is positioned at the cinch.  The outside leg is positioned about one hand-width back of that and stays on the horse’s side keeping him from swinging the haunches off the track as you ask him to bend through the mid-section.

  • Once the aids are established, begin to spiral inward only about one horse-width per lap for 3-4 laps.  Do not go very small.  Keep in mind that it is the bend that turns the horse - if he is bending more, he should be turning more, but not until then.

  • After doing one lap of the smallest circle in your spiral, maintain the bending aids, but press a little more on the inside leg to encourage the horse to step away from it.  This will ask the horse to cross the inside hind leg deeper under his centre of gravity.  The horse will learn how to be more supple to the inside leg and may at this point even begin to offer the next stage of the training scale, connection.

  • This connection comes from the hindquarter stepping under the body in a flexed manner we call engaged.  It causes a sympathetic response in the muscles of the horse’s core that lifts and rounds the back all the way out to the neck which will arch slightly as well and give a feeling of stretching forward.  When this happens the horse builds a bridge from the hind legs to the hand.  Enjoy it.  Your horse will be getting stronger hind legs, a longer more swinging stride and an athletic top-line.

All of these are goals of both western and dressage riders.  The tack and sport may look very different, but we are still all two-legged creatures putting our burden on the same species of four-legged creature.  The biomechanics are the same.  Keeping these principles in mind will help a western rider achieve a more fluid and athletic horse for cattle work, trail work or reining patterns.

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