Dressage Training for Western Horses
How to Get Started in Western Dressage by Diane Schorzman

Would you like a more harmonious relationship with your horse ?  Would you like him to be more flexible, supple and responsive ?  Then dressage training just might be for you, even if you ride a traditional western horse.

Don't stop reading now.  Dressage and western riding are not mutually exclusive.  Dressage is just a fancy French word that means training an animal to be more than just useful.  For instance, if your horse was a dog, it would mean training him to do more than just sit, stay and come here.

Whilst dressage can be an end in itself (think Olympic dressage competition), at its lower levels it's just good, basic training that can improve the usability of any horse.  In fact, many western-style trainers may use dressage-style training methods without realizing it.  That's because good horse training incorporates a horse's natural movements and his own way of thinking, and that is the basis of dressage training.

Watch your horse run and play when he's loose in his pasture - his neck is arched, his back is round, he's walking on air.  But put a rider on his back, and it all disappears; his weight moves from his hindquarters to his front end and he's locked to the ground.  With dressage training, however, you can help your horse keep that natural, loose-horse enthusiasm and bounce in his step while you ride him.  You can ask him to move his hindquarters farther underneath his body, bringing his balance back where it belongs.  This, then, provides the means for the impulsion that gives energy to his movements.

Of course, impulsion and energy need direction, and dressage provides that also.  We all know that you can pull a horse's head completely around to your knee while he continues on in the direction that he wants to go.  That's because it takes much more than bit and reins to provide complete control of a horse.  With dressage, you learn to use separate parts of your body to control separate parts of your horse, thus providing more overall control.  Your hands, legs, seat bones, and weight are your means of communicating with your horse.  By using these aids in different combinations, you can talk to your horse.

For instance, your right leg controls your horse's right rear leg, and your left leg, his left rear leg.  Your seat bones, used together or independently, together with your weight, are another means of communication.  For example, you can change your horse's direction or gait with a simple shift of weight in the saddle, pressure from the leg, and a tightening or loosening of your fingers on the reins and with independent seat bones you can sit the jog without bouncing up and down !

The dressage-trained horse also learns that pressure from the rider's legs doesn't just mean "go forward."  First it means "get ready for action" and then it may mean go forward, go sideways, back up or stop, depending on what your hands, weight and legs tell him to do next.  For instance, if your horse is standing still and you want to go forward, you put equal pressure on your horse's sides with both of your legs, and, with no pressure on his mouth, he moves forward.  However, if you want your horse to step backward, don't release his mouth when you use leg pressure, and he'll step back rather than forward.  A different combination of aids will tell your horse to move his hindquarters around his stationary front end, a dressage movement called a "turn on the forehand."

This is, of course, an abbreviated introduction to dressage.  Just remember: this kind of rider control and equine responsiveness doesn't happen overnight.  Dressage training progresses in levels, with one level providing the basis for the level that follows.  And at the most advanced levels of training, dressage becomes art when horses perform the classical "airs above the ground" that most of us will never achieve.  Horses at these levels are seldom used for anything but high-level dressage competition.  But these horses don't get to the top without the same basic fundamentals of dressage that are available to all of us.

As you and your horse progress in your training, your cues and his responses will become more and more refined.  In fact, a well-trained dressage horse often appears to be acting on his own as he responds to almost invisible directions from his rider.  If you're ready for a more harmonious and mutually enjoyable relationship with your horse, try dressage.  It can be the basis for improvement even for the most die-hard western rider.

MEDIA ARTICLES

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> Di Schorzman

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