RESCHOOLING YOUR WESTERN HORSE FOR DRESSAGE
(And Vice Versa)
By Mitzi Summers
Spring is on its way-really it is, and with the advent of good weather riders again get motivated to improve their riding and their horses, and may well be inspired to delve into riding disciplines that they have observed, but with which they have not gotten really involved. I have noticed that by watching the World Games held in Kentucky this year, more and more horseman have gotten interested in dressage for their horses. Of course, only the highest levels were demonstrated, but the beauty that it CAN be and the communication between horse and rider on many of the rides stimulated an interest to learn more about this ancient skill and art.
There are hundreds of publications about dressage. It is important for everyone to know that it can improve your horse when done correctly, and it does not matter what breed or skill level the rider or her horse are. The caveat to this statement is that many factors must be taken into consideration when determining the training program, and to realize that many horse and/or riders may be limited at first. Be happy to master the basics, without any undue force placed on either you or your horse. This month reschooling the western horse for dressage will be discussed, and the next issue will contain information to work with your dressage horse to be able to at least enter some Western classes.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER WHEN EVALUATING YOUR GOALS
CONFORMATION Remember that especially for the higher levels in dressage, centuries of selective breeding have gone into the result of the class of horse that you see in the dressage ring today, especially at the F.E.I. levels. That said, dressage basics are possible with any breed, just realize that Training to Second Level may be the highest
level that your horse may attain. Some breeds commonly used for western riding are sometimes bred a bit “downhill”, with their withers lower than their haunches. They will have more difficulty transferring their weight to their haunches and lightening their forehand, which is desirable for dressage and jumping.
Never forget though, that form does not always follow function. Two years ago I worked with a gray “Bulldog” type Quarter horse that was built downhill. To look at her just standing, you would not consider her to have much of a future in dressage. She moved beautifully, however, belying her build. She competed successfully in training Level is now working at First Level.
MOVEMENT Watch your horse moving at liberty. Is he fairly agile? Is there a “lift” (floating movement) to his trot? Does he canter easily on both leads? Is he fairly straight when you ride him? Does he feel fairly equal whether he is going to the left or to the right? Does he “track up”? When you watch him walk, does his hind hoof land in the track of his front hoof? All of these are improved with correct dressage training, but it is certainly easier for you and your horse if he has some innate natural ability.
Ground work, such as correct longeing, will help your horse understand his new job. After all, your Western horse has been taught to go in collected gaits, probably undertracking, and quite possibly traveling on his forehand.
If his movement was allowed to be freerer than is sometimes incorrectly seen in the western pleasure show ring, there will be less retraining for you to do. There is still controversy surrounding the Western pleasure horse. Many people realize the way that they should travel- without undue restraint and displaying a true 4 beat walk, two beat jog, and three beat lope. Unfortunately, at times this is still misunderstood by trainers and judges alike. When longeing your horse, gradually ask him to move with more freedom and energy.
YOUR energy is important for this. The longe whip should never be used harshly. It, along with your voice, just encourages the horse to lengthen. It is used as a light brushing motion occasionally on the haunches as needed. It, like a dressage whip, should be used with the same force as you might strike yourself. (or less !)
One your horse understands that it can move freely at all three gaits, you may start riding him in the same manner. You may well discover that this freer movement is harder to sit, and some longe lessons for you on a correctly moving horse will be in order. I have been riding for many years, and always try to fit in as many longe lessons for myself as time permits to improve my riding.
Another factor to consider is the “bridge” that you need to develop between the back of your horse to the front. Review the “Training Pyramid” that was developed first by the German Riding Schools and now accepted throughout the dressage community:
1. Rhythm and regularity
3. Contact (Connection)
With the possible exception of collection, which can destroy the purity of the horse’s gaits if applied too early, consider all of these to be included in your training. The rules are not to be interpreted that you ONLY work on rhythm and that when that is accomplished, you go on to the next step. None of them can be accomplished without the use of the other skills.
Your western show horse may be accustomed to going around a ring on no contact, with a curb bit, and with very little impulsion. There will be little drive from his haunches. If he has been used on some of the recent trail horse, ranch horse, or reining classes, the change should not be as different for him. We have already discussed getting him to push more from behind using longeing and your freer riding. Now this new- found energy has to be “connected”, so that it flows from the engine of the horse through your passive hands to his head and back again- a true circle of energy. For this he needs to
accept your hand and go forward into it. This is not teaching him to pull-it is teaching him to trust his rider’s hands.
Initially you may want to use a Bitless Bridle or side pull, so that he understand that he CAN go forward into pressure without any negative reaction. You may have a horse that was ridden Western incorrectly by his former owners. Some riders actually yank on their horse’s mouth to affect a slower gait and lower head carriage. Even though this is terribly abusive, it is still often seen, and you will have the responsibility of teaching your horse that this will no longer happen to him. A bridle without a bit will help with this, before you eventually switch to a snaffle, which is necessary to show in dressage classes in almost all countries.
A common question that I am asked when working with a western rider is that she is afraid of hurting her horse’s mouth. She is only used to riding with a loose rein, and of course abhors the “yank and snatch” that is sometimes seen in the show ring. One of the ways to be certain that YOU are not pulling is to think of the tension of your shoulders, arms, and hands. There should not be any! The image would be that from your shoulders, through your arms to your hands, through the reins to the horse’s mouth, is a garden hose. Water is running through the hose, but it is always moving FORWARD, toward the horse’s mouth. Half-halts, (rebalancing), are accomplished by first the rider’s body, including her legs, then the hands just agreeing with the initial command.
If you have not ridden with dressage as your ultimate goal, I suggest that you take lessons from a qualified dressage instructor on a school horse that has correct movement.Riding is so much feel, and you cannot be expected to know if your horse is starting to move more correctly if you have not felt it.
You will find that correct dressage training will help any horse in general. It is designed to help a horse become more supple, balanced, and stronger, and therefore have more years of usefulness and a good quality of life. I once heard an announcer say in a presentation at an equine event that “dressage“ was the French work for training, and therefore all horse training is dressage. This is patently untrue. Only training which benefits the horse’s body, mind, and emotional well-being should be considered dressage. This definition would eliminate any so-called dressage training, so matter at what level, which eventually harms the horse.