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Western Dressage – Suppling exercises for dressage riders – spiral in, leg yield out. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

July 24, 2016

The spiralling circle is a wonderful exercise that can be done by any level of horse or rider. It is a very effective way to get a horse laterally supple and to teach a horse to leg yield. It will also help the horse learn to balance himself. The exercise can be done at any gait, but should be practiced at the walk first to establish correct bend, as well as to help your horse become connected to both the outside turning aids and the inside bending aids. You may use cones for this exercise to help your circle stay round.

The goal of this exercise is to be able to smoothly spiral in from a 20-metre circle to a 10-metre circle, then slowly yielding back out to the 20-metre circle. If your horse is quite young or green, you may only want to go from the 20-metre to a 15-metre in the beginning in order to maintain the balance and rhythm. As your horse’s training progresses and an improved connection, balance, and rhythm are established, you will be able to spiral in further. The spiral may also progress to a point where you can finish the inward spiral with a turn on the forehand or turn on the haunches before moving back out again. The turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches will both be subjects of future articles.

If you drew a circle on the ground, the horse’s ears, spine, and tail would be moving on the line with a nice bend through the rib cage. The alignment of your body will need to follow that line as well, with your eyes looking through the horse’s ears.

Spiralling exercise 1

The horse is nicely bent and tracking up as she comes onto the 10-metre circle in the working jog.

Begin the spiral in by turning your body slightly into the circle to take the horse onto an 18-metre circle. Aid the turn with the outside leg and reins; the outside rein will prevent overbending into the circle, thus controlling the circle size. Remember from our articles on Circles and How to Prevent Mistakes on Circles, if you give too much with the outside rein, the horse will “bulge out” through the outside shoulder. This will become even more evident during the leg yield out.

The inside leg and rein will maintain the flexion on the circle, without pulling with the inside rein. The inside rein will remain slightly off the horse’s neck with soft contact with the bit. Try to keep your rein cues as light as you can and ride the spiral more from seat and legs. Have the seat turning in as the horse’s barrel swings out of the circle and the outside leg pressing as the horse’s barrel swings into the circle. The inside leg will remain just behind the girth and will maintain the bend. Continue the spiral in to a 16-, 14-, 12-, and 10-metre circle. Establish each circle before spiralling to the next to give the horse a chance to maintain rhythm, relaxation and connection within each new bend. As the circle gets smaller, the horse’s bend will become greater and the rider’s body will need to turn more to help maintain the horse’s balance.

To begin the spiral back out to the 20-metre circle, the horse’s body must remain on the bend of each circle as it moves out laterally, so the legs begin to cross over in leg-yield steps. If the horse loses the bend he will then move out of the circle too quickly and no lateral steps will be felt. To ask the horse to leg yield over, the rider will maintain a slight flexion with the inside rein. The outside rein can either open slightly if the horse is a little slow to move over, or it will maintain a light connection with the neck and shoulder so the horse does not move out too quickly. The rider’s inside leg (positioned just behind the girth), will press as the horse’s barrel swings out of the circle and release when the horse’s barrel swings into the circle. When the horse’s barrel swings out of the circle, this is also when the inside front leg is leaving the ground and is in position to cross over the outside leg. In order to maintain impulsion while spiralling in and out, keep your seat following the movement and rhythm of the horse. Sometimes we can become so focused on what our legs and hands are doing that we forget to follow with the seat. This can create a loss of rhythm in the horse and the spiral will not flow as well. Spiralling out is the first step of leg yielding, as it is much easier to teach a horse to leg yield on a circle than on a straight line. The bend of the circle makes it easier to maintain suppleness, rhythm, and speed through the movement.

Spiralling exercise 2

Beginning the leg yield out on the circle. You can see how the horse is stepping further under her body with her inside hind leg.

Once you and your horse have mastered the spiral exercise at the walk, increase the difficulty by doing the exercise at a working jog, and eventually at a lope. This exercise at the lope is considerably more difficult and should only be done once the horse is well balanced in the lope on a 20-metre and 15-metre circle and has worked on the leg yield exercise in the jog both on the circle and on a straight line. Once you develop these exercises with your horse you will begin to see how much more supple and connected he can be.

This article is the sixth one in a series of articles on Western dressage and is a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz. The articles appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis.

Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Chris Irwin Platinum Certified Trainer, and Equine Canada Western Competition Coach. She works with youth, adult amateurs and professionals as well as teaching a local 4H club at her facility near Bowden, AB. Western and English dressage has become her main focus, but many of her students compete in open competitions as well as obstacle challenges. Lisa has also added Somatics to help her students maintain and create further body awareness as it works to release muscle patterns in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and repetitive movements that can be work related. Getting riders in correct balance helps horses develop correct balance. www.mountainviewtrainingstables.com

Birgit Stutz is a Chris Irwin Gold Certified Trainer and Coach and offers horse training, riding lessons, clinics, workshops, camps for kids and adults, as well as working student and mentorship programs at Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage. www.fallingstarranch.ca.

Western Dressage – Common errors on the circle. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

July 18, 2016

In the last blog post, we talked about how to ride a correct 20-metre circle. This month we will be talking about the many common errors while riding a circle.

A correctly ridden circle should start and end at the same point and be round, not oval or egg-shaped, which can be caused by the horse falling in on the circle, drifting out on the circle, or being ridden too deep into the corners. While on a circle the horse must maintain his rhythm in whichever gait is called for.

A horse may drift out on the circle if the rider isn’t maintaining contact with the outside aids (leg and rein). A rider not turning with her body can also cause a horse to evade out of the circle. When a rider turns her body with the bend of the horse, the rider’s outside leg/thigh will be closer to the horse. The rider’s hands will also follow the body, opening more with the inside rein and closing against the neck/shoulder with the outside rein. The outside aids create a wall for the horse to follow.

The horse should be evenly bent through his body from head to tail. However, it is relatively common to see a horse travelling on a circle while being too straight. This may be caused by the rider’s body not turning on the circle, causing the horse to stay straighter in his body (see picture 2). It could also be due to a horse that is not supple through his body.

Common_errors_2

The rider’s body is not turning on the circle causing the horse to stay straighter in her body. As you can see by the arrows, both the horse and the rider are not bent on the circle.

Another common mistake is if the horse is overbent through his neck (folded) but straight throughout the rest of his body. This is generally caused by a rider pulling too much with her inside hand and not supporting enough with the outside rein. This causes the horse’s shoulder to ‘bulge out’ on the circle as the bend of the horse is mainly through the neck instead of through his body (see picture 1).

Common_errors_1

The rider is pulling too much with the inside hand and not supporting enough with the outside rein. The horse is over-bent in the neck, causing the shoulder to “bulge out” on the circle. The bend of the horse is mainly through  the neck, instead of through the whole body.

If the rider is leaning into the circle and pulling too hard with the inside rein, but has a supporting outside rein, the horse’s shoulder may not be bulging as much, but it can cause the horse to tilt his head (see picture 3). Head tilt can be created by too much “pull” from either rein, along with a supporting rein. The horse should have his nose in line with the poll. If the nose is slightly to the left or right of this line, then the horse would have a noticeable tilt to his head.

Common_errors_3

The rider is leaning into the circle and pulling too hard with the inside rein. The outside rein is supporting so the shoulder isn’t bulging as much, but this has caused the mare to tilt her head.

A horse travelling on a circle with his haunches swinging out is often caused by the rider not using her outside leg to prevent the swinging out of the haunches or the rider’s inside leg has moved back causing the haunches to push out of the circle.

Another common mistake is when the horse is travelling counterbent on the circle, instead of in true bend. A counter bent horse will be bent opposite to the direction of travel. This can be created by too much pull on the outside rein or by a horse that needs more suppling to be able to maintain a true bend.

Rider position is very important in riding circles. If a rider is leaning into the circle, this will cause the horse to lean into the circle as well. The horse may push against the rider’s inside leg, making it more difficult for the rider to keep the horse out on the circle. If the rider picked up her inside shoulder and put a little more weight to the outside seatbone, the horse would maintain the circle much easier (see picture 4). A rider collapsing through the rib cage, leaning to the side, or turning from the shoulders only, will throw a horse off balance.

Common_errors_4

The rider is leaning into the circle with the outside hand slightly higher than the inside hand. The horse has a slight lean into the circle. This can cause the horse to push against the rider’s inside leg, making it more difficult for the rider to keep the horse out on the 20-metre circle. If the rider picked up her inside shoulder and put a little more weight to the outside the horse would maintain the circle much easier.

This article is the fifth one in a series of articles on Western dressage and is a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz. The articles appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis.

Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Chris Irwin Platinum Certified Trainer, and Equine Canada Western Competition Coach. She works with youth, adult amateurs and professionals as well as teaching a local 4H club at her facility near Bowden, AB. Western and English dressage has become her main focus, but many of her students compete in open competitions as well as obstacle challenges. Lisa has also added Somatics to help her students maintain and create further body awareness as it works to release muscle patterns in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and repetitive movements that can be work related. Getting riders in correct balance helps horses develop correct balance. www.mountainviewtrainingstables.com

Birgit Stutz is a Chris Irwin Gold Certified Trainer and Coach and offers horse training, riding lessons, clinics, workshops, camps for kids and adults, as well as working student and mentorship programs at Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage. www.fallingstarranch.ca.

 

Western Dressage – Arena figures: How to ride a proper circle. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

June 24, 2016

Why do we ride arena figures?

Arena figures (or school figures) are a set of movements that are ridden in a dressage arena and make up the basis of all dressage test movements. But even if you are never going to ride a dressage test, riding arena figures gives structure to your training sessions by giving you a set of exercises that benefit both you and your horse.

Riding arena figures correctly helps develop lateral flexibility, suppleness, balance and straightness in your horse. Straightness means that a horse is straight on straight lines and bent on bending lines. Riding arena figures accurately will also help your horse become ambidextrous, meaning he can bend as easily to the right as he does to the left (bend refers to the horse’s lateral bend through the ribcage). Furthermore, riding arena figures develops obedience and responsiveness to the rider’s aids and helps assess both your horse’s training level as well as your own skill level.

Pic 1 circles

This four-year-old mare is learning correct alignment on a 20-m circle and shows a lovely degree of bend while the rider maintains correct position. (Photo by Rebecca Wieben)

The 20-metre circle

The 20-metre circle is usually the first school figure taught to novice riders and green or young horses. It is the most basic dressage movement and also the most important training figure as it is a great test of the horse’s suppleness and the rider’s ability to keep the horse between the aids.

The 20-metre circle fits into both a small (20×40 metre) as well as a standard (20×60 metre) dressage arena and allows the rider to use the letters on the arena walls to determine if the circle is the correct size and shape.

The 20-metre circle should always be round, not egg-shaped or pear-shaped or oval. This means that the circle touches each arena wall, or point on center line, only at a single point, for no more than one or two strides. There are no straight lines on a circle.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But riding a perfect circle takes a lot of practice. There are two aspects to riding the circle: how the horse is being ridden on a bending line as well as how the figure itself is being ridden geometrically.

A good way to start is by placing cones around the circle as visual reference, starting out at a school letter (e.g. A or C), which gives the rider an exact place to start and finish the circle. We prefer to mark the four quadrants of the circle. So if you’re starting out at A or C, your second reference point is a point on the wall four metres past the corner letter, not the corner letter itself. The third reference point is the spot where the rider crosses the centreline. The fourth reference point is on the other long side, four metres before the corner letter. A good tip to riding an accurate 20-metre circle is to always look toward the next reference point. Looking too far around the circle can cause your weight to shift to the inside and the horse to want to fall into the circle.

Pic 2 circles

This picture shows inside rein slightly off the neck, outside rein lightly on the neck, with the rider’s body turning in the direction of the circle. (Photo by Rebecca Wieben)

Rider aids/positioning

When a horse is travelling on a circle, it should be bending into the direction of the circle, with his body equally bent through his entire body from poll to tail, and his inside hind leg more engaged. In order to ride a horse on a bending line, the rider must know how to bend the horse correctly. For example, if you are riding a circle to the left, your aids should be as follows:

Weight your inside (left) seat bone to encourage the horse to engage his inside hind leg. Draw your left hip back slightly and allow your right hip to move forward. Put your inside (left) leg at the cinch, asking your horse to bend around it as well as to maintain the activity of his inside hind leg. Place your outside (right) leg about one to two inches behind the cinch to prevent the horse’s hindquarters from swinging out. Gently ask for flexion to the inside with your inside (left) rein. This rein should remain slightly off the neck and you should just see your horse’s inside eye and nostril.

Your outside (right) rein is your supporting rein and needs to be kept steady in order to limit the degree of bend in the horse’s neck. The outside rein also helps turning your horse’s shoulders in and should be closer to the neck. The smaller the circle, the more the outside rein will be needed to turn the horse’s shoulders.

In order to bend and turn a horse correctly, we need both inside and outside aids to work together, with your inside aids bending the horse and your outside aids turning him.

It is important to remember that while riding a circle you should always be turning your body from your centre (core), while your eyes are tracing the line of the circle a few strides ahead of the horse toward the next point on the circle. Every dressage test will have circles so make this a part of your regular practice.

In our next article, we will be discussing common errors on the circle.

This article is the fourth one in a series of articles on Western dressage and is a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz. The articles appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis.

Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Chris Irwin Platinum Certified Trainer, and Equine Canada Western Competition Coach. She works with youth, adult amateurs and professionals as well as teaching a local 4H club at her facility near Bowden, AB. Western and English dressage has become her main focus, but many of her students compete in open competitions as well as obstacle challenges. Lisa has also added Somatics to help her students maintain and create further body awareness as it works to release muscle patterns in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and repetitive movements that can be work related. Getting riders in correct balance helps horses develop correct balance. www.mountainviewtrainingstables.com

Birgit Stutz is a Chris Irwin Gold Certified Trainer and Coach and offers horse training, riding lessons, clinics, workshops, camps for kids and adults, as well as working student and mentorship programs at Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage. www.fallingstarranch.ca.

Western Dressage – The gaits of a Western dressage horse. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

April 17, 2016

A common question that comes up about Western dressage is, “What are the various gaits of a Western dressage horse?” Gaits are the footfalls of the horse. In Western dressage, the basic gaits are walk (four-beat), jog (two-beat with a time of suspension), and lope (three-beat with a time of suspension after the third beat). The lope can be either on the right lead or the left lead. Within each gait, there are variations, which will be explained below.

The degree of difficulty of the gaits depends on which level you are training or competing in and follows the dressage training scale, which builds upon previous levels. For example, the collected gaits are only developed after the horse has consistently shown good rhythm and relaxation in the working gaits and is beginning to show more engagement of the hind end.

In the working gaits the horse’s nose should be in front of the vertical, with the poll as the highest point. The horse should show even, balanced movement. In the walk and the jog the horse’s hind feet should reach into his front foot steps. The rider should maintain a light, soft, contact with the horse’s mouth, allowing the horse to move his head naturally, and with a relaxed back. In the lope the horse will be marked on the suppleness of his back, engagement of the hindquarters, and maintaining his rhythm in a balanced frame. At the working gaits, there should be an obvious push from the hindquarters as the hind legs step actively up under the horse. The working jog may be ridden posting or sitting, however, it is recommended to sit the jog in level 1.

Mav working jog

Working jog: poll is higher than the withers. Horse could have the nose slightly more in front of the vertical for Intro/Basic level. – Photo Rebecca Wieben

The free gaits are ridden with a light contact and show the horse’s relaxation as he is allowed to stretch forward and down with his head and neck with his nose reaching in front of the vertical with the poll slightly lower than the withers. The horse should be balanced and maintain the rhythm of the working gait as he stretches and lengthens his stride slightly. In the walk and jog the horse’s hind feet should step in front of the front foot prints. The free jog may be ridden posting or sitting until level 2. The purpose of the free gaits is to show that the horse can lengthen his frame and strides with light contact without rushing or losing his balance, and stay in control. A loose rein is acceptable as well. The obedience of the horse may determine the amount of contact. If the horse is drifty or “looky”, the rider may need more contact to maintain the correct flexion and position on the circle.

Mav free jog

Free jog:  horse is reaching forward and down, rounding the back and maintaining the same rhythm with a slightly longer stride. – Photo Rebecca Wieben

Lengthening of stride is introduced in level 1. The horse must maintain his balance as he moves freely forward in a longer stride, covering more ground while maintaining the same tempo as in the working jog. The horse must not appear to be rushing, which can sometimes happen if the horse is not balanced and gets heavy on the forehand. The tempo of the lengthening will be the same as the working gaits, but a longer stride will be shown. The horse’s nose should be slightly in front of the vertical with the poll as the highest point. Lengthening of the jog may be ridden posting or sitting until level 3, when it must be ridden sitting.

Legacy free walk

Free walk: this horse is demonstrating the reach needed for a free walk. You can see how his hind step is reaching past his front foot step.l His neck is stretched forward and down, allowing the horse to stretch through his body from back to front. – Photo Rebecca Wieben

Collected gaits will show the horse moving with more of an uphill tendency with more engagement from the hind legs. The stride of the collected gaits will be shorter as the horse puts more energy “up” as opposed to the lengthening of stride, which is more forward. The horse’s nose will be close to vertical and the horse will be in contact, or “on the bit”, but showing self-carriage, meaning the hocks are more flexed, the hind legs reaching further under his belly, and the horse lifting his back and shoulders and raising and arching his neck. The collected jog must be ridden seated. Collected gaits are developed through lateral movements such as shoulder-in and haunches-in, for example, which are introduced in level 2 and will be the subject of future articles.

Reno collected lope

Collected lope: engaged behind with the forehand coming up. The stride will be shorter than a working lope as the horse develops more engagement of the hocks. – Photo Rebecca Wieben

The gaits of a Western dressage horse should not exhibit the slow gaits and low head carriage of a Western pleasure horse, and the horse should not be on the forehand. Through correct training, the horse’s three gaits will be enhanced and improved. As well, correct training will develop the horse’s balance and strength, which allows him to carry his rider with ease while maintaining correct rhythm and an even tempo.

Reno collected lope with rein release

Rein release at the lope: the horse should maintain the same frame as the collected lope while working on a loose rein. – Photo Rebecca Wieben

Western dressage is a fun way to develop your western horse through the training scale. Each level provides goals to achieve and by developing your horse through each level you will build both your horse’s confidence and your own.

This article is the third one in a series of articles on Western dressage and is a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz. The articles appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis.

Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Chris Irwin Platinum Certified Trainer, and Equine Canada Western Competition Coach. She works with youth, adult amateurs and professionals as well as teaching a local 4H club at her facility near Bowden, AB. Western and English dressage has become her main focus, but many of her students compete in open competitions as well as obstacle challenges. Lisa has also added Somatics to help her students maintain and create further body awareness as it works to release muscle patterns in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and repetitive movements that can be work related. Getting riders in correct balance helps horses develop correct balance. www.mountainviewtrainingstables.com

Birgit Stutz is a Chris Irwin Gold Certified Trainer and Coach and offers horse training, riding lessons, clinics, workshops, camps for kids and adults, as well as working student and mentorship programs at Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage. www.fallingstarranch.ca.

Western Dressage – How to get started. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

April 2, 2016

You are interested in Western Dressage and want to try it, but you aren’t sure where to begin? We’re here to get you on the path to a fun new adventure.

In Canada, the Western Style Dressage Association of Canada is the governing body of Western Dressage. Within WSDAC there are chapters which offer shows, clinics, and fun days to help people learn more about the sport and support members in their training. Provinces and territories may have more than one chapter. To find a chapter in your area visit www.westernstyledressage.ca. The professional directory on the WSDAC website will also help you find a Western dressage coach in your area. There are more chapters being set up as the sport of Western dressage grows and more trainers being listed, however English dressage coaches are also willing to help you get started if you do not have a Western dressage coach in your area. The WSDAC website also lists the rules and tests.

Working_jog

A Quarter Horse showing working jog with an even rhythm and light contact.

As a member of the National Association you may earn points toward National year-end awards at approved chapter and dressage shows. Or you may decide to compete only within your chapter and only pay your chapter membership. Many of the English dressage shows are offering Western dressage classes as well. These may be listed as “TOC”, or Test of Choice, allowing you to choose the test you want to ride when you enter the show.

In British Columbia, Western dressage is included in the Horse Council BC rulebook for provincially sanctioned competitions. Western dressage classes have been included in the Heritage Qualifiers as well as at the Heritage Finals. The Senior Games have also included Western dressage classes.

Another fun way to try Western dressage is through WSDAC’s virtual show program at http://www.westerndressageshow.com. In 2015, there were four shows, culminating in a year-end award program. This is an especially great program for those who do not live near a chapter area. Find a suitable ring of the correct size and video the given test, using a caller reading the test, if you like. You then post your video on youtube, submit the link and your payment, and the test will be judged, just like at a show, by one of WSDAC’s approved judges. Results will be posted online and you will receive your test sheet with judge’s comments in the mail. Ribbons are awarded as well!

Working_lope

Working lope, showing poll higher than the withers, with an engaged hind end.

But even if you aren’t interested in showing, Western Dressage is a fun way to try something new with your horse. Through the progressive work, your horse will become safer, more versatile and pleasurable as its flexibility, suppleness, balance and fitness increase. You will also have a more willing, attentive, obedient and responsive mount as the confidence and trust between horse and rider builds. And following the training scale and working through the levels gives you guidelines, incentives and goals.

This article is the second one in a series of articles on Western dressage and is a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz. The articles appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis.

Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Chris Irwin Platinum Certified Trainer, and Equine Canada Western Competition Coach.  She works with youth, adult amateurs and professionals as well as teaching a local 4H club at her facility near Bowden, AB. Western and English dressage has become her main focus, but many of her students compete in open competitions as well as obstacle challenges. Lisa has also added Somatics to help her students maintain and create further body awareness as it works to release muscle patterns in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and repetitive movements that can be work related. Getting riders in correct balance helps horses develop correct balance. www.mountainviewtrainingstables.com

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Birgit Stutz is a Chris Irwin Gold Certified Trainer and Coach and offers horse training, riding lessons, clinics, workshops, camps for kids and adults, as well as working student and mentorship programs at Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage. www.fallingstarranch.ca.

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Western Dressage – What is it and how will it develop your horse as an athlete? By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

February 19, 2016

The term Western Dressage has become increasingly popular over the last few years. But what exactly is Western Dressage? And is it for you and your horse?

Dressage is a French term and is most commonly translated to mean “training”. It is a systematic, progressive training method used to develop the horse’s natural athletic abilities of balance, strength, and flexibility. There are no shortcuts to training dressage. A dressage horse needs to be developed progressively through the levels, each skill set building upon the last. Think of dressage as cardio, flexibility, and strength training for your horse. As the horse becomes increasingly stronger, more flexible and supple, the more it can handle in the next stages of training. This also benefits the riders, providing specific goals, as they can see what the next step is and what will need to be developed before progressing to the next level.

Western Dressage isn’t simply English dressage ridden in a Western saddle. While the two are similar in many ways, Western dressage is distinctly different with its own movements designed for a Western working horse.

However, just as in English dressage, Western dressage horses are developed progressively so that there are no gaps in the training. This means a rider must establish a solid foundation first, so that the horse has a firm understanding and grounding within each level before moving on to the next.

Dressage training, including Western dressage, follows the German training scale, which includes the development of rhythm and regularity; relaxation; and suppleness, before moving on to establishing contact, impulsion, straightness, and eventually collection.

Any horse, no matter its breed, age or purpose, and any rider, can benefit from dressage training. Dressage not only develops a horse’s flexibility, balance and suppleness, it also creates attentiveness, obedience, and responsiveness to the rider’s aids. Furthermore, as the horse progresses, it will develop more engagement from the hind quarters, which creates lightness on the forehand. The benefit to the rider is improved harmony and balance.

Dressage also greatly improves a rider’s horsemanship skills and builds confidence and trust between horse and rider. Properly trained horses will live longer, stay healthier, stronger and fitter.

How can Western dressage benefit other Western disciplines?

The Western dressage work this recreational horse has received has helped him become much more responsive and balanced, with a more consistent rhythm. You can see the lightness of his forehand as he goes through the poles.

Whether the rider chooses to continue exclusively in Western dressage, wishes to focus on other Western competitions, or simply enjoys trail riding, all horses and riders can benefit from dressage training.

If you are a recreational rider and enjoy trail riding on a safe, pleasurable, versatile horse, Western dressage is for you! Dressage training will help your horse to become stronger, more balanced and flexible, and create an attentive, obedient, responsive mount.

If you compete in trail classes, you will need a horse that is able to move smoothly over and through obstacles. If a horse is too much on the forehand, it will be more likely to tick rails and be less maneuverable through intricate patterns.

To have true, quality movement and the slowness required in Western pleasure classes, a horse will not only need to be balanced and relaxed, but also working through its body from back to front. As the hind legs track further under the horse’s body, the back will lift and the horse will be able to maintain a slower rhythm with a natural length of stride. Quite often you will see pleasure horses performing a jog with the hind legs barely tracking up or a noticeable head bob in the lope. Both of these are indications of a horse that is not only on the forehand, but is also not engaged behind.

If barrel racing is your chosen discipline, Western Dressage training can reinforce the maneuverability and balance needed to bend around a barrel. An unbalanced horse will drop its shoulder and lose the engagement from its hindquarters through a turn. A horse that goes into the turn with its hind end engaged will not lose energy as it pushes off and out of the turn. The horse will be like a spring – coiling the energy, then releasing it forward.

For all these events and disciplines, as well as others, dressage helps the horse develop a well-rounded set of skills in a consistent, progressive way. The ultimate goal is collection, which is at the top of the dressage training scale. True collection takes time to develop, as all the other elements of the training scale – rhythm, relaxation, light contact, impulsion, and straightness – need to be achieved before the horse can be balanced in a collected frame.

 This article is the first one in a series of articles on Western dressage and is a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz. The articles appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis.

Lisa Wieben is a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Chris Irwin Platinum Certified Trainer, and Equine Canada Western Competition Coach. She works with youth, adult amateurs and professionals as well as teaching a local 4H club at her facility near Bowden, AB. Western and English dressage has become her main focus, but many of her students compete in open competitions as well as obstacle challenges. Lisa has also added Somatics to help her students maintain and create further body awareness as it works to release muscle patterns in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and repetitive movements that can be work related. Getting riders in correct balance helps horses develop correct balance. www.mountainviewtrainingstables.com

 

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Lisa Wieben

Birgit Stutz is a Chris Irwin Gold Certified Trainer and Coach and offers horse training, riding lessons, clinics, workshops, camps for kids and adults, as well as working student and mentorship programs at Falling Star Ranch in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage. www.fallingstarranch.ca.

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Birgit Stutz and Bear’s Samuel Pfingsten

Equine body language (part 2): The big picture

January 10, 2014

In a previous blog entry, I talked about how horses communicate with one another and with humans.

The ability to understand what our horses are telling us – and respond appropriately – makes the relationship safer and more rewarding for both horse and human.

While it is important to correctly read each individual signal the horse sends to you, in order for you to fully understand what the horse is telling you and how strong his message is, you need to consider all the signals, from tail to head, together. As well, if you want your horse to both respect and trust you, don’t ignore any of his “messages”.  Since horses are prey animals whose lives depend on an extremely high level of awareness, they are experts at constantly testing each other to find out where they stand in the herd hierarchy, and that includes us humans.

Understanding the big picture of the horse’s body language is of utmost importance because without that understanding you cannot give the appropriate response. Most horse people know that they have to respond to the horse’s message immediately in order for their response to be effective. However, what is equally important is where you apply your response and with what type and amount of energy.

Ball 1

No matter what we do with horses, it is important that we read their body language all the time. This horse started out being afraid of things touching his body. In the first picture, he is still fearful of the ball. He is holding his head high, his body is braced, and his tail clamped.

Ball 2

In the second picture he started to relax, his tail is lifted and curled, and his head is low. The brace in his body is gone.

For example, if your horse turns his hind end to you, it is up to you, the trainer (remember, every time you are with a horse, you are training the horse, for better or for worse), to figure out whether the horse is being disrespectful and defiant, or if the horse is doing it out of self-defense and/or fear because you have, in fact, asked or caused the horse to do so. In order to know how hard of a push is needed for that particular horse in that particular situation, you need to look at the rest of his body. If, for example, his tail is clamped tight between his hind legs, which is a sign of fear, don’t push him too hard or he won’t trust you. A low to level flick of the whip towards his hind end is most likely more than enough energy. On the other hand, if his tail is wringing, which is a sign of aggression, you’d better push him a little harder, or he won’t respect you.

Another good example is a horse’s head. If he flips his head indignantly into the air, he is challenging your leadership and needs to be pushed away. If the horse’s head is twirling, which is a sign of aggression, a strong push from you is needed to let him know that you don’t put up with his ignorant attitude. The push, however, should be aimed at the horse’s body, never at his head. Sending impulsive (pushing) energy towards the horse’s head and neck is bullish behaviour and only causes stress, anger, fear, defiance, and/or sullenness.

Tarp

This horse is ok with having a tarp draped over his back. His tail is curled and relaxed, his ribcage is politely bent away from me, his head is low, and his ears are forward.

To know what type of energy and how much energy to apply to the appropriate body part at any given moment takes a lot of observation and experience.

Remember, if your horse is being disrespectful, make sure his rude behaviour wasn’t caused by you in the first place. Often horses’ actions are actually re-actions to our own body language and how we are working with them. So if you are trying to fix what the horse sees you as causing in the first place, it will be difficult to earn his trust and respect. Horses don’t know what we don’t know. Often they don’t know we have made a mistake, they just think we did something offensive or weren’t paying attention. For example if your horse is reading your body language as telling him to come closer to you, but you thought you were telling your horse to stay away from you and therefore punish him for coming to you, this will lead to confusion and possibly fear or rude behaviour from your horse (cause and effect).

Depending on your horse’s character, passive, passive-aggressive or aggressive, he may challenge your leadership in several ways. An aggressive horse may fight you by kicking, biting, striking, rearing or pressing in against you to push you, while a passive horse may be stubborn, evasive or lazy. A passive horse may also just run away.

If you have ever watched a great horseman (or horsewoman) communicating with a horse, you were most likely amazed at the subtle, almost unnoticeable human body language. We have to remember, however, that, in order to achieve this high level of communication, it takes a lot of awareness and observation on the human part, and a willingness to listen to and focus on the human on the horse’s part. This, again, means having earned the horse’s trust and respect first. It may also mean that at first we may have to “shout” with our body language in order to get the horse to focus and listen. “Shouting” with correct body language produces not only much better results than does using physical force, and it also proactively prevents a great deal of “challenge” from the horse. Correct timing is of utmost importance with body language. For example, you can push a horse’s shoulder back onto the rail of the round pen by randomly hitting the horse’s front end somewhere with a rope or a whip, and the horse will most likely go back to the rail, but his frame will likely be inverted (high-headed and hollow-backed) and not aligned (his hind end will likely drop in). On the other hand, a correctly timed (when the horse is physically able to move the part you want moved) precise push to the point of the shoulder will typically move the horse back to the rail more quickly and often without inversion.

If you learn to consistently use the proper energy, at the right time, at the right spot (body part), with the right amount of energy, your horse will eventually respect and trust you and be willing to focus and listen to you. This, however, requires consistency in your actions and body language and awareness to constantly reading the horse’s body language and responding to it appropriately and immediately.

Focus

This mare is nicely focused on me. Her head is low, her ears are forward, and her body is relaxed. She is in a frame of mind where she can learn.

Remember, a horse’s body and mind are linked to the point of being one. Horses don’t pretend or lie. So if you are able to read a horse’s body language, you are actually reading his mind and know what he feels.

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