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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.



Lisa Wieben

Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, riding lessons in the English and Western disciplines, horsemanship clinics, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, mentorship programs, as well as student 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.



Birgit Stutz and Bear’s Samuel Pfingsten

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