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Western Dressage – Planning your riding session after time off. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

June 28, 2020

As we begin a slow return to activities, many of our readers may not have been able to be with their horses during this pandemic. If your boarding stable reduced the amount of time you can spend with your horse or kept you away to protect their staff, then chances are your horse has had a reduced work schedule.

As you begin to work with your horse again remember that just like for the rider, time off means deterioration in strength, stamina, and suppleness. Also take into account that cardiovascular fitness is the easiest to regain, it is the muscles and soft tissues, ligaments and tendons, that take the most time to regain previous condition. In fact, tendons and ligaments can take twice as long as the muscular system of the horse. If you have been following along with our ground work series you will have exercises that will help bring your horse back to a level of symmetry and strength in preparation for under saddle work. You can also add in lunging to improve cardiovascular fitness. These exercises can become your warm-up on some days as you are getting back in the saddle.

Begin your back to work schedule with plenty of walking and trotting. Ride out if you can or work lightly in the arena. Once a degree of fitness has been built up over several weeks, then you can start varying your workouts and give the horse plenty of rest breaks between more vigorous work within your workout and during the week. One day you can alternate work over poles and then allow the horse to stretch long and low. This will have the horse work the abdominal muscles and lift his back as he goes over the poles (providing his head does not elevate) and will also allow him to stretch and relax those back muscles as he goes long and low. Another day work on lateral work – leg yields, shoulder-in haunches-in. This develops strength, connection, and symmetry in the body. Begin with a few steps in the walk, then build back up to trot. Build up to adding a transitions day where you work on all the transitions that will be required in your dressage test or event. Working on upward and downward transitions will help build connection to the rider’s aids as well as improved push power in the horse, especially when working quick transitions – working trot to a few steps of walk, back to a trot, or when doing transitions within a gait, working trot to lengthen trot, back to working trot (do not add lengthening work until your horse has regained much of his strength and stamina – remember those tendons and ligaments take longer to rebuild). Add in a trail ride or an outside fun day. Always remember the horse requires 48 hours between vigorous workouts for the muscles to repair and rebuild. A light work day, like a trail ride or light lunging, will do much more good than another heavy work day or even a day off.

So with all that in mind here is an exercise that brings together elements of dressage and fitness building that you can add to your routine once a week after your horse is ready to resume work.

Begin by setting up 4-5 raised poles set at 3 feet (.9 m) apart with the middle pole set at A (the middle of the short side).

1) Start by tracking right over the raised poles (horse will lift his back and engage core muscles).

Pic 1 back to work

Raised walk-overs

2) Proceed straight ahead. At the corner move into a working trot and perform a loop either to the quarter line or the centre line (riding a loop develops the horse’s bend off the rider’s leg.) As the horse goes through the first corner the rider will use the inside leg to ask the horse to bend into the corner as the rider’s body begins to turn into the direction of the turn. The body will have to turn more to aim for the centre line than it would to aim for the quarter line. The outside rein and upper inner thigh of the outside leg will also help with the turn. Just before the center of the line you will start to use your left leg and right rein to ask for the change of bend as your body starts to turn back toward the wall. As you begin to move into the corner ask the horse to bend around your inside leg and support with your outside rein.

Pic 2 back to work

Riding the loop. Notice how she is bending in the direction of the wall as she finishes the turn through centre.

3) Turn down the centre line (or quarter line if you horse is younger or at a lower level). Ride straight for a stride, then leg yield toward the wall aiming to reach the wall by F(the end corner). Use your outside aids to maintain the forward energy and straightness of the leg yield. Resist the urge to over-bend with the inside rein.

Pic 3 back to work

Leg yield. The mare is crossing over nicely behind in this step.

4) As you go through the corner develop your working lope. Ride through the end and down to E, halfway down the long side (if your horse needs a little help with balance you can develop the lope between F and C, then lope a 20-metre circle, bringing the horse back to a working trot through the next corner. Continue to H for the halt.)

Pic 4 back to work

Coming into the top of the loop. The mare is bending well through the turn and the rider is turning her body in the direction of the turn maintaining a supporting outside(left) rein.

5) Transition to the working trot.

6) Halt through the walk (lower levels) or Halt at H. Back 4-8 steps.

After completing the exercise give your horse a 5-minute walk break, then repeat in the opposite direction.

This exercise covers a lot of dressage movements and will give you an idea where the horse may need more work. That can be your topic for your next work session. Enjoy and happy riding!

Pictures: Horse You Otta Have Me, rider Lisa Wieben. Photos by Gary Wieben.

For a video on this exercise, check out

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles that appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis. The articles are a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz.

Lisa Wieben is a versatile and exceptional riding coach, balancing her skills as a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Equine Canada Western Competition Coach, and Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer. Currently specializing in Western and English Dressage, she trains youth, adult amateurs, and professionals as well as coaching a local 4H group at her facility near Bowden/Olds, AB. Through dressage and foundational training she helps riders of all disciplines create stronger partnerships with their horses. Also, as a Hanna Somatic Instructor and Practitioner in Training, Lisa works with riders, in class or privately, learning movement exercises that target specific muscle issues in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and overuse. Her approach, using Dressage, Centered Riding, Irwin Insights principles, and Somatics, all come together to develop a balanced rider and a balanced horse.

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, mentorship programs, intensive horsemanship courses, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, as well as working student programs at Falling Star Ranch Academy of Foundational Horsemanship 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, biomechanics, as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage.

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