Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 5/7/98; 2:00:00PM.

Reschooling The Western Horse For Dressage

Can you take the West out of the Western-Trained horse?
You bet, says this dressage-grounded AQHA Superhorse trainer.

By Lynn Palm Pittion-Rossillon with Elizabeth M Hoekstra

Dressage judges are seeing spots before their eyes - Appaloosa spots, that is, and Paints, Palominos, and Quarter Horses, too. With the rise in popularity of both dressage and the "Western" breeds, it's inevitable that some Western riders will catch the dressage bug.

Perhaps you're one of those riders - or perhaps you're a confirmed dressage enthusiast whose mount didn't exactly grow up in a genteel white-polos-and-saddlepads environment. If your horse is more accustomed to jogging and loping, or turning on a dime and sliding to a stop, can he learn to half-halt and do leg-yields? The answer depends on the individual animal, says Lynn Palm Pittion-Rossillon, trainer and rider of the recently retired American Quarter Horse Association's two-time Superhorse, Rugged Lark. (Our October 1997 issue "Salute"-ed the pair and described the dressage education on which Lynn built her training career.)

Clues From His Career

Horses who excel at certain of the Western disciplines simply aren't suitable for dressage. In Western pleasure, for example, winning horses tend to move in slow, tiny steps on the forehand, their heads at or below the level of their withers. Indeed, many winning Western-pleasure horses are croup-high and withers-low - the exact opposite of the conformation that facilitates engagement and free shoulder movement for a light-on-the-forehand dressage frame. But that's the bad news. The good news is that a number of similarities exist between certain other Western disciplines and dressage.

Probably the easiest Western horse to reschool for dressage is a skilled competitive-trail horse. A trail class includes maneuvers similar to those in a lower-level dressage test: turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches, controlled backing, lateral work, and exacting up and down transitions.

Horses trained in Western riding, horsemanship, and reining are fairly adaptable to dressage, too. For example, the Western pivot, in which the horse pivots on his inside hind leg, changes to turn on the haunches in dressage - through the rider's inside leg directing him to stay "forward" while his hind feet continue to step around throughout the turn.

First Step: Build Him From The Ground Up

You have to get very elementary when you begin the reschooling process with your Western horse. Even if he's been under saddle for years, start with ground work to establish the relationship you want with him under saddle. I recommend working him in hand, as I do all my horses; it builds trust, manners, and obedience. Make sure he reliably walks, trots, stops, squares up his legs at a halt, backs, turns on the forehand and on the haunches, and yields sideways in each direction while he's being led, from either side. After you've established that he understands and obeys these commands in hand - and respects your space - move to the next step: longeing and long-lining.

Long-lining is such an underused, but incredibly effective, tool. Basically, it enables you to erase your horse's previous training history and build a whole new concept. And the most important concept you'll need to instill in your Western mount is "forward." Most Western horses are trained to stay "behind the frame" and not take overstriding steps: They don't march; they shuffle. Longeing and long-lining give you the opportunity to drive your horse forward from behind. You can teach him the various "go forward" commands using a combination of your voice and the unmounted driving aids, a longe whip, and the position of your body relative to his (stand so you form the apex of a triangle, with his head and hindquarters forming the other two points) - as you longe or longe-line him. I work in a large enclosed area so I can include straight lines and various-sized circles.

To me, ground work is a barometer of how much I'll be able to ask of my horse when I start to ride him. I look for four things during the longeing and long-lining sessions: Is he coming over the top of his back? Is he tracking up? Is he willing to come into my hand? Is he moving forward with relaxation and elasticity? Relaxation is the key: After your horse starts to relax in the ground work, you can begin to build the idea of going forward.

Overcoming Curb Conditioning

In reschooling a Western-trained horse for dressage, you'll have to retrain his response to the bit. Western horses are ridden in inhibiting bits: The Western curb acts on the roof and bars of the mouth, whereas an English snaffle bit acts on the corners of the mouth. A Western horse is taught not to test or take the bit; he may even be afraid of it.

Considering these things, and understanding that your horse's mouth is the most sensitive part of his body, I recommend using a type of bitless bridle called a sidepull, which works by applying leverage to the bridge of the nose when the reins are tightened. (A sidepull is different from another type of bitless bridle, the hackamore, which acts on both the bridge of the nose and the chin.) Removing the bit gives him less to worry about, and I have found that when you take something away from a horse's mouth, you can usually build relaxation.

A Western horse that has been trained to keep his head down for everything will probably carry his head up when he's first freed of the confines of a Western bit. But as soon as he relaxes, his head and neck will come back down and he'll be willing and able to move forward, to carry himself in his natural frame according to his conformation, and eventually to work on the bit.

After your horse has learned to relax, carry himself naturally, and go forward in the sidepull, you can introduce a simple snaffle bit. Again, start on the longe or the long lines; attach loosely adjusted elastic side reins. You can even switch back and forth between the snaffle and the sidepull for a while, giving him time to adjust to the snaffle and to grow comfortable and secure.

Time To Ride?

By now, you're probably itching to get back in the saddle, but a little extra patience now will pay off many times over when you finally start riding. I don't go to the next step in the retraining process until I can answer yes to all the ground-work questions. It may take a few weeks, or it may take months, but I wait for the horse to tell me, by being consistently relaxed, obedient, and responsive to voice commands on the ground, that he's ready to move on to under-saddle work. Even then, for a while I'll alternate between ground work and saddle work to ensure his confidence.

When you first mount up, give your horse a bridge from ground work to undersaddle work by using those same voice commands and that same tone of voice to cue him. Your goal is to keep him relaxed as he learns how to go forward, bend, turn, and carry his own movement.

I use a loose-rein approach to teaching self-balance. I'll give the horse support where and when he needs it, but he has to learn to take care of himself. After he's learned to balance with a rider at a walk, I move to a trot and then to a canter, lengthening and shortening his strides, all on a fairly loose rein. He must learn to slow down or lengthen his stride from my seat. What I'm building is a horse that goes in a longer, lower frame.

Eventually, your horse must learn to come forward into your hand. When I'm reschooling a Western horse, I teach this by gradually introducing leg, seat, and rein aids while decreasing my use of voice commands. In time, the reins and the bit become part of the way I position and balance his body and the length of his frame. Most Western-trained horses have some understanding of leg and seat aids, but they may need some clarification. For example, one horse I know of stopped in his tracks whenever his rider started to rise at the trot, because he was confused by her varying leg pressure and changing balance. Once he learned to respond to voice commands and understood that leg pressure accented with a light tap of the whip meant "move forward," though, he figured out that he should stay steady at the trot.

Your Role In The Transition

Natually, you must have attained a certain skill level to help your horse perform well. You must be able to recognize when he is moving forward with good impulsion and balance; likewise, you can't help his balance unless your balance and form are correct. You also need to understand how to coordinate your driving aids (legs and seat). If you can do these things, you have the ability to influence his position, balance, and frame correctly.

If you're lacking in any of these areas, educate yourself by seeking help from a knowledgeable dressage instructor (and don't hesitate to ask her for an honest assessment of your skill level), by reading books on dressage, and by watching instructional videotapes. I recommend working with an open-minded dressage trainer who has experience with all different breeds and types of horses. Besides being your "eye on the ground," she can help you formulate a training plan, set reachable goals, and document your progress.

So if you have a Western-trained horse and a hankering to do dressage, go for it! In my opinion, not only is doing First or Second Level movements a fair and realistic goal for such a horse, but the whole process builds his longevity, and is great discipline for both horse and rider along the way.

Writer Elizabth M. Hoekstra, of Dublin, New Hampshire, owns four horses and writes frequently about the equestrian experience and family issues. Her first book, on coping with travel-related family separations, was recently released by Crossway Books. She and her daughter, Geneva, successfully retrained Geneva's Palomino Quarter Horse for lower-level dressage.

Copyright 1998 Dressage & CT. Reprinted with permission. Dressage & CT is published by Cowles Enthusiast Media, P.O. Box 530, Unionville, PA 19375. $24.00 for twelve monthly issues.


Of course, there's lots more in retraining the Western horse for dressage than we possibly can fit in one article. If you're serious about turning that sidepass into a leg-yield, mosey on down to your local tack shop (or pick up that equine catalogue) and get:

Dressage Principles for the Western Horse and Rider (video series) produced by Lynn Palm Pittion-Rossillon (for more information: 800-503-2824)

Lungeing and Long-reining
by Jennie Loriston-Clarke (Half Halt Press)

Lungeing the Horse & Rider
by Sheila Inderwick (David & Charles)

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