Think dressage is unrelated to the type of Western riding you do? Think again. Dressage ("dress-AHHZH"), a French word meaning simply "training," refers to all the ways we influence a horse to move the way we want him to. In other words, it's just good horsemanship. I've always thought of how I ride my horses as cowboy dressage.
Dressage incorporates a lot of bending and lateral work to supple and relax the horse, plus develop his responsiveness. And let's face it: Regardless of the breed we're riding or the gear we're using, a supple, relaxed, responsive horse is what we're all after.
You may be surprised to learn that the classical dressage seat, or position on a horse, is almost identical to the traditional Western seat. But don't confuse dressage with the hunt seat position, where stirrups are shorter and the rider is inclined forward--to put him or her in position, ultimately, for jumping.
In dressage, the rider maintains a longer stirrup and a more upright position that's essentially the same as how we Western folk ride. And as for cueing, a horse is always a horse, as the saying goes. So the ways of influencing him are the same in both dressage and Western riding.
In the photos above, you can see how similar the two forms of riding are. Facing me is my friend, colleague, and fellow Team Horse & Rider member Lynn Palm, who competes in dressage plus uses its principles to train her Western horses. Lynn and I collaborated on a training DVD that illustrates the similarities of dressage and Western riding. In it, Lynn and I ride a series of dressage-based exercises designed to give you a better-broke horse.
The exercise I'll demonstrate in this article, leg-yield to lope depart, is drawn from that DVD. Leg-yielding is moving your horse laterally--forward and sideways at the same time. You'll leg-yield at a trot for several strides, then change your position just slightly to ask for a lope. The leg-yield puts your horse in the perfect position to pick up a soft, collected lope on the correct lead.
Before You Begin.
.know that your horse must have some basics already in place to perform this exercise. He must be obedient to your go, whoa, and turn cues; move off your leg laterally; and know how to collect a little--that is, respond to your driving legs and steadying hand by softening to the bit, rounding his topline, and bringing his hind legs farther up underneath himself as he moves.
Work in a safe arena with good footing. You can perform this exercise riding one-handed in a shank bit as I am here, or two-handed in a snaffle bit.