Training a Horse Using Dressage Principles

Tucson Fall Classic, photo by Ley Bouchard

What it Means to Train a Horse Using Dressage Principles – Part II


Last month we covered the need for a solid forward cue, a responsive stop, a smooth back up, follow through and consistency. These are basic training principles needed for any discipline. The following principles relate to cowboy/western dressage and are also beneficial for all riding disciplines.

The horse must be relaxed and fluid.

The movements discussed last time are just the beginning level. If you are  familiar with my Four Sided Pyramid of Training, these aspects are part of the physical side of training. All of these movements and the exercises that teach these movements must be accomplished with the horse relaxed and moving smoothly. If the horse is tense and concerned about the environment it will be stiff and its movements will be awkward rather than graceful and fluid.
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To be relaxed, the horse must be emotionally sound and this is the mental aspect of my Four Sided Pyramid of Training. The horse must be focused on the rider engaged and waiting for the next cue. This is what I call the horse having his “business ears” on. A horse is not engaged when it is distracted, looking around and reacting to every new or little thing. While there will always be something that can set a horse off, we must teach the horse that even if it is concerned, it must listen to the cues.

Part of responding to the cues is muscle memory, in other words, at a light cue the horse should respond automatically, Sometimes people get upset about the time it takes to thoroughly teach a cue. The length of time it takes depends on the mentality of the horse or how trainable it is, how much emotion is involved, as well as your standards and expertise, including your consistency in giving the cue. If you are not consistent with the way you give the cue and/or your expectations of the horse’s response to the cue, it will take longer and you will need more repetition. Your cue must be precise and it must become a muscle memory for the horse.

We want a horse with spirit and expression.

Spirit and expression are also classic dressage principles. I don’t want a horse with lifeless eyes and no energy in its movement. I see this a lot, unfortunately. Horses like this may be obedient but there is no spirit and they are dull with no life. We want life in the feet and in the eyes. If you have life in the eyes there will be life in the feet. No matter what the horse is used for, show, reining, or simply trail riding, we want it to be expressive. This means the horse has a good attitude, likes its job and this will produce an energy that will result in better movement.

Tucson Fall Classic, Photo by Ley Bouchard
Tucson Fall Classic, Photo by Ley Bouchard

Suppleness is a major principle in dressage.

I want a horse that is supple, in other words, soft in the body. You will not have a nice, relaxed, fluid movement if the horse is stiff in the body. A horse that is cued properly but does not move smoothly may have a health issue. Good health and nutrition make up another side of my Four Sided Training Pyramid and they are very important to the performance of any horse.

A horse that moves stiffly or has trouble maintaining a lead my need a chiropractic treatment. Horses in pasture often roll to achieve relief but a horse this is in a stall may not have room or the misalignment may be too severe for a good roll to relieve it. The dental care of a horse is also very important. A horse that cannot chew properly does not get the full benefit of its feed. Also, he horse may resist taking a bit because it is painful A horse that is not show/trimmed or has been shod improperly may look sound, walk and trot sounds, but be uncomfortable. Horses can be very stoic creatures and they can put up with a lot. When I have a horse like this shod and the horse perks right up, I know it was uncomfortable. A comfortable horse can express itself and have a more fluid movement.

If you want a supple horse, it is critical to do each exercise correctly. Doing an exercise correctly will cause the horse to exert itself properly and use the correct muscles. When you are doing an exercise with purpose and the horse is engaged, you will see business ears. I work with a horse until I see some improvement, even if it is only a little. While I am a great believer in working a horse until it breaks a sweat, you need to know your horse and be careful if the horse has a high emotional level. This type of horse will break a sweat with very little work because it is nervous. You need to work through the issue as a horse that is stressed out cannot learn.

Doing the exercises correctly.

Training your horse correctly is a long-term journey and learning experience for you bother. It does not happen overnight. For example, today in class we were working with the cones and leg yields. Some riders try so hard to go through each set of cones that they forget the process and try to shove or drag their horses through the cones. It is better to set the horse up properly, get the horse straight and relaxed, even if you miss two or three cones, and then get one good leg yield through the last set. Having done the exercise correctly is much more important than going through all of the cones poorly. When this exercise is done correctly, the horse is straight, relaxed, soft to your hands and responsive to your legs. The horse moves over one or two steps smoothly, without you trying to steer or drag it. Then, you cue the horse to move forward and you are ready to leg yield again.

You ultimate goal is to leg yield smoothly through all the cones but if you try to push and shove the horse, the movement will not be fluid. When the exercise is done correctly, the horse will be relaxed, supple, and the brain with be engaged because you are consistent and focused on the actions. This also helps you to establish a relationship with your horse. The correctness of the exercise is going to set the horse up to display the kind of obedience you want. The length of time it takes to accomplish this depends on how easily the horse is trained, the amount of time you spend training, and your ability to have the horse do the exercise correctly.

Another classical dressage principle is balance.

Riders try to get collection but many can’t get their horses to be balanced, which must happen first. The shoulders should not be dropping in or bulging out as you complete a circle. The horse should not be heavy on the front end which is caused by a dropped or bulging shoulder. The horse must learn to go forward by getting up under himself.  If the horse does not drive from the rear, it will be on the forehand and heavy in front.

It takes teamwork for the horse and rider to be balanced. If the rider is not balanced, the horse cannot be balanced. The rider cannot lean or pull on the reins. Even one pound of pressure caused by looking down can alter the performance of the horse. The rider must help the horse to come from behind and up under himself. As the leader in the relationship with your horse, you must set the standard, follow through and release immediately when the horse responds correctly. The response may not be perfect, but if the horse shows a significant try, release the pressure and praise your horse.

Gymnastic exercises can help with balance and agility. For example, I have used reining maneuvers with warm bloods in a back up and roll over the hocks maneuver. The ideas of backing up and rolling over the hocks is when you back the horse, roll to the right (or left), then ask the horse to pivot on the hindquarters. Open up the inside rein and close the outside aids (left rein and leg) as the horse is backing up. Do not stop or pause. The neat thing about this exercise is that gymnastically, as you are backing the horse, the horse is naturally coming under himself, with his weight shifted to the rear. Maintain the back up as you do the 180-degree turn with the weight shifted to the rear, then walk or trot off with energy. Doing this will teach the horse to use the hocks. If you back up, stop and do a 180-degree turn, the horse will learn the maneuver but it will not be keeping the hocks engaged. This is a prime example of doing an exercise but not doing it correctly and not building true skill and muscle memory.

You can shorten your training time and really gain from the exercises when you understand how to do them correctly and utilize the principles. The principle in this exercise is that you are asking the horse to roll over as it is backing. The horse is loading up and maintaining the load as it backs and as you drive it forwards. This builds balance, agility and muscle memory.

When you do this exercise you will notice the neck and ears become very engaged. The brain is engaged when the ears are on you. They may rotate right and left paying attention to the environment but they will return to you asking “What’s next?” Some riders associate the ears being back as the horse being mad. There is a difference between the ears being pinned in anger and being back waiting for your next command or, as I can them “business ears.”

The concepts we have been discussing are all good principles, good schooling and gymnastic exercises for any discipline. Done properly, they will result in the horse being relaxed and engaged. A horse with good forward movement, one that responds to a light cue, and that is relaxed and supple, is a joy to ride whether or not you compete in western/cowboy dressage or any other discipline.

Charles’ warm and relaxed demeanor has made him a favorite at regional and national clinics and demonstrations. His training center in Castro Valley, California is among the top equine educational facilities in Northern California.

Charles offers extensive hands-on learning programs for every level of horsemanship.  He may be reached through his web site: or by calling: (510) 886-9000 or Toll Free: 1-877-886-9001.