Western Dressage

Classical horsemanship is the foundation of all riding. Let it help improve you and your horse.

Think dressage is unrelated to the type of 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 H&R member Lynn Palm, who competes in dressage plus uses its principles to train her Western horses. Lynn and I recently 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.


…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.

After warming up your horse, establish a nice, steady trot. Your “Western dressage” position should be as mine is here—so that a straight line falls from your ear, through your shoulder and hip, and down to the back of your heel. Sit deep in your saddle and ride your horse from back to front—that is, use your legs to drive him forward into the bridle, as I’m doing.

1. Establish a nice trot down the center of your arena, then begin to ask for the leg-yield. If you’re yielding to your right, as I am here, take your right leg away from your horse’s side (“open the door”). Cue with your left leg just behind the cinch. Keep your reins centered, allowing your horse’s head to tip just slightly away from the direction of movement. 2. My mare has begun stepping over laterally—note her outside front leg crossing over. My reins are steadying her front end (note how I’ve moved my hand over slightly) so her shoulders don’t get ahead of her hind end. 3. The combined use of my reins and legs keeps my mare softly collected, and her movement unified, so neither her front nor her back end gets out ahead.

4. Now, to prepare to ask for the left-lead lope, you must change your legs, as I am here. I’ve taken my left leg away from her side and stopped cueing with it, and am bringing my right leg back to prepare to ask for the lope depart. (If you don’t change your legs like this, your horse will pick up the wrong lead.) My mare is now perfectly positioned to pick up a left-lead lope. 5. And here she does! As I cue with my right leg just behind the cinch, my mare’s right hind leg plants—the first step in the stride. 6. Here’s the second step of stride, with the diagonal legs. My mare stays soft and steady; her shoulders are up; her head stays down; and her body straightens naturally. This is the perfect lope depart that leg-yielding can help you to develop.

Here’s a close-up of the cues you’ll use to ask for the leg-yield. I’m moving my mare to the left in this photo, so I’ve tipped her head just lightly to the right while holding steady with my reins so her shoulder doesn’t get ahead of the action. I’ve also “opened the door” with my left leg (meaning I’ve taken my leg away so her energy can flow through that opening), plus I am asking for the leftward movement with my right leg behind the cinch.

This exercise is adapted from Western Dressage, a new DVD from Team H&R members and world champion trainers Al Dunning of Scottsdale, Arizona (aldunning.com), and Lynn Palm of Ocala, Florida (lynnpalm.com). For a sneak preview of the DVD, see page 26.

The editors thank Chantz Stewart of Cave Creek, Arizona, owner of Shining Cielo (the Quarter Horse mare Al is riding), and Jane Fliesbach of Colorado Springs, Colorado, owner of Indian Harvest (the Appendix Quarter Horse gelding Lynn is riding).

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