Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Western Dressage - What's Old, What's New

Having now spent way too many hours searching Google, I'm going to fall back on my faulty memory.

What's Old:  dressage and western riding sprang from the same roots and then occasionally held hands. The Spanish system of training went to the Southwest with the missionaries and continued in what is now known as the Vaquero tradition. The same horses and systems went to Europe - records in Vienna refer to a Spanish Riding School in 1572. The Spanish rode light, agile horses that could move fast on the battlefield and heavy horses were becoming obsolete. Later artillery would make the highly trained Spanish horses useless and their flashier moves would become only for the parade grounds and for exhibitions, but the horses of the Moors were battle horses. Today dressage still looks to the Spanish Riding School of Vienna as the caretaker of classical dressage. In the Western Hemisphere the vaqueros continued to pass on the system and apply it to ranch work. In Europe the same thing happened in Spain and Portugal. The ranch horses trained in these traditions look very similar, but not at all like the western horse in breed shows today.

In the late 1800s the flood of untrained men and horses needed to move cattle first to the big slaughter houses and then to rail depots diluted the training of the ranch horse and introduced many shortcuts. They are still common today. This was followed by the move in the early 1930s to forward seat riding in Italy which was adopted by the Cavalry for field maneuvers. While the Cavalry kept many basic dressage concepts, including collection, the forward seat system threw out collection entirely, leading to the flat top line found in western and hunters today.  Hunters rediscovered collection because it led to sucessful jumping. Western riders have also rediscovered collection, but tried to keep the flat top line by breeding horses with low head sets.

The horse, however, is still and always will  be a horse. His muscles and mind remain the same, even if "bred for purpose."  In the cavalry schools, dressage was divided into levels. The most basic level was needed for control and could be attained very quickly by a skilled trainer. The "Field" level required the ability to collect and accurately place the body so muscle building exercises could be effective and horse was athletic. After this the horse specialized. It was fully realized that specific activities required skills training and the moves would be different from the arena exercises which addressed the strength and suppleness of the whole horse. Dressage exercises were continued to maintain general fitness, but skills training became the focus. This is important to understand when talking about dressage for the western horse.

(From here on I'm gong to use the term field dressage to separate it from dressage exercises performed to prepare the horse for upper level dressage competition.)

So what is old is the need to stay balanced, upright and supple, responsive to the rider, work off seat more than rein, all based on progressive training that uses the horse's natural responses to encourage correct responses and block incorrect ones.  Go down either path and by the end of "Field School" the horse is light, responsive and can work in a curb.

What's New:  In the last 20 years there has been a huge resurgence in interest in how we train horses. Trainers and scientists look at all disciplines to study the way the horse moves and responds to training. Most important of all, every rider has access to every sort of training idea just by going to Google. And surprise,surprise, all the disciplines began to explore their roots. Dressage trainers got hired to put polish on Big Eq Hunt Seat Equitation horses. Handling techniques from the vaqueros and the big ranches moved out to everyone as Natural Horsemanship. And suddenly the Bridle Horse got back into the picture.

This has created much cross pollination. However when it comes to Dressage and Western, most seem to think that specialization starts from the moment the horse is mounted and this will continue to lead to much confusion as trainers and riders from the two traditions try to talk to each other.
And now we have a proposed competition - Western Dressage. Which won't have the same requirements as Dressage competitions because the western horse moves differently. Which translated seems to mean that western dressage horses, like the 16th Century Spanish horses in Vienna, will not be asked to do extended gaits.

We also have ranch work turned into sport - reining, cutting, working cow horse. To excel these trainers have developed specialized cues and many have tapped dressage for exercises to increase balance and suppleness.

So what is new is the beginnings of a common language to talk about the physical development of the horse and  a huge surge in interest in how to apply that knowledge. I come from a dressage perspective but not as a specialist. I've used dressage to improve event horses, jumpers, field hunters, Pasos and western pleasure horses as well as horses with dressage careers. The journey continues.

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