Thursday, 4 June 2015

Western Dressage....The Rejuvenation of Western Riding

In 2011 I discovered a new way of riding...Western Dressage. When I researched it further, I had discovered that this “new discipline” actually had a name. Ironically I had been doing Western Dressage for years, just never putting a name to what I was teaching my Western clients.  Even back to the 80’s I had been working with Western Horsemanship, Cutting and Reining riders to put some dressage concepts into their riding habits. It worked, and I never gave it a second thought until I found that someone had actually put a name to what I was doing for so many years.
It was not very long until I had joined the new movement and encouraged more Western riders to think outside the box all across Canada. 
After countless hours of researching, teaching, and traveling all over Canada teaching this "new discipline" I have come to an amazing epiphany.  Most often, something that is new is never original. Western Dressage is not an exception to that rule. Western Dressage is actually something that has already been discovered and over time has been lost, only waiting for someone to find it again.

There has always been something about Western Dressage that was missing in my mind. Why did the dressage techniques improve horses and riders when I taught or trained them? Was I really going in the right path with my teaching? All I had to do was look into the history of Western riding to find my answer.  What was old is new again.

Western riding has had basically two main influences, although other influences were possible: Spanish (Vaquero) and European (Military). The vast majority of Western riders were ex-cavalry riders who if they survived the wars up to the 1930’s went to work on the ranges and ranches of the west training horses and working cattle.  The ex-cavalry soldiers were also the influence of many riding schools in the Western Hemisphere. It is the ex-cavalry riders that are really the answer to Western Dressage.  The Cavalry instructors whether they came from the US Army or Europe were trained and heavily influenced by some of the most famous Classical dressage instructors of the time such as Baucher, Fillis, and De La Guérinière. Otto Lorke in Germany also taught many Cavalry riders.  Baucher and De La Guérinière were from the French School, Fillis the British trainer also learned from the French, and Otto Lorke was a German who was considered a trainer of the lightness concept, and was also heavily influenced by the French way of riding.  Perhaps the best proof of this finding came from looking back at the US Cavalry Manual, which is still available today, and was adapted to civilian use. The book is entitled The Cavalry Manual of Horsemanship and Horsemastership by Gordon Wright. The concepts are all based on classical dressage. The saddle of choice in the US and Canada was the Western saddle due to it’s purpose of working stock and performing the needed tasks of holding a lariat and horn to rope and restrain cattle and horses.

There are two main schools of dressage in Canada and the US.  The German concept of training is still based on the heavy almost draft bred horse of the late and early 20th century.  The riders had to also ride these horses with very heavy aids. The philosophy required the riders to encourage forwardness, as the horses were of substantial bone and size with a slow mind.  Once the horse was trained to move forward then the half-halts were used to bring the horse off the forehand.  Applying those concepts to the Western style of riding would not prove as successful to the Western type horse.  The dominance of the rider on the horse would not be a successful way of training a horse that would be required to be light and sensitive to the riders’ leg, seat and hand to perform tasks of the ranches. The French School requires a focus on basing the training on lightness and balance.  Instead of using a pyramid to illustrate the training scale, the French school is based more on a circular diagram. The requirement is for the horse to become light to the leg, hand and seat starting from the halt, and then advancing to the gaits and using lateral movements to develop the collection and overall performance of the horse. For each skill that a horse is taught, the lightness has to be trained to the horse to achieve lightness and sensitivity to the rider’s aids.   
When one makes a comparison to the French school of riding, and then observing a well trained Western horse, we can begin to see a parallel.  I’m not talking about the stylized Western horse of today, but the basic trained horse of the mid 1900’s. Perhaps one of the best illustrations of this is a book entitled Schooling of the Western Horse by John R. Young.  Horses worked with the poll at the highest point, forward, willing and sensitive to the riders’ aids and balance.  If you removed the Western photos in the book, it could have been a dressage book.  In my opinion was the actual birth of Western Dressage. 
Western Dressage can't be trademarked, nor should it be taught by people without a classical background in my opinion. Western Dressage is about lightness, balance, and understanding of the horse and rider as one. It can't be done with short cuts whether it be leverage bits, or draw reins. It is not a discipline marketed by defining the riding style is unique to a specific ring size or letters. 
It's good classical horsemanship, plain and simple. 
So, as I have illustrated, Western Dressage is not a renaissance, but the rejuvenation of the original way of Western riding. 

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