When we think of Dressage, we tend to think of riders in white breeches and top hats mounted atop leggy warmbloods performing high level maneuvers like canter pirouettes, tempe changes, piaffe, and passage. Oh yeah…. and they’re riding in long-flapped black saddles that keep them held snug into the perfect position and holding two sets of reins in their hands. But surely there’s more to dressage than just the outfit and the tack, right?
What is Dressage?
When you ask most riders what the word “dressage” means, they’ll tell you that it’s a French term used to describe “training” the horse. In a generalized sense, that’s the truth…. but it’s a terribly over-simplified definition that leaves a lot to be desired.
Let’s think about it a different way…
If you were talking about training your dog, and you taught him to walk on a leash and sit on command, you sure wouldn’t refer to that training as “dressage,” would you? I hope not. That’s pretty basic stuff, right? Kind of like kindergarten for your dog.
But, on the other hand, if you were teaching him to be a seeing-eye dog or a narcotics detection dog or even a top-notch stock dog, you could probably think of that as dressage. It’s about training to a higher level. I like to refer to it as “training to the individual’s maximum potential in a particular area.” That’s the definition that I give when asked what “dressage” is. That makes more sense to me, because the real aim of dressage is a high level of sensitivity and athletic development for the horse and the rider.
Now, another thing we need to think about – a question we need to ask ourselves – is “What breed of dog do we have? What’s his natural aptitude?” We wouldn’t want to struggle for years trying to make a pug into a herding dog. We need to think about this with our horses, as well. We wouldn’t expect a Shetland to have the stride of a Dutch Warmblood, either. Our aim needs to be to develop the horse (and the dog, as the case may be) into the best version of his own natural self.
So, where am I headed with this? Western Dressage. There are many folks talking about Western Dressage and how it’s not just “dressage in a western saddle.” It’s here that I beg to differ. YES, it absolutely IS dressage in a western saddle…. by my definition of dressage, anyway. By my definition, to say that it’s” dressage in a western saddle” would mean that you are training the horse to its individual maximum potential in a western saddle. That sounds like the idea to me. We could say that it’s dressage in an Australian saddle, or dressage in a racing saddle, or dressage in a saddleseat saddle…. If those are the saddles we happen to be riding in when we are training our horse “to his maximum potential.”
When many folks talk about Western Dressage as not being dressage in a western saddle, they’re referring to the lofty gaits and over-dramatized extensions seen in some modern high level dressage competition (those dramatized extensions aren’t truly “dressage” anyway, by the definition of training a horse to his maximum potential, as those things are actually damaging to the horse). Does your typical western horse have the same lofty movement as a warmblood? No. Just like your pug wouldn’t have the same herding instincts as a border collie (back to the dog reference). In the quest of maximum potential through Western Dressage, you wouldn’t be trying to make that quarter horse move like a warmblood, anyway, since that’s not in his nature to begin with.
So when we talk about Western Dressage, we need to close our eyes to the tack for a moment and think about the nature of the horse. We want to help to develop that particular horse to his own maximum potential. And if he’s a typical western horse being ridden in a western saddle, then that’s Western Dressage. Dressage in a western saddle.