Question: This question relates back to your last article on cowboy dressage. I am still not really clear on the principles behind cowboy or western dressage. Could you explain further?
Answer: The principles we are talking about are universal to all riders. They are what we all want our horses to achieve. It does not matter if you work cows, ride trails or show in an arena. There are four basic principles to keep in mind every time you ride: balance, collection, relaxed and rhythmic gaits, and finally, keeping the horse between the reins.
The first principle is balance. We all need to strive for a balanced horse. A balanced horse, for example, if put in the middle of a balance beam, will not be heavy in the rear and will not fall forward. This is what we want for every horse.
The second principle is collection. We should all have the goal of riding with collection no matter what the discipline. An endurance horse, a trail horse, or a reining cow horse—it is all about collection. Collection happens when the hind end of the horse is reaching up under the belly, toward the rear cinch, and the horse is reaching forward and driving from behind. This is easily seen in the picture. The front end, the shoulder rises so that the rear legs can what we call "step through." Sometimes this is referred to as the horse being "on the bit." The better the conformation, the easier it is for the horse to drive from behind. Collection is more difficult for a horse that is built downhill, in other words, the withers are lower than the hips. Can the horse become collected? Absolutely, but it will take more work on the rider's part.
The third principle relates to the gaits of the horse. The gaits must be relaxed. There should be a cadence, a rhythm. If you have cadence, you have rhythm. For example, if you are trotting, the trot should not look choppy. If the trot is choppy, the horse is not balanced and is not coming from the rear. A horse that has a tendency to be on the forehand, meaning the horse is pulling himself along, is heavy on the front end and not balanced. This horse will trot fast to maintain the weight on the front end. The more balanced the horse is, the more willing it will be to step through from behind. What this means for the trot is that we need to lengthen the horse's stride.
Stepping through from behind is also good for Western Pleasure horses. Even though a horse has a cute little jog and shuffles around the arena, it must be a balanced and collected jog. When the rider is educated, using the seat and aids properly, the horse will be relaxed in the gait, balanced and coming through from the rear. Then we have a collected, engaged horse moving with rhythm and cadence. If the shoulder is stiff or there is resistance to the bit, there is no collection. All parts of the horse need to be working together with suppleness.
If you are loping or cantering, depending on your discipline, and the horse is moving fast, the horse will not have any rhythm or cadence. This is usually because the horse is on the forehand and pulling himself along. You could have a horse that is naturally balanced and carries himself very beautifully but because of the way he is ridden, the horse is not balanced or collected and cannot maintain a balanced carriage. If your horse is not obedient to your hands or accepting of the bit, you will have a horse that is on the forehand.
A fourth principle is to keep the horse between the reins and the shoulders upright. If the shoulder of the horse is protruding out or falling in, the horse cannot be balanced or collected. When there is no balance there is no collection and the horse will be on the forehand. The horse must learn to stay between the reins and keep the shoulders upright.
These are the principles of western dressage. We should apply them every time we mount. No matter the discipline. When you apply these principles, you teach your horse to be very gymnastic, supple and to use himself correctly. The more educated we are as riders the more we can help our horses develop carriage, musculature and a proper top line. It is the principles and not the discipline that will train your horse in the most effective way.