If you've been itching to get out of your western pleasure saddle and into a deep Passier, you're in luck. Many stock breeds, such as the Appaloosa, American Quarter Horse and Paint Horse, can cross over to new careers as dressage horses. It's true that some western trainers already use a few elements of classical training--"cowboy dressage"--in their riding programs, but if you want to make a full transition, you should examine your horse on a couple different levels.
Take a look at your horse’s conformation. Certain stockhorse bloodlines are specialized to excel in particular disciplines, so you might be forcing your square peg into a round hole by asking him to do dressage. For instance, top western pleasure mounts are bred to naturally carry themselves in a lower frame, to move slowly with a shortened stride, and to put more weight on their forehand. They are not built to shift their weight onto the hind end and carry themselves in an uphill fashion with impulsion and energy.
Like any horse, a dressage candidate has to be a good mover. How many times have you watched a rail class and have seen horses that shuffle along with their heads at their knees, and loping with a four-beat cadence? These horses probably don’t have enough overstride for dressage. To determine if your horse is a good contender, see how he tracks up at the walk. You want to see the back hooves leaving prints in front of the front hooves. At a free trot, he should step nicely underneath himself and have a little swing to his stride.
If he passes muster in these areas, don’t just slap on a brand-new flash bridle and some white polos to go riding off into the sunset. It will take your horse time to adjust to several new tack and training elements. One of the biggest changes will be his bit. Since most western horses are ridden in curb bits, you will have to get him used to a snaffle. Western horses are ridden with very loose contact. The curb’s port and shanks affect the tongue, bars and roof of the mouth, while the snaffle works on the corners of the mouth to help supple and bend him laterally. Since the western horse is directed through neck reining, your horse will have to get used to a bit that sits differently in his mouth, as well as the feel of direct contact and aids.
If your horse acts resistant to the snaffle or comes up above the bit, don’t worry-once he relaxes, he will usually accept it and carry his head more naturally. Longeing a western horse in correctly fitted side reins can help him adjust. From the ground, you can drive him into the even rein contact. He’ll start using his hind end to create his own energy and will re-balance himself instead of landing on his forehand.
Once you mount up, go slowly in his training. Keep sessions short and to the point at first. Most western horses have some understanding of leg and seat aids, but firmer cues and constant communication might confuse him. Let him adjust to the feel of full leg contact and aids. He needs to understand that the bit is not something to back off of, and that he respond to direct rein cues, not neck reining. Most of all, he needs to be able to engage his hindquarters, move forward freely and be balanced. If you have trouble getting started or feel as though you’re not making progress, it might be a good idea to enlist the help of a dressage trainer to start him on the right path-a straight one down centerline.