Cowboy Dressage

Cowboy Dressage
By TJ Wierenga

A couple of years ago my husband Mark and I trail rode with another couple one afternoon. We had been looking forward to the trail ride, as the guy’s several personal horses were all fine looking using animals – correct, well-muscled, and level-headed on the ground. His tack was beautiful, hand-worked. Mark and I looked at each other in agreed approval and hopeful anticipation of a good, long ride as we watched him saddling up. Once we got down the trail apiece though, well, the only term that comes to mind is “micro management”. The guy started a fight with his horse that lasted the entire four hour ride. Slouching in the saddle, sharp spurs jingling and jabbing regularly, his hands were in constant motion against the severe (albeit expensive) curb bit. I guess he hadn’t ever heard or realized that curb bits are for quiet-handed riders of very well-trained horses. Neither Mark nor I could see a thing that the horse was doing wrong, other than (possibly) being unable to keep his head in the “peanut-rolling” position that the rider demanded even on the rough trail, and the ride was pretty interminable for all of us – especially the nice horse.

My point in that story is that if this rider had worked on developing his own seat, he may have experienced a greater feeling of control and safety, which would have enabled him to realize that his frankly good horse was, if he was misbehaving at all, probably only responding to the rider’s lack of balance and stability in the saddle.

What makes a good rider? Different things come to mind… from the ability to stay on your horse, no matter what maneuvers he makes, to working with the horse instead of fighting him… seeming as “one” with the horse, in time and in synchronicity, so that a viewer sees one thing instead of two separate animals… a rider who is considerate, not bossy or micro-managing the horse’s every step and move, both horse and rider looking natural and relaxed. A rider with quiet hands and feet, and “soft” legs.

Obviously, there is more to being a “good rider” than just staying on. Even Saddlebronc event riders at the rodeo have certain style criteria that they are judged on, beyond merely an 8 second ride.

Ask a western rider to criticize a dressage rider, and he’ll tell them to “get out of the arena to ride their horse”. Ask a dressage rider to criticize a western rider, and he’ll tell him to “start really riding his horse”. There’s something to be said for both camps.

So what – Cowboy Dressage??

Can’t you see it now? A hard-working cowboy tying his rope to the saddle horn and then performing a piaffe, perhaps? OK maybe not. But there is something to the way dressage riders work in conjunction with their horses – a partnership in the truest sense of the word -that can make sometimes less-than-correct riders (often in a western saddle) look awfully poor by comparison.

The good news is that, while it may not be necessarily easy, developing what dressage riders call “an independent seat” is definitely attainable.

What’s the point? A correct, or “classical” seat benefits horse and rider by allowing the horse to fully engage their natural athleticism from their backs through their gaits. The rider will find deepened safety and control, and even, by increasing their own core strength, further developed athleticism of their own. What we refer to as a classical seat includes not only your actual jeans-to-saddle connection, but your legs, hands, and entire body from head to toe.

Famous Athenian horseman Xenophon (445-355 BC) wrote “I do not approve of a seat which is as though the man were on a chair, but rather as though he were standing upright with his legs apart.” Human spinal columns allow the greatest strength and mobility from an upright position. The common bad habit of slouching deeply in the saddle places the rider in a physically weaker, dynamically inferior, and mentally unprepared state.

By riding with an upright upper body, your balance is over your heels as it would be if you were on your own two feet rather than the four hooves of your horse. Stability is increased as this upper body posture centralizes a downward pressure that places the rider more firmly in the saddle. A slouch tends to become weight balanced on the patch of our Wranglers, and from that position the horse feels more pressure on their (weaker) loin area. This can make the horse feel that the rider is insecure, an obviously undesirable scenario.

Think about a human being hiking quickly over rough terrain, and their posture. Their head is up and shoulders are back somewhat to open their ribcage to breathe deeply… chest is up which frees their spine and hips to flex and rotate smoothly… hips are flexible, absorbing motion and changes…arms are relaxed and loosely pumping at their sides, and their attention is facing forward. A rider should be in a similar position, a partnership of athleticism that allows both animals (human and equine) to perform optimally.

SIDEBAR: Evaluate yourself sitting quietly on your horse – “At the Halt”.
– Is their equal weight on both of your seat bones, as well as your crotch?
– If you dropped a plumb line from your shoulder, would it lay in a straight line past your hip and down through your ankle?
– Is your chest up (no slouching), so that your upper body is lined above your hips?
– Are your legs gently hugging the horse from your thighs down through your dropped heels?
– Can you barely see your toe when you glance down, or are your legs and feet extended with pressure in the stirrups?
– Is there even contact on both reins, with your hands in a direct line from the horse’s mouth through to your elbows?

Here are some mental cues to help you maintain a properly upright, balanced classical seat, even in a western saddle:
1 – Sit up straight, class! – Imagine and maintain a plumb line from your shoulder, through your hips, to your heels. If your specific type of western saddle naturally keeps your heels in a further forward position, just be sure that you are not placing more than 2-3 pounds of pressure against them, but carefully maintain that line from shoulder through hipbone.
2 – Earn the nickname “Velcro Bum”. There should never be air between your bum and your “chair”. Keep your seat bones and crotch in proper “three point” position at all times… pretend that there is Superglue ™ planting you in place. Importantly, ride the horse, not the saddle. You can practice this by riding bareback occasionally.
3 – Give good leg hugs – maintain soft legs, not clamping, not even squeezing, but hugging the horse with as many inches of leg as you can, stretching all the way down to the inside backs of your heels. The English riding expression of “heels down, toes up” is easier if you focus on sinking just a few pounds of weight down in to your heels, rather than floating your toes.
4 – Hand it to him – Hands should be quiet and operate within the confines of an invisible box in front of your body. You should be able to draw another plumb line from the horse’s mouth through your hands to your elbows. Learn to draw reins in through your fingers rather than just holding on to one spot on the reins and moving your arms all over the world. You will need to keep your shoulders down and relaxed to put your hands in the correct position, not “flapping” your arms and elbows.
5 – Overall, Be the Centaur. Your lower body and the horse should become one creature, molded together and working together in unison. Your upper body is still a human, and should support itself independently (not slouching or rounded in a sitting position). This upper positioning will increase the downward, balanced pressure on your seat, which increases your overall stability.

At novice rider Playdays and Gymkhanas held across the world, one of the best seat-developing competitions is the Dollar Game. There are various versions of course, but the basic theory is that riders place a dollar bill under their bum (or several dollar bills, from bum down through lower leg) and begin riding. Through walking, extended walking, trotting, loping, and even full galloping, the riders attempt to control their horses through the gaits and around obstacles while preventing the dollars from floating away (no grabbing dollars with hands permitted, of course). The rider who outlasts the others wins all the dropped dollars. And earns, in the meantime, a deeper seat.

Many riders find that simply dropping their stirrups while riding can help develop a stronger seat. Without the aid of stirrups to help balance and keep us in place, we must “keep our mind in the saddle” and rely on legs and seat to perform competently. As an added bonus, the common malady of ‘bad knees’ that seems to plague so many riders is alleviated when the leg and knee are in the more ergonomically correct position we find when we drop stirrups.

Personally I found that my extremely round-backed QH gelding did more than any other horse to develop my independent seat. It is impossible to cinch “Bubba” (1987 AQHA/NFQHA Bubas Pepper) tight enough to keep the saddle from rolling on a rider who doesn’t sit deep and balanced, and when heading a steer I found that even a back cinch and roping breast collar were less effective than a deep seat and a quick shift of all my weight to the left stirrup when we turned the corner. For the challenging trail riding I enjoyed on Bubba, my most effective riding took place when I dropped stirrups, sat deep and quiet and rode the horse himself rather than the saddle between us. Bubba was quite a bit more relaxed with the fairly loose cinch that I ended up riding with after we worked out these details!

Many riders rely far too heavily on their hands while riding. They tend to turn a horse about as if it’s a riding lawnmower, all hands and no other cue. Often these riders work both the direction and “throttle” all in their hands, when in fact, your hands should be the second or even third cue after your seat and legs. Your hands are ideally there to support the horse’s front end, as they tend to get heavy on the forehand (i.e. placing more weight on their front feet than in a more balanced four-foot arrangement). A balanced horse (think collected) will be much more able to perform athletically and smoothly than a forehand-heavy horse who has become strung out and hollow-backed.

It may take some focus and changing habits to help riders improve their skills in this ‘classical’ sense of riding. However, the improved safety and security of your ride will lead to more confidence. And isn’t that always a beautiful thing to see, let alone feel on the back of our fine horses?


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