101 Western Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider


By Jec Aristotle Ballou

By Stephanie Boyles

Foreword by Al Dunning

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This series of Western Dressage exercises are designed to improve suppleness, balance in movement, and responsiveness. Each exercise has a specific goal in mind, and they are organized by different areas of focus: softness, looseness, rider development, engagement, adjustability, and ground work. With illustrated step-by-step instructions and full arena diagrams, you’ll quickly be on your way to mastering this exciting discipline.


We gratefully acknowledge our debt to Frances Carbonnel and her stunning stallions Fino and Estaban, who cheerfully trailered many miles, unloaded in a strange barn, and performed flawlessly under somewhat taxing circumstances to capture these photos.

And we could not have had a lovelier setting or a more gracious host than Angela Seda-Garvin, who opened her facilities to us and on short notice and without blinking an eye pulled Calypso and Rockabye San Doc out of retirement, saddled them up, and then cheerfully agreed to act as a model. Her gorgeous stallion Kiosco SMDR also acted like a star.

Thanks go to David Kaden of Specialized Saddle, who went out of his way to ship us the beautiful Western Dressage–oriented saddle that Fino is wearing on the cover and here.

Finally, we enjoyed working with photographer Jason Houston, who cheerfully met every challenge and figured out how to make it work, while enduring scrutiny and suggestions from almost everyone involved.



Foreword by Al Dunning

Chapter 1: What Is Western Dressage?

Chapter 2: Softness

1. Correct Flexion

2. Releasing Tension

3. Arena Diamond

4. Random Rails

5. Serpentine with Poles

6. Haunches-in Prep

7. Circle 8s

8. Circle Prep

9. Lope Chute

10. Box Turns

11. Testing Balance #1

12. Testing Balance #2

13. Leg-yield to Smaller Circle

14. Lope Lightness

15. Quarter Pirouette and Halt

16. Fine Tuning

17. Half-pass to Leg-yield

18. Shoulder-in to Haunches-in

19. Two Circles at Once

Chapter 3: Looseness

20. Controlled Wandering

21. Snake over Poles

22. Circle Review

23. Free Wheelin'

24. Sit and Stretch

25. Warm-up Figure 8

26. Stretching and Rounding

27. Cavalletti Half-circles

28. Suspension Square

29. Testing the Walks

30. Adjust the Walk #1

31. Adjust the Walk #2

32. Raised Fan

33. Turn Both Ends

34. Jog Diagonals

35. Three Step, Three Step

36. Leg-yield to Lengthening

Chapter 4: Rider Development

37. Getting Centered

38. Rider Posture

39. Rider Coordination

40. Independent Seat

41. Finding Feel

42. Developing Seat

43. The 4x4x4

44. No Hands

45. Pelvic Rock

46. Mindful Corners

47. Lope Transitions on Centerline

48. Box Transitions #1

49. Box Transitions #2

Chapter 5: Engagement

50. Circle Up

51. Balance Pattern

52. Over and Forward

53. Working to Lengthened Jog

54. Two Poles plus a Stride

55. Step Under

56. Collected Walk

57. Collect – Extend

58. Schaukel #1

59. Schaukel #2

60. Collection Serpentines

61. Jog Half-pass

62. Lope Bowtie

63. Counter to True

64. Counter-lope Serpentine

65. Lope Half-pass #1

66. Lope Half-pass #2

67. Pirouette to Half-pass

68. Very Collected Strides

69. Shoulder-in on Circle

70. Counter-lope Circle 8s

71. Rein-back to Lope

72. Lope Pirouette

Chapter 6: Adjustability

73. Flat Top

74. Serpentine through Lanes

75. Diamond-shaped Circle

76. Octagon-shaped Circle

77. Figure 8 Lengthening

78. Circle – Square

79. Pentagon Turns

80. Leave One Out

81. Leave One Out, Lope

82. Lengthen to Leg-yield

83. Spiral In to Turn on Forehand

84. Lope Leg-yield

85. Elevating Gaits

86. Baby Counter-lope

87. Counter–True Transitions

88. Double Diagonal

89. Reiner Dressage Circle

90. Flying Changes

Chapter 7: Ground Work

91. Changing Strides In-hand

92. Ground Work Triangle

93. Lateral Flexion

94. Cloverleaf

95. Yielding In-hand

96. Shoulder-in from the Ground

97. Varying Circles In-hand

98. Balance Circles In-hand

99. Leg-yield In-hand

100. Schaukel In-hand

101. Piaffe Steps


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In over 40 years of training horses and riders to their full potential, be it in reining, cutting, showmanship, or any other discipline, I've noticed two things: one, that there's an awful lot of very technical information and equipment out there claiming to improve your horse and your riding; and two, in spite of that, there's still an awful lot of very poor horsemanship in the world. Too many people focus on all that technical stuff and lose sight of the fact that they should be learning for the sake of the horse more than anything else.

Many years ago, when I was training with the great John Hoyt, he told me, "You're doing a fine job riding that horse, but you're so busy thinking about what you're doing that you're not really thinking about what he's doing." It took me a while to realize just what he meant by that, but eventually, thinking about what the horse is doing became the foundation of my training methods as well.

It's important to be aware that you can't just sit in the saddle worrying about where to put your legs and what to do with your hands — there's a horse underneath you that needs to be listened to and observed all the time. You have to always be developing your sense of the horse and how he's moving and what he's thinking.

It seems to me that traditional Western riding and classic dressage training have always had more in common than they have differences. The best riders and trainers in both traditions focus on bringing out the best in every horse in a way that works for that horse, rather than imposing a "one way fits all" method. They aren't just making the horse do something, but teaching the horse to want to do that thing and to understand what is expected of it. It's crucial to make a horse's mind as supple and willing as its body.

One of my rules is that you should never be bored riding a horse. You can always make yourself a better rider, which will make your horse better. Sometimes, though, you need to be prodded to see your horse and your riding with fresh eyes, to learn something new and think about things a different way. This book is a terrific tool for helping you do that. There's plenty in here to benefit horses and riders at every level and from every discipline.

Each chapter covers an area of development, such as looseness or adjustability, with good explanations for the importance of each. The exercises can be combined in any way that makes sense for an individual horse or rider. Whether you're looking to refresh or hone your own skills, tune up a performance horse, or start a youngster from scratch, you'll find 101 Western Dressage Exercises useful, informative, and worthwhile.

–Al Dunning

Scottsdale, Arizona

Chapter 1

What Is Western Dressage?

At its core, Western Dressage is no different from classical dressage. Many Western horsemen agree that the goals and methods for training a Western horse are the same as those used over centuries among classical dressage enthusiasts. The relatively new discipline of Western Dressage bridges the alleged separation that has existed between these two worlds, bringing together the history and culture of horsemanship of the American West and the ancient traditions of dressage practiced in institutions such as the Spanish Riding School.

Some say it combines the superb, almost intuitive riding of American cowboys with the systematic training methods of venerable European institutions. Western Dressage also acknowledges and embraces the fact that the typical Western stock horse is built differently from the breeds most often seen in today's classical dressage ring.

For many, this marriage was only a matter of time. With its commitment to harmony, lightness, good horse-human connection and communication, and athleticism, Western riding is a natural development for dressage. Western Dressage uses the principles of classical dressage to improve the balance, cadence, and carriage of a horse.

Following a progressive training path similar to that of traditional dressage, Western Dressage begins with an individual horse's natural ability to carry himself and uses increasingly more difficult gymnastic exercises to improve that ability. Some of the ongoing goals include a horse that moves with his center of gravity shifted toward the rear; has greater elasticity in his muscles; shows responsiveness to the aids; and demonstrates perfection of longitudinal and lateral balance. Overall, the horse should be able to work with ease and grace through progressively difficult patterns and exercises.

Competitive dressage horse

Western Pleasure horse

What Does Western Dressage Look Like?

A Western Dressage horse moving correctly on the bit should demonstrate that he stretches into the rider's contact. He should not be shown with a draped rein. Instead, there should be light rein tone evident between horse and rider. It should appear that the horse is seeking a feel of the rider's hands, with his neck arching and stretching forward from his body. You might say that he "looks through" the bridle. Using strong, visible rein cues, constantly bumping the bit, or causing a horse to gape his mouth are considered serious faults. Special emphasis is given to a quiet mouth with head carriage that reflects the appropriate degree of collection and balance for each individual horse.

Western Dressage horse

Head and neck carriage are the result of the Western Dressage horse's learning to carry the rest of his body in balance. Riders must not take shortcuts to create a headset prior to the horse's learning to use his body properly. Riding either one- or two-handed is permitted, as is using a snaffle or curb bit. Riders choose the best option for themselves and their mounts.

The gaits for Western Dressage — walk, jog, and lope — parallel those of traditional dressage, allowing for the fact that Western Dressage is suited to a different conformation and type of horse, generally speaking. The discipline grew out of a sequential and fine-tuned method of improving and showing off the movement and athletic feats of a stock horse. The responsiveness, suppleness, and  maneuverability of a well-trained stock horse translate readily into a style of dressage that focuses on softness and willingness. No one expects a 17-hand warmblood to excel at cutting and barrel racing, and in Western Dressage, no one expects the suspension and animation of gaits that is so sought after in the current dressage show circuit.

The Western Dressage horse should move with impulsion, a forward-thinking attitude, engagement, and looseness. He should be highly maneuverable and his stride quickly adjustable. His gaits should demonstrate a good swinging stride length respective to his type, but his stride length in walk, jog, and lope is not expected to be either as extravagant or as ground-covering as the gaits commonly demanded in today's competitive dressage arenas.

A clear difference is drawn between the movement seen in modern Western Pleasure–type competitions and the movement expected in Western Dressage. The latter discipline expects a more forward-moving horse. While emphasis is not placed on a high level of suspension in the gaits, a very slow-moving and dull gait is not rewarded.

Western Dressage Movement

The general assumption is that a Western horse moves slowly. But this is not necessarily the case either in a ground-covering stock horse or in Western Dressage. That the Western Dressage horse moves well is more important than how rapidly or slowly he jogs or lopes. Like practicing yoga, in training the Western Dressage horse, any slowness of gaits must come as a result of correct gymnastic development: a swinging back, pushing and flexed hindquarters, longitudinal balance in all three gaits, acceptance of the contact, symmetry, and straightness.

Slow-moving gaits are not an end goal unto themselves; they should be proof of balance, the result of correct training that includes schooling in lively, working gaits. The correct tempo for each Western Dressage horse differs according to his individual conformation, limb length, and ability to flex his hindquarters. As the horse's balance and strength increase and he is able therefore to carry more weight on his hindquarters, his tempo will naturally slow down. What he gains in loftiness and joint flexion and a softly swinging back, he trades for the quicker "falling on the forehand" gaits of an undeveloped, unbalanced horse. This is the progression we aim to see in Western Dressage.

Asking the horse to travel slowly before his musculature and balance are prepared creates compromises in joint flexion and flaws in movement. When riders try to satisfy a "look" or trend of slow-moving Western gaits without first training the horse to move with a rounded and swinging back and actively flexed hind joints, the horse blocks his back, essentially freezing the bridge between his hindquarters and forehand. The muscles along his spine and upper neck become rigid, his chest tightens, and the hind legs eventually become stiff from lack of hip and stifle flexion.

Western Dressage Competition

For competitions, working Western attire and equipment are the norm, rather than the flashier show-ring styles seen in most Western competition, although some silver trim and a sparkly shirt can be appreciated. Helmets in the show ring are optional at this point, although as riders and trainers, we strongly endorse helmet use at all times.

For everyday schooling, riders are encouraged to ride in whatever equipment and gear allows them to achieve their goals. Many modern stock-type or all-purpose saddles are suitable. A close-contact saddle with stirrups set to allow the rider's heel to fall under the hip is generally best for enabling the rider to communicate closely and clearly with subtle leg cues. Saddles with bulky fenders or large rigging systems for the cinch will pose challenges for riders.

Western Dressage was officially branded in the United States in 2010, and in 2013 the United States Equestrian Federation named the Western Dressage Association of America an affiliate organization with its own chapter in the USEF rule book. For up-to-date rules about equipment and tests, visit www.westerndressageassociation.org. See a sample test here.

Before You Begin

The exercises in this book are most successful when they follow a suitable period of warming up. But what makes a warm-up good? Is an active one better than a slow, relaxing one? How long — or short — should it be? Many riders with good intentions believe that spending some time moving their horses around either on the longe line or under saddle prior to their workout counts as adequate preparation. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. In fact, a proper warm-up governs the success of your training session.

From a physiological standpoint, the warm-up determines how much conditioning and positive physical response your horse will — or won't — receive from your training. This means that since we dressage riders aim to make our horses stronger, fitter, and more supple every day, our preworkout routine can either help or hinder us.

First, let's clarify the distinction between loosening up and warming up. These are two different activities; you need to do both before your workout. Loosening up lubricates the joints and starts the flow of fluids and electrolytes between soft tissues. The goal of warming up is to increase oxygen delivery and blood circulation to the horse's skeletal muscles to prevent early accumulation of metabolic wastes such as lactic acid in the tissues.

In addition to causing early fatigue, lactic acid buildup also prohibits the horse from benefiting from the workout because it changes the muscles' pH levels, which controls their ability to contract and relax. To counter this, and to receive the benefit of exercising the muscles, you want to stimulate enough oxygen and blood flow to the horse's muscles to optimize them for performance.

Loosening Up

Whenever you first mount up or begin longeing, you should spend 3 to 5 minutes allowing your horse to walk around in a relaxed posture without any restrictive rein contact. Some choose to do this portion in-hand, while others like to hack around their properties. This gentle activity allows the horse's joint fluids to become less viscous and lubricate the sockets. Studies have shown that it can take several minutes of slow movement for joint fluids to circulate fully for horses that live in mostly confined accommodations.

It is important that a horse's muscles not be in a contracted state, such as when a horse is ridden in a collected frame or longed with side reins. Joints must be allowed to move through their full range of motion prior to being held in a static position during dressage exercise with a rounded frame. At the beginning of a riding session, the oxygen, blood flow, and fuel necessary to support the contraction-relaxation cycle of functioning muscle fibers aren't present; asking muscles to engage immediately when the horse comes from his stall before these elements circulate essentially chokes them off.


On Sale
Aug 9, 2014
Page Count
240 pages

Jec Aristotle Ballou

Jec Aristotle Ballou

About the Author

Jec Ballou is the author of  101 Western Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider101 Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider, and Equine Fitness. She is a national advisor to the Western Dressage Association of America and contributed to the current rules for the sport. She teaches clinics across the United States. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.

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