By Ruby Tevis
As a young rider without my own horse, I’ve learned over the years the importance of riding the horses you have access to. While dressage is my primary discipline, learning to ride what was available to me has made me a versatile rider with experience in hunters, saddleseat, and, most recently, western horsemanship. On the surface, these disciplines are so very different, but dive in a little deeper and you will find how similar they truly are.
Growing up, I took saddleseat lessons at a local riding academy before switching to dressage at age 14. In high school, I took advantage of an opportunity to ride on a hunt seat Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) team. Between leases of dressage horses, I briefly returned to saddleseat, and now that I am in college, I am riding in western horsemanship through the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA).
In dressage, I am riding at Prix St. George’s, and can recognize what these disciplines have taught me. I’ve become a stronger rider through my experience riding different kinds of horses and learning from trainers from different backgrounds. Below, I will break down two things I’ve learned from each discipline and how it has helped me in dressage.
Riding saddleseat requires a great amount of core strength and balance, and it is imperative for riders to have quiet, independent hands. In saddleseat, much like dressage, if you balance on your horse’s mouth, you will impede their ability to move out of their shoulder. Riding saddleseat with quiet hands also taught me to have elastic elbows and a relaxed arm, as having a rigid arm leads to a tight back and a stiff, “posed” looking rider.
Saddleseat equitation is beautiful to watch because of the riders’ ability to ride quietly and confidently. While taking saddleseat lessons, my instructor was adamant about me riding with my chin up, my chest open, and my shoulders back. As a tall rider, it is easy for me to fall into a “slumped over” riding position. Riding saddleseat has helped me develop strength in my core and the ability to stretch up tall and ride forward with confidence. It is also a great chance to truly learn how to look through the horse’s ears, since their heads are carried proud and upright.
While dressage riders tend to ride with their feet a bit more level, it is easy for beginners to find themselves balancing on their toes. Have you ever tried riding in two-point while balancing on your toes? Well, I have, and I landed on the horse’s neck! Riding hunt seat has helped me to develop calves of steel and heels that provide more stability in my riding.
Using the seat-
In hunt seat, I spent a lot of time developing a light seat that does not interfere with the horse. It is easy to fall into using a driving seat in dressage, so riding in a half seat for the first time felt like I’d lost one of my senses! While I mostly rode hunters on the flat, I did try a bit of jumping. Knowing when to sit up and when to sit down is critical when jumping. If you are heading toward a fence and need to shorten your stride, you can’t go straight to your reins Jumping is a great way to test your ability to use your seat to collect, which is also very important in dressage.
Have you ever watched a dressage test that looked so effortless it seemed like the rider didn’t even move? Well, this is what everyone looked like to me when I started riding western. Everyone was riding so quietly that I could barely see their aids! It was a bit intimidating at first, but learning to refine my aids has been extremely useful in dressage. In addition to quiet aids, western horsemanship riders have strong cores and the ability to absorb the shock of each gait without lots of motion in the hips. These qualities in both western horsemanship riders and dressage riders lead to the look of an effortless ride, taking the focus off the rider and onto the horse.
To be completely honest, riding with one hand was one of the most challenging transitions to make while riding western. I was so dependent on my direct rein for steering that I felt hopeless with only one hand. While many of the school horses I was riding had been trained to neck rein, it was still difficult for me! I have been working hard to stay connected with the horse through my entire leg, not just my calves. I have learned to use my upper leg and knee to guide the horse’s shoulders and steer. This has been super beneficial while riding dressage, and is especially applicable in lateral work, walk pirouettes, and canter pirouettes.
Riders so often talk about cross-training our horses, but I think it is absolutely necessary that we cross-train ourselves as well. It is easy to fall into habits that may be overlooked, and it is always helpful to have fresh eyes take a look at your riding. While not everything we learn in different disciplines is applicable to dressage, there are several elements that can be carried over, especially when it comes to riding with strength and finesse.
All saddle time is good saddle time, no matter what kind of saddle you’re riding in!
USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.