How to choose and train draft horses and draft crosses for dressage
By L.A. Sokolowski
Of all the organizations participating in last season’s Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, more than a dozen were draft-horse and draft-cross registries. Their year-end achievements underscore how a good dressage foundation helps to build horses better able to carry themselves and their riders in balance and harmony.
In fact, fans of these horses regard them as one of the better-kept secrets in our sport. Riders of drafts and draft crosses have been quietly and consistently applying dressage basics to breeds traditionally destined to lean into a harness—and have been proving their partners amply capable of lifting and coming through from behind as they trot down center line. In this article, six successful draft-horse trainer/riders and two well-known dressage judges share tips on finding lightness in “heavy” horses.
Tip 1: Look for a Lower-Set Neck
“When it comes to the neck, I take a different approach than many would [with a purpose-bred dressage horse] because draft crosses can have pretty heavy shoulders,” says USDF bronze and silver medalist and USDF L graduate Tracey Wilson, Vincentown, New Jersey. Wilson’s six-year-old Clydesdale/Thoroughbred cross, Noteworthy SLF, was the 2021 Draft Cross Breeders & Owners Association (DCBOA) All-Breeds First Level Open champion. She found “Worthy” (who was also ridden by Quinn Ridgway to the DCBOA All-Breeds First Level Junior/Young Rider championship title) two years ago, half a season into serving as a hunt master’s horse, with basic go-stop-stand training.
Wilson explains that with a draft type, “I don’t want a neck set too high. We need to ensure that we can raise the neck and the shoulders. A high neck set can present a challenge when teaching a horse not to lock the base of its neck against a rider. There must be an honest reach and stretch through the back and neck to the bit. The shoulders must lift with the neck; otherwise, it can present a false frame. A horse cannot progress through the levels if it is heavy on the shoulders.”
Tip 2: Get Ahead of Hitch Training
Draft horses were bred to pull, and they do so by throwing their weight precisely where dressage seeks the greatest lightness: on the forehand.
“From a biomechanical standpoint, I know riding a draft puts me at a genetic disadvantage. But it’s a hill that I will die on to promote these breeds’ place as a dressage horse,” says Jessica Crannell-Menard, who breeds Clydesdale sport horses at her Warwicke Hill Stud in Cornelius, Oregon. Crannell-Menard’s World Clydesdale Show reserve dressage champion stallion, Towerview Theo, won the 2021 First Level Open and First Level Adult Amateur Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds titles from the Clydesdale Breeders of the USA registry.
Most breeders of draft horses start their two- and three-year-olds in a hitch to teach them to drive and pull, Crannell-Menard says, and as a result the horses learn to travel ewe-necked, with heads up and chests out, heavy on the forehand. “They are not started with riding careers in mind.” Finding it easier to “not undo their training on top of ‘undoing’ their breeding,” she prefers finding prospects, whether youngsters or older “blank slates,” that have not had hitch training.
Tip 3: Allow Them to Mature
Draft breeds are “big horses with a lot of power, but they take longer to grow and fill out,” says Brittany Giudice, of Loxahatchee, Florida, who groomed for Florida-based Grand Prix-level rider/trainer Luis Denizard and who currently has two Clydesdales in light training. “At three, they still have ‘baby brain’ and shouldn’t see a work regimen until four or five.” Giudice loves finding a “tad older” prospect (age five or so) that’s “not broken or trained. They can be taught to do anything with the right leader.”
Tip 4: Get Them Really over Their Backs
Because drafts are bred to pull and use their shoulders, they can be prone to tightness through the back, which can lead to what US Equestrian “S” dressage judge and USDF L program faculty member Kathy Rowse calls “the cardinal sin of dressage”: loss of clarity in the rhythm of the gaits.
“Drafts get strong in the neck and shoulder, and the rider may be duped into paying attention to that,” says Rowse, who teaches and trains out of her Silverleaf Farm LLC in Suffolk, Virginia. “However, to make the front lighter, the horse must learn to engage his hind legs and lift his back in order to build a bridge between the rear and front ends. I want a horse that is soft and responsive to the leg. I have seen draft crosses that are a little ‘hot,’ and you can use that to your advantage to motivate the hind legs to become engaged. Trained on core principles, and with a little ‘heat’ from behind, even a horse designed to pull can learn lightness and self-carriage.”
Standing all of five feet one, Quinn Ridgway, the rider who piloted Tracey Wilson’s 17-hand Noteworthy SLF to an All-Breeds title and an eighth-place finish in the 2021 Great American/USDF Region 8 First Level Junior/Young Rider championship, agrees that sensitivity in a draft-type horse is an asset.
“One of my biggest tips,” Ridgway says, “is using the quietest aids possible and increasing them as needed. Keeping them sensitive to the aids is paramount.” Too much ring work and drilling can make a horse sour and dull, she adds, saying that for Worthy, “getting out of the ring, taking him on walks, and doing ground-pole work seems to keep him motivated and happy.” (Lots of treats, praise, and love help, too, she says.)
Tip 5: Build Suppleness
Crannell-Menard uses lateral work, such as leg-yield/half-pass/leg-yield combinations, to help Towerview Theo become more mobile and adjustable.
The draft breeds “were bred to work off their chests. We’ve got to get them off the forehand,” she says. Lots of transitions help to keep the work interesting while encouraging “Nitro” to shift weight from his forehand to his hindquarters.
Lateral work “builds bend,” says Karen Clark Rubin, a small-animal veterinarian in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, who rode her Clydesdale/Paint cross, Pax, to the 2021 DCBOA Second Level Adult Amateur All-Breeds championship title.
Pax “wasn’t purposefully bred [for dressage], so our lessons focus on creating bend behind the saddle,” Rubin says. “We do shoulder-in to haunches-in on a circle at the walk, then straighten out before repeating in the other direction.”
Like Ridgway, Rubin finds that variety in the work is important in keeping her horse fresh and happy.
“I try not to drill. I prefer to incorporate work into a ride or warmup, and make sure to praise him afterward!”
The typical draft-horse physique can make a “long and low” frame challenging to achieve, says Marsha Hartford Sapp, owner/trainer at Southern Oaks Equestrian, Tallahassee, Florida, who made a name for herself as the trainer of the mustang Cobra, the 2018 Adequan®/USDF American Mustang & Burro Association’s All-Breeds Prix St. Georges Open champion and that same year’s US Equestrian National Horse of the Year.
“Time needs to be spent on stretching and longitudinal balance,” Sapp explains. “A draft started under saddle with the intention and training for ridden work will likely be more receptive to lifting through the shoulders than one started in harness. Leg-yields and ten-meter circles at the trot will free up and lift the shoulders and create bend.”
Tip 6: Lose the Label
“I covet the draft cross for dressage,” says Sapp, who is currently training several Friesians and Friesian crosses, plus a half-Percheron and two Gypsy Vanners. “If I see a nice crossbred that looks like it will do dressage, I will scoop it up!”
The perception that draft breeds and draft crosses are suitable for dressage “hasn’t gone mainstream yet,” says Crannell-Menard, “but more people are starting to compete and accomplish more, like the USDF All-Breeds awards. These animals are competing at high levels.”
In a sport dominated by warmbloods, some riders feel discouraged if their mounts don’t have the “right” pedigrees. Experts advise paying less attention to the registry paper and more attention to the individual horse’s attributes and training.
“Labels are not always important,” says Colorado-based FEI 5* dressage judge Janet Foy, author of Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse. “As a judge, I look for the same thing we look for with any breed: correct rhythm in the gaits and training following the training scale.”
Heavy words. To be lightly ridden.