How to Train a Horse for Dressage

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It takes years to produce a horse like this.
It takes years to produce a horse like this. (Image: Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Not every horse or pony will be competent at the sport of dressage, but all horses can benefit with some basic dressage training. This helps the horse become better coordinated and often more confident. A horse or pony does not have to be broken to saddle to begin basic dressage training.

Things You'll Need

  • Longeing equipment (optional: side reins)
  • Fenced-in paddock or arena
  • Comfortable waterproof walking shoes
  • Gloves
  • Traffic cones, cavalletti or jump poles

Begin dressage training on the ground while longeing the horse. It will be far easier for the horse to learn how to collect itself without the added shifting weight of a rider. A horse should have a good 20- to 30-minute session, constantly shifting directions. Instead of doing just a circle around you, have the horse do a series of serpentines across the arena at the walk and trot. Side reins are better for this type of exercise than just a halter and longe line.

Lead the horse over jump poles or cavalletti jumps to build strength and encourage the horse to lower his head. If the horse can be ridden or driven, do so over hills to build the muscle strength needed to become collected and supple. This can be done throughout the horse's life.

Have the horse pay close attention to your aids. Sit deep in the saddle to help the horse balance. Squeeze with the legs to get a response. Start out with a series of walk to trot and back to walk transitions. As the weeks go by, these transitions should become more subtle so that you can ask for a fast walk, back down to a slow walk and then back to a fast walk.

Place traffic cones in a straight line down the center of your riding area and bend circles around them, perhaps changing direction or the speed of the gait with each turn. Start at the walk and then when the horse is responsive, try the trot. Days or weeks later, try the canter.

Keep yourself fit. The horse can't do it all by himself. You also need to be strong and flexible to help the horse perform at her best.

Tips & Warnings

  • These are just the basics to get the horse listening and flexible enough to begin low-level dressage. The Grand Prix level takes years of training to achieve, but the same basic principles of collection and listening to the aids are used as in the lower levels. Get as many books and videos as you can about dressage to help give you ideas and encouragement. It can take a long time before a horse seems to be showing any progress.
  • Never tie the horse's head up or down for hours at a time in the stall so that the horse will automatically lower her head when ridden. Never ride a horse for the first time unless the horse has been cleared by a veterinarian to be physically strong enough to carry a rider.

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