Why Dressage? The dilemma of choosing a discipline

2003-10-17 23.47.59-3You’re looking to learn horseback riding. You’ve gone online and found some stables in your area, and there are all these different terms: English, Western, dressage, hunter, pleasure, jumper, equitation, etc.  For someone new to riding, it can be overwhelming to try to figure out what these terms even mean, let alone fully understand how each of these differ and compare, and make a good decision on which way to go.

 

Where to Start?
Each riding instructor you talk to will probably tell you their way is best–that only makes sense.  If they didn’t believe that, they’d probably change what they were doing (or so we can only hope).  Here, we’ll explain our reasoning why we truly believe our way is the best way to start riding, and hopefully it will give you insight without overwhelming you.

First, a disclaimer.  We are NOT saying that any one discipline is inherently better than any other.  That is a purely subjective judgment.  You should love whatever discipline you choose (or don’t choose and enjoy them all!).  What we are proffering is the idea that starting a riding career in dressage offers a unique advantage over other disciplines for many varied reasons.  There can be exceptions to this idea, and they all boil down to a quality instructor.  With that said, read on!

Where Did All of This Come From, Anyway?
Knowing a bit of riding history will definitely help when looking to start riding lessons for you or your child.  Classical dressage has descended from the military training for horses from the Renaissance period and before.  It has strong and ancient ties in Europe, but has stood the test of time and is still one of the most popular riding disciplines today.  Most modern riding(of any discipline) has been developed off of classical dressage, specialized for particular tasks or aesthetics.

There are three forms of riding most commonly found besides dressage.  Hunt Seat and Jumping are the closest cousins to dressage, and was specialized as a form of riding for hunting through forests, including keeping up with the hunt dogs and jumping hedgerows or streams.  Western is essentially an American style of riding nowadays, though its roots are from the Spanish conquistadors who adapted it for ranching in the New World.  There are a number of other disciplines, but these three tend to be the ones most commonly found in the area, so they’ll be the ones we focus on.

So, why not start in Western?  What about hunt seat?  Well, there are pros and cons for all styles, and knowing about them before you start may be an invaluable leg-up in your or your child’s training.

The Trouble with Western…
Western, as a general overview of the many sub-disciplines in the field, has three very appealing pros that tends to sway many new riders: the saddle, the horse, and the ubiquitousness.  However, these are also the three biggest cons of the discipline.

westernThe Western saddle is big, comfortable, and “safe”.  I’ve often heard it compared to a Lazy-boy, which both explains the appeal and the downside.  Western is an easy introduction to horseback riding–it’s comfortable, and there’s a huge saddle to keep you actually on the horse.  But it’s dangerously comfortable: it’s unbelievably easy to spend money on “riding” lessons, when you’re really just paying for “sitting” lessons.  A rider with a year of experience in a dressage saddle could comfortably and confidently make the change to Western.  The same could most probably not be said for the opposite.

This problem is doubled when you start to get into Western (and most specifically Pleasure) horses.  The Western Pleasure discipline asks the horse to slow and tone down its natural movement to make the rider more comfortable.  Appealing, I know.  However, again, a rider with a year’s worth of experience in a comfy Western saddle on a well-trained Western Pleasure horse will end up in a distinct disadvantage when asked to ride any other type of horse in any other discipline.

And here, we end up at the most insidious aspect of Western riding.  It’s EVERYWHERE.  That sounds great, but what that translates into is a lot of people without much training or experience giving “lessons” at a very cheap going rate (supply and demand).  Don’t get me wrong–it’s tempting.  But it’s troubling both because it can be disappointing and it can be dangerous.

This issue also faces the other disciplines under examination here.

Hunt Seat and Jumping Have Their Own Hurdles
This is the “other” English style of riding that you find besides Dressage.  Hunt Seat or English Pleasure or English Equitation all essentially focus on the flat work and Jumping focuses on going over fences.  There are two main issues that Hunt/Jump faces:  dangers in style and dangers in trainers.

huntHunt seat and jumping as a discipline came out of a necessity to have a bright, spry horse essentially unleashed to go quickly and confidently over a varied landscape, with the rider doing their best not to get in the horse’s way.  What that translates into is something both thrilling and incredibly dangerous–a horse that is constantly on the brink of control.  For adrenaline junkies, it’s pretty obvious why this is appealing.  The problem with starting here is that, as a rider, you learn incredibly bad habits.  There is no other discipline where you sit, rein, or ride the same way that you do in hunt seat/jumping.  Now, ideally, the basics should be the same, but in practice, you most often run into the other danger–the same one that plagues the Western discipline: trainers.

Unlike in Western, where instructors tend to fall towards being lazy, hunt/jump instructors tend to land squarely at the other end of this spectrum.  The quickness with which most hunt/jump instructors advance students is mind-boggling.  I have seen little girls who couldn’t properly halt their ponies jumping them over 2’5″ – 3′ fences.  This discipline is stimulating, leading many riders to want to rush into the thrill.  And unfortunately, many instructors are happy to oblige.

We get many hunt seat riders who come to us without any real basics under their belt that have had many lessons going over fences, cantering, and even showing.  I used to practice karate, and my instructors used to complain that the commercialization of the sport made parents, students, and instructors feel that the student was owed a new belt after a certain amount of time, even if the student hadn’t actually mastered the techniques the belt signified.  I liken the hunt/jump dilemma as a similar one.  Students, parents, and instructors feel that students are owed the opportunity to do more advanced work, even if the student isn’t yet at the place to correctly do that work.  When you have a discipline that goes so far to the extreme end of riding ability, rushing students into it is not only disconcerting–it’s downright dangerous.

The Case for Dressage
So, how is dressage different?  First and foremost, dressage is all about the basics: competent foundations of actively riding sport horses.  Because most other disciplines are based on dressage, any rider who has these basics can make a shift to most other disciplines with little to no trouble.

TrophyPiaffeSecond, dressage focuses on the relationship between the horse and rider, and pushes that relationship to its greatest heights.  The importance of the rider’s ability to communicate with the horse is in everything that dressage teaches.  The riding pair is a riding team, bent on creating solid, working harmony where the rider and horse both understand each other.  The first time you get a moment like that is an exhilarating and almost spiritual experience that any rider remembers for the rest of their lives.

Also, dressage is offered as a sport discipline.  This means that, whereas other disciplines are often offered as a form of recreation or hobby, dressage is usually offered as a competitive activity. The quality of horse, rider, and ability goes up strongly when the riding is considered a sport rather than just recreation.

Of course, the problem with sports leagues versus recreation leagues is the same problem that dressage sometimes runs into: people play to win and can lose sight of the fun you can and should be having.   Like the other disciplines, the instructor is where the difference comes in.

We love having fun, and we make sure all our lessons teach you something while also offering you an opportunity to have a good time.  We laugh through most of our lessons, but we also work hard.  And the caliber of riders and horses we have reflect our mission to create confident, capable dressage teams.  We have a show team that some students choose to join, and we like to win ribbons, but the focus of our riding academy is not on winning, but on mastery.  You should compete only with yourself, and performing better is always our highest goal.

What Does This All Mean?
Well, it all really boils down to this: find instructors you trust.  Of course, as a dressage riding academy, we recommend dressage as a discipline because we believe you can get a strong advantage by starting here, but we specifically want to persuade you that a good instructor is paramount, especially in the beginning.

box2The point of this post is to convince you to look at more than just the dollar value or convenience of the lesson.  Like everyone else, we like to save money and convenience when and where we can.  But the appeal of spending less on lessons (or doing it on your own) decreases significantly when you take into account the damage that having poor instruction can do.  The dilemma is that there is no test, certification, or licensing for instructors, so it falls on students to tell the difference between a good one and a poor one.  And if you’re just beginning the foray into riding, that can be a tall order.

If you start with the cheapest or most readily available option with no mind on instructor or discipline, you will probably end up doing a great disservice to your or your child’s riding career.  So, instead, take a moment to evaluate why you or your child want to start riding, and if the answer is to have fun while learning to be a capable, adaptable rider, then dressage and Edgewood Equestrian are your solution.

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