Episode 128: Dressage vs Reining: Lessons I have Learned

“What have you learned by studying Classical Dressage? What things changed? Will you continue to ride Dressage?”
I answer these questions and discuss the similarities and differences, precision, speed, accuracy, transitions, self carriage and more. Some of these things I discovered myself…others my horses reported to me.
The short answer is yes, I’ll be doing both and taking everything I learn out out the trail!


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy and, successfully train your own horses. Today, I’m answering a question about classical dressage, reining, trail riding, the things I have learned, and that kind of stuff. Let’s go ahead and listen to the question.

Caller: Hi, Stacy. My name is Marcella. First of all, I want to say that I have been thoroughly enjoying your podcasts. I’m on Episode like 48 or somewhere around 50 now, so I’m trying to catch up. My question is, or something that I would be very interested in hearing about is, I’ve heard you mentioned a few times throughout the podcast so far that you have been training for and competing in both classical and Western dressage. I have a background in both classical and Western dressage with my horse all ring riding and competing has mainly been in that. And then I’m also an avid trail rider with my horse. And we do various like camping trips and pack trips and stuff like that. So my question to you is, I would love to hear about the things that you’ve learned, the differences between how you’ve ridden before and how you ride now, learning some of the things that you’ve learned in Western dressage and classical dressage, and things that you love, things that you didn’t love, things that will change the way that you train in the future because of what you’ve learned or if you’ll continue to ride dressage. Just genuinely interested. So thank you so much.

Stacy Westfall: Thanks for your question, Marcella, this has been on my mind quite a bit recently because I’m prepping Gabby and Willow to go to a reining show. And for the last year or more, actually, I’ve been more focused on dressage, so I’ve been exploring this very hands-on, and on top of this, I’ve also been trail riding all three horses. So how am I going to unpack this? The first thing I’d like to do is for the rest of the discussion, I’m kind of going to lump classical dressage and Western dressage together. There are differences, but they are more similar than they are different. The–I heard a long time ago on a podcast, a dressage judge that judged both Western and traditional, and they described it as like the classical dressage is interested a bit more in the expression and the Western dressage is looking more for harmony. And for this, when I show Willow in both, what this means is that when I ride Willow in the classical dressage, I ask for maximum expression. So in her trots, I want her flipping her little feet. I want her to be kind of like, very full of expression as we’re doing whatever movement we’re doing. And then when I change the equipment and go into Western dressage, same horse, I tone it down a little bit and I focus more on harmony. Now, it’s interesting, if I can do expression and harmony in either world, like I can get both of those at the same time, I’m going to maximize in both worlds. Basically, what I’m saying is that if you’re–if I’m in the classical, I’m going for the expression. And if it’s a little bit more intense, that might be OK, even though it doesn’t look quite as harmonious. Now, don’t get me wrong, if I can get the expression and the harmony, that’s amazing. And that’s definitely my goal. Just like to say, it’s not like if I go into the Western that I’m just like, ho hum….not really…I’m not really pushing. No, I want to push, but if I’m going to do something a tiny bit more, if I have to choose between the two, then I’ll go a little bit more for harmony. But the reason I really like using the Western dressage and the classical dressage as something that I’m doing in addition to say something like reining is that in these higher-level movements, like when I go into the reining world, I’m looking for expression and harmony. I want a horse that spins really fast and looks like they’re putting a ton of effort into it because they really are, and then stops and looks very harmonious when it stands in the middle. So that’s where I’m saying, like, both of those worlds have a lot to offer. But for the rest of this, I’m going to just lump and call it dressage and I actually mean classical and Western because I could go into a classical show and ride just that little bit, like little bit lower energy and more on harmony, and I’ve definitely done that with Willow and I’ve still scored well. And I have gone into the Western and asked for a little bit more expression and scored well. So the criss-cross there is, is actually it’s just right there. But if you watch, that’s probably the biggest, easiest way to see the difference between the two is the emphasis in the classical on that expression. So you see the big, bold movements of those big Olympic horses and the harmony, which is fitting a lot of the quarter horses in the Western world, or any horses. But I’m just using that as an example. What I think you were kind of getting at in your question was a little bit, and this is the way I took it, so it was a little bit more of the–the English versus Western kind of deal. And I’m going to answer from the idea of classical or actually lumping both dressages as dressage lumped into both–both classical and Western versus reinning. So for the rest of it, that’s how I’m going to kind of go that–that English versus Western, but I’m going like dressage versus reining. And so for me, when I started looking at number one, it was a lot of just challenges in communication because some of the–a lot of the terminology is not the same. And even if you have the general idea, it’s just that was a funny learning curve. And it has been like, I’ll say, pen, and they’re like, what are you talking about? And it’s an arena and, and it’s all the way from there, all the way down to different movements. Is it haunches in? Is–what’s renvers? Travers? What are all these different words? And so the movements, I might have been able to move the horse around when I was riding a Western horse and calling it, you know, moving the haunches or moving the front end, but then I had to learn all the language of renvers, travers, but all this stuff for my horses didn’t really change much. Now, for me, I purposely go into things looking for similarities. That is one of the ways that I know I choose to approach life like that. So for me, it was really natural to go into the dressage world and say, OK, let me find how this has been living in the world I’m coming from. Where can I find this? So there are definitely differences, but I wanted to see the similarities and so I was able to find them because I was looking for them. So for me, there have been more similarities than there have been differences.

Stacy Westfall: I don’t actually think that would be true for all reiners that decided to try dressage, because there are differences inside of, let’s say, the reining world. There can be a lot of differences of opinion on how reiners want the horses to move or travel. And you see that same discussion, or I do when I’m online looking around in the dressage world, they’ll be different, different opinions on how people think dressage horses should go. And that’s going to be true across different styles of riding because there are humans involved, which means there’s lots of varying opinions. But it happens to be that the transition for me, probably because I do so many other things with the horses all the time, like trail riding or mountain shooting or whatever else I decide to try with the horses. It has given my horses this really solid background. So for me, the transition over wasn’t a huge deal because I was looking for similarities and I was already being pretty well rounded with my horses. But there were differences for sure. The biggest difference would be especially the amount of contact that you ride the horses with when you’re showing them. So that means that when I’m showing a horse in dressage, I’m going to show that horse with contact and many of the movements in the dressage pattern will ask me to be what I’m going to call shaping the horse, but bending and positioning and showing what I can do for shaping that horse, using the reins. And so in the showing of the dressage, there is more contact where when I’m showing in reining, there is less or lighter contact. And so it’s interesting, though, to phrase it like the amount of contact when showing, because one of the reasons why it was not that difficult for me to make the transition over to showing in the dressage is because when I’m training a horse for reining, I’m training that horse with contact so I can shape the body. And then I’m transitioning that into what you might call self-carriage on that loose rein, but I’m still doing the training two-handed and adding the shape to the horses. So for sure, when you see the finished product in the arena showing it looks like a huge difference because the contact is there in the dressage and the really loose rein is there in the reining. That still means I train it at home in contact when I’m doing the reining training, especially in the earlier stages. If you think about starting a horse and riding it for a couple of years before it goes to show for the first time, that’s a lot of riding two-handed to get there in the Western world. So the showing was different. One thing for me that was personally interesting is that when I started going into the dressage arena, I had to really focus on allowing myself to move my body more, allowing myself to shape the horse and basically show that I was doing that contact because I had come from a world where I was used to taking a test where I put the horse down on the loose rein, or if you guys have seen some of the bridleless riding, I put the horse and there’s no reins at all. And so I’m more like taking a test and showing what I’ve done, which is different than showing. It’s a little bit like if you took a math test and it’s like, I want to know if you got the correct answer is like the version of what I was doing in reining where the, I want to see your work, was the version of when I show in dressage. And that took a little while because I would naturally get a little bit hesitant to even show my work while I was showing in dressage. So that was an interesting difference that I noticed. And well, my instructor noticed and was like, hey, you need to move around more. And I’m like, are you sure? That doesn’t seem right here. When I look at it even more, I look and I can see that dressage has brought a lot more precision into some of the way that I ride. Now, that’s interesting because it doesn’t mean that reining is imprecise, because one of the things that I was complimented on early on in my dressage showing was that I was very accurate. So I had a lot of high scores for accuracy, which came from showing in the Western events. But when I see that there’s a precision that dressage has given me, it’s that, maybe if we phrase it this way, reining is precise, but there are fewer things that you do and with more speed, but you’re very precise. You got to get right back to the middle, but it’s on a big circle and you’re kind of making the size of the circle fit the size of the arena. So we don’t have one standard arena size where, in the dressage, they have got the one standard arena size and they’ve got a lot more movements. So the reining might not have as many movements, but you do fewer of them at more speed. And so the dressage has more transitions because there are so many movements. Maybe you’re going to ride 28 movements in a dressage test and you’re going to ride 8 movements in a reining test. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that more transitions in the dressage–it’s just different because there’s more transitions in dressage. But the reining transitions are fewer with more speed and they’re bigger. So it’s a big transition to go from standing still on a loose rein, to spinning as fast as the horse can, to stop and standing still on a loose rein. That’s very big transition, just not as many of them. Same thing in the reining for a run-down sliding stop and roll back. That’s a really big high-energy transition of gain speed, run as–almost as fast as you can, run as fast as you can, still slide well, run down there, slide real smooth, roll back without resistance and lope off in a nice collected move. That’s a very big transition. So, again, maybe you’re only doing 8 of these transitions or movements, whatever you want to look at it like in reining. But they are bigger and they have more speed, where in the dressage I might be doing 28 and they’re they’ve got a different level of precision, but less speed. So it has been really interesting to go back and forth between those two worlds. In the dressage, there are more patterns. Oops, I should actually call them tests because in the reining world there are more patterns and in the dressage world, there are more tests. And the–again, we’ve got a theme going on here–the reining doesn’t have as many patterns, tests. They have fewer, but they involve more speed in those big transitions. So you can kind of start to see a theme. And, and the horses have been really interesting to study both of these things with and get feedback from the horses.

Stacy Westfall: So one of the things that the horses have told me that is different between the reining and the dressage was that I stand still a lot longer between reining movements on a loose rein. So after doing a lot of the dressage, there are times that when I would turn up the energy and do things and stop, I could feel Gabby saying, OK, what’s coming next? Because the hesitations aren’t very long in the dressage and in the reining, they are a lot longer. It’s kind of funny. I was at a dressage clinic that I was auditing once and the person who was teaching knew who I was and they got to a point in their teaching and actually turned around and jokingly said to me, like, why? Why do your horses take a nap in between movements? And I kind of laughed because if you watch a lot of dressage and you compare it to reining, I can see where they would say, like, why are you letting your horse take a nap in between the movements? But the reason that we’re doing that is that we’re demonstrating in the Western world and reining when you do a big movement and then you hesitate and you show that hesitation standing there on a loose rein, it is actually a piece of showing that the horse is willingly guided because it’s showing that the horse is willing to turn up the energy, do this big movement and then stand still quietly for as long as the rider dictates. And I can see, though, after watching a lot of dressage, that it would look like, why are you taking a nap out there? And that’s just a difference in that, you know, end goal kind of a thing. But it was interesting to me coming back and when I started turning up the energy and Gabby had more of a foundation in dressage than she did in reining. And so when I started changing that, I could feel her kind of go like, OK, what’s coming next? So even though it wasn’t like it was being rushed in the dressage, it was not as long and as dramatic a standstill as what I want in the reining. So I’ve been emphasizing that I want her to do a really big high-energy movement and then I want her to just kind of drop into this, like, I could stand here for ten minutes if you want me to. And, and I can feel the difference in training that. And one of the biggest differences, I stand still a lot longer in between, which has some really awesome side effects long term for the horses. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked having the reining training on my horses that I go trail ride with or anything else. I think it’s one of the reasons why a lot of reining horses are sought after. If they don’t excel in the reining, they can still go out and do a lot of the other events, ranch horse and different things like that, because they understand the concept of big high energy and then stand still for a long time. And so I just changed my training. So it’s got stand still for a lot longer in between some things. So some of the things that I’ve gained by doing the different disciplines would be that dressage has really given me an awareness of precision at all gaits. So for sure, after taking up more dressage, I have a lot more things that I do when I’m working on the walk. More than when I was riding Western, the walk especially stands out to me as I do a lot of training in the walk that I just never did in Western. I did a fair amount of training in Western in the trot and, and I now do a fair amount that’s different in the trot. So they’re kind of like they’re–they’re two sides of a coin. It’s like, so I still do a lot of what I always did in the trot with the Western, because a lot of my collected work, when I’m getting ready to work on a spin, is like trotting what you could consider like a like an 8 or a 10-meter circle. So I was always doing that to prep for my spins and working on certain things. Now I’m working on other things in dressage, so I’m trotting in different patterns than I did. But I always did lateral work in the trot to prepare my horse for the lateral work that then came in the lope when I was in reining. So there’s a definite awareness of the more that I can do in all of the gaits. I was always pretty good at the–the trot was a training gate for me in the Western and the, and the lope was a training/showing gait because that’s what we did in reining. Now don’t get me wrong, I did other events in the Western world, so it’s not like I had never shown it at other gaits in the Western world, but just to stick with this, that would be where dressage added more of an emphasis to the things that could be done at the walk and the trot and for sure added more things in the canter. Now, reining has always given a focus to self-carriage. Again, for me, it’s the ultimate test of that loose rein, and what I built when I had the contact. And then when I take the test, I want to test that self-carriage, that loose rein, or, or that bridleless that–that communication and that self-carriage there. But again, I was teaching that and framing that and building that with contact that was like dressage.

Stacy Westfall: I still think the best example is the fact that Popcorn, the quarter horse that I won the Road to the Horse colt starting contest with, that I then earned his AQHA Register of Merit in reining that then did mounted shooting up to a Level 4 and then went to a kid’s summer camp. Yes, in this order, and was ridden there, and then I took him into the classical dressage ring and started showing there. And I had not ridden very many times at all in the different equipment in the–in the dressage saddle and the snaffle bit in the dressage bridle. And the transition was, boom. It was just right there because the foundation was there of having built everything he knew on that contact, like dressage. So moving back to it, we were immediately able to be in the high 60s and low 70s scoring, you know, right off the bat, while I was still trying to figure out what the world I was doing and where it was going. So he, it to me, just, that’s how I take the test and find out how similar my background was. I didn’t start with a different horse. I started with a horse that already had all of that Western foundation that I had trained and then I turned around and just went straight into the dressage ring and said, You guys tell me what I’ve done here because I know what I’ve done here. You just tell me how it fits into your world. And it was–it was a great thing. And then I did learn more. So for me, the interesting thing studying dressage is that when I’m taking the lessons, I would say that there’s a shoulder focus, which is where you have like shoulder fore, shoulder in, and this kind of stuff. So when I’m taking the lessons, I can feel a shoulder focus that’s in dressage that’s a little bit different than Western, where Western has a little bit more of a haunches focus. There is a focus or an emphasis on the haunches. Now, when I say that if you take it to black and white, it sounds like, well, that means that the Western doesn’t focus on moving the shoulders. But if you’ve seen a reining horse spin, that’s a lot of shoulder movement. And if you’ve seen dressage horses doing a lot of their, their upper level stuff, whether they’re doing half pass or whether they’re doing their lead changes or whether they’re doing all this, it’s not like they’re ignoring the haunches. I’m just saying that in the end, they’re both doing both. But the approach is a little bit opposite in some of the different things. So there’s a shoulder focus in the dressage. There’s a little bit of a haunches focus in the Western. At the end, they both are achieving a high degree of control over the horse’s body. So that’s kind of an interesting thing. Now, I am a massive fan of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, like I pulled up the ride that, you know, one of the rides, but the more classic one, the How To Train Your Dragon freestyle that she did. And I pulled that up and started watching it before I started recording this, and I haven’t watched it for a few months now and immediately started getting goosebumps. And I’m talking like the music was playing and she was just coming down centerline like into the arena, not the pen. And as soon as she’s coming in, it’s just giving me goosebumps. And it’s interesting because she was one of the first riders that, you know, I was, you know, trying to learn about it, about dressage and I was stumbling around on YouTube and came across and immediately fell in love, even when I wasn’t, I don’t know, as as educated in the dressage world, if I can call myself educated in it now. But I didn’t even know what I was looking for. And just as a horseman, I could see the quality and I was like, wow. Again, my husband walked through, reining horse judge, and he was like, wow, that is a really nice horse. So we could see the quality of the horse and the quality of the ride, even without knowing exactly what was being looked for, would not have been able to judge it or point out the specific, like this would be what they’d be judging from here to here. But having a higher-level knowledge of the horse training in general, we were both able to see it. And the reason I bring this up is because I received an email actually today. And so when I decided to record this podcast, I was also–I thought it was interesting, I had just read this email and I decided I wanted to tie it in. And basically this was a response to an email that I sent out talking and actually had a video that–one of the links to the Charlotte and Valegro, and it was talking about self-carriage. My email was, and this is a response to it. And this person says, I don’t see how the dressage horse is in self carriage. Would that horse have its head tucked under that much without the double reins? I doubt it. So it seems very unnatural to me. Your horse, however, is carrying itself naturally. I guess I’m missing something. So the two references there are the Charlotte and Valegro video and then I had also linked to a video of one of my bridleless rides. And the point of this email was talking about self-carriage. And what’s interesting to me is that when somebody watches one of my bridleless rides, it’s easy to see the self carriage and the precision. I have said for years that if I put the bridle and saddle on the same exact horse and did the same exact ride that it would be harder for people to see what was there for the self-carriage. And that doesn’t mean that something changed for me and the horse when I put the saddle and bridle back on. What it means is that something changes for the viewer. And the way that I look at it is like this. The other day I was sitting in the living room watching a show on Netflix and there were musicians on this particular episode. Now, these musicians were a background to a main story, and they were not the main thing going on in the episode. But my husband was walking through and he commented that one of these little bands actually sounded good. And again, the focus of the show was not on these musicians, that was just like they were background characters. But what I found interesting in that is that my husband knows music. He plays multiple, multiple instruments. I play zero instruments. I have a general knowledge of music that comes from turning on the radio and listening. So that means I have my opinions of what I like or what I don’t like on the radio, but I have no idea what goes into making it or playing the music or any of that where my husband spent years developing his skill to become a highly-skilled bass player that toured and was offered a record deal at one point. All of this to say he has a trained ear and I don’t. So I’m watching the show and I’m just watching the main characters. And yes, I understand there’s musical things happening in the background, but it’s totally going right past me because I’m not trained in it. And I say this because oftentimes when I’m explaining the contact and, you know, even when I’m talking about the bridleless riding and why, I think there is value in training horses in contact. I totally understand that is harder to see the self-carriage when a horse is in contact. And I only point this out to say that I do see the self-carriage, I feel the self-carriage when I’m riding the horse in contact, I train my bridleless horses in the contact. And I’m not even trying to convince you that you all have to have the same opinion of contact or what i– what is right or what is wrong or this or that. What I am saying is that the bridleless riding makes it easy to see the self-carriage. But if you’re asking or curious about my opinion, absolutely do I see that there are a large number of dressage horses that are in self-carriage, and do I see that there are dressage horses that are not in self-carriage, that are pulling on the riders. Sure, there are the differences. It is so much more subtle to see. You have to have a more trained eye to not–to look past just the contact, or that’s what I’m going to call the framing of the horse. Because what we’re doing a lot of times, and this is what I’m saying is going on behind the scenes when–when I’m teaching my horse how to carry their body, I am doing something to tell them I want them framed in a certain way. Because not unlike me, when I’m exercising, if somebody doesn’t hold me accountable, then I will exercise in a sloppy way that will actually do damage to my body, which is an interesting thing. Like I have watched a lot of horses when I go out on trail rides and I will see horses that are ridden all summer long and they will develop muscling that looks incorrect. And I think, well, how can muscling look incorrect? Well, think about it. If you use your body in an incorrect way, for the way that you should use your body, you actually do damage to things. And it’s not like you don’t know this, and yet you still do it. Like you’ll still sit slouched in the chair. If you’re sitting down right now, how correct are you sitting? And it matters that you admit those things, because that’s all we’re saying with the horses is that when I say that I want to frame a horse up and show it how to use its body correctly, I’m just being its coach, just like the exercise coach is saying, come on, do it like this. If you do it like that, you’re going to have back pain. And if you do it like this, you’re going to get stronger. And that’s what I’m doing when I’m framing up the horse. But for sure, when you watch the bridleless view of it, you can see the self-carriage. Just telling you self carriage can be there with contact. That might be a whole nother episode. Another question that was asked was, will you continue to ride dressage? Absolutely. The cool thing is I was already doing it beforehand. And I so remember when the first time that I met Jane Savoy and was able to hang out with her, I was at a horse expo. And I just remember sitting there and I had just finished a demo. I was riding Roxy. I was sitting there bareback and bridleless, we were talking, she was standing beside the riding arena, and I said, I really want to ride dressage. And at that point my only dressage exposure had been when I was preteen. And so I was standing there and I said, I really want to ride dressage. And she said, You already are. And I said, Well, I want all the clothes and the tack and I want to dress up and I want to go in and I do it. And basically, I was just saying in a fun way that I wanted to know it deeper. But she was telling me I was already doing it. And it meant a lot to me that she told me that. So I’m a solid believer in lifelong learning. Then that’s for me and for my horses. So I love exploring different disciplines. I love exploring a discipline and looking for what I see as very valuable tools and going ahead and taking that. When I’m exploring a discipline, I don’t do anything that I don’t understand. So I’ll slow down and ask more questions. So if you’re deciding to take up something different, you know, ask a lot of questions and only do what you’re comfortable with and make changes over a slow period of time, I personally take all of it and I use it all on trail rides. And sometimes people argue that it’s pointless to train a horse that much and go out on a trail ride. Like, why would you do so much training and do that? But for me, you’ve got to go back to, what is my purpose and what is your purpose? For me, it’s not about training for the trail ride or training for the reining pen or training for the dressage arena. It’s about spending time with my horses and developing a deeper level of understanding. So that means that when I challenge myself and I challenge my horses–and that might be on the trail and that might be in the reining arena and that might be in the dressage arena–that’s what I’m doing, is I’m actually using those as ways to continue exploring the relationship I have with my horses. It would be really great for me if, personally, if I listened to this podcast a year from now and if I could add five or six more discoveries that I made that I don’t even know right now, that would be awesome. My goal is not to be so accurate in this podcast that a year from now, nothing has changed. My goal is to go dive in even deeper, go audit more clinics, go take more lessons, go read more books, go practice on more horses, and make more discoveries in all the areas that I can. Working equitation, I’m coming your way someday. And, and keep on learning so that when I come back to this I go, in–that’s where I was in 2021. Look at where I am in 2022. That’s my goal. What is yours? That’s what I have for you this week. Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

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  1. Joanne on April 29, 2021 at 2:02 pm

    I loved this episode! As an ex-reiner now riding dressage and WD it was so helpful. I totally identify with the part about learning the dressage terminology!!! In my first recognized western dressage test I mixed up rensvers and travers. The judge rang the bell and informed me the correct movement was shoulder-in to RENVERS and in response I blurted out “Is that butt-in or butt-out?” She politely repeated her previous statement…………….LOL

    • Stacy Westfall on May 4, 2021 at 5:26 pm

      ????? that is an AMAZING story! Love it!

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