Episode 133: Collection: Western vs Dressage

How is collection the same…or different between the western world of reining vs dressage? How does relaxation fit in? What changes with the head low? What happens with the horse behind vertical? How does a horses build and the movement being ridden influence these things?
In this podcast I answer these questions and discuss what I have learned by riding the same horse in both disciplines.


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. In this episode, I’m answering a question about collection in the Western world versus the dressage world. Here’s the question.

Caller: Hi, Stacy I have a question for you regarding collection. I learned collection in the reining Western world is something you teach a horse to relax into by slowly getting their body as flexible as possible laterally. I learned not to teach a specific position, but to encourage relaxation and let the head come down naturally as far as the horse’s, conformation and training allows. I learned that collection is not a position, but a feel. When they feel soft in your hands and around in their body, they are collected, whether they are overbridled or on the vertical. I’m transitioning into Western dressage and working equitation and keep running into dressage people speaking really negatively about both bending the horse’s body as much as I do and overbridling past the vertical, how it causes problems in gait and unhappiness in horse. But I know from my own experience my very flexible, overbridled, very relaxed horses and from observing other Western trainers that this isn’t true. I believe getting a horse flexible through their body improves their ability to do any discipline. It’s like starting in gymnastics before moving on to another sport. I am hoping you can help me understand why this difference in collection still exists, why the dressage world is so hard on riders who overbridle, and your opinion on the importance of collection on the vertical. I have really bought into the Western version of collection I was taught and I’m struggling to buy into the dressage version. Thanks for your help.

Stacy Westfall: Well, first I want to thank you for asking this quick and easy-to-answer question. Just kidding. It’s kind of a deep, big subject. But seriously, it’s a deep topic and it’s basically a large group of opinions that people have. And what I’m going to do is I’m going to add my current opinion to the mix in hopes that it will give you and everyone listening something to ponder as they come up with their own opinions. So first, I’m going to go through some of the points that you listed, the ones that I see maybe the two worlds actually have in common, and then I’m going to zero in on the two and a half points that you mentioned where the worlds seem really divided. Yes, I did say 2.5. So first of all, you listed some different things that I thought were interestingly similar when I look at them. For example, you listed that you teach the horse to relax by slowly getting their body flexible and you included laterally. So for sure, when I read all the different dressage books that is definitely a thing. The idea that they’re going to slowly get the horse to relax, going through their body, gaining flexibility, they would say strength, and you can actually see rhythm and relaxation are in the lower levels of the dressage pyramid. So I would say that those are those are actually very similar. Now, you also listed not teaching a specific position, letting the head come down as the horse–as it fit the horse, and I would also argue that it’s not a specific position. It is also, in dressage, what fits the horse’s body type and frame and level. Now, what’s interesting is you put let the head come down. And in a little bit of a way, when I’m in the dressage world, there is a little bit about having the head come up. I’m going to talk about that a little bit later. But basically, when we think about why one discipline would want the head to say, go down and why a different discipline might want the head to go up, that’s where you can take your thinking when you’re wondering, well, geez, why does the Western world want to allow the head down as low as naturally possible where maybe we could say the dressage might be bringing it up as much as naturally possible? See how there’s an intersection there? They’re both looking to stay within the range of the horse’s ability. But why is there a difference there? I’m going to let you ponder that while I move on, and I’m going to touch it again later. You also mentioned that you learned that collection is not a position, but a feel. And I think that still totally rings true in dressage. So they’ve even gone far enough to label the different levels of collection as you go through the different levels of dressage. So training level versus first level, second level, third level. As they go up, they actually have different definitions for the level of collection, which kind of fits right in with what you said. It’s not a position, but a feel. And as you described, they feel soft in your hand. They feel round in their body. Now, again, if you listen to last week’s episode, I talked a little bit about how there is this discussion of like the front to back and the elevation and so you have soft in your hands round in their body. Now, can you appreciate that round in the body could be round and you could tip that forward or you could tip that back so you could tip that to where they might be more weight on the front end versus more weight in the hind end. So there’s kind of a–a tippy-ness or maybe a less precise definition when we say just round versus the way that dressage would outline it. But again, I see similarities in these more than differences, soft and round. It is a feel versus one specific frame.

Stacy Westfall: And then you mentioned people speaking really negatively about both the bending the horses as much as you do, bending them around. And what’s interesting, I’ve actually spent some dressage lessons where my instructor was saying more bend, more bend, more bend. And I was thinking and I actually was saying out loud, really? You’re kidding. I never would have guessed this much bend, which brings up another slight moment I’ll talk about here, which is maybe it has something to do with who you’re speaking with. You know, when you hear people that are speaking really negatively about some of these different things, sometimes those are the best people to be like, oh, tell me more what’s going on here? Like, what do you think about this? Where do you see it negatively? Do you see it negatively reflected right now here in this horse? Or is this more of a theory of negativity around the theory of a horse’s head being in a certain position? Those–when you can find people that will engage in that, that’s really fun. And that’s one of my criteria for who I will take dressage lessons from. It’s got to be somebody who’s open-minded enough to realize I’m riding what I label, typically, a reining horse, and that they’re willing to go in and engage and talk back and forth. And it’s not that one of us is trying to convince the other, but I want to legitimately I want to see what they see. And I’m going to talk about that point a little bit more towards the end of the podcast. Now, I mentioned at the beginning I was going to go through some of the points where I saw you list them and that I actually see them matching. And now I’m going to touch on the two and a half points where there might be a little bit more of a hmmm, maybe this is a little bit of a division.

Stacy Westfall: And so the half one goes to relaxation. So you wrote that you know, the collection was encouraging relaxation and that is a really interesting way to think about it. I think it’s very valid. And on one hand, I would say that both disciplines really want that. The big difference here is that I think when we picture relaxation in general, when I say horse relaxing in the pasture, the relaxation in the pasture is going to look a certain frame and that frame in your mind is probably going to line up more with one discipline than the other unless I tell you to take the one discipline and go to the lower levels of that discipline. Can you see where I’m going here? So it’s kind of another interesting thought that what we picture relaxation as–like right now, I’m sitting here picturing what is relaxation with people? And for whatever reason, sitting on a beach underneath an umbrella just popped into my mind. And that’s relaxation. Well, that’s relaxation, but that’s not relaxation in work. So then I’m like, oh, wait a minute, what does relaxation in work mean? And my brain immediately is like, whoa, like those two don’t go together. And then I’m like, OK, make it go together. Well, I’m feeling somewhat relaxed while I’m sitting here, but I feel very focused while I’m doing this podcast. So it’s relaxed, but it’s focused. So now as you start to explore what relaxed might mean to you and what relaxed might mean when it shows up in the horse’s body, now, it’s like, oh, well when I watch a horse that’s relaxed in reining. Reining tends to have a lower headset. So accidentally the lower headset can look a little bit more like the relaxation that comes with, like sitting on the beach or standing in the shade under a tree in a pasture. And so but wait a minute. But relaxation can also be focused like Stacy sitting, recording a podcast, trying to make sure that her thoughts come across clearly. That’s requiring the extra cup of coffee that she just had and a level of focus and notetaking that happen. That’s sounding a little bit more like maybe the study that would go into dressage in that conversation that would happen. Now, here’s an interesting side note. One of the reasons I took Willow into dressage before reining was because you would think that putting a horse on a loose rein would create relaxation. But for Willow, the loose rein made her feel lost and she felt like she wasn’t quite sure where she was being guided. And, and she was a little like, oh, no, I don’t know what to do with this looseness. I feel like I’m not receiving enough input. And I could have worked through that by just doing a ton of work at home without showing her. But I thought, why not just ride her in a discipline that’s going to encourage contact and go work through this while I’m actually showing. So Willow was much more able to relax in contact than she was on a loose rein. Now, as I’m transitioning to reining with her, she’s so much more experienced from everything I did with the showing in the dressage and Western dressage on contact, now she’s more able to relax and hear me where basically before when I would put her on a loose rein, she has such a high work ethic that even though I wasn’t using techniques that were naturally intimidating, she didn’t like the idea of being in trouble. And she took the transition from loose rein to contact as being in trouble. She wasn’t in trouble, but she acted like she was in trouble. And that’s a tough thing. So the easiest thing for me was to not put her into that super loose rein to super contact as frequently and just go ahead and hold her hand or in this case, hold her reins. So it’s interesting, if you think about it, there are some horses where the contact–and I would argue many horses–the contact will actually help them relax. It actually takes a higher level of responsibility and relaxation to be able to be ridden on the loose rein, That’s why it was only two and a half that they could disagree on because the relaxation could be created in the contact or the loose rein.

Stacy Westfall: Now, let’s talk about the two points where it does look like there’s more division and those would be the head position. The head being low versus the head being high and the overbridle or on the vertical. Now, here’s an interesting thought. What if those two are related? Now, first, let’s look at the head position. Head naturally down as low as the horse naturally wants it or my argument on the dressage side, which is as the horses move up there, is asking that horse to come up more. So first of all, when we look at that, if we accept that we’re both staying within a natural range, then we’re going to say some horses are going to take their heads down more in a natural range and some horses are going to be able to take their heads up more in a natural range. Well, then we also have to say, like, why are we taking the heads up or down or allowing the heads up or down? So if I am riding around on a horse like Willow, and Willow is a great example because she’s not a super naturally low-headed horse, and so what’s interesting about her is that she can go around and let’s say I’m–I’m–let’s say I’m loping circles or maybe I’m even running circles. But like, I’m loping around on circles. What’s interesting about her, she’s not built to be a super low-headed horse naturally. So what that means is that when she drops her head to a certain position, it really starts to influence her front end being even lower. So you can actually see some horses–and so a great example would be look for a really good Western pleasure horse. And what you can see is they’re built with a headset that is very low, which means that when they drop their neck, it’s not necessarily putting the same pull on the withers and the different parts of their body because they’re built different. Oh, you can almost look at it like a flexibility or range of motion thing. That’s not the best way to look at it, because they all put their heads down, eat grass. But what I’m saying is there is something different about the way the horses are built to where they can naturally have a range of motion while still maintaining the balance in their body. So some of it’s conformation, some of it’s training. So we’ll just take the training out. We’ll say where they naturally want to do it. So we go back to Willow. Willow lopes around and let’s say she’s like, cool, I’m allowed to have my head low. So I’ve got my head really low. I can feel as she lowers it beyond a certain point, I can feel where it’s shifting more weight onto her front end. Now, how much weight onto her front end is a problem? Well, that depends on what we’re about to do. First of all, over a lot of time, they will get a lot of times when their head is real low, like low to where I’m feeling this effect. If I don’t do something to maintain it, this is where they’ll start carrying themselves heavier and heavier. They’re not using themselves correctly, they’re not carrying weight on the hind end, you’ll start noticing horses that trip more, and then with her as a training horse, I’ll start to notice that her stops she doesn’t stay as clean in her front end. She might even start to enter spins, change the pivot point from being the pivot point of her haunches, it might start to shift forward more. And these are basically like I’m going to put them in the category of lazier ways to use your body. So right now, if you’re sitting or standing. I want you to look at your body and think, are you in the best position for the use of whatever you’re doing? Are you sitting super correct? Would you get like an A-plus on how you’re sitting or are you going to get like a D or an F? And then same thing when you’re–if you’re standing. Are you standing in a way that would promote good health or are you standing and you’ve kind of got a hip cocked to one side and you’ve got more weight on one leg? So the horses, when they do this, when we let them go completely natural, they don’t always go to something that’s like super helpful for their bodies, just like us.

Stacy Westfall: But anyway, for a moment, we’re just going to say there’s a natural range and it’s interesting that in the Western world we’re letting it go down and sometimes people are making it go down. And in the dressage world, they’re letting it come up or maybe they’re bringing it up or maybe we’ll even say some people are making it come up. But why would, let’s say why would dressage horses want to bring the head up? Well, it’s interesting because the idea would be that as you start to bring that head and neck up, you can potentially help shift that weight onto the haunches more and take–like let the front end be a little bit lighter. But we’re automatically caught in the idea that horses can put their heads down without pulling their heads down and putting their butt up, although that happens. We can also say that a horse can bring the head up and that could shift their weight onto their butt and lighten up that the, the shoulders/wither area or you can bring their head up and actually accidentally shove their withers down and have a really jammy, non-connected, disconnected horse. So basically both have different problems. They both have problems that can be related but when you get into with the head position a lot of times are what movements are coming. And what the overall look of the horse is. So when we go back to your relaxed look, you’re relaxed look works really well when we’re riding around in the reining world, the horses can have these really relaxed moments and then these bigger moments where they change their frame. And we’re going to talk about that a little bit later in the podcast. So what I want you to think about is that some of the movements that dressage is asking for is going to require the horse to, for example, bring that head up more to really lighten the amount of, of pressure that’s happening on the front end to really take more weight. So it could be the extreme of the movement, a little bit like we’re going to talk about sliding stops in a minute and how that changes their body, too. So let’s say that the head position that in both worlds, there’s a range of motion and that some of that is built, it’s built into the horse and it’s also built into the horses training, as in we can influence their strength and position while they’re in that as long as we stay in their natural range. And people would agree with that in both worlds. So that’s good news. It’s kind of not a major breaking point. But this one might be the one that’s the most triggering. And the good news is it’s triggering inside of all the worlds so overbridled or on the vertical. This is a topic that in the dressage world, all by that self like you just in the dressage world, it is a discussion that they have. And here’s what I alluded to a minute ago: I wonder–and my husband and I have had discussions about this as we watch a bunch of videos as I’m showing, and we’re at the different shows and he’s going to the shows and reading and we’re watching and we’re watching videos at home and we’re talking–and so it is kind of interesting to think about. When you think about bringing a horse back to vertical, if you just stand here and pretend to be a horse and so you can even do this with your own like hand. So your hand can represent the horse’s head at vertical and from your elbow to your wrist can be the horse’s neck. And you can actually kind of feel where if you have your arm kind of straight so my elbow to my wrist is horizontal and then I’m just going to let my hand hang down. It kind of gets close to vertical. Now, what’s interesting is when I raise my wrist up higher than my elbow, if I want that to come back to vertical, can you feel how that joint there’s something different going on in that wrist joint? Now, here’s an interesting thing. Come back down so that your wrist to elbow is straight and your hand is hanging and mine is hanging pretty close to vertical. Now start bringing your head lower and see if your hand comes behind vertical. I mean, you’re going to have a little tension there, but you get what I mean, like just holding the same position. If you do nothing but keep your hand in that same position, just kind of lock your hand at ninety degrees, raise your wrist higher and drop your wrist lower. And what’s interesting is the one that’s easier is when you drop your wrist lower than your elbow, your, your hand automatically comes behind vertical without even changing the angle that would be happening in the horse’s throat. So I hope you followed all that. But if you did, you can actually add a whole nother layer of thinking with what overbridled is. So overbridled might be a different discussion, depending on where the horse’s head and neck is. Now. Are you going to be able to march into a dressage show and make that as a statement and have a wide range of people all applauding you? Probably not. But all I care about right now is that you’re following along with the concept and then you can take that and you can start exploring that as you watch videos, as you watch horses, as you see them go around, because you said, you know, from your own experience with your very flexible overbridled, very relaxed horse, that this isn’t always true. And I’m saying maybe this is another way for you to explore it, because a lot of times when the Western horses that I’m around that look, the way you describe, very flexible overbridled and relaxed, their heads are low. And it does, it changes the way that that joint happens. And so, yeah, I, I can see where you could have this, this confusion. Now as you start to bring the horse up, if you decide to experiment, like what I’m experimenting with with Willow and Gabby, as you bring the horse up into some of the different movements, let’s say you want to start working on Canter pirouette. What you’re going to find is that as you start experiment–experimenting with different movements, that at least for the training of the movements, you’re going to have to let the horses explore their own bodies in different ways. They’re going to use their head and necks in these different ways as they try to figure out and work out how this works with the hind and how this works with the front end, how they how much you want them to turn, where your balance is, and where their head neck is. And then you’re going to experience something else, which is the fact that a horse that’s learning it, being in a certain frame is easier than what is the finished product. So let me say that backwards. The finished product horse can be like, got it. Totally understand where my body’s supposed to be. Now, what do you want me to do with my head? Because I can do six different positions that they’re all totally fine. Where the horse that’s learning it’s like, oh, my goodness, I have no idea what you want, you want me to do all of this and then what? So in that example, a lot of times it’s easier if the horse is out in a certain frame in the head because then it takes away one other question while they’re trying to figure out how they’re supposed to do this with their front it their, their hind end and their shoulders and moving the left or the right at the speed and whatever else. So it’s almost like instead of introducing an extra thing, we could just be like, and verticals the answer. You know, that’s just it for now. Then we can add a different layer. So can you see how like the, the vertical or even in front of vertical could be a good teaching place versus, versus where the horse, when they understand how to use their body fully, it opens up a whole nother layer of possibilities? That’s what a lot of times when I say–when I talk about the bridleless riding, I taught my horses using the bridle because I was influencing their body. I was influencing their shoulders, I was influencing their haunches. I was influencing a lot of different things. And then when I was done, it was almost like the head and neck. I mean, when I took the bridle off, I didn’t have control over where they put it and they put it into a lot of these natural, pretty positions that you see on the videos. But what’s interesting is it was sort of out there as this like extra. Like it didn’t matter as long as I had control over the shoulders and the hips in that body, then they could just kind of use that head naturally. But that’s also where I think a lot of times at the end of it, like, you can move the horses, when they understand movements really well in, let’s say, the reining world, then it’s almost like, oh, well, then we can just put the head wherever we want because, you know, so it’s a pleasure horse. We want to put the head low. That’s fine, because they already know how to carry their withers high and to stay engaged. And yet this one’s built so that this is going to be reasonably easy for it. There we go. We kind of dress it up by putting this head position here. So can you see how the dress-up head position is different than the training head position? And the horse totally experiences that difference when they’re learning. There’s times when I’m asking you to do something and they’re like, what? That’s totally impossible. Well, I know as a trainer who’s trained hundreds of horses, it’s not totally impossible. But for that horse who’s never done that before, the horse is like, no, really, this is totally impossible. So, you know, it’s, it’s kind of fun when you can understand it from both sides.

Stacy Westfall: Now, what’s interesting is that when I say that the head can be this like, you know, this, this kind of tool that we’re using to get to the body is kind of we can at the end of the time, just for, just for fun language I’m going to say at the end we can just put it wherever it’s kind of like dress-up or whatever. Now, what’s interesting is that in both worlds there is this, OK, your horse is listening to more than just your reins. And so at the end of the day, you’re totally, when you’re exploring both worlds, find that we’re trying to get the horses tuned in on the rider’s body, the seat, the legs, the aides outside of the reins. That’s true in both worlds. Now, what’s interesting is when I look at the different–when I’m riding Willow, for example, on the very loose rein, and I’m teaching her, it’s almost like I’m teaching her to pick up on the vibration in the rein. It’s super light. It’s like, OK, be very light, pick up on the movement of my hand, not because you feel my hand directly, but because you feel my hand. Move the rein, and you respond to the vibration of the rein versus when I ride you in dressage and I want you connected. So now the rein is almost just part of my arm and now you’re responding to a movement that I make in my elbow as well as my seat and legs. So, assume the seat and legs are there. The rider’s body is being detected at both. Now we put them into the reining world and we’re saying detect the vibration of the rein, and in the dressage world, we’re saying detect the rider’s arm. So the thing that stays the same there is that the horses are adjustable to the rider. The thing that is different is the amount of contact and again, the movements that are being asked for. So here’s what’s interesting. There are problems that I can see on both sides of this. So some common problems that I see with contact is that when you have contact with the horse’s mouth, it shows more flaws than the loose rein, does. What the heck do I mean by that? So let’s just imagine that I am going to run down to a sliding stop and then a rollback. If you’re not sure what that is, that means I’m going to build speed. So I’m going to, I’m going to pick up a lope and I’m going to build speed to, let’s say, three-quarters of the fastest I can run with this horse. And I’m going to say, whoa, when the horse is going to slide and then I’m going to cue the horse in a rollback means that right at the end of the slide, the horse is going to turn 180 degrees and lope back out on the same tracks we just came in on. If I do that, that is a very big move when the horse goes from the sliding stop and we’re just pretty much talking about the rollback here, the rollback is that at the at that–they’re–they’ve slid to the stop and right at the right as they’re just at that moment when–when the horse is either going to settle down into the stop or not. That’s when I’m going to cue them and they’re going to take that energy that’s right at the apex there. And they’re going to boom, kind of come back through in a rollback. Now, if I run down, they’re going to do that on a really loose rein, or let’s go crazy in our heads and let’s take the bridle off. I run down there, do the sliding stop. Let’s say I have no bridle on. I do the rollback and let’s say that my horse does a little bit of what I used to do when I was doing sit-ups in high school. And I would throw my arms when I was doing my sit-up because throwing my arms made it not really a sit-up. This is what my teacher said anyway. But it really helped me because it was just like I didn’t have to do the core work. So let’s just say during that rollback that my horse has that same idea that my horse goes, hey, if I wing my head like this, it kind of makes the whole rollback easier. The horse doesn’t actually care about what the judge’s opinion is and there’s no bridle on this imaginary horse so do whatever, horse. So the horse kind of flips its head while it does the rollback. We leave 180 degrees over the over the tracks. Now, here’s this. That was on a loose rein. How much resistance to the rider was there? Well, there’s no bridle, so how do you count that? Hm, don’t know. Now I run down through there on contact, say I pulled on the horse during the sliding stop just a little bit like just made contact. I cued for the rollback exactly the same and the horse flips the head. But with contact, it looks like resistance even though without contact, the horse was still flipping the head in this imagination thing. But it doesn’t look like resistance because there’s nothing to touch. So contact shows more of the flaws than the loose rein does. Contact can also–many of us know this, and this is what sometimes people see when they look at dressage. Contact can create heaviness. Doesn’t have to, but it has the potential for creating heaviness. It’s hard to create heaviness on the loose rein if we are just judging the contact. Typically heaviness on the loose rein is heaviness on the front end the way the horse moves. But it’s not heavy in the mouth because we don’t have any contact on the loose rein. So contact can show more flaws and it can create heaviness. Now the loose rein can hide contact issues so it can make it seem easier to ride. So you can get this idea. You can be like. I’m going to go out and I’m going to ride this horse. This horse doesn’t, doesn’t, you know, doesn’t prefer contact or when I–when I asked the horse to turn to the left, it wants to toss its head because it’s resisting the contact. So I’m just gonna ride it on the loose rein, and then I ride it on loose rein, and hopefully it turns. If it turns, it all looks like it’s going well. If it doesn’t turn then I’m kind of like, well now I need to make contact. And the horse doesn’t like contact. So the loose rein can hide contact issues so it can make it seem easier to ride. But that doesn’t play out really well long term if there’s actually a contact issue. Now, loose rein can allow the horse to hide. Let’s talk about that for just a minute. What do I mean? It means it can allow the horse to hide. So what do I say hiding is? I say hiding is when it–when the horse–when you’re–when the horse moves the head but it doesn’t affect the body or the feet. So the horse will kind of can kind of hide their head. So Willow likes to go into hiding, even though I’m not making her go into hiding. She goes there on her own. So I’m loping around a loose rein. Very funny as I lope around a loose rein, she will actually tuck her little chin more and more, even though I haven’t trained her to do that. But she’s kind of like, hey, there’s no contact here and there’s no contact here. And she’s kind of searching and she doesn’t search out as much as she searches kind of back in there. But then when I go to take hold of her, she will actually, as the, as the contact comes out of the rein, a lot of times she’s trying to hide from the contact, kind of duck and dove, like, not want the contact to happen. It’s actually not as bad as what I’m making it sound but just to illustrate it fully, like sometimes the loose rein can allow the horse to hide, which is one of the contact issues that I’m talking about when I say loose rein can hide contact issues. So contact issues tend to be that they either don’t want you to touch them or if you touch them, they kind of resist by kind of flipping their head and pulling the reins out of your hand. Both are a version of, don’t touch me. And so the loose rein can kind of hide that. And so. I think when I slow it down and I start thinking about my experience in both worlds, reining and dressage, there’s a whole bunch of different intersections happening here. I’m going to cover just a few more, hoping to add clarity, also understanding that I could be adding lots of layers. And you might have to listen to this more than once to dissect them. A lot of times people will write and say, you know, you could have made that into like a couple of different episodes. And I’m like, yeah, but look how much more this is.

Stacy Westfall: So let’s move into yet another episode worth of stuff. Let’s go back to that other idea that I said at the beginning, who you listen to matters. So like personally, I think I can bend and move my body parts as a Western rider pretty darn well. And I’ll go to some of my dressage lessons and as I move up through the levels, there are times that she’ll be like more bend, more bend, more bend. And I’ve actually been like, really, really. And it’s fun because she’ll be having me do that and I’ll be looking–she has mirrors on the walls and I’ll be looking. Now when I’m saying really, really? And she’s saying more and more, a lot of times the biggest difference isn’t how much I’ve bent my horse before. It’s actually where the balance point is on the horse as I’m bending it. So now if you take your hand and you make it into a shape and you think about this as like, this is like, the horse can be bending and moving the hip and let’s say that you’ve got your–and my hand is bending to the right, so my fingertips are to the right and the heel of my hand is to the right. And so that would be like the horse’s head and the horse’s haunches. So we can bend that will the horse can be moving and they can be moving with the haunches leading the way, or they can be moving with the shoulders leading the way. They can still have the same C shape in their body, but there’s a different balance point. And so for some of the more advanced movements that I’m playing with in my lessons, it’s like she’s bending my–having me bend my horse around in these different ways but the balance point is different, say, for the Canter pirouette or something like that. And so it might be the same amount of bend is what you’re thinking and doing, but it’s a different balance point depending on where I’m doing and also what level I’m riding. So that amount of bend and movement wouldn’t be appropriate in my first level tests, like it might be in my fourth level tests. So that might be where some of this confusion is coming into. So who you listen to and in what context does matter. Now the stages of training, which is kind of what I just started alluding to there a little bit when I said first level versus fourth level is also really an interesting way to look at this. So reining automatically jumps in at a higher level. So reining is going to automatically jump in at, I don’t know, maybe third level in dressage? It doesn’t line up super perfect because the movements aren’t anything the same. So it’s not like you’re comparing movement to movement. But the reason this matters in this discussion is because sometimes in the Western world, we rely on the movement to teach the horse about using the body. So let’s think about this. Let’s think about how that might be different than it is for dressage. So in dressage, it might be like, you know, we’re teaching the horse a lower level movement and then we’re building that first level, second level, third level all the way up through. Let’s take a reining horse, and in a lot of reining programs, you start teaching the horse to do a sliding stop. Well, in the process of teaching the sliding stop, the horse learns to reach forward to the bit. So they do it because they’re balancing, so they learn to reach out forward to contact. And this is another great example of where the horse is finished, what they can do with their heads when they already know how to do the sliding stop is different than them learning the sliding stop, although not super different, because one day I sat down and counted the number of sliding stops inside of one of the reiner magazines, and there were about 100 of them. And, and 80 percent of those were horses sliding, reaching into contact. That means reaching in front of vertical reaching as in you could see that they were pulling contact, direct rein, on the rider’s hands. Don’t count stallion ads because those were not show pictures where they were–that’s like a setup thing. But even if you count the stallion ads, there won’t be that many where they’re not actually kind of touching the contact. If they are, they’re doing some kind of bridleless or some kind of photoshoot like that. It was really amazing to look through at a show–winning show photos of sliding stops and see how many the horses are reaching forward into contact. They’re doing it because of balance. So where in the dressage world they might teach the horse to reach forward in the reining world, maybe the horse is learning to reach forward because they’re learning to reach for balance. So that’s what I say, that’s what I mean when I say that the sliding stop might be what’s teaching the horse to reach out there. And what’s interesting is I take another example with Willow and say that, OK, let’s say she’s loping around and she’s, she’s, you know, got her head in one position. We start running down. Maybe she starts changing her position in the rundown, or you can watch some that will keep their heads kind of at this one position in the rundown and then as soon as the rider says, whoa, they switch into that position with the very engaged hocks, the very elevated withers, the loose front shoulders and the reaching out to the bit, and then they rollback and then they’re back on loose, loose rein, and the horse is wherever it is. So the way that I would describe this when I was trying to work through this myself, going back and forth, I was like, oh, OK, the contact and what you want for that feeling–when I’m at my dressage lesson, I had this revelation. I was like, the–the feeling you want is that feeling I get at this moment, this moment, and this moment in reining. Totally understand it. I’m not saying I tried to convince them that I understood it because of this, but I truly even to this day know that I totally understand it because of these moments in reining. And I was like, oh, you just want me to take the contact I have in those moments and you want me to ride an entire movement. Movements versus moments. So in the moments I’m getting at, moments of this in the reining and then in between, I’m, I’m riding on this loose rein, and you’re not seeing that. Now, then in the dressage, they’re wanting me to carry that moment for a much longer time throughout an entire movement. And I was like, oh, that’s cool. I think I could have both. What if I could have both? So that’s what I’ve been exploring. Can I have both? And what’s interesting is that when we talk about putting the horse on the loose rein and letting them be relaxed, that’s sort of like a lot of the–a lot of our reining horses lope around in something that would be more like a first level frame. That’s just the idea of the way they’re carrying their balance. So it’s a different way to look at it versus it being a problem.

Stacy Westfall: So what’s interesting is that when I started taking dressage lessons, I already knew how to start colts and teach, you know, sliding stops and do all these different things. So when I was looking at the dressage and taking lessons in it and really investing in it, I started to realize that there were definitely things in the dressage that I already knew from, let’s say, starting a colt. So when I’m starting a colt, I want them in front of vertical and I want them reaching into contact. I ground drive my horses. I don’t know if if you’ve ever driven before, but when you are teaching your driving, you’re teaching horses to accept contact because that’s what they have to do with the reins. Like it’s all you got is the reins and so it’s interesting because I could see where there were pieces that were already there and there were just differences in the way that we were polishing things off later on. And so I’ve always wanted my horses very moldable and very shapeable and so right now, when I’m starting to work on Willow and taking her and showing her–so I took her and showed her the last–it was a couple of weeks ago. I took her to her first reining show where I showed her and showed her in her very first reining pattern and scored a 70. Went in with the goal and that’s, for those of you who don’t know, it’s like going in and just kind of like staying correct the whole way through. And so that was what I wanted to go in, I wanted to kind of get a baseline, I went in, I got a baseline that was a 70, didn’t want to push, didn’t want to do too much, didn’t need to underdo a lot. So I just kind of went in and cruised through and like, cool. That’s a pretty cool starting point. So now I want to continue tuning up the reining, but I’m not going to lose the ability to make contact. I will have separate cues for what I want. That is a very adjustable horse. When you can have a horse that you can ride on the contact and taken to the dressage or the ranch riding–So I showed Gabby and Willow in the ranch riding and I tied for first with Gabby and tied for second with Willow. We scored like 75 and a half and 74 and a half. Turns out the Western dressage is an excellent way to get ready for ranch riding. My horse has had really good trot. And so what is interesting is that I want a very adjustable horse adjustable to the point where sure. When I go in and I go to do the dressage stuff and they want me to have more contact, I’m like, sure, I’ll go ahead and do that. Now, here’s an interesting thing. Last year when I was getting ready for the Western Dressage World Show, which was online, I made videos riding Willow in third and fourth level tests one-handed, and I took them to my coach and said, What do you think? And she said, Why one-handed? And I said, Because I wanted to. Why? What do you think? And she said, I think you’re riding third and fourth level movements in a first-level frame. And I stopped and I was like, oh, I watched it again and I thought, I actually agree. So what I know from doing both the reining and the dressage is that I can bring her hind end under her more and bring her shoulders up more with different contact so I can change that frame from that first level frame to that third and fourth level frame because of different contact. Now, will that always be true? I believe that I could train the higher-level frame one-handed, but not that year. I was going to need more time, so I wasn’t there yet. And so I went ahead and I actually rerecorded the tests and submitted them riding two-handed because I did agree that the frame changed depending on it. And again, Willow, it–has a tendency on a loose rein, when I give her a loose rein sometimes she’ll try to hide. Now, what’s interesting is if I ride Gabby on a loose rein a lot, she has more of a–she complains when I make contact. So Willow when I give her a loose rein, will be a little bit like, oh, what can I do to stay on the loose rein, and not have any contact? And Gabbie’s like I’m on a loose rein, this is great. And then when I go to touch her Willow tries to like move her feet and go somewhere and be like how can I get–how can I move? And she’ll try to hide. I call it hiding because she tries to avoid the contact. And then Gabby’s the opposite. Gabby’s like, hey, don’t touch. I’ve already got this. No need to touch. And she kind of wants to–she’ll kind of pull on me more. So that’s what I’m saying. Again, when I say that the contact shows the issues, I can make both of my horses look pretty on a loose rein. But when I’m training at home, I want to address the issues and then I’m going to go and do what I do when I go to the shows. When I’m making contact and I’m keeping my horse at vertical, it helps a lot of the different movements while they’re being trained. And that just tells me that the frame is useful. And then after I’ve taught my horse how I can adjust them up and down and left and right, then I train them and I can dress up the front end, dress up the head and neck any which way that I want to.

Stacy Westfall: Well, I’ve been editing my new lead change course. I’ve been making sure to put in things like in the Western world we teach it like this with the hips moving this direction and this is the C shape. And then it’s actually kind of similar but in the dressage world, this is how the same C shape would show up, but with a different balance point. And so what I’m going to do to continue exploring this so I can answer it even more for you in the future, I’m going to continue taking Willow along the reining path for a while and then I’m going to take her back into dressage. So I think it’s going to be really interesting to take her up higher in the reining world and then go back and start working on fourth level and Prix St. George tests. Then I’ll be able to give you even more answers into this. And I totally understand why you’re saying that you are struggling to buy into the dressage version of collection. I think when you when you look at it, it can look like, oh my goodness, like all of this stuff seems so, you know, conflicting. Remember, some of it can be a language barrier and some of it can be the person that you’re talking to and their beliefs. I started looking for where the dressage might be right, where they might have something to offer, and inside of doing that, I was also able to find out pretty easily places I was already using their theory whether that was in my young horses, whether that was in the sliding stop, and then I was easily able to remember the inside of whatever world you’re in, be that the reining world or the Western dressage world or the dressage world, even inside of those worlds, there are different opinions. So I already knew that from being in the reining world. And so and then I read about it in the dressage world, there’s going to be different opinions inside of anything that you do. And at the end of the day, as you’re exploring it, you can keep an open mind. Just don’t do anything that offends you when you’re working with your horse. You sound like you’re already pretty happy with your horse. But what you’re doing is you’re, you’re developing your own opinions on the way. So I believe a horse can be too soft. And I define it as when the horse avoids the contact with the rider’s hands and just says no. So Willow will have moments where she’s like, I don’t know. And then she’ll, she’ll allow me. So I work on that because I want her to reach into the contact. I know she could be prone to avoiding that and I believe that’s a problem. Now, I could easily find other professionals that would totally disagree. They would say, no, you can never have a horse too soft. And so that’s why I say this is a whole collection of opinions. Now, one great thing about the Western dressage, and you mentioned working equitation, which I haven’t done yet, so I’m not going to speak about that one. But in Western dressage, the judge is going to write comments and then you can decide whether you agree with them or not. When I go to a show, I look at it like this. It is an opportunity for me to get feedback. And I totally understand that I’m going in and I’m playing by someone else’s rules. So I look at those rules before I go, because that’s what I want to know. Am I–what am I signing up for? What’s the target? Is it within a range I’m comfortable? Now I can go to any show and get feedback. I mean, that might be and I place dead last. It might mean I do well. Either which way I’m going to get feedback and then no matter what that feedback is, I can choose what I want to do with it. So, for example, it sounds like you’re pretty happy with your horse and you might learn that you go to a show and you ride the horse through Western dressage tests and the judge gives you feedback and you read it and I would encourage you to understand what the judge meant. So if they say, you know, needs blah, blah, blah, you know, head should be blah, blah, blah or whatever, go explore that because you want to learn, not necessarily because you’re going to change. You know, there’s a lot of times when I go in and I show and my scores are low because I’m not playing by their rules. I’m going out and I’m using it as my own test. So if I go out there and I show in let’s say a ranch riding class, but I hold my horse in a frame that I want to practice because of something else that’s coming up, then I’m just playing by a different set of rules. But they’re judging me by their declared set of rules. So don’t get confused. You don’t always have to do exactly like what’s going to have this, you know, though it might not be the winning outcome, but you’ll still get feedback. Now, you could go to the show. You could–I would encourage you to ride your horse the way that you like and then get the feedback, which might mean they tell you something that they want to see changed. Or you might go to the show, you might read the rules ahead of time and you might say, well, you know what? For this, I’m willing to adjust this. This doesn’t seem like a major adjustment. I’m going to go ahead and play with it. What do I need to adjust to do that, to play by these rules? And that would be basically adding more layers of training. Or maybe you go in and everybody’s been telling you all their different opinions standing around outside and they’ve got you all scrambled up and your head is completely confused. You might go in there and you might ride your horse, making yourself happy with your ride. And the judges might really like it, too. And that’s super fun because a lot of times what’s being talked about is different than what it feels like when you go ride it. So what the heck? If you’re not going to hurt anything I say, go ride it and get more feedback and then choose what you do with it.

Stacy Westfall: And if any of you are interested in understanding more about this amount of bend and this body positioning and the contact that I’m talking about, my course on improving steering and teaching neck reining actually shows Presto’s first rides under saddle. It then shows how I use the inside rein only, how I transition to using the inside and outside rein only, how I ride and what I call balanced hands, which is essentially what you would do in dressage. And then it shows how I transition a horse into neck reining. So if you’re interested in really understanding this contact and this adjustability, I have a course that is very detailed and shows you all of the stages from the beginning, all the way up through the advanced neck reining in a way that you can really clearly understand and teach to your own horse. So I hope that helped sort things out a little bit. Thank you for your question. Thanks to everyone for listening. And I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com For articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

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  1. Leather Halters on June 11, 2021 at 11:16 am

    Enjoyed this podcast. It is very helpful for many peoples who like to train their horses.

  2. Laurie on June 2, 2021 at 4:18 pm

    I really enjoyed this podcast. I do get confused at the variety of opinions about the training of our horses. It especially struck a cord with me when you talked about a horse being too soft and how some say you can’t have a horse too soft. My mare is in that category. I’m still struggling with getting her to zero on the teeter totter. I would be very interested in the group class that you talked about where you view and critique our videos. Thank you for doing these podcasts and all the other training that you provide. I just got your book “Smart Start” and am loving it. It’s cleared up a few questions that I had about some things. Again thank you!

    • Stacy Westfall on June 23, 2021 at 6:51 am

      I just posted links to the classes on the homepage of this website?

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