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Re-training a saddlebred for dressage

From: Diana

I appreciate your thoughtful advice and learn a lot from reading your articles, so I'm turning to you with this question -- how would you go about retraining a showhorse saddlebred for dressage? I have found a nice saddlebred, but his background has been as a 5-gaited showhorse as a western pleasure show horse. His life at 6 is to be kept inside in a dark barn most of the time, trained along the aisle of the barn, and then ridden in shows. Period.

He has good conformation and good bone, not the extreme swan neck or the other unfortnate parts of the ASB show horse look. His gaits look pretty normal and feel smooth as silk. In his present western pleasure training, he is trained NOT to extend his trot, so I'm not sure how it will look if he is re-trained, but considering what his training has been, his gaits are pretty regular looking. Of course, he does not have the floaty, highly suspended warmblood gaits, but all the same, regular and steady he goes. I would like to use him for lower level dressage, as well as hunter pace, trail, fun shows. His living situation with me would involve all-day turn-out in a 30 acre pasture with five geldings, and he'd only be in the stall to eat and for a few hours at night. This may seem crazy, but he seems like such a nice fellow, I somehow think he could make the change both in terms of training and life-style.

If so, where would I begin? He's had so little exposure to the natural world, I thought first I'd send him to my very good cowgirl trainer friend, for a month or two, thinking he may benefit from some trail riding around her place, sacking out, and gentle exposure to some real-world experiences. She also has a small herd he could live outside with in a normal pasture.

As to his gaits and training him in a dressage way, I was told that he has been ridden with NO leg, except as a go faster command; that he thinks that if your hands are low that means to raise his head; and that if you signal him to increase speed at a trot that means canter. So, where do we start and what do we do to re-train?

I really look forward to your ideas. A dressage trainer I talked to said her problem would be that she has no clue what saddlebreds do in the saddlebred training world, so she hasn't got the cross-over knowledge to know what to re-train. Thanks so much. Diana

Hi Diana!

My question for you is this: Do you enjoy the long, slow process of developing and training horses? If you don't, then don't tackle this project. If you DO, then read on.

The best thing in the world for this horse would be to have six months in a field before ANY retraining begins - or three months in a field followed by another three months with very short training sessions every two or three days. It will be much more comfortable for him, and easier for you, if he can adjust to the new environment and management style before you add re-training to the mix. This horse will need to be able to start over from the very beginning, more or less from "square one".

In addition to the total change in his environment, he'll need to make equally dramatic changes in his body. Before he can begin constructive re-training, he will need to lose a lot of the muscle, posture, and movment that he's had to develop for show purposes. He'll also need to learn to use his body in a new way - one that is better for him, but he'll still be sore at first. If you let him hang out in the pasture for at least a few months, he'll be changing his musculature in a way that will get him much nearer a good starting point for his new training. Even for a horse with basically good conformation and nice natural gaits, it will be infinitely harder to make the physical changes if he has to go directly from "show horse body and movement" to "dressage horse body and movement", and it may not be successful - those are HUGE changes. If you let him relax and be a pasture potato, and then start to rebuild his body, you're far more likely to achieve your goals.

Don't make too many changes in his life at once. Even the best-adjusted, most sane and sweet animal can become utterly disoriented and fearful when there's nothing familiar in its environment. I know you're eager to give him the life you've described, which really does sound wonderful, but please plan to take a lot of time and introduce each new element singly.

First, be careful with the turnout - introduction to pasture turnout should take place over time, possibly quite a lot of time. Begin by putting him in a stall. Just being in a normal stall in a normal barn, with plenty of air and light, will already require a big adjustment on his part. Ideally, the stall should have an attached run, but keep it closed for the first few days or week, as long as it takes him to show that he's comfortable in his new stall. Take one of the horses you plan to turn him out with, and put that horse in the next-door stall so that they can get to know one another. When he's adjusted to that, I'd open up the attached run, so that he can get used to more space, get the idea of being outdoors, and get to know and be friendly with his next-door horse first, for a few weeks at least. Then, if they become buddies, you can eventually turn him out in a small area with that other horse, and if that goes well, wait a few weeks before introducing the two buddies into a larger pasture with the other horses. You'll have to pay close attention, though, and notice how well your new horse manages to deal with the other horse before you even think of putting him out with a group. If he's been in show barns since he was a foal, which is entirely possible, he may not have the necessary socialization skills to be part of a herd - in other words, he may not "speak horse". If he's got a relaxed, laid-back personality, he may be able to learn some of those skills, but it will take time. He will also need to learn about uneven terrain, dust, mud, trees, and fences - all things that you and your other horses take for granted. He'll need to learn about light and air and weather, too - again, these aren't familiar to him. Don't take ANYTHING for granted - what you have is the equine equivalent of the "boy in the bubble", and nothing about normal farm life will seem normal to him. If he was raised for show, he may never have had anything approximating a normal life.

When you do start work with him, focus on ground work at first. Handling, sacking out - that is, proper sacking out, which is simply gentle, progressive desensitization to certain things, and equally gentle, progressive sensitization to other things.

Before you ever ride him, he should learn how to use his belly and stretch his back, and he should understand what the rider's legs are for. You can teach all of this from the ground, using belly lifts to teach him to engage his belly muscles (this will be hard for him at first, and uncomfortable, so ask often and be satisfied with ANY result) and your hand on his side to teach him to reach forward with each hind leg in turn and step away from leg pressure when asked.

Once you've achieved that, I would start him in dressage training in exactly the same way that you would start a horse that had never been out of the pasture in its life. Begin with leading, parallel leading, and longeing, then move on to long-lining and riding. Take everything slowly, teach him in tiny increments with lots of repetition and lots of praise. If you're at all interested in clicker training, try that. Most Saddlebreds are very intelligent and eager to please, and take to clicker training quickly and easily.

This may not sound like such a big project, but what I've just described will probably make up his first eighteen months with you.

Don't think of this as time wasted - it isn't. Think of it as time invested - which it will be. With any luck, you'll come out of it with a balanced, confident, seven-and-a-half-year-old Saddlebred ready to begin serious dressage training. And don't forget that the first few levels of dressage are just a matter of developing basic riding-horse muscles, movement, understanding, and skills. Don't get caught up in the competition mystique. Dressage is a wonderful way to make your horse the best horse he can be, strong and supple and confident and happy, so keep THAT in mind at all times.

Remember he will revert when you go to your first competition or event - of any kind. It's what he knows best - right now, it's all he knows! Be prepared. No matter how well you've taught and trained and conditioned him, the first time you go somewhere that "feels" like a show to him, his head will come up, his back will drop and stiffen, and his hocks will suddenly be behind him instead of under him. So plan to take him to a few events just as a spectator - not to participate, but to walk around the grounds, hand-graze, eat some treats, maybe do a little quiet longeing in a corner, maybe even hack around the grounds if he isn't too nervous. Make it pleasant and change his expectations.

It's possible that things will progress more quickly than this - it's also possible that the process of remaking this horse will take longer. Either way, it's for the horse's benefit, and as long as both of you enjoy the process, it will be time well spent. Just remember that everything takes longer when it's a matter of building a series of new habits to replace old habits, new muscles to replace old ones, etc. Even the most intelligent and most willing horse will need time and sympathy to make the necessary changes.

There are quite a few factors working FOR you here. You have a lovely attitude and, I think, the willingness to take the time to do the work correctly. You have a physical setup that will allow your horse to ease into a much more normal life. You have a helpful friend - and you have an honest dressage trainer. With those assets and your own good attitude and good sense, there's no reason you can't take on this retraining project if you want to try it. Saddlebreds can live a long time, and they're a real delight to work with. If yours has a good build for dressage, which many Saddlebreds DO (it's one of the best-kept secrets in the dressage world: Saddlebreds can make WONDERFUL dressage horses), a year or two of careful work now could create a beautiful, happy horse that you'll be able to ride and enjoy for the next fifteen years or longer. That would be very nice for both of you.

Good luck - and please keep me posted.


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