Dressage with Off-Breeds: The Failure Trap to Avoid

You know your horse isn’t the “typical” dressage horse. Maybe his breeding is unusual, or just not what we usually see in the ring. Maybe his gaits are not beautiful by nature, or maybe he has less than perfect conformation. Maybe you are proud of this, or maybe you are self-conscious about it. Regardless, he is your chosen dressage partner and together you and he are embarking on a journey. As you go along, you will come across significant challenges, and when you do, there is a danger you need to guard against.

Expected Failure

We all love the fairy tale stories of the odd mutt-bred horses that make it up the levels, the inspiring ottb that overcomes the odds despite his rough start at the track, the PMU rescue, the mustang, and even just the plain old Craigslist diamond in the rough. There are SO many stories of these horses “making it”, that many of us keep trying with whatever horse we have, even though we know the odds are against us. But do we really believe we can succeed despite the odds? Or do we, deep down, believe that success is a fairy tale and we are not princesses?

I’ve seen over and over where a rider, and often her trainer as well, expect the horse to fail. They expect that he’ll never be able to collect, do a good lengthening, or do great lateral work. They expect that he will struggle, or resist. I’ve been on the receiving end of comments from trainers who’s help I’ve enlisted, who in a sometimes more and sometimes less blunt way, tell me my horse can’t do dressage and to get a new one. They essentially give up on trying to figure out how to help us because they expect that there is no way, or that it isn’t worth the time. It’s even worse when the rider is an ammy learning and training her horse at the same time. Every mistake the horse makes can be blamed not only on the fact that the horse was doomed to fail to begin with, but additionally because the rider is screwing everything up, or can’t possibly learn on a horse that can’t do it anyways…

austin before
My trial ride on an unregistered paint stock horse before I bought him. He had a been a trail horse before. How many riders start with a horse like this, and eventually buy a new one because the horse never changes/improves much? They assume that because he looks this way now, he always will. (See after picture below)

Let’s not lose perspective here. First of all, MOST horses don’t make it all the way up the levels. Even most warmbloods will top out at a low level for a variety of reasons.  The reason most horses don’t make it up the levels has less to do with their conformation or gaits, and more to do with their circumstances… unfortunate injuries, poor or lack of training, owners needing time off so the horse gets time off, owners goals not focused on moving up the levels, or behavior issues that crop up from a myriad of sources.

And as long as we’re talking about keeping things in perspective, let me mention that of course not every warmblood is well built for dressage or has nice gaits, and not every non-warmblood is poorly built or a not-fancy mover.  But there are warmbloods purpose-bred to succeed in dressage, and there are few other breeds mass producing horses this way. So if you want the odds in your favor, you’ll get the best chance at show ring success on a horse bred for that purpose. My point is that “best chance” to some people starts to sound like “only chance”, and this is a problem. Not everyone wants to ride a warmblood, not everyone can afford one, and not everyone is riding with the sole purposes of making the fastest journey possible up the levels with the highest scores possible.  There is nothing wrong with those who are on that journey, but this advice is more for everybody else. I’m also not talking about high scores or going to the Olympics or anything like that, I’m talking about average horses and average riders, who should be able to get average scores at average levels.




So what are the differences between the “destined for greatness” horse and the “destined for failure” horse, besides, likely, the income the owner has to spend on the sport?  I have found it’s the willingness to accept defeat.  When a horse that seems destined to the upper levels stops moving forward in training, right away it’s call the vet, call the farrier, call the chiropractor, saddle fitter, accupuncturist, massage therapist, and herbalist! These horses have staff! And when something isn’t right, riders will throw everything into figuring out why and trying to fix it.  On the other hand, when Johnny mutt-horse is struggling, the first (and often last) assumption is that he was bound to struggle, he was not made to excel at this work.  This is the easy excuse the not-bred-for-dressage horse has that the rider, owner, and trainer can choose to use at any time, while the “destined for greatness” horse does not give his people the luxury of an excuse like this!

And just like that, riders stop trying for Johnny-mutt. They keep on doing what they’re doing, hoping time will solve the problem, but they don’t look much further into why he is struggling.  This rider, though well-intentioned, “figures” his saddle fits without actually having it checked, she “assumes” he can’t be sore because he doesn’t look lame, and “guesses” his diet is adequate because his ribs are not showing. Or she checks his saddle and calls a vet, and when neither turns up an issue, it is assumed that Johnny-mutt must be fine. The rider encountering problems should also question her own position in the saddle and the aids she is using, and even question the methods her trainer is teaching her, but if she already believes her horse can’t do it, she won’t rock the boat with these tough questions, or seek additional help elsewhere, especially if her trainer also agrees it’s not the training that is lacking but just the horse.  So poor Johnny-mutt struggles and struggles, until often the rider will eventually give up, and either leave the sport, or find a “better” horse (which, with the same treatment, likely won’t succeed either… but with new horses come new dreams and expectations, and a new reluctance to use the “destined for failure” excuse!).




This basic assumption of expected failure is probably the biggest reason we see as few average ammy’s on average horses moving up the levels as we do. (Well, I guess we could also add in the factor that no one stands to gain financially from ammy’s on mutt-bred’s moving up the levels, whereas warmbloods provide big dollars to their breeders and trainers, so maybe there is even incentive to some to maintain this mentality of expected failure!  I would argue that the industry as a whole stands to benefit from greater participation at every level… but that’s a topic for another day….)

In short, if you expect your horse to fail, then that belief will lead to actions, and lack of actions, that ultimately allow or create his failure.  The same could be said of yourself.

austin halt
The same stock horse as pictured above, after a year of dressage work!

How To Beat The Odds

So when we see these fairy-tale stories of unlikely horses making it way up the levels, what makes them so different? Why did they succeed when so many others will fail? Usually the story does outline some of what it took, and often it was not an easy path. The rider usually did have exceptional help, and both rider and trainer believed in the horse. The rider was unusually dedicated to her own riding, and to both her own and her horse’s fitness and health.  Often they found a team that worked, a trainer, vet, farrier, and others who had the education, skills, and willingness to come together and make this success happen.  Often these stories outline some of the unusual challenges they faced as well, which can be some of the most interesting and educational parts! Creativity, patience, and perseverance do seem to be key themes, always with a focus on helping the horse and rider overcome whatever the current challenge is, rather than allowing the rider to succumb to the challenge and stop trying.

An Advocate

Either the owner, rider, or trainer (or all 3) needs to love the horse and believe in the horse, and be determined to help the horse succeed. This person becomes the advocate for the horse in the times of doubt, frustration, or challenge. The more people there are keeping everyone in the right frame of mind to see this journey through, the easier it is to stay on track. When progress seems to come to a halt, the advocate starts looking for solutions, instead of giving up, or worse, turning to the “I told you so’s”.  The advocate actively pursues the things the horse needs to succeed, from ensuring proper nutrition and daily care, to training programs that help build the horse both mentally and physically. Cross training may become a key element, or a different approach than works with a horse that finds the work easier. The advocate searches for solutions by researching all the possible factors that could be contributing to the resistance, from things the rider may be doing to saddle fit, bitting, or soreness in the horse’s body.  With the internet as such a great resource, it’s easier now than ever before to be a good advocate for your horse, and there are almost endless ideas to try to figure out how to help your horse succeed. There is also the often forgotten history of dressage that is becoming increasingly easier to find on websites and in books, training from before the modern warmblood even existed, allowing access to techniques that may be getting forgotten in the training of modern horses.  All of this is available at your fingertips, and much of it for free. Even without the money to call in all the experts, the rider can search for solutions and implement new strategies until something is found that works for the individual horse.

Remy Off the Track
When I bought Remy, a failed racehorse, I saw a body that needed improvement, but I also felt a kindness and a willing temperament that I decided I would enjoy working with through the time it took to rebuild his body. I had no idea at the time what he might turn into, but I quickly saw glimpses that fueled my hope, even when they were not repeatable, and I started to have an idea what was in there, however deep, which kept me always searching for solutions through a seemingly endless series of challenges.

Correct Training

More than just giving correct aids, correct training means using the training scale and gymnastically developing the horse up the levels. Movements are not just to achieve an end, they are to strengthen and supple the horse, developing his body slowly so that he can handle more advanced work in the future. Likewise, gaits are developed and trained, and training a good medium trot into a horse that doesn’t have one naturally is starting to become a bit of a lost art. Finding a trainer who’s done this on horses that are not naturally gifted will be a key in learning how to do it with your horse. Most of the few I’ve found seem to be from the last generation before warmbloods took over. They are worth seeking out, and quickly before they retire!!  The wisdom they hold is such a valuable resource, especially when it comes to training horses that do not find dressage a natural ability.

The trot I started with on Remy was less than inspiring! He used his body all wrong, and was stiff and firmly planted on the forehand, and a MOST uncomfortable ride!
The trot I started with on Remy was less than inspiring! He used his body all wrong, and was stiff and firmly planted on the forehand, and a MOST uncomfortable ride!

Time

It takes longer to develop a horse to do work it doesn’t find naturally easy, and in our fast-food society we like quick results for minimal effort. This will be an exercise in patience, consistency, and finding small victories day by day leading to the longer term goals. This is a Zen activity in many ways. Learn to love the journey, let the destination be the icing on the cake. Remember that changing the horse’s musculature and way of going needs to be a long term project or you risk injuring him, making him sore, or making him sour. Keep the work enjoyable for him, give him days to relax, and find ways to build his confidence and enjoyment as he learns new ways of using his body.  Remain his advocate. When the journey is long, there are sure to be trying times, and it’s these times that it is so easy to succumb to the expected failure.

It took a few years to get this trot and this carriage and this musculature. He's almost unrecognizable from his before pictures. For us, this was a huge accomplishment, although other riders start with horses that look like this from almost the beginning. To each their own!
It took a few years for Remy to get this trot and this carriage and this musculature. He’s almost unrecognizable from his before picture. For us, this was a huge accomplishment, although other riders start with horses that look like this from almost the beginning. To each their own!

Inspiration

There are lots of stories out there about unlikely horses achieving all sorts of things! Horses with funny conformation have successfully moved all the way up the levels in dressage, rescues from feedlots have found show ring success, and horses have recovered from all sorts of injuries to go on to lead successful lives. If you get to feeling stuck, spend a little time browsing these stories until you find your own equine hero!




Additionally, spend a little time looking at the USDF All Breed Award winners… you’ll find that many breeds are represented and earning respectable scores at all levels of competition! Of course there are not as many off breeds at the top levels, but there are not as many horses or riders at the top levels either, so this is to be expected. And you may even find that a horse you watched perform locally that put in a rock solid test was not actually the warmblood you had assumed when you watched him go. There may be a lot more variety in the show ring than you had expected. So go get on your horse and stop making excuses, give him every benefit you can and enjoy the journey!

And remember, the most critical piece is to give your horse that same benefit that the superstar horses get… find ways to help him succeed, instead of assuming that he is bound to fail. Look at him and see an upper level horse in the making, if only you could figure out what he needs to take that next step.  When he gets stuck, ask why. Seek out new techniques and new ideas and new methods, until you find something that clicks for him.  Be his advocate and a worthy partner, and he will show you just how far he can go!

21 thoughts on “Dressage with Off-Breeds: The Failure Trap to Avoid

  1. Taara says:

    Love this! Such a down to earth approach in a world and sport that’s all about a certain breed and how much money a person has.

  2. This article speaks to me of the struggles I’ve had since buying my first horse 4 years ago. I have always felt she could do good things. How good, i was not about to define as I didn’t want to limit her. I have FINALLY found one of those rare gifts of a trainer. The changes we’ve made and the progress over the past 6 months is not to be believed! Great things can happen if you refuse to be sucked in to the culture of assumed failure. I’m poor, but I’m still flying in the saddle-fitter on Friday for a custom fit. I’m not giving up on this dream!

  3. Bonnie says:

    I LOVE this article. I have dreamed of learning dressage since I was a child, and now, in my forties, I have the opportunity to take lessons from a wonderful instructor, who encourages me every day and doesn’t write off my less-than-athletic, downhill quarter horse just because she isn’t built correctly. No, she is helping me bring her along, and we’re just now starting to school first level movements, and my instructor is encouraging me to take some lessons with HER instructor on the schoolmasters. I suddenly feel like I have a team of people helping me achieve my goals. My mare may not ever do much in the sport, but she is kind and willing and aside from a few differences in opinion, tries hard to do what we ask of her. No one is giving up on her or on me, and I can’t wait to see how far we can take her.

    • dressagefundamentals says:

      Hi Bonnie!
      Thanks for the comment, it got trapped in the spam filter somehow so I apologize for the delay in getting it approved. I’m so glad to hear you are finally able to follow your dream, and have such a wonderful horse and instructor to do it with! All the best wish to you guys!
      Christy

  4. Judy Rivers says:

    Such a lovely article. Have been working my new mare in the fundamentals of natural horsemanship to try a completely different approach now that I’m older. I don’t care how far my mare & I go, I care about our partnership.

    We’re in no hurry, but are very persistent. It’s like I’m in love! =) (And she is half-passing on the ground now without even knowing she ‘shouldn’t’ be capable.) =) Thank you so much for such an inspiring article for those of us in an imperfect world.

  5. Michele says:

    I think this article is spot on for the areas if covers, but there seems to be little information disseminated these days about aspects of conformation that make the horse’s job easier or harder. Here are the factors I look for in any horse:
    In the hind end:
    1. A forward-angled femur (hip joint to stifle). If this is straight up and down, or worse, tending backwards, the horse can’t close those joints enough to have a useful engine.
    2. As part of this femur angle thing, does the horse (on its own with no rider) step past its stifle in trot. If not, it has another engagement limitation.
    3. Is the stifle roughly even with the elbow, or is the stifle higher – the latter will limit the engine’s ability to step under the center of gravity and lift.
    In the front end:
    1. Is the Humerus, (shoulder joint to elbow angle) tending to vertical, or horizontal. Horizontal will tend to limit the freedom of the entire front leg. I look for this before worrying about the angle of the shoulder itself.
    2. Knees roughly horizontal to hocks.
    3. Neck coming out above the shoulder joint, not slung low out of the chest.

    These are my basic sets of criteria, and in the case of the example of the off-breed chestnut horse with the chrome, and Remmy the thoroughbred, they are both good places to start – and demonstrate what correct work can accomplish!

    • Czarina says:

      I sure wish I could see your points in visual form – with photos and graphics indicating angle/line of correct and off horses. I find this stuff fascinating.

      • dressagefundamentals says:

        Czarina,
        If you do a search for desirable conformation in dressage horses, or look up what the different breed registeries are looking for when they do their inspections, you can find photos showing exactly what Michele is talking about. And she’s right, I do have a tendency to pick horses that “have the bones in the right places”, as muscle can be changed, and will sometimes change how the bone is carried to influence conformation, but many conformational flaws are not changeable and will forever influence the potential that can be brought out in a horse. There is also a book called “Selecting the Dressage Horse: Conformation, Movement, and Temperament” by Dirk Willem Rosie that is excellent and well illustrated if you’re interested in lots of details on the subject of what makes a horse ideally suited to go up the levels! And I’ll add to my list of future blog posts one on conformation, complete with photos with the lines drawn in 🙂
        Thanks for reading!
        Christy

  6. Rob says:

    Love this concept. I know a coach who competes and judges past 4th level. He can get on any horse and almost immeadately get lateral movement. He does this for riders who swear all problems are the horses fault. Then immeadately he says (1) You need to do another year of trainer or level one before you even attempt this and (2) even if you can get the AIDS right your horse needs to develop strength and ability at the lower level. He will tell you with uncanny accuracy what the score of your best ride will be in any anticipated venue, but he will never accept that any horse cannot learn or benefit from dressage. Oh and he doesn’t think horses are totally for the arena.

  7. Thanks for a great, positive article! I hate it when trainers or clinicians tell lower level riders that they should get rid of their horse because “he’ll never be able to do upper level dressage,” especially when they also just happen to have a more “suitable” (and expensive!) horse for sale. As long as a horse is sound, there’s no reason to reject him because he doesn’t have fashionable breeding or spectacular gaits to begin with. If you do a solid, patient job of developing the horse you have with good dressage basics, you’ll certainly have a nicer, more rideable horse that will move better and last longer. And you may find that he’s able to go higher up the levels than you’d have guessed at the beginning. “Dressage” is a French word meaning “training,” not “exclusive breeding and fancy gaits!”

    • Michele says:

      For sure a way to get yourself in trouble is to skip the training on the less talented but amenable horse and buy that bigger time horse that you aren’t actually prepared to ride! Then you get to pay the trainer to keep it going, and to keep you and or the horse from wrecking each other! Learn on the less talented steady participants!

  8. Nancy Conley says:

    I love this. I am riding a mare right now that I was told in front of the WDAA judging class at the world show that she is not made for WD . … she was not made uphill, she has choppy strides, and its hard for her to extend because of her conformation.
    My husband got upset but I told him I understood exactly what the were talking about and some of it true. But I am a believer that dressage english or western is for all horses to developed to the best of their ability in the correct way to enable them to preform to their best advantage . We are now riding 1 level and playing with 2 level we will be at the WD world show this year again having a great time and enjoying horse friends around the states.
    Dont give up on what you love.

    • Judy Rivers says:

      Hey Nancy! I will be scribing at the WDAA all weekend long & am doing their graphics for them. Look me up, and I’ll look for you.
      If a gray-long-haired scribe grins at you, that is me! =)
      Judy

      • Paula Walker says:

        Yayyyyyyyyy Judy!! If you see any of the Oklahoma contingency see if I’m in the bunch!! I’ll be there at WDAA World show too!!!!

        • dressagefundamentals says:

          I am so jealous of all of you going to the WDAA World show, that sounds like so much fun!! Have a great time! Maybe one of these years I’ll be there on a goofy long-legged thoroughbred and will get to meet some of you guys! 🙂

    • Paula Walker says:

      Nancy Conley, couldn’t help myself and had to respond to your message on here. I’m Paula Walker president of Oklahoma WD affiliate. I think a lot of us WD people have been told the very same thing about our WD horses. But I have a feeling “they” are going to be very surprised in the end!! And it won’t be because any movements were “made easier” in any way. “They” have just had the opportunity to start out with horses that are technically more correct. We have the opportunity of starting out with a horse that is willing and quiet minded. In the end I think it makes a huge difference. A horse is no good to me if they have all the talent but I just can’t seem to get the cooperation I need to get it shown. Good luck at the World!! I’ll look for you!!

  9. Just finished my first dressage show in 12 years due to a broken back. Am currently riding an unconventional breed, a gypsy vanner. And though I KNOW he’s green and I know I will never ride at the level I did before the injury the bias I felt from the actual judge was shocking. L rated so I know they score a bit harder than say an R. But it was still shocking. I have worked with him for several months and felt he was right where he needed to be for intro. I had it confirmed by a well known and respected trainer in my area. I have decided to continue with it. He is athletic as a cat and is willing. God knows we could both use discipline. I decided we will work and work and work a bit more. He’s happy and I am up to the challenge. The next show is next month and is under the same judge. My new motto is ” BRING IT!”

    • dressagefundamentals says:

      Good for you Carrie, keep trying! Keep learning and keep improving, and above all else, keep having fun with your horse! I’ve seen some pretty harsh scoring at Intro too, and it seems to be more a reflection of the judge wanting to see a training/first level frame and contact even in a horse not built to do that easily, and it’s not been a reflection of the type of work (and scores!) the same horse will produce down the road. Some horses just need more time to get “there” and there’s no reason to rush. Enjoy the journey!

  10. Linda says:

    I am learning dressage moves to make my Missouri Fox Trotting horse handier. I am not interested in going to dressage shows to go up the levels. Dressage means training and does not necessarily mean competition. I find doing the tests at home with friends is much more fun!

  11. Andrea Hollinger says:

    What a great article, I really needed the inspiration it gave me. I was feeling a bit lost with my three and half year old paint I just bought six months ago. I have been working with a trainer and starting showing him WD this past summer. Our scores where mid 60’s and comments where all about bending and relaxation. Which I felt was what we are working on in the intro levels. It had left me feeling a little discouraged. After reading this article I realize its ok to feel this way at times, I just need to pick myself back up mentally and keep moving forward. I love my horse and we are on this journey together as he learns so do I. Thank you

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