A Closer Look at Dressage: Part 1 of 2

Time-tested principles of horse training can help anyone become a better rider.

Editor’s Note: Since this story was written in 2001, Holly Clanahan has become the editor of America’s Horse magazine. Also, Rugged Lark was inducted into the AQHA Hall of Fame in 2006.


Melonie Kessler, I want you to know this is all your fault.


OK, maybe “fault” isn’t the right word. I mean, this isn’t a bad thing. But it all started when I saw Melonie demonstrate freestyle dressage at the 2000 AQHA World Championship Show.


“Any horse can do dressage,” she told me afterward. “If you’ve already got a horse and you love your horse, this is for you.” Well then, sign me up!


Fast forward a month or so. My editor and I are discussing ideas for first-person stories. I remember Melonie’s insistence that American Quarter Horses are wonderful dressage mounts, so I float that idea. And yes, I’ll admit that I had already started taking dressage lessons from a local trainer. But my editor agrees that the topic would be of interest, and we start making plans.


Lynn Palm, an AQHA Judge and Professional Horsewoman, instantly comes to mind as a source for this story. After all, she was renowned for her bridleless dressage demonstrations with two-time AQHA Superhorse Rugged Lark, whom I adored. Lynn trained the famous stallion for his world-class performances using dressage principles. Plus, as a clinician, Lynn regularly teaches students how those principles can carry over into any type of riding.


In AQHA's FREE Riding Dressage report, you can prepare to show dressage just like Holly! Download it today!


When I contact Lynn, she’s thrilled to help spread the word that dressage is for everybody. I know, I know, when most people think of dressage, they think of snooty riders wearing top hats and shadbelly coats, and big, leggy horses that do advanced moves like they’re nothing. But as Lynn explains it, the word “dressage” literally means “training.” It’s simply a time-honored method that focuses on respect, good ethics, balance and harmony.


Whether you ride purely for recreation or you’re hoping to be the next world champion, Lynn believes dressage principles can take you to the next level in your riding. When I arrive at her farm near Ocala, Florida, for my lesson, she shows me simple techniques that illustrate some of the basic tenants.


Download AQHA's FREE Riding Dressage report today and be on your way to better riding!


First of all, the rider’s position is paramount. There should be a vertical line from the ear to the hip and down to the heel. Another line should extend from the elbow through the hands and on to the horse’s mouth. This position doesn’t change (although the rein and stirrup length might), whether you’re riding western, English or dressage. Hands should be held over the withers, tilted halfway between horizontal and vertical, with thumbs on top. Reins should be held midway down the fingers, and only one rein should go in each hand, not stacked as western riders usually do.


Lynn tells me to scoot forward in the saddle a bit, then roll back so I’m sitting more firmly on my seat. She tells me there are three ways to communicate with the horse: seat, legs and hands. I understand the legs and hands bit, but I have to confess, I thought the seat was just for sitting. The seat is the least-known aid, Lynn tells me, and it has two actions. One is weight, and the second is forward motion. She shows me how those work.


Check back next Tuesday to read the second portion of this article. Holly will be utilizing the dressage skills she's learned, in a western saddle.