The Rich Traditions of Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship

By Michael Guerini ( and Kimberly Bench (

Both Classical Dressage and Western Riding (Horsemanship with a Western Saddle) have rich traditions and long histories.  In this series of essays, Kimberly Bench and Michael Guerini have come together once again to share perspectives from the Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship worlds.  As we all embark on this journey of Western Dressage (WD), it is important to  know that each of these two disciplines that are coming together in WD arose from the need of people to perform activities on horseback and that these  needs have traditions and ideas that are 100’s of years old.  It is important that when considering WD and Classical Dressage we take the time to look at the original intentions, trainings, and look/feel of Classical Dressage since the principles and philosophy of the discipline arose from the teachings of the Classical Masters.  Likewise, the reason behind Western Horsemanship is rooted in lessons learned in the past on the backs of the Cowboy/Vaquero working horses.

Although it can be argued that classical riding has been the foundation for all other riding, our modern competitive dressage may look quite different from its original roots.  Through this journey, we must also look at both Classical Dressage and Modern Competitive Dressage and see that differences exist in these two forms of Dressage.  Likewise, some of the Western event competitions seen today have more flash than the traditional American Cowboy would display during his working day.

In both cases, the foundation and principles of the training method are first and foremost of importance to both Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship.  Secondly, the traditions of mannerisms, tack, and language (words/meanings) handed down through these two riding disciplines are celebrated parts that complete the philosophy of the teachings.

The goal of any Dressage program, whether Traditional or Western, should be that the principles shared by the Classical Dressage Masters be learned, shared/taught, and celebrated.  The goal of any program that includes Western Traditions is to develop a horse that is capable of performing work efficiently, athletically, and with minimal effort. Through Western Dressage, these two traditions can work together in harmony to develop horses and riders that our ancestors would admire.

Our journey will cover the following topics and we realize that for the most part, we will be providing a very cursory overview of the available information.  There are large books written on many of these subjects and our intent is to not re-write what is already written but rather to consolidate and provide a summary of ideas, histories, and thoughts to help develop a deeper awareness for the knowledge and traditions of both Traditional Dressage and Western Riders.

Article I – The rich traditions of Classical Dressage and Western Riding 

Article II – Modern day Dressage and Western Riding

Article III – The tools of the trade

Article IV – What we both seek in a horse

Article V – The silent crossover that has occurred the last 25 to 50 years

Article VI – The birth of CD and WD

Article VII – Onwards and to the future

For thousands of years the horse was the pinnacle of transport.  As well as being a mode of transportation, the horse’s most demanding role was in warfare.  In essence, the horse was a tool used to help the rider accomplish a great many tasks.  Although used as a tool, horses were highly valued partners and the health and soundness of the horse was of utmost importance.

Classical Dressage Traditions

Classical Dressage can be traced back to four Classical Dressage schools, which include –the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, the Cadre Noir of the French National Riding School in Saumur, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez, Spain, and Lisbon’s Portuguese School of Equestrian Art.

The knowledge of how to train the horse for its role in warfare was refined by specialist trainers, often referred to as the classical masters, over hundreds of years.  Some of these wrote down their techniques and these were passed on for others to develop further but all were interested in three things:

  • Training the horse to carry a rider.
  • Training the horse to be obedient to the rider’s commands.
  • Improving the horse’s athletic ability through balance and fitness so that it could more effectively perform its role.

Classical dressage is the art of riding in harmony with, rather than against, the horse and this evolved from cavalry movements and training for the battlefield.  Cavalry mounts had to be fit, supple, obedient, and instantly responsive to the lightest of commands from the rider.  The horse understands rider aids and the rider understands the horse’s mind and ability.  In Classical Dressage, horse and rider would perform a variety of movements with a progression of these movements that fit both the skill and rider abilities, never exceeding the level of horse and rider until both were ready.  The measurements of the individual movements developed into the Dressage tests that are used to evaluate the skill and training progression of both horse and rider.

Classical dressage is the development of a mutually respectful and harmonious relationship between horse and rider.  In classical dressage, rather than disciplining the horse because his conformation did not allow perfection, the rider accepted his horse’s best on that given day.  Continuous work and proper conditioning was put into the horse to improve carriage and ability.

As with the horse, not all riders were capable of performing perfectly at the highest levels.  The training brought each horse to his own maximum potential.  Classical dressage is all about taking the appropriate amount of time to allow for a proper progression of both training and fitness.  Both the horse and rider must be conditioned over time.

Kimberly Bench stresses that “conditioning is as necessary as the training itself.  The horse is conditioned through correct, consistent, and progressive training.  Dressage is a discipline, not merely a sport and to achieve true success both the rider and the horse must train as any athlete.  A horse and rider must train progressively and regularly, increasing as the work becomes more demanding.  Many years ago, I had a horse that had been ridden and shown at third level.  When I purchased him, he had been turned out to pasture for several years.  Even though he knew the “language,” his body was not capable of performing at his previous level.  With regular work, he was able to achieve a certain level of athleticism but a soundness issue prevented him from progressing further.  So in addition to the training, fitness, and soundness are equally as important.”

The rider must understand his/her abilities and limitations.  A rider must achieve self-carriage (independent balance) in order to help the horse develop self-carriage.  Harmony only occurs when the rider has an effective, balanced seat and body position, independent hands, moves with the horse’s motion, and delivers the aids timely and correctly.

All horses and riders following the classical training scale will make some degree of improvement in condition and athleticism.  Please note, this does not mean all horses are able to achieve the most advanced movements or the level of expression we see in modern competitive dressage.

Western Riding Traditions

Western Riding, just like classical dressage, can be traced back to Xenophon around 400 years B.C. Xenophon spoke to the basics of riding a well-schooled horse that would move based on rider weight transference, away from leg pressure, and be supple through its head, neck, shoulder, and rib cage and hip.  This has been interpreted by some to describe a horse that would be so light and responsive that it could be ridden one handed, and yet perform correctly enough that a man’s life could depend on that horse working with his rider as a harmonious team.  Western riding is a style that evolved from the ranching and warfare traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors.

Introduced to the America’s between the early 1500’s and the 1700’s from the Spanish, this style of riding has changed over time but the foundation training is still the goal of the western horse.  Most importantly — this style of riding lends itself to use in numerous practical disciplines.  By the late 1700’s, the equipment and riding style of western riding was heavily influenced by the Spanish vaqueros.  Both the equipment and riding style evolved to meet the working needs of the cowboy in the American West.

American cowboys needed to work long hours in the saddle over rough terrain and still be comfortable and able to use the limited equipment available on horseback for many uses.  It is important to understand that much of today’s western styles of riding were born of necessity to survive, earn a living, and feed a family/town/region.

Michael Guerini emphasizes that in the traditions of the American cowboy, the horse was an equal partner for without his mount, the American Cowboy would never have been able to survive at work.  Western riding of the past goes beyond being a discipline and certainly was never promoted as a sport in the early days; rather Western riding and the ways of the American Cowboy and Vaqueros were a lifestyle for these men and women.  Success was graded on survival of the horse and rider, getting livestock to market, getting home to see family or visiting friends, and getting to new places for work.

The American cowboy often had a string of horses that he used in his work.  Some of the horses were considered advanced and others were young stock in the early stages of development.  Those Cowboys that were fortunate enough to have a string of horses continually worked to cultivate the horse to be the best, capable of helping the Cowboy perform his duties.  The American Cowboy would ensure the young horses worked with balance, and had cadence, timing, and tempo.  A horse with smooth transitions that was responsive to light touch was the goal of the cowboy training.

Because of the necessity to control the horse with one hand and use a lariat with the other, western horses were trained to neck rein, that is, to change direction with light pressure of a rein against the horse’s neck.  A cowboy trying to rope a cow so that it could be doctored or branded, needed to be able to guide his horse with one hand.  This would free the other hand to rope with.  One of the most important points to understand is that a good cowhorse quickly picked up the idea of moving away from rein pressure on its neck.  Horses were also trained to exercise a certain degree of independence  in using their natural instincts to follow the movements of a cow, thus a  riding style developed that emphasized a deep, secure seat, and training  methods encouraged a horse to be responsive on very light rein contact.


Both styles require riders to have a solid seat, with the hips and shoulders balanced over the feet, with hands independent of the seat to avoid jerking the horse in the mouth and interfering with its performance.  To the classical dressage rider of ancient times and to the Western Cowboy, the horse was a cherished belonging, a source of pride or status, often more important than money.  For with the horse, these people could work, wage war, and move across distances with relative ease.

Horses for warfare needed to be stout, capable of carrying significant weight of battle armor yet they also needed to be agile, balanced, reliable and obedient.  Horses for Western riding need to be quick, agile, have some natural instincts for the work being done, and have a certain amount of independence.  In both cases, self-carriage and balance by the horse and rider were two important elements of the relationship.

Kimberly Bench is a clinician, instructor and horsewoman specializing in Classical Dressage.  She owns and operates Benchmark Farm in Hudsonville, MI.  She has developed a program she calls “Practical Dressage” which is designed to teach riders of any discipline how the classical training scale can work for them.  Find more information at

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (


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