Western Dressage Exercise – Five Daily Essentials

A cornerstone of dressage is the requirement for your horse to carry himself in a particular posture, one that demands and increases the strength and flexibility of his back, topline, and abdominals. Unfortunately, achieving this posture while under saddle is where most riders get stuck and frustrated.

To help speed the journey along as you embark on dressage training, I have developed a mini-conditioning plan, what I call my Five Daily Essentials. It is made up of five basic exercises that will help get your horse’s body fit and prepared for what you’ll be cuing him to do under saddle. You will get the most benefit it you commit to doing these exercises daily. And truthfully there is no excuse for skipping them since they require less than five minutes of your time. Trust me, these simple exercises will help your horse’s training as much as anything you do under saddle.

1. Backing Up, 30+ steps

Equine chiropractors and body workers agree that backing up is one of the most important exercises that a rider can do with her horse. Walking backwards improves a horse’s overall strength and suppleness. When done properly with the horse in a low neck position, it puts the same demands on a horse as sit-ups or crunches do for humans. Backing up requires the horse to firm up and engage his stomach and back muscles while simultaneously stretching is hamstrings. Further, backing up causes the horse’s lumbar sacral area to swing back and forth in the way it needs to stay loose.

Aim to back your horse up 30 steps consecutively each day before you get on. If you’re already backing up regularly, add an uphill slope to your routine.

2. Wither rocking

Asking your horse to round his back and topline relies on his spine being loose enough for him to do so. Even with correct training and exceptional care, horses develop tension and restriction in their neck/shoulder/withers junction. With this simple maneuver daily, you can prevent this inevitable restriction that might otherwise lead to shortened strides, loss of impulsion, and trouble bending.  Rocking the horse’s withers daily helps maintain looseness in the horse’s spine and rib connection.

To do this, rest your hands on top of your horse’s withers at the highest point. Now make gentle motions back and forth to rock the withers from side to side. Start with small movements, and go slowly so your horse can relax into it and not feel like you’re trying to push him over. Rock back and forth 10 times or more, as long as your horse is enjoying it. Once he begins to relax in to it, you will see his head and rump waggling side to side as you bring motion to his spine. This is a good indication of looseness.

3. Pelvic Tuck

Pelvis Tuck Western Dressage ExerciseMost equine body workers today will agree that the single most helpful thing we can do for our horse’s performance is to ask him to do the horse equivalent of sit-ups. This is done by asking him to tuck his pelvis deeply while standing squarely without a rider on his back. Not only does this stretch the longissimus dorsi—the horse’s largest muscle, but it also tones up his psoas muscles deep within his abdomen and stimulates flexion in his sacrum. These are all critical ingredients for collection and proper movement in dressage.

Stand behind the horse and find a point midway between the point of hip and the sacrum that is responsive to you pressing in against it. For some horses, this is right at the top of the poverty groove. Press down firmly with either your thumb or middle finger (you may need to use your fingernail to initiate a good response). You should see your horse’s lower back hunch upwards and the dock of his tail meanwhile drop lower. If your horse is not sensitive to a firm touch, try using two pen caps. Obviously you will want to make sure your horse does not over-react with you standing behind him, though. Do three pelvis tucks per session.

4. Side Stretches (commonly called ‘carrot stretches’)

Interestingly, almost all riders can enumerate the benefits of daily side stretches, yet a teeny percentage of them actually perform them consistently. These maneuvers are too valuable to be avoided and too quick to skip over. So do your horse a favor and make them part of your routine while grooming or un-saddling. Doing so will create more flexibility on his spine, tone up his hip stabilizing muscles, and encourage abdominal lifting.

In fact, these simple maneuvers have been proven to increase strength in the small connective muscles of the horse’s spine which we otherwise would not be able to access with precision.  Greater tone in these highly innervated cybernetic muscles leads to better spinal stabilization and ease of carrying a rider and rounding the back. Studies have shown that by doing these Carrot Stretches three times per day, horses were able to maintain topline strength and suppleness, even when not ridden for periods of time!

Ask your horse to stand still and square. Then use a cookie or carrot piece to lead his nose around to his flank. Give him the treat slowly, trying to keep him in a stretched position for 3-5 seconds. His feet should remain immobile while reaching back to take the treat. Execute on both sides at least twice daily.

5. Walking ground poles

This is something you have already heard me endorse if you read this blog. So, just a short recap: walking your horse over ground poles allows the horse’s sacral region to rock side to side, thereby loosening his whole spine. Few other exercises except backing up and riding down hills have the same effect. Top dressage riders have been using walking warm-ups over ground poles for decades because of its benefit for equine athletes. Place at least five (or as many as 8) ground poles on the ground parallel to each other. The poles should be placed approximately three feet apart—the distance of your horse’s average walk stride length. Mount up and walk your horse on a loose rein over these poles at least 10 times.


Western Dressage Weekly Exercise – authored by Jec Ballou | Copyright © 2012

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2 Responses to “Western Dressage Exercise – Five Daily Essentials

  • Florence
    5 years ago

    Thank you so much for your articles… I’m not quite sure I understand well “Wither rocking”. Are you suppose to motion the skin on the wither? The wither itself is pretty stiff…

  • Joan Stibal
    6 years ago

    Thank you. This is so helpful.