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Switching to dressage after hunters?

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  • Switching to dressage after hunters?

    I'm interested in hearing about people's experiences who switched to dressage after riding hunt seat. I would say I'm a fairly advanced hunter rider (recently up to 3'3" A/O level) who became interested in dressage after breeding and raising my own babies. Although I started the first baby myself, I realized I needed a new approach after he started to get strong several months into his under saddle training. I was introduced to a dressage trainer who worked with him. It was unbelievable how well she rode and educated him, without draw reins or any other contraptions. He's by far the most well trained/educated horse I've ever owned and he remained soft in his mouth, never got strong and never needed draw reins, even when I went on to jump and compete him in hunters. I was thoroughly impressed! This process was repeated in a subsequent baby, except the dressage trainer started the second one for me.

    Now, the difficult part was me trying my own hand in dressage. Basically, I've been told that I can't even walk a straight line and there's "somthing wrong with my trot". Forget about the canter, never even got there! It's been a very humbling and difficult process. I still compete in hunters because it's my comfort zone and I'm finding it very difficult to stick with dressage, even though I have a lot of interest in it and would really like to give it a fair chance.

    Anybody make this switch successfully? I've love to hear your experience and any advice on this.

  • #2
    I have not yet made the switch "successfully" unless you call having shown training level on a pony I started 85% on my own and finally feeling comfortable riding "dressage" in a dressage saddle successful But getting to this point I have learned a few things about what to do and what not to do.

    1. Read Debbie McDonald's book Riding Through
    She has gone from a H/J rider to a Olympic Medal winner in Dressage. Great book.

    2. Get a dressage saddle that allows you to sit correctly and be comfortable. You need both. The saddle matters. A LOT.

    3. Take lungeline lessons from someone really good at teaching them. But first read Debbie's book and get a saddle that fits you.

    4. Work on riding your horse forward before you start trying to get him in a frame. Dressage is IMO much easier and fun on a horse that is forward. It is hell on earth on a horse that is not.
    On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog


    • #3
      I had to laugh after reading this because I can totally relate I have ridden nothing but huntseat for the last 25 years (minus trail rides in my western saddle). After having to retire my old guy from jumping a few years back and moving to a barn with dressage riders, I decided to experiment with dressage. I've watched their lessons and ridden with their trainer a few times. I really haven't given it a fair shake to be honest, but I was amazed to learn how inefficient I was at using my aids. My horse and I couldn't walk a straight line to save our lives! And outside rein?? You mean I can turn by using my outside rein Lets not even start on the fact that I can.not.sit in a dressage saddle without my body trying to creep back into a huntseat position. It's so unbelievably hard for me! It's been a good experience though and it has forced me to ride my horse in a way I never have before.

      So although I have no useful experiences to offer you in terms of making the jump, I just wanted to let you know that I completely understand where you're coming from Good luck!
      "Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field." --Dwight D Eisenhower

      Boston Terrier Rescue of NC - www.btrnc.org - Adopt for Life!


      • #4
        I did hunters as a junior, then moved to eventing as an adult, and have done some straight dressage both to improve my eventing and when jumping was inconvenient for whatever reason.

        Yes, it's humbling to learn how much you never knew you never knew. But I have enjoyed the journey. I think I'm a better dressage rider for my hunter experience and a better hunter rider for my dressage experience.

        As for role models, Debbie McDonald rode hunters before she did dressage, and I grew up doing hunters with Kristina Harrison-Naness.
        If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats. - Lemony Snicket


        • #5
          I made the switch! Although, my instructor waited until I was further along before breaking out the "you had the worst tummy trot I've ever seen comments"

          Coming from the hunters, I will say that dressage is much more difficult. It's challenging for your mind, it's challenging in concept and challenging in trying to get your body retrained. The seat is different, and the use of your body is different than what most people are taught when they grow up in the hunters.

          The one thing is that my instructor mentioned is that they like taking on hunter riders because they don't have to work on leg strength, they just have to get us hunter riders using the leg differently. The other good news is that no matter how far you pursue dressage, it will help you in the hunters. Your rounds will be smoother, your horse more adjustable...

          My advice, ask about the differences between dressage and hunters. My major stumbling blocks have always been when it was assumed that I knew how to use a part of my body or that I understood a certain concept. The second that I stopped and asked, clarity was semi-acheived Ask about why the leg position is different and make sure that you are taking the time to do things out of saddle (ie: stretching, specific yoga exercises like The Plank) to help your core.) It takes time to develop the core strength and the other muscles required for the longer leg in dressage. If they offer longe lessons, it's a bonus!

          PS: I see that you are in PA...I'm not sure who you're working with, but I'll pm you the name of my instructors just in case you're interested.


          • #6
            I spent much of my riding career wandering through the parks, with narry a care in the world, and couldn't spell equitation. Fast forward to age 40 when I took up hunters - long story involving relocation and winter boredom. Made it to AA and had a horse that I hoped to do A/O with but soundness came into play. Switched to dressage at that point. VERY hard early on because my seat was not where it belonged, I didn't know how to teach the horse - its hard even w/ a trainer and lessons...I was at that time about 48...Bought a 15 yr old schoolmaster w/ a huge heart and a sense of humor. THAT's when things started happening and we went from training level to PSG in five years. It is WORK, it is sometimes hard and frustrating, but when things go well, it is worth everything. It took me a long time to feel things and a long time to get the corrections. You have to WANT this a lot. And if you can find a trainer who will let you ride a horse that is several levels up the food chain, it would be a great learning experience. Good luck!
            We don't get less brave; we get a bigger sense of self-preservation........


            • #7
              I spent my all Jr years doing hunters and then went to a college that had dressage. I started my "eval. ride" confident I'd be fine -even though this was my first ride ever in a dressage saddle - how much different could it be?

              I ended that 15 mins and my first few subsequent lessons after that almost in tears I was so frustrated. I felt like a complete beginner; uncoordinated and unbalanced. I kept feeling the need to tell people: "I swear I can Ride!"

              I had to completely relearn how to use my seat and find a new center of balance. But I will say after 2 years of riding twice a week, I improved more than in the previous 10 as a hunter. I became a much more effective rider and it helped my jumping tremendously.
              Barn rat for life


              • #8
                Welcome to the dark side! I'll be one of your cheerleaders! I think you will be getting lots of responses to this- almost every dressage rider I know came from another discipline, and most of them were from h/j world.

                I switched many moons ago for similar reasons-I had a jumper whose flatwork was so erratic that jumping him, though the actual jump was great, was taking your life in your hands--He had no real balance or rateability, and got so anxious when you tried to rate him that I stopped doing any jumping and started with a dressage trainer. I'd flirted w/dressage in college in combination w/3Day, so I was up for it, but changes needed to be made.

                Do you have a dressage saddle that fits you and puts you in a good position? That is SO important-fighting the saddle makes everything so much more difficult. Do you trust your horse enough to play with your position? My guy was huge, sensitive, and anxious, and this make progress more difficult.

                Are you able to take longe lessons? I cant say enough about longe lessons as a great way to work on position, to learn to open your hip angles and to get your thighs on down to your feet in a more correct position. Take as many LL's as you can handle, every day if you're able, and you can get a friend to longe you for 15 min. if your trainer is unavailable.

                So much about making the switch is about sitting up and opening your hips, dropping your weight into your ankles. Do you have the classic hunter leg-sharp angles, ankles cocked out? (I did) One of my favorite things is to grab the hamstring area at the back of my thigh and pull it away from the saddle, thus getting more "inner" thigh on the saddle, as opposed to the back part of the thigh-you'll know its more correct if your knees are facing more forward, and its easier for your feet to face towards the horse's head, as opposed to out. I do the thigh-grab every time I mount.

                Have you read any Sally Swift or Mary Wanless? The visualizations in these books can really help to create a better seat.

                First, have a saddle that helps you and doesn't hinder you. Be willing to spend time on the longe, and working without stirrups, holding the pommel as you work on your position.

                You can do this! Go Ruffey Go!!


                • #9
                  One word sums up my experience thus far: (apologies in advance)

                  crazyawesomewunderfulfrustratingbenificialholycowi 'madifferentridernowisthatreallymeandmyhorseinthem irrorholywowomgomgomgloooove

                  Things I heard(hear) a lot: Sit up sit up SIT UP get away from your horse!

                  Don't touch that rein. Don't do it.

                  Leg. Leg leg leg. Bring your leg back! backbackback you're not running barrels ring your leg back!

                  Stop hand riding!

                  Quit riding the head!

                  sit up sit up sit up! No don't tip back!

                  My mare's turning into a completely new horse, much faster than I anticipated. (It helps we started out lessons with me bluntly saying the biggest thing I need to fix with my horse is ME) But she's fabulous, and I have a wonderful trainer, between lessons I have an awesome ground person who isn't afraid to bark at me. I'm still a hunter at heart, and my mare...she's a jumper pony at heart, but all this dressage has been so good for us! And our bond? There's something about all the dressage work, I swear, it's never been better!
                  Owned by a Paint/TB and an OTTB.
                  RIP Scoutin' For Trouble ~ 2011 at 10
                  RIP Tasha's Last Tango ~ 2010 at ~23
                  RIP In Sha' Allah ~ 2009 too young at 5


                  • #10
                    I am still trying, but am having lots of difficulty finding a trainer. I can say that I have finally reached the point where I'm more comfortable with the new center of gravity in my dressage saddle and now I'm struggling with my position for h/j.

                    If there were a dressage trainer accessible to me that would let me continue to work my guy long and low until he's strong and balanced, I would not even bother with H/J lessons.
                    Lowly Farm Hand with Delusions of Barn Biddieom.
                    Witherun Farm


                    • #11
                      I'm a novice rider. I own a very mellow 13 yo QH who doesn't have a ton of training. After two years of riding around with a loop in my reins and constantly kicking my horse to make her go, my HJ trainer suggested we take some dressage lessons so I could learn to use my seat.

                      I do 1-2 private lessons with the dressage trainer a month and my h/j trainer asks me to do the dressage ride while we are warming up.

                      I don't worry very much about my toes being forward or out right now, but I do try to switch between sitting on my tail bone and having my elbows at my sides when we are dressaging and having a more fluid arm when we are huntering.

                      No matter what ride I am doing, I think about going back to front, making my horse fill up the rein and go on the bit, keeping her shoulders straight between both reins, even contact, and rocking back on her hind end and lifting up her shoulders.

                      I know so much more and my horse is just getting better and better.

                      I plan to keep training in both areas. I enjoy both so much for different reasons - I don't want to choose.
                      My blog: Journeys in Riding


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by ruffey001 View Post
                        I'm finding it very difficult to stick with dressage, even though I have a lot of interest in it and would really like to give it a fair chance.
                        I've had kind of a wiggly path.... when I was 9, my girl scout leader convinced my parents to let me take lessons at her barn, with a dressage trainer. Not a typical start for most kids who ride, but it was the best! I think it gave me a really solid foundation. I switched to hunters as a teen, (where it took awhile to learn how to canter in halfseat ) but I never showed beyond 3' at a local level.

                        In my early 20s I rode dozens and dozens of very el cheapo sale horses for a friend, and had to restart most of them. I jumped less and less, as I was putting basics on horses that needed to W/T/C in a short time frame and then move on.

                        Eventually I took some time off, and when I came back, I started with a dressage trainer who was superb at teaching adults, had a great understanding of biomechanics, and the whole experience was truly enlightening. Found a schoolmaster who taught me more in the 3 months I had him than I had ever learned from any horse. And then... trainer moved south, horse died, and I took a bunch more time off.

                        I'm back to riding now, bought my mare as a "family horse" but picked her because she is a sporty pony that will excel at lower level dressage. And while I keep trying to commit myself to it... it seems like more WORK sometimes than I can keep up with. I have a feeling miss mare will end up doing the local hunter circuit!

                        There is A LOT about dressage I think is useful and relevant-- the training pyramid, for example. Also the more biomechanically inclined theories make sense.

                        But there's a lot I don't really get, sometimes. Not that I don't understand it, I just don't get the extremist view occasionally I suppose. And also, a lot of bad dressage going on, at least where I live!

                        So yeah.... honestly, I've always ridden "too dressagey" for the hunter peeps, and "too huntery" for the dressage peeps. I'm not a very successful convert, I guess! If nothing else I know I'm a pretty soft, quiet rider, even if I don't really belong anywhere.

                        However, the middle ground for me is the trainer for whom I recently started working-- she does hunters, and mainly big eq, and there's a LOT of flatwork that goes on at her place. I feel very at home there!!
                        We couldn't all be cowboys, so some of us are clowns.


                        • #13
                          You got a lot of good advices already and many of them brought a smile to my face as I remember how incredibly frustrating it was to try to sit more like a dressage rider instead of a hunter.

                          I have only a few things to add....

                          1. Don't be too frustrated with yourself, or your horse. It is difficult to change a habit - ask yourself how difficult it is to try to train your left hand to paint (if you are a right handed person), then you know how weird it can be

                          I have to say though, it is very much worth it. Dressage really teaches you how to ride using your whole body, and then when you return to hunter/jumper, you can rely on your seat alone to straighten your horse before the jumps, leaving your hands free to do whatever else emergency you need to do. Your horses, even the non-dressage trained horses, will be a lot more responsivie too. Think about it, your seat is a much more effective way of communicating with a horse.

                          2. Do NOT, again, I repeat, Do NOT, try to lengthen that darn stirrup leather. Not in the beginning anyway. It takes years of practice to build up a rider's core strength, as well as the strength of the horse, for he/she to be able to achieve that kind of dressage seat we all admire. At this point, you will need that base of support to help you to the next level and lengthening the leather before you are ready will only put you back a few big steps. At every dressage shows I see riders struggling with their awfully long stirrup leathers that is really unnecessary.

                          When you are strong enough and your legs start to drop more, you will find the stirrup leathers to start to get in your way. Then, you can lengthen it, one hole at a time.

                          Good luck.


                          • #14
                            As someone who does both dressage and hunter/jumpers (though primarily h/j), there shouldn't be any HUGE changes between lower level dressage and riding a jumper on the flat. If you are more comfortable in your jumping saddle then start with that. Learn to use your seat and core then slowly lengthen your stirrups and switch to a dressage saddle. I know there are some trainers who think that it is not dressage if the tack isn't black but you don't need a dressage saddle to ride lower level movements and are allowed to post up through first level.

                            More than anything you need to find a good dressage instructor. Someone who is knowledgeable, able to give positive criticism and is realistic. No you may not be able to walk PERFECTLY straight yet or may have something wonky going on in your trot, but don't let them make you think that you are a complete failure. Most lower level dressage riders and horses are not perfect as you can see in the test scores. While dressage is great for people who are perfectionists, instructors need to be realistic and positive when dealing with newbies.


                            • #15
                              Count me in, too! I made the switch many years ago. I've ridden with a few different dressage coaches and the very first ones were very hands-on in terms of working with my position. I'd do one circle, stop, she'd reposition my leg, let me do another circle, stop, reposition my leg, etc. Let me tell you, it takes a long time to build new muscle memory for a dressage position (for me it has taken years - maybe I'm remedial! ), and personally I would suggest a proper dressage saddle if you can afford it.

                              And wrt dressage saddles, ditto the suggestions to find one that really fits you well (and your horse, of course). I've had many dressage saddles and at the time liked each, but now that I have my current saddle, I love it and it makes riding and having a good position so much easier.

                              Be patient with yourself. It is a long process . . . a life-long process. You'll learn one thing and think you've got it and then a year later you'll *really* get it and have an a-ha moment!

                              My current coach is very into biomechanics and I'm really loving the theory and detailed-ness (is that a word) of our lessons. Dressage is really a thinking-woman's sport and wonderful for those of us type-A personalities!
                              My Mustang Adventures - Mac, my mustang | Annwylid D'Lite - my Cob filly

                              "A horse's face always conveys clearly whether it is loved by its owner or simply used." - Anja Beran


                              • #16
                                Feel better now!

                                I JUST had this conversation at my lesson last week. My horse is a coming 5 y.o perch/TB cross..He is awesome, but I think just went through a growth spurt and seemed a bit unbalanced in our jumping lesson.

                                I have ridden most of my life - started bareback (couldn't afford a saddle), then h/j, foxhunted, and now more low level eventing, which of course includes dressage. I sort of viewed it as a necessary evil...

                                So last week I decided we would spend the winter 'doing' dressage! I cannot believe a. that it's so hard and b. how ignorant I feel - like a complete beginner.
                                So my joke with my trainer is 'I'm learning to be happy giving you $50 for "my two good steps"! After this thread I am a bit more enthused to keep at it, as I don't feel quite so stupid anymore....

                                BTW, I have an old wintec pro or 500 (bought used). Since I don't know how it is supposed to 'feel', should I be concerned with the saddle fit for me as far as position goes, don't really want to buy an expensive one right now? Thanks,


                                • #17
                                  I too made the switch about 10 years ago after 15 years of hunters (and whatever else I could ride!) It took about 2 years to really really change my seat. I was a very good rider, and I think I still am, but you go through that period where you feel like you can't quite get it to all work the way it's supposed to. I look back now at the way I used to sit and it's a totally different concept!

                                  I agree with some of the above posters, you need to switch to a dressage saddle if you really want to try to succeed at this! Yes, you can do LL dressage in a jumping saddle (and I event, so I start all my young horses that way), but you cannot truly work on an effective dressage seat in anything but a D saddle, because it's a totally different biomechanical way to interact with your horses' back.

                                  I would highly recommend the Wintec Isabell for a cheap D saddle...the old ones, I know nothing about the new ones. They have a balance like many more expensive saddles for a cheap price! I would NOT recommend the Wintec Pros, just look at the two models side by side and you can see the difference...the Isabell is not the final solution, but you can make a lot of progress in one until you have actually changed your position enough to buy a saddle for your more educated seat.
                                  Thoroughbred Placement Resources, Inc


                                  • Original Poster

                                    Great suggestions (dressage saddle and lessons on schoolmaster). I had suspected that I needed some "help". It's pretty hard trying to make the transition in a Butet saddle and on a 4 year old mare. I also don't feel quite so alone hearing that others share my challenges. Thanks everyone - these posts give me some hope!


                                    • #19
                                      My daughter rides both and always says that both styles of riding benefit the other, though she says the dressage is most beneficial to riding hunters.

                                      Personally, I ride strictly pleasure and don't hop over fences any more, but I can't figure out how you guys get all your various body parts to talk to the horses properly, so my hat is off to all of you
                                      \"Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it.\" Anne of Green Gables


                                      • #20
                                        You are in lots of great company! I started dressage also because of a strong hunter who needed finessing and I was astounded at how much better dressage made him. I'd only ridden absolutely perfectly trained hunters before that and really didn't have to "ride" the horses, I just had to look pretty. There's lots of work involved in that, too, but I found dressage so much more interesting, personally.

                                        Learning (or rather, trying hard to learn!) how to be a part of what was going on in a really effective, productive, wonderful way was so much fun and is absolutely addicting. The kind of bittersweet blessing of it is that you can work at this your whole life and still have more to learn. Great because you'll most likely never get bored, while simultaneously a source of neverending frustration, lol!

                                        I think one of the first BIG things you need to remember is that it's not about the nose, head or neck position. It's about the horse working over his BACK! Don't worry and fuss about getting the front of your horse to look a certain way. There's more horse under and behind you and that's where the good stuff is really going to stem from! I honestly think people spend years trying to get the horse "round" just focusing on what they see in front of them, and it's not until they feel a horse actually using his body and working over his back that they realize how futile (and even damaging) those years of fussing with the head have been.

                                        That said, take some lessons on a schoolmaster if you can, so that you know what you're shooting for.

                                        Another biggie: loosen your hips. That's going to be HUGE coming from hunters! Watch as much video as you can of really great dressage riders and watch their hips. They open and move a lot more than you think, and we ex-hunters tend to ride with closed, tight hips.

                                        Have fun!