Switching Disciplines with Your Horse

Simple advice for those converting from hunters to dressage

Whether due to injury, preference or just plain curiosity, many riders have moved from counting strides to perfecting a 20-meter circle with their horse. But as any dressage rider can tell you, switching disciplines is not just a change in tack and clothing. Going from hunters to dressage requires a change in a rider’s seat and aids, and can leave even the most experienced hunter rider feeling as if she is learning to ride her horse all over again.

To help riders know what to expect, Dressage Today interviewed a few experts in the sport. Here’s some simple advice they shared to help make the transition easier:

A Change in Position

If you pick up any photo of a hunter rider and place it next to a photo of a dressage rider, you will notice that the position of the riders is quite different. However, there are also many common elements of good riding that cross over from hunters, jumpers, eventing and dressage. “The basics are the basics, regardless of the discipline,” says Sarah Geikie, a certified trainer, FEI**** judge and sought-after clinician based in Connecticut. “All riders must possess a balanced position that is free of stiffness and rigidity. They must possess rhythm and balance with the horse and apply the correct aids.” 

Lauren Sprieser, a USDF gold medalist and Grand Prix rider and trainer who runs Clearwater Farm in northern Virginia, says, “A good show hunter and a good dressage horse have a few qualities in common. Both should be relaxed and soft in their expressions and equally willing to please off of equally small aids. Riding up the levels in dressage is much more nuanced. I think great hunter riders sit above their horses and stay out of the way, whereas great dressage riders sit into the horses and show them the way.”

When asked about the challenges facing former hunter riders in dressage, Laura Fay, owner of Aering Green Equestrian Center in upstate New York, points out that the differences in position and seat are the toughest changes to overcome. “In dressage, riders must sit upright and deeper in the saddle. I spend a lot of time teaching my students how to sit in the saddle and often use longe lessons to help improve the quality of their seat.” 

Leg position and stirrup length can also be a hard thing to adjust to for many. Fay explains that dressage calls for a longer leg and longer stirrup length, which causes dismay to hunter riders at first. With time, the change in position will feel more natural. Even experienced riders find this a challenge. 

Sprieser also agrees that the hardest thing for hunter-ring converts is the change in position. “My students who come from the jumping world are all shocked when I tell them they have to sit back so far and are convinced that they’re about to crack their helmets on their horses’ butts, only to look in the mirror to see they’re barely vertical.”

For the horse’s development, Geikie is a believer in the Pyramid of Training, which focuses on rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness and collection. “I follow the training scale as a guide to develop the horse. I do not believe in force. Anything forced cannot be beautiful. Each horse is an individual, and I let the horse tell me how slow or fast I can proceed with him.”

By using progressive conditioning to increase throughness and obedience, the training scale helps to build a correct way of going. “Dressage is, at its heart, all about teaching our horses to be balanced, organized and responsive, and that’s what good riding in any tack should be all about,” Sprieser adds.

Choosing a Dressage Trainer

In making the transition, riders who are new to the sport should identify a good trainer to help them navigate the process. Whether you are looking to compete at a recognized show or just take a weekly lesson, it is good to set clear goals and share them with perspective trainers. “Certainly, picking someone who’s worked with hunter riders before can be nice, but good trainers should be able to help you whether or not they’ve trained your type of rider before,” says Sprieser. 

The USDF provides a wealth of information online for those new to the sport. The organization also has more than 175 certified instructors throughout the country who have met training proficiency standards from Training through Fourth Level. Additionally, every region of the country has regional group membership organizations that will often list trainers on their websites. “Your trainer should have a teaching style that suits your learning style,” says Sprieser. “He or she should have done what you want to do as well as have taught others to do what you want to do, whether that’s Training Level or the Grand Prix level.”

Geikie suggests that new dressage enthusiasts go watch an instructor teach and ride before making a decision. Local and recognized shows are good places to observe trainers, especially in the warm-up ring where they are interacting with current clients. 

Competing in Dressage

Dressage, along with eventing and jumping, is recognized as an international discipline while hunters is considered a national discipline. The USEF governs dressage competitions nationally and the FEI is the international governing organization. Similar to hunters, across the country there are recognized dressage shows licensed by the USEF and recognized by the USDF, that may include qualifying classes for year-end awards or championships. There also are schooling shows that are not recognized and typically local, where riders can gain experience. One commonality between the two disciplines is that the judging is subjective, based on scores and not on time and faults as is the case with jumpers and cross country in eventing. 

Geikie encourages riders to be prepared and read the test sheets with the directive comments ahead of the show. Additionally, she advises riders to compete at a level below what they are schooling at home. 

Tack Differences

Dressage tack is different than hunter tack in more than just color. “Hunter saddles are designed to help riders ride like hunters with a shorter stirrup, more closed hip angle and a more forward upper body,” says Sprieser. “A dressage saddle is much more conducive to a good dressage-rider position.”

There are also differences between bridles used for the two disciplines. Sprieser remarks that hunter bridles with snaffle bits are welcome in the dressage ring. However, flash and drop nosebands that are common to dressage are not allowed in hunters. 

Beyond tack, rider attire differs in both style and color. In hunters, shorter hunt-style coats with tan or beige knee patches or Euro-seat breeches are the norm, and in dressage, longer black coats and white full-seat breeches are standard. Dress boots are most common in dressage although field boots, typically worn in hunters, can be found at lower-level competitions. Field boots are designed with laces and flex at the ankle to better enable a two-point position. In contrast, dress boots are made of thicker leather with no laces to preserve the long line of the rider’s leg. 

The Dressage Convert

Geikie is a convert to dressage herself. “When I started to ride, hunters was really the only option, so that is what we all did. I was in U.S. Pony Club, which offered a well-rounded education and it was a natural pull to eventing, which I loved and competed at through the Intermediate level. But then I met dressage and fell in love with it. It was so complex and challenging. I never looked back.” 

Ultimately, a hunter-to-dressage convert will be able to appreciate both disciplines—the -thrill of soaring over a fence and the euphoria of a well-ridden dressage test. In fact, some riders will train in both disciplines to develop a well-rounded horse and greater skill set as a rider. It may take some time to master the elements of dressage but once you complete your first leg yield, canter pirouette or musical freestyle, it will be well worth it. 

Jennifer M. Miller is a freelance writer and communications professional from upstate New York. A former hunter rider, she now competes in dressage with her North American Spotted Draft cross mare.

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