By: Sue Kolstad
Life would be unthinkable without the contribution of the horse. It is because of our need for various jobs that we have created and developed so many different breeds and diversities in our equine partners. The history of the horse dates back two and a half thousand years throughout Europe and so it is with great pride that the America’s have created and developed the western horse in a relatively short period of history.
The first recorded history of horsemanship dates back to Xenophon 400 BC, a Greek Warrior and Commander, who is credited with leaving us the first surviving treatises of horsemanship. Xenophon makes references to Simon of Athens in his writings, but unfortunately scarcely a fragment of that work has been preserved. Xenophon was not only a great warrior, but a scholar as well. His many writings on the training of cavalry horses are held in highest regards yet today by all equestrian scholars worldwide. His work is the foundation from which all classical principles of riding are built upon, and the reasons will soon become clear.
One of the traditional battle movements in those days was a very fast impulsive gallop down the career where the horse had to be brought back sharply on his hocks and turned immediately in either direction. (Does this sound like a reining pattern?) The first priority was total maneuverability. The riders hands were occupied with shield and sword, so the desired result was an easily balanced warhorse, trusting and obedient. (How about a cowboy roping a steer?)The type of horse Xenophon preferred to execute these maneuvers was primarily the Iberian, Spanish, or Barb.
The horse was extinct on the American continent when Columbus arrived in 1493 with thirty horses. The first horses to come to America were primarily Spanish horses in the sixteenth century and it is from these horses, combined with the English Thoroughbred that the American Quarter Horse was created. All of these breeds were brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors and after being set free over time these feral animals turned into the American Mustang. They discovered these horses had innate “cow” in them, going back to their heritage of having been bred to fight bulls over the centuries in Spain. Thus they became the foundation stock for the quarter horse of today. The cow horse was developed to maneuver from the cowboy’s seat and legs, freeing his hands for work on the range. It was also necessary for the horse to engage and come under easily with the haunches in order to be balanced enough to perform with lightness and agility. All of these qualities were requirements for the ideal Greek war horse which is the base for the ideal western performance horse of today.
As flat racing became popular in the 17th century, the need for a sprinter resulted in crossing the Spanish type horses with the English Thoroughbred. One of the most famous of these early imports was Janus, a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred. The influence of Thoroughbreds contributed genes crucial to the development of the colonial Quarter Horse, which is the foundation for today’s breed.
The horse has been man’s partner throughout history. The need for a war horse coupled with the need for a servant required a mastery of the horse which has progressed into the games of peaceful competition. No longer a comrade in arms, the horse has become our playmate, and so our true nature is exalted through the horse with the sound of the horns and the famous words…. let the games begin! The challenge of matching others, excelling in skill, dexterity in the saddle, is the basis of the inexhaustible number of equestrian games worldwide. The skills needed by cowboys and their horses is the foundation of the rodeo from which reining, cutting, calf roping, barrel racing, gymkhana, and pleasure events have evolved. Where ever there is a horse and a man, there will be competition to suit the needs of their immediate surroundings.
The western saddle is unique to the cowboys of the American West. Designed specifically for roping cattle on the range, the horn used primarily to wrap rope around and the base being large enough to distribute the weight evenly over the horse’s back. With this saddle, an entirely new style of riding came about, rapidly spreading over the entire world. Western saddles and western horses are being imported to Europe at an accelerated rate in the last 15 years. The Great American West fills our country with our own history of the horse and we have created an entirely unique style of riding and competitions which have its foundation from the mastery of the California Vaquero, whose style and horsemanship clearly resembles that of Xenophon.
Today’s western horse is not limited to the quarter horse; it comes in all shapes sizes colors and breeds, as long as the horse is somewhat compact and able to balance itself easily. The sport of western riding has blossomed in the twentieth century with a remarkable variety of events which make vastly different demands on the horse and rider – reining, cutting, working cow horse, western pleasure, western riding, trail, barrel racing, pole bending, to name some of the most popular ones. Although western style riding carries a label separating it from “English” style, brought here from Europe, the same basic principles of training and horsemanship apply to all horses and riders. After looking back into the history of man’s partnership with the horse, it is easy to understand how the principles of dressage apply to man and horse working together as partners to perform in harmony. A correct posture or seat, good balance, timing, subtle aids or “cues”, soft hands and the ability to coordinate it all results in bringing the horse to the rider’s disposal.
These are essential elements for riding both western and in the sport of dressage. Although western has taken a different path, the basics come from the same origins. Many of the movements resemble one another, for instance, a spin is a form of a pirouette, a side pass is similar to a leg yield or half pass, and head set resembles the curved neck and arched back when a dressage horse is on the bit. The western shows offer freestyles which are judged very much the same as the freestyles in dressage and many times western riders have paired with dressage riders to give exhibitions at competitions to demonstrate the similarities. Now western dressage is becoming popular at many breed shows and it looks like it is taking off. The first time I was asked to judge it, my response was enthusiastic as long as I could remain true to my standard of requiring a pure three beat canter. I was delighted to discover that was part of the directives for the lope in western dressage.
I hope this article has helped to enlighten the readers as to how dressage is the foundation for all good riding and when applied correctly enhances the performance in every arena. The sport of Dressage takes these principles to another level and has developed into a separate field of competition in today’s world, but the inherent principles of dressage apply as the basic foundation of training for all horses. A line from a famous poem in the ancient Koran reads: ”Thou shalt find happiness all over the earth and thou shalt be favored above all other creatures, for to thee shall accrue the love of the master of the earth”. Long is the road which the horse has travelled with us throughout our history. What remains of the past today are the things we will use as building blocks for the future. Classical principles have stood the test of time, and will continue to do so for the future of the horse in sport.
Sue Kolstad is an S rated Dressage Judge, a recipient of all three USDF Medals: Bronze, Silver and Gold. She has been active in Dressage for over 30 years. Her resume includes a teaching degree in education and riding instructor certification from the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. Sue has dedicated her life to horses and has competed in many disciplines including Western, Endurance Trail Rides, Hunters, Jumpers, Combined Training; presenting sport horses, importing horses from Europe and Dressage. A native of Wisconsin, Sue has found her home in Kentucky where she actively teaches, coaches, trains and judges, keeping her active in all portions of the sport. Her students have won numerous championships and medals over the years and above all else, Sue is devoted to education and the classical development of the sport of Dressage.