A couple years ago I attended Horse Expo Pomona, clutching my daily schedule with different clinics and presentations marked off for each day. One of the first sessions I stopped to watch was Jec Aristotle Ballou, speaking about Equine Fitness while her demo riders, one English, one Western, were put through a series of simple exercises that addressed the issues each horse was facing. The information she shared about equine physiology really connected the dots for me, demonstrating how fitness can solve many common riding issues I previously thought of as behavioral, rather than physical. I changed my carefully marked schedule right then, crossing off anything that conflicted with Jec’s other lessons that weekend!
In addition to training and giving clinics, Jec is the author of several great take-to-the-barn-and-ride exercise books (see the end of the interview for her bio). This month we talk to Jec about her newest book, 101 Western Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider, equine fitness, and more!
1. You’ve written several very useful and informative books, but I’d like to dive right into your latest: 101 Western Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider. You had already published a book of exercises for English Dressage riders, so what was your focus or what specific goals did you want to accomplish when you chose the exercises to help Western riders?
My primary focus was to make the progressive training scale of dressage not just accessible but useful to western riders and their horses through exercises that could help them. I wanted to create exercises that made sense within the context of improving their horses for a specific outcome, that outcome being a better equine athlete. People often ask me what the difference is between my two exercise books– the English and Western books– and my reply is that this new one, the 101 Western Dressage Exercises, is geared towards developing a western style stock horse, NOT just giving him English dressage patterns to ride through. This means the exercises emphasize skills like maneuverability, precise footwork, softness. My goal with these exercises is to give western riders some dressage guidance but not for them to feel alienated from their western training tradition. It helps answer the question “What should I work on today?” when riders head to the arena.
2. The Western Dressage exercises in your book are broken up into categories: Softness; Looseness; Rider Development; Engagement; Adjustability; and Groundwork. It seems that many Western Dressage horses and riders are coming into this sport from another one, like Reining, Pleasure, or Versatility. Have you noticed any particular areas that those coming into Dressage are most in need of? Things they may not have worked on so much before Western Dressage?
The most common issue I find myself addressing with these kinds of riders is rein contact. Many Western riders have been taught to ride with nearly loose reins. IF the horse is moving well (symmetrically, engaged, round over the top line), then loose reins are perfectly okay. But most of the horses I see are not moving so well; they are stiff or crooked or choppy with their steps. Helping riders find enough soft rein contact to guide their horses in to a better balance can be challenging. Riders worry that a little rein contact might lead to stronger and stronger contact, and so on. But this is obviously not the goal. The goal is just to connect the horse’s hind legs to rider’s hands and seat, which is why in Western Dressage we encourage riders to use a snaffle in the lower levels and really learn about how to create an elastic contact.
3. What is the importance of ground work for Western Dressage?
Ground work can be a helpful part of any training program, especially for teaching horses how to organize their bodies unencumbered by a rider’s weight and interference. I like to spend five or ten minutes before I get on doing a little work with horses on the ground. Sometimes, this means asking them to flex their hind limbs while standing in place, or maybe we’ll do a few turns on forehand or some serpentines on line.
4. Your book Equine Fitness: A Conditioning Program of Exercises and Routines for Your Horse has a lot of great mounted and unmounted exercises for developing your horse into a healthy athlete. How important is fitness for a Western Dressage horse? Assuming of course the horse is in healthy shape from being ridden a few times a week, and can make it through a test without a lot of strain, what benefits will we see from learning how the body works and focusing more on fitness?
Many riders mistakenly assume that schooling their horse a few times per week gives him the fitness his needs to perform well in Western Dressage. This is not entirely true. Physiological studies have shown that in order to make capable dressage athletes, riders MUST cross-train with fitness-specific exercises. These are things that are not “dressage” per se but make the horse more able to use his body. For optimal recruitment, muscle tissue must be trained at varying intensities in different patterns and different speeds. This is the only way to make gains, not through repetitive schooling of similar maneuvers day after day. So, this is where a focus on fitness comes in, which is my specialty.
5. Can you please explain the concept you bring up in your Equine Fitness book about letting the exercises fix the issues?
Yes! So many riders get stuck in their heads, meaning they over-think things and then they over-ride their horse, or they tend to become ineffective. Generally, the quickest and simplest way to fix a horse when he is crooked, stiff, hollow– you name it– is to steer him into an exercise that will solve the problem. This allows riders to remain more relaxed, use softer reins, and not just keep amplifying their aids. Use exercises, not stronger riding, to help the horse organize his body.
6. I know that conditioning and exercise can be done with a horse no matter what discipline you ride, but are there any exercises in the Equine Fitness book that we should modify as Western Riders to help the Western horse specifically?
No, as I mentioned earlier, any horse– regardless of discipline– needs well developed range of joint motion, good cardiovascular adaptations, flexibility, and strength. This is where a focus on fitness comes in. ALL horses should be doing the exercises in this book, discipline is irrelevant. Balance and fitness comes first, specializing and stylizing the training then follows.
7. If someone already rides with a trainer, or has their own training program they work with, how helpful is it to attend a clinic as a rider or auditor?
When students know more or less what kinds of training approach and results they’re after, clinics can be beneficial. Sometimes, though, I see students hopping around to all kinds of clinics, taking in too much information, getting confused, and never making progress. I think this comes from not having a clear focus what their individual priorities are. You should select clinics carefully; don’t get caught up in riding with celebrities just because they are celebrities.
8. Do you have any last thoughts or words of advice for us?
Just a reminder that physiological studies from numerous research institutions have verified that, in order to make training and performance gains, a horse must recruit the specific muscle for his given activity regularly enough to adapt to higher levels. “Regularly enough” is defined as 4 days per week, consistently. If you ride less often than that, you need to adjust your expectations. Science has proven this. Now, get out and enjoy your ride!
Thanks so much Jec!
JEC ARISTOTLE BALLOU is the author of best-selling book and mobile app 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider as well as the book Equine Fitness: A Conditioning Program of Exercises and Routines for Your Horse. Her newest book, 101 Western Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider, draws on her expertise and commitment to correct equine body mechanics, physiologically based fitness training, and a lifetime classical dressage background. Based in Santa Cruz, CA, Jec has been a featured presenter at Equine Affaire, Western States Horse Expo, Rocky Mountain Horse Expo, and Pennsylvania Horse World Expo. She welcomes riders and horses of all levels and backgrounds.