If you go to any USEF recognized dressage show, chances are that warmblood breeds will be the most common types that you’ll see, particularly competing at the higher levels. While I’ve owned many warmbloods over the years, I’ve also had the experience of showing a non-traditional dressage breed with my American Quarter Horse, Shela.
I believe that many breeds are underrated as dressage horses simply because they are not warmbloods. Keeping an open mind has allowed me to learn valuable lessons from each horse I ride, and has made me realize that attitude really is everything.
While showing a non-warmblood can come with its challenges, it can be really rewarding if you approach each challenge with the right mindset. For me, this means that I focus on the positive and play everything to my horse’s strengths. Having this outlook means that I don’t dwell on movements that my horse finds difficult.
For example, Shela finds lateral work very easy, but developing her gaits is more of a challenge. Her trot is naturally pretty flat, so I just have to be creative about strengthening her hind legs to get more ground cover and cadence. I’ve learned that riding her forward over ground poles encourages her to really push in the trot so that afterward she has a nice lengthening.
Over the years I’ve encountered a few people who have asked why I show my Quarter Horse in dressage. My attitude is, “Why not?” Dressage is the basis for all types of training, so there are countless benefits to each regardless of its breeding. Danish trainer Bent Banderup says, “use dressage for the horse, not the horse for dressage.” I have certainly found this to be true in Shela’s case. She is a supple, balanced, and happy athlete and I attribute this to her basis in correct dressage training.
While I do not believe that judges have any breed prejudice, I do feel that there can be a certain stigma among some trainers toward certain breeds. I have seen friends become discouraged because a trainer told them that their equine partner “isn’t a dressage horse.” My advice to anyone showing a non-warmblood in dressage is to remain focused on your goals. Correct riding is correct riding, no matter what breed of horse you are on. Finding an empathetic trainer who will take you seriously and work with your horse with appreciation for the positive qualities will help. Be proud of what you can accomplish on your horse and never let anyone put you down.
I’ve shown Shela through Second Level at USEF competitions, ridden in two Regional Championships, and one U.S. Dressage Final for the Open First Level Freestyle, scoring up to 73%. The way I see it, dressage is a sport that is more about your own personal best than how you compare to the other competitors. I know that as soon as I think, “my horse did well for a Quarter Horse,” I’m limiting myself, when in reality, there is nowhere to go but up. Most importantly, I enjoy every ride I have with Shela.