The Making of a Fine Western Horse and Rider using Cowboy Dressage® Training

– Riding with a Soft Feel –

(the Language of Lightness in the conversation between horse and rider)

Susan Jesse 2-R1Cowboy Dressage is a powerful Western horsemanship training discipline whose goal is developing a sound, supple, responsive and happy horse ridden in self-carriage with a soft feel and nearly imperceptible cues. Any horse, doing any discipline, will benefit from this training.

Cowboy Dressage is very Western! It combines the best of Western riding, the Vaquero tradition (which is steeped in classical dressage elements), and the Soft Feel taught by the likes of Ray Hunt, Tom Dorrance, Buck Brannaman and Eitan Beth-Halachmy.

Cowboy Dressage training is a methodically structured, progressive and patient approach to developing the ultimate horse/rider partnership. From beginning to “made” can easily take 5-7 years (or more). “What’s best for the horse” is the focus that guides the training and development. We will “take the time it takes” to do it right.

The horse’s training progression is:

  1. Rhythm (proper natural gaits)
  2. Suppleness (relaxation)
  3. Contact (Soft Feel)
  4. Impulsion (moving forward from hind quarters)
  5. Straightness
  6. Collection (the ultimate in soft feel, self carriage and independent seat)

The rider must develop:

  1. Hands with a soft feel
  2. An independent seat
  3. Proper timing of appropriate cues
  4. Practical knowledge and initiation of gaits and transitions

For a more detailed explanation, read “Cowboy Dressage, A progressive, methodical approach to making fine horses and riders” by Susan Tomasini.


A good horse/rider relationship always begins on the ground. You are building a foundation that will last a lifetime. Take the time to go slow in the beginning, and the reward of building a foundation that never falters will prove its value.

When working on the ground, your goal is to have a horse that “follows your feel” and is light as a feather when responding to your request to:

  • Be sent to the right and left
  • Back up
  • Move their haunches right and left
  • Move their forehand (shoulder) right and left

These are not just training exercises, but also have practical applications. When you are not mounted and need your horse to move a certain way, all the above elements can come into play to turn a potentially bad experience into a good one.

In the saddle:

The classical western training progression works your horse through the following:

  1. Snaffle bit and/or Hackamore (bosal)
  2. You can eventually settle on a different bit is desired and the horse responds properly and happily
  3. If developing a Vaquero Type bridle horse, the 2 rein follows step #1
  4. Straight-up in bridle (Spade bit)

This will take several years to accomplish if done properly.

Again, your goal is to have the horse moving with self-carriage and a “Soft Feel” when asked to:

  • Walk, Jog and Lope (free, working and collected)
  • Move in a straight line
  • Bend correctly in a circle
  • Transition
  • Leg Yield
  • Side pass
  • Rein back
  • Turn on haunches
  • Turn of forehand
  • Stop

Ultimately all these elements will be executed with cues that are nearly imperceptible. Your legs and seat will provide virtually all the cuing. Your hands become merely the communication path in the conversation between you and your horse. This is called an independent seat and allows the horse to attain self carriage and you to ride with the ultimate goal of soft feel.

Expectations and Telephones

Mr-Ed-telephone-photo-512I love taking the time to write to you all. My great wish is that you take the time to read and consider what I have to say.

Eventually, you may come to recognize that good horsemanship is fundamentally what WE do with our horses; from the time we pick up the halter at the start of our time with them. Many of you do not have the luxury of endless hours next to your horse. So, what you do with the time you have is of the utmost importance to be effective and, to enjoy doing it. That is why we have articles, and books, and clinics attending to all of the details of owning and working with horses.

In my experiences with riders during my clinics and lesson, I see the following occur from time to time. Riders are frustrated in getting new maneuvers accomplished and perfected with their horses. They try doing the same cues, expecting the desired result. The maneuver is new for both horse and rider. Thus, both feel like the right thing is never going to come into reality. But, if the rider continues to ask for the movement, asking the 34th time with the same patience and kindness as he did the first time, the horse just might get it. The thing that sabotages finally getting to that successful outcome is often this –


Expectations are what gets most relationships in trouble. Some think husbands (boyfriends) should know what the wife (girlfriend) wants – do the dishes, buy that style hat, say “X” at a particular time.

But,as we all know, it doesn’t work that way. Husbands and boyfriends are forever wondering what the right thing to do for Tuesday and what the right thing to do is for Saturday. We girls know that the rules change at random.

When on the horse’s back, heading towards the trail or the show ring or the practice arena, we expect our horse to perform because he did it well yesterday. When the cues don’t produce the desired result, we kick or yank or yell and call the horse names we shouldn’t. Expecting the horse to understand what we are asking for will get us into disappointment, then frustration and despair. So, what is the alternative?


The alternative is communication. Like the husband or boyfriend who asks, “How can I bless you today?” He REALLY needs a specific answer. If the wife or girlfriend’s response is, “You should know if you really cared,” then, defenses rise up, both parties feel hurt and a great relationship moment is lost.

So with the horse – communication via asking with our leg cues, using our weight in the saddle as if it were a verb, then, getting enough tension in the reins so that the horse can put together all the cues as if words to a sentence, so that he has a clue of what we might be asking of him.

If the desired response is not there, it is most probably because we have not taught the horse to respond to the leg cues in the first place. If the desired response is not happening, it is most probably because we have not taught the horse how to understand what different weight placements in our seat means. If the desired response is not forth coming, it is most likely that we have not sent receivable messages through the reins to the bit. Think of it this way – the leg cues are the dialing of the phone number. The weight in the seat is the ringing tone and the rein contact is the “hello”. Now a conversation can begin with a positive outcome. Remember, the horse has to put all these elements together and then try to get the right answer back to you. If he tries, but gives the wrong answer, don’t kick or yank or yell. Just ask again, with the same kindness and clarity you used the first time you asked. Then, reward the tries he gives back that are going in the right direction.

The horse is not “wrong” when the desired response doesn’t arrive right away. Hemost certainly is still trying to figure out what you want. When he starts moving as we wish, he will try harder as we reward his “try.” Learning involves trying answers that are not correct. Understanding comes when the effort is happening to try to get what is desired.

FriscoReward the slightest try. Remember that and practice it. Your horse will connect and answer the phone.