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.

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