Breeding dressage horses

April 2014 

3 Days ago a Clydesdale x Thoroughbred won the New Zealand Horse of the Year Grand Prix Dressage. I doubt very much that he was designer bred for dressage as were the many specialist European Warmbloods that he beat.  Someone that knew horses picked a promising stallion with good conformation to mate to a similar class of mare. This horse started out his career as a jumper.

Unlike the breeding of jumpers, where commonly horses with ordinary sort of conformation can become champions, dressage horses do have a number of recognisable and breedable traits. It is very easy to pick a horse, based on conformation, that won’t do well in dressage. Not so with jumpers.


The 3 dominating features are:

-  Topline and general confomation

-  Movement (which also means legs)

-  Temperament.


Topline and conformation

If the horse does not have a topline conducive to dressage, walk away.  The topline tells us how easy or difficult it is going to be for the horse to collect. It also tells us his type of movement (elevated or elongated)  So many times I have seen riders battling  for years with a horse with a deficient topline, whereas if they had bought one conducive to dressage, they would have been more advanced after 4 weeks. The difference is that the latter finds it easy, the former  does not, and never will. 


                              Photo 1: Krugerand @ 4 yrs, 16.2 hh


If were to choose a horse for competition dressage, based purely on conformation from the 150 I have bred, it would be this guy.   He has it all. BUT, he is a good example of how we can get it wrong and not know until we have been riding for 2 months. He was not generous. He was sticky to ride making him very ordinary in any discipline.  However, I will use him as an example for conformation. 


Very nice short-coupled body, smooth  continuous topline, nice curvature through the neck topline, good length of neck-to-body ratio, reasonably fine through the gullet, neck topline comes straight out of the whither, exclellent medium-boned legs, nice facial expression, Good straight rythm at trot. I especially I like the way his neck appears to just hang off the shoulder. This guy will be calm and can stretch down easily. No heavy muscling in the neck. Powerfull hind end. 



Given that we have a good topline and legs, we need to home in on the neck. It is the window into the horse’s temperament, the way he moves, and his ability to collect.


How can the neck indicate temperament? Well, it does. I learned something very important years ago when I bought a pure Clydesdale mare out of Gisborne. She was straight off the hills and extremely touchy. In those days I trained my broodmares to ride, even the Clydesdales. This mare was big, very strong, and always nervous with a very short fuse. I noted after awhile that the muscle tone in the top of the neck from the whither forward was bulky and hard as a board. I started to surmise that this was due to continuous tension. On observing other horses I have come to the conclusion that the make, shape and firmness of this region is a clear indicator of temperament. 


This theory was further substantiated by something that a very good dressage rider told me. He had bought a fantastic prospect, shortly after it was broken in. He had tried for weeks to get it to stretch down. In desperation he put a gadget on the horse to force him down.  He only rode it for one session and then had to spell it for several weeks as this muscle-area I refer to blew up like a balloon. It had become strained.


This is the muscle we have to stretch, when we stretch a horse down correctly.  I talk about this in the training page. So:

In the young horse,  look for a neck that is smooth-surfaced. Avoid those with strong, hard, muscle along the top of the neck. 


Feel right along the neck, starting at the whither, by placing your hand over the neck and gripping with your fingers.  Try this on many horses and you will start to get a feel for it. Note though, that very fat horses and ponies build up in this region. This fat can disguise the actual muscle condition.


Given that the horse is not over-fat, avoid any horse that  feels bulky and hard in this region. 




                                    Photo 2: Sako @ 5yrs, 16.1 hh


Sako is a horse that would appeal to many. She is big, strong, and has sporthorse written all over her.  But, she was extremely difficult to collect or get to stretch down. She was not a good dressage prospect. Her breeding is 5/8 TB, ¼ Clydesdale and 1/8 Arab, which should be a good mix.  In this case it wasn’t.

 I had been working away on her knowing, at best, she would be a show jumper or hunter. I had a new trainer come to help. After riding her a few times she insisted that Sako needed to be lunged with side reins. That was the way she trained, regardless of the fact she was breeding for dressage.  I detest any gear that ties a horse back (or any gadgets) but gave her the green light, as I did not consider Sako top shelf. Whatever, the trainer could do no harm. Sako was too tough for that. 

Next day in the lunging yard Sako goes into tied-back side reins, and she gets tickled up with the lunge whip. One stride, then Wam! Up goes Sako in a huge rear, scaring the tripe out of this trainer. 2 more attempts. Same result. I just said that ‘if you cannot do it without gadgets you should not be training’. Her reply was, ‘You are training jumpers, it is different’, then walked out, never to return.

So why did Sako resist to such an extent? First, look at her upper neck.  We see strong muscle running right along. Secondly, look at the angle at which the head connects to the neck. This angle is typical of a thoroughbred, that is built for long low action, not elevated.  Sako was built in this way and had her way of going. Her body developed to accomodate this movement. By year 4 this is well entrenched. Hundreds of hours of training can change this but why bother?  She was stable enough to become a jumper, hunter or hack. Leave it at that. 

It is important to consider that genuine New Zealand Stationbreds grow up on hills, seeking out pasture. Their individual way of going (moving) is there from birth. Their bodies develop according to their natural movement which can be conducive to dressage frame and movement , but often is not. Sako is one that is not.  The angle of the head where it attaches to the neck is directly related to the way they move.  More on that later. 

                                                       Now for some good ones

                      Photo 3: Bentley @ 3ys, 15.1 hh



Bentley was the softest horse I have ever ridden. He was so soft that no rider I put on him could ride him correctly. They shortened up the front too much and did not ride the hind. On shortening  up the front they then wonder why the horse won't go forward and start thumping with the legs. Pull and push - disaster. I had to tell each and every one of them to free up his front and just work with his impulsion. They were destroying it.

I was really sad when he was sold as I knew what he was in for, unless by sheer luck he struck an owner that understands this type of horse.  I never heard any more of him.

This is the only photo I have of Bentley and it is unfortunate that he is looking up. We cannot see the neck topline in relaxed pose. I can assure you that it had all the qualities I talk of. There are no strong, protruding muscles. 

The only way to train this type of horse is with long whip tapping up impulsion over hundreds of hours hacking. He can already (after 3 weeks) do it all up front. Leave it alone. Should I have kept him I would have put every rider, aside from myself, on a halter. I would cut their legs off at the knees, give them a long whip and say, 'Now learn how to make a horse!' So very, very few, know the importance of the long whip. It protects the leg aid.  

He was one beautiful little horse. 


                                  Champaign minds

I can only put 3 horses within this category. They are so rare that I probably should not be mentioning them here. Most of the time we work with ordinary or good minds - or we are unlucky enough to have a perfectly made horse, that just cannot produce mentally (Photo 1).Interestingly all 3 of the horses I will here discuss have been mares.  I only have photos of 1.

However, along with the Champaign mind comes a conformation where the horse has good strong impulsion, combined with lightness and softness. They have to be generous and find it easy physically to collect. The factor that makes them exceptional is that they almost always listen 100% to the rider, yet are forward and very light on the aids. They do not pull or bore on the bit. They are still horses and may take a couple of days to get back in the groove. 2 of the 3, I will discuss, did not even need that. 



                      Photo 4: Sigma @ 4yrs, 15.3 hh

                                      The horse I could never sell

The first thing I noticed in the training of Sigma was her energy and generosity without pulling. She was also extremely light off the leg.  She mouthed the bit and collected up with ease. I don't remember why I did it but broke her in to harness.  She is a ride and drive. It is very rare to have a light sensitive horse, a superb hack, that is stable enough to drive. How many horses very sensitive to the leg can tolerate the rattling, contact of the shafts, and movement of a horse drawn vehicle?

Any mug could make Sigma look good in a dressage ring - or rather, she would make them look good. Sigma is now 16. She stays at Rata Mill as my hack, and occasional harness horse. I lead youngsters off her back.


She is 1/4 Clydesdale, 3/8 TB, 3/8 Arab


                            Pepper: 15.2 Stationbred

I did not breed Pepper. She was some sort of Standardbred cross that my sister bought and I broke in 1974. All the stock work was done off horseback in those days. She was the third horse I trained. On the second horse I had tried to follow all the theories. He worked out OK but was still just a horse. With Pepper, I followed the most practical easy way, relying on my instinct. She was lead off another horse with a pack saddle for many days. Then one day out on the farm I just hopped on. No driving, no lunging. I rode her in a halter for over 6 months. There felt to be no reason to introduce the bit. 

I grew to adore her. She remains the best hill county work hack I have ever ridden. She swung along following exactly the path I put her on. This is what makes these horses special – they follow the rider. Weight  in the saddle is enough to steer them.  She was superb on her feet even the midst of winter mud. Best to of all, she was exceptional downhill. Most horses shorten up and puddle down long hills. Pepper would barrel down in this lovely long soft walk.  

I had not leant to collect a horse back then and after trying a few times on Pepper abandoned the idea. She was sold to a neighbour. One day over a beer another neighbour said, ‘I rode Pepper on a trek last week, she is the best horse I have ever ridden’ This guy had only done minimum riding but he could feel something. These sort of NZ riders essentially interfere with horse only as necessary. The horse is a mode of transport. At this Pepper excelled.


                          Blondie: 15.2 German Warmblood

I got to ride Blondie by sheer chance. I have on a number of occasions visited friends in a German stable. I get to ride a number of the horses. including the family’s competition dressage horse. Blondie was purely a pleasure mount owned by a middle aged lady. I was sent out to exercise Blondie. I had gone maybe ½ a km along the paths beside the Rhine when it hit me, ‘Pepper!’  This was 24 years after I last rode Pepper. One never forgets a special feel.  When I got back I said to her owner, ‘This horse can do anything’. It became a sort of a joke that of all the horses she was my pick. Then the owner of stable said something, ‘All the men like riding Blondie’ I am not at all surprised. Men feel vehicles through the seat of their pants. 

                                           Cans and Can'ts

Following is a series of photos displaying conformation in relation to dressage type. It's about which conformation allows the horse to collect, without out undue strain or extended hours of training. The importance of conformation cannot be overstated. A well made, good moving horse, will be more advanced within 2 months, than a poorly made one will be in 2 years. Why waste so much time? 



                                         Ango Arab x Clydesdale 15.2 hh Mare

                         Same horse with a very novice rider in Japan

                                                (On a snaffle)


                                         Can't: Too erect in the neck



                                          Ango Arab x Clydesdale 16.2 hh Mare

                                              Same horse in Japan


                 Oh my God no! : this is an un-planned breeding. I sold him for $500

                         Avoid horses with necks that attach low in front of the whither



                                            The perfect topline!


                                   Same horse on a snaffle

          (Note the light rein contact and NO DROPPED NOSEBAND! I HATE them!)

                           Same horse in Show Hunter round

                                        (Note elevated action)




But she wont be easy. Erect neck but nice curvature. Very like Andalusion/Lusitano. Will need an expert and many hours of training to get her to stretch down. In authentic collection the back has to round upwards under the rider. To achieve this we have to stretch the neck down from directly in front of the whither combined with upward transitions, during training.  The risk with this horse is that a trainer that does not understand this will collect her up front, which she will do easily (and look pretty) without getting her to carry herself behind and engage  the entire body. There she will remain for the rest of her life. This is particularly so when a double bridle is used. The snaffle forces us to ride and train properly.  


The neck attaches a little low in front of the whither but nice curvature thereon. Fine through the gullet. A little too straight in the pasterns.



He is already bending halfway along the neck as an unbroken. That is such an ugly look in the dressage ring. He is now  a showjumper and jumps hollow. Hardly suprising. 



                    Too long, too hollow. He is now a very good showjumper



This a roughy: a 2 ½ yr coming out of the winter. She is now a magnificent broodmare. Her apparent weakness here is the neck topline. This is typical of a young horse. As she matures this will build up. Anyone with an eye for the horse can see the potential in this mare. Her body frame is very impressive. The sickle-hock look is also typical in this age. As she matures her hind quarters will build up and balance with the legs. I would buy this horse like a shot. 





The conformation of a horse, its ability carry itself, collect, and its’ movement, are directly related. We can study movement in the paddock which is an important part of selection. However, many people are obsessed with extension and long flowing movement. Any decent thoroughbred can produce the movement they are looking for. This does not mean they are looking at an easily trained dressage mount. We must also consider collection. Selecting through conformation gets us halfway there. Thereafter there are certain indicators that signify ability to collect correctly.


Elongated vs Elevated.


The 2 extremes


Almost all Warmblood types ( British, Irish, New Zealand, European) originated from the cross-breeding of draught horses. This relates directly to the movement of these horses. They all evolved elevated paces. This movement results from 2 requirements in the agricultural/harness horse: power to pull in soft ground and steadiness without rushing and pulling on the bit i.e. an ability to carry themselves. These horses find it hard to gallop for long and soon learn to jog at trot with little or no rein contact. They usually have a very rhythmic trot and canter. To pull steady loads efficiently any horse has to drop its head and neck from the whither forward. Draught horses have evolved to do this without too much stretch and strain.


Conversely the Thoroughbred is bred for speed. This requires a long, low, ground-covering action. These horses find extension easy and self-carriage difficult. They are not built to collect.


The simple truth is that both jumpers and dressage mounts must have a degree of elevation in their movement. How do we detect this?

By all means look at the trot, but the canter and walk can tell us more. Look for the degree of roundness in the forelegs at canter. Somewhere between the daisy-cutting action of most thoroughbreds and the extreme roundness of the pure draught horse is about right. This horse is not going to have the extreme extension you may desire at trot. Get used to it or stick to eventing where the dressage test is designed for thoroughbred types. We have to settle for a compromise.


The walk is what interests me most. The 2 extremes of work horse and TB walk in very distinct different ways. The TB tends to poke his nose forward at every stride. The head movement trends towards horizontal. The work horse head movement trends towards vertical. He nods as he walks. See:

And the foal in: 

This action directly relates to the horses ability to collect and carry himself – and hence- the advanced dressage movements. A horse with this action flexes at each stride at the pole and in front of the whither. Your job is half done. This difference is usually displayed in the angle at which the head is attached to the neck - along with topline as described above:

                This                             vs                    This

                                                          Small difference but all the difference. 

                                                   (Compare the muscle along the top of the neck)

Look for some elevation. He probably won’t have flamboyant extension. It is much easier to develop indifferent extension than self carriage and collection in a horse not built for them. Furthermore, extension is a very small part of a dressage test. Get the difficult exercises covered first.