Saddle seat vs. Dressage

It’s been over a year since Nautica’s dressage training began. To say a lot has changed would be a huge understatement and gross under-appreciation of the amount of effort and enthusiasm this horse puts into his work each and every day.

While I wouldn’t say Nautica and I necessarily switched over from saddle seat to dressage—Nautica will always be a saddle seat horse; it’s in his genetics—but the sheer change in him, both physically and mentally since starting his dressage training has been spectacular. Dressage is definitely his “thing”.

In just twelve months, Nautica has shown significant gains in his topline, neck and hind end muscles. Physically, he is much more substantial, appearing to have gained height at the withers as his posture improves. From a mental standpoint, he seems to exhibit more of a steady, confident demeanor when faced with new tasks while still also retaining that same proud and vibrant saddlebred spirit that I fell in love with eight years ago.

I had Nautica begin cross-training in dressage for several reasons. The proximity of his new barn to my home and workplace allowed me to see him daily, and the prospect of dressage as a form of “rehab” for his past injury and related soundness issues seemed like the logical path for his training.

The idea of dressage wasn’t new to me. I had a few years of basics under my belt, much of which was gained via lessons on finished horses and schoolmasters. I had just begun eventing with my thoroughbred mare at the time and was getting my first real taste of restarting a horse for a new discipline. As for transitioning Nautica over, I believe I was still under the misconception that dressage was the “closest” related discipline to saddle seat.

This is a fairly common idea among the saddle seat population, and justifiably so. When looking at images of upper-level dressage professionals and their horses with high head carriage and expressive leg motion it appears to be the case. Since further immersing myself in the sport, I’ve found that it’s not that simple.

Throughout my year of learning and re-learning all about the introductory and training levels of dressage with a horse entirely new to the sport (one with 10-plus years of another discipline’s training and lifestyle at that), I’ve picked up on a few recurring themes. I decided to make a very basic list comparing and contrasting the two methods of horse training, their general goals, and primary focuses. Here’s what I found based on my personal experiences.

Saddle seat

Judging criteria for saddle seat “performance” horses – The major points:

  • Motion – How well does the horse “uses himself” within his gaits—How high does he step? Depending on the class and division, the most rewarded motion can either be considered more animated or “up and down” such as in a three-gaited class, or more powerful and ground-covering as seen in five-gaited or park.
  • Head set – “Head set” refers to how the horse is asked to carry his head and neck. In the saddle seat discipline, a high-set, well-tucked head is oftentimes the determining factor for a horse’s ribbon placement. For the saddle seat show horse, the double bridle is used to aid in “setting” the horse’s head in addition to providing cues about gait, direction, etc.
  • Manners – Does the horse perform all required gaits when they are asked for by the announcer, or does the horse appear disobedient or out of control? Various classes within the saddle seat discipline will require differing levels of horse behavioral expectations. For instance, all “pleasure” horses are expected to perform a true, four-beat “flat walk”, whereas three- and five-gaited horses are allowed to “park walk” or “jig”.
  • Showmanship – How does the rider navigate the show ring and present their horse to the judge? Saddle seat classes are almost always performed in a “rail class” format, in which riders of the same division all compete in the arena at the same time. The judge is usually positioned at center ring and riders must make sure their horse is seen amongst the crowd of other horses.


Judging criteria – A very basic overview of the low to mid levels of dressage:

  • Gait quality – How does the horse carry himself within his gaits? Does he move forward with impulsion, lifting up through his ribcage and engaging his back throughout the gait, or does he hold tension, sinking down under the saddle area and throwing his neck stiffly in the air? Does the horse’s canter have three clear, distinct beats with plenty of “jump”, or is the horse “lateral” within this movement, appearing to shuffle through the gait?
  • Responsiveness – Does the horse perform a prompt transition or movement at the required letter? Is the rider able to produce the correct bend or flexion within the movement, or does the horse tend to “fall in” through his shoulder, or throw his haunches to the left or right? Is the horse light and responsive in the contact, or is he heavy on the forehand? The use of the bridle in saddle seat versus dressage involve entirely different sets of mechanics. Whereas the saddle seat horse’s bridle can be used to aid in “setting” the horses head, the dressage horse’s bridle encourages a different type of connection, “roundness”, via techniques such as softening the horses neck and jaw or cueing him to stretch down into the contact.
  • Geometry – 20, 15 and 10 meter circles, centerlines, quarter lines, serpentines… These all have exact, measurable dimensions. With each level progression comes increasing expectations for accuracy to those measurements. It is very important to ride into your corners and always utilize the correct bend and flexion! Remember, bend differs from flexion.

Both disciplines are considered subjective sports. In my opinion, saddle seat could be considered slightly more subjective than dressage. Saddle seat show horses are ribboned based on a judge or judge panel’s opinion of what makes up an “ideal” show horse within their division. Rulebooks offer guidelines for judges to follow, but at the end of the day, the class placing is ultimately left to the judge’s discretion.

While dressage is also essentially a subjective discipline, a numeric, percentage-based scoring system allows the judge’s decision to be more easily supported, especially at the lower levels in which the guidelines and expectations are still fairly basic. In any subjective sport, there is always room for grey area, however in dressage there is a definitive difference between a movement scored as a “4” and one scored as an “8”. Furthermore, dressage is primarily a “solo” sport, or one in which only one horse and rider team performs in the ring at a time. The judge is able to focus entirely on the pair throughout their test. Therefore, a dressage rider is not only competing against the other riders in their division, but also against his or herself within the test’s level of complexity.

Both disciplines can use one another build on the other. Saddle seat and dressage are similar in that they both require the three basic gaits: walk, trot and canter. Likewise, both disciplines focus on a rider’s skill and finesse in exhibiting their horse in front of a judge. The balance and coordination required in riding a saddle seat show horse’s big, expressive gaits while on the edge of riding slightly “behind” the horse’s motion can come in handy when transitioning over to a more dressage-style seat. By the same token, it’s a widely known fact that dressage at it’s most basic level is an ideal foundation on which all other disciplines can be built. Rhythm, balance, collection—As dressage riders we must learn to control ourselves before we can learn to finesse our horse through a test.

On that note, I encourage every rider to try a different discipline at least once in their life. Spend a minimum of one month immersing yourself in the sport. Ride as many different horses as you can. Ask questions. Learn about the horses’ individual breeds, temperaments and conformations, and how they relate to that particular style of riding. Push yourself to do something entirely different and pick up every last bit of information that you can. We as riders improve most when placed outside of our comfort zones and are challenged to adapt our ways of thinking.

Image copyright © 2020 Show Horse Sport Horse. All Rights Reserved.

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One Reply to “Saddle seat vs. Dressage”

  1. This is a very thoughtful, well written piece. Please share with the ASHA. Kudos to you and your beautiful journey. Jody Swimmer. 60 year ASB rider and ASB dressage equestrian

    Liked by 1 person

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