The Wonderful World of Western Dressage

The Wonderful World of Western Dressage

An Interview With Jec A. Ballou

By Pat Van Buskirk

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Do you know the niftiest thing about Western Dressage? The wonderful people you get to meet and work with! I recently had the chance to chat with Jec A. Ballou, author of 101 Dressage Exercises for the Horse and Rider, who has conducted clinics for the Western Dressage Association® of America Affiliates. As a nationally recognized educator in equine conditioning and gymnastic development, Jec tells me she is completely committed to Western Dressage. She serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Western Dressage Association® of America, and her enthusiasm for the discipline is obvious in her voice.

“This is an outlet that so many adults, especially female riders, have wanted for the last decade or more. People are coming out the woodworks in California, hungry for dressage and would not have shown up until this existed. They are curious, want to progress in a training system and improve themselves and their horse. Now it’s accessible and so exciting”! Note: Jec resides and works in California.

Another reason Jec is so committed is her passion for the fitness and the physiology of body mechanics. “Equine fitness is one of the least studied areas of horsemanship and I would like to see that change. We ask them to use their bodies all the time and we now have better technology to understand how the muscles and nervous system remodel in order to develop the equine. Western Dressage is a wonderful outlet for this. We’re finding it appeals to people that have well-rounded horses – whether reining, working cow, roping, or trail riding. The whole package is a well balanced athlete.”

“My other interest is in developing gaits”, she told me. “Training the gaits happens at a little bit slower tempo in Western Dressage, which emphasizes harmony, balance and relaxation. The horse’s muscular tone is governed by his limbic system, which interestingly also governs emotional state. Relaxed supple muscles create a calm mind and vice versa. If the horse is ridden in hurried gaits, this creates too much tonicity in the body and also an anxious mind state. We’re looking for that mind/body connection in training.”

Jec believes that the approach of Western Dressage to develop physical strength through slow methodical movements is to be praised. “It emphasizes flexion of the joints,” she explained. “Working at speed loses flexion; you end up with a horse just flicking his legs around. The horse gets stuck in an extension pattern, a postural habit where his energy is full throttle and his body is locked. The spine then becomes rigid, in contrast with a lovely soft horse, where the muscles are getting oxygen, and the body looks soft, not bulging out of its skin.”

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Western Dressage is a preservation of the natural outflow of wanting the horse and body responsive and soft. Maneuvers are done at a slower pace. The horse should be rideable. You know you can chase down a cow, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re risking a boil-over.”

Jec really enjoys working with the people in Western Dressage. “It has been a pleasure getting to know other trainers like Cliff Swanson, Frances Carbonnel and Julie Goodnight,” she continued. “This is a wonderful group of people with no ego amongst the Advisory Board. They are delightful and incredibly knowledgeable. I’ve also observed students all having fun and accepting each other right where they are. In our clinic, if one of the riders didn’t want to lope, no one gave them a hard time.”

Her latest project and book, 101 Western Dressage Exercises, will be complete this summer. “I’m very excited,” she exclaimed. “Western Dressage is proving to everyone it’s going to stick around. The book will be similar to my blog* – better diagrams, more involved, practical, useful, easy to follow. You need a plan when going to ride and these exercises provide that.”

After talking to Jec, I was so inspired I wanted to saddle up my horse and go practice, right then. She affirmed everything I’ve been learning about Western Dressage – wonderful people, dedicated to the horse and improving their skills in a non-stressful environment.

*See Jec’s blog of Western Dressage Exercises on www.wdaa.org and soon to be coming on www.wdaco.org. Jec’s App, 101 Western Dressage Exercises, is also available for iPhone, iPad, iTouch and Android.

Pat Van Buskirk serves as the Technical and Website Manager on the Board of Directors for the Western Dressage Association® Colorado Affiliate. She is an avid horse enthusiast and has been writing for various horse and auto magazines since 1994. ©2013 For reprint permission, please contact pat@patvanbuskirk.com.