Retraining the Morgan show horse for dressage

I purchased my Morgan gelding a year ago after leasing him for almost a year. He started his show career in English Pleasure (saddle seat), moved on to Hunter Pleasure (Morgan-style), and also drives. He is what you would definitely describe as an all-arounder, which I love!

We started some dressage work this fall with the idea that we will transition to showing dressage this coming summer. I’m looking for feedback from other people who have transitioned their former saddle seat-type horse to dressage. He is so smart and has a lot of try, but dressage really goes against everything he has been taught previously!

(And yes, before anyone makes the recommendation, we are taking regular lessons and working with a trainer. I do the training and riding myself, though.) I’m looking for other people’s perspectives and ideas on what has worked, or not worked, for them. I’m not expecting to set the dressage world on fire. I just want to have some fun with my wonderful horse in a new endeavor. Being slightly competitive at even the local level would be a bonus. :slight_smile:

I also took a classic saddleseat Morgan and transitioned him to dressage. The biggest challenge was getting him to relax and stretch to the contact. He was fine with contact- but not with pushing himself into it. His natural gaits were more up and down-not the best for lower level dressage. His good qualities? Really, really smart, and wanted to please. Also very willing to go forward. Give lots of praise for lowering the head and stepping into contact. Another somewhat comical problem is he didnt understand a square halt-always wanted to park out. I would think I had one, and then he would sneak those hind legs out. I never showed him-he had been my daughters show horse before she went to college and was older and had arthritis in his hocks. But he was fun to ride and I learned a lot on him.

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Congratulations, I love Morgans!

Work on things that make him round his back. I know you know this, but some of those things are hills, cavaletti, and even carrot stretches. Doing those belly lifts, where you (gently) poke his just past his girth area so he lifts his back are helpful too. But don’t over do those!

I encouraged my ex race horse to check out things on the ground, especially reading the “poo-mail” on the trail. That also helped relax him a lot too.

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Welcome to the Morgan Owners Club! My current horse was a greenie, so I dont have much retraining, but a previous horse was badly trained, nervous and upheaded. As others said, the big thing is getting him to relax and stretch to the bit. Took a good while and a few different approaches but we got there! Patience, kindness, experimentation and lots of circles… He eventually became quite a nice lower level dressage horse.

TTT hear them chime
TTT Things Take Time
(I dont recall the source)

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Thanks for the feedback and replies! I appreciate hearing other experiences and stories. Plus, who doesn’t like talking about Morgans!?

I actually grew up with Morgans (my parents had a really small breeding operation), so I really love the breed and am excited to finally own one again.

I giggled a lot at the square halt comment. My boy does a square halt (mostly), but he does a half park out maneuver where he thrusts the front part of his body (shoulders forward) up and out. Almost like he’s super proud of himself for stopping and wants the world to look at him, haha. I tease him that he wants to be a Breyer model and is practicing his posing.

I think getting him to relax and stretch into the contact will take more than a bit of work. Especially the relax part. He really wants to go forward, which is great, but as was mentioned, it tends to be in a very tense up/down type way. However, when we do get relaxed (usually after lots of circles!), his stride opens up and he really moves nicely.

We’ve got nothing but time to work patiently, and as I said, I don’t expect to be the best of the best. He seems to enjoy the change to his routine and the new questions being thrown at him. I love the Morgans and how game they are for whatever you want to throw at them. :slight_smile:

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You might check out Manolo Mendez. He uses really gentle in-hand work and lunging to get horses stretching and relaxing over the topline. If you buy his video (DVD or Vimeo) you can also get added to the FB group with additional content (Manolo doesn’t post there himself, but there is a very active moderator who is available to answer questions).

You will find that many a Morgan, even those that were not trained in saddleseat style riding, are very good at “faking” correct carrying posture. Morgans already tend to be fairly upright in their neck set and so carrying themselves that way comes naturally. Saddleseat does not tend to encourage the horse to round through the back and lift the base of the neck, but because of the natural posture Morgans are built to take, they can “cheat” easily.

I’ve restarted a few Morgans: I really don’t touch the reins much for a while. I don’t even want the horse thinking about putting his head in a particular place. When I pick up the right rein, the horse should soften his jaw to the right and release his neck down and slightly to the right. When I pick up the left rein, the horse should soften his jaw to the left and release his neck down and slightly to the left. Until the horse can gets this really clear, I don’t pick up two reins. If the horse braces when I pick up one rein (which they often will do) I wait at that pressure until the horse releases and relaxes his topline.

You’ve also already picked up on my next suggestion, which was lots of circles and very few straightaways for a while. Circles are excellent because they allow you to use the one rein to give the horse a very simple feel to follow - out and down, while allowing him to find the inside hind and rebalance himself. Straightaways offer much more ability to rush and get heavy. If your horse has plenty of forward, it’ll still be there when you need it, but right now his desire to go forward largely anxiety-based as he doesn’t really know how to balance himself.

I also try not to let any horse at this stage go too long without some kind of transition. You’re in the phase of breaking old habits and ways of going, which means you need to counterbalance those habits with requests and small successes at new ones. I don’t criticize the horse, but I am particular: he doesn’t get to make up transitions by pulling off his front end and bringing his head up anymore. He doesn’t get to halt by leaning on the bit. He doesn’t get to take a few nice steps of balance, relaxed trot and then start rushing like a freight train. Interrupt every attempt at an old habit and make the request for the new one, reward every try no matter how small and you’ll make very fast progress.

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Thanks for the feedback, Abbie. All good things to think about!

I too am a ‘born again’ morgan owner. My family was into breeding them (grand parents and back) and I’ve owned one who was originally trained for CDE when I got her. Now I have a 3 year old who I purchased unstarted; so, I can’t speak to the type of retraining challenges specific to your situation other than to say that I have taken park Arabs and done reasonably well in dressage with them (over some time) and a friend who did the same. It can be done with patience and proper training but it can be a long challenging road for some depending on their demeanor.

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Can’t speak to Morgans specifically, but with saddlebreds and NSH if you give them a few months off and light in hand work, their body adjust to the different muscles being asked to use better in my limited experience. The few months off they start to moving less up and down and more open just getting around in the pasture unless you have a " meant to be" saddleseat horse. Knock on wood, its worked for me so far. Then lots of forward and stretching the neck out vs up. If you are going to ride, lots of loose rein and hills or pole work to get them thinking about where they are putting their feet.

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Thank you! He is definitely not a “born to be” saddle seat type horse. He did it admirably, but I think he is much more comfortable and happy in his current situation. I’ve put more of a groundwork focus for him lately to help him adjust without me fumbling around to complicate the new tasks. It’s a slow process, but he is smart and willing.

Congratulations! While not a Morgan, I’ve been retraining my older, former main ring half arab for the last 5 years. He’s 18 this year, and so it hasn’t exactly been the easiest task, he’s very set in his ways with a lot of things.

You have gotten a lot of great advice already. Abbie’s is spot on.

I can add words of encouragement, and also the advice about being patient. Its taken years, but with patience and a focus on the basics and mixing up the routine as much as possible, we’ve slowly but surely progressed and are now schooling 3rd with green changes. Some days the old main ring brain kicks in and we’re back to square one - but those aren’t very often anymore.

It can be a fun, rewarding journey, but definitely not always roses and daisies in the ride-to-ride/day-to-day. You seem to have the right mindset so you’ll be just fine. Enjoy your horse & Good luck!

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Thanks for sharing your story. It is exciting and encouraging for me to hear about other’s successes with unconventional (if that’s the right word) dressage horses. My guy really wants to please and often tries to outthink me and anticipate what I want. While I appreciate his enthusiasm, we’ve slowly been schooling to only give what I ask for when I ask for it. Lord bless him and his busy brain, haha.

It seems to help him when I give him driving days. The next time I ride him, he is always way more in tune with me and much softer. Not sure why or what the driving does for him, but it seems to help at this point. The only struggle there is to be sure he isn’t traveling up and hollow when we drive, which is another point we are working on.

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You might find Tristan Tucker’s approach helpful. He basically teaches the horse to find security in bending their body and following the rein. It becomes very handy later on to have a horse who finds security in having their body moved around. I like a lot of his stuff.

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LOL at the “out thinking” So true! As a retired teacher, I liken my Morgan to the hyper kid in class who wants to be good, no great, no best! He’s the kid that is calling out answers when you havent even finished the question (and he guessed wrong).
He makes me laugh and it is a balance of getting him to wait and listen without ruining his enthusiasm.

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Yep, mine always anticipates the canter depart. It’s like now? now? now? maybe now? oh please now?

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We had a Morgan mare who worked on voice commands. At a Class A show the judge noticed the horse was listening to the ring steward radioing the gait changes to the announcer, mare was changing as the steward voiced the changed.

The judge “thought” she would mess with the mare by changing the order however the horse continued following the stewards changes

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Yep, we have to say W, T, C instead of walk, trot, canter.

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We use 2nd gear and 3rd gear. So far mine haven’t figured that one out.

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OTOH, my horse didnt know how to canter under saddle when I got him. So I taught him using the word and a whip on the longe line. Then used my voice and appropriate aids under saddle and the light bulb went off. He canters off the lightest of aids now.
Fortunately no announcer calling gaits in dressage!

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