Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why can't quarter horses do dressage?

I was checking my search logs -- looking at what search keywords people use when they find my blog -- and found that someone googled "why can't quarter horses do dressage?" An interesting topic! And I guess the short answer is, "They do!" Here is a picture of Patrick Marley and his Quarter Horse mare, Honey Bright Dream. The mare is a stock quarter horse with no thoroughbred blood. The pair earned the Gold Medal in their first season at Grand Prix.

clipped from
2008 AQHA Magazine
Honey Bright Dream and Patrick Marley.
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Patrick Marley on Honey Bright Dream
Patrick (from Burlington) teaches and
trains dressage horses and is the coach for the Intercollegiate Dressage
Association for Elon University. Honey is an 11 year old, 15 hand, Quarter horse
mare, who was purchased "green broke" in 2003. Patrick trailers Honey to weekly
lessons at North Star Training Center, and participates in clinics.

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When you talk about what breeds can do upper level dressage, you make broad generalizations and think about what traits most of those horses possess. But there is an awful lot of variation even within a breed or registry. The AQHA permits the infusion of other bloodlines so long as they conform to the breed's standards. You can find quarter horses that are stock type, some that are hunter type, etc. As I have heard so many times from experts, "look at the individual horse standing in front of you."

Quarter horses in general
From the standpoint of temperament, quarter horses have a laid back and forgiving nature. While it sounds like weak praise ("you have a nice personality"), it's actually pretty important. Barns are full of fancy warmbloods that top out at second level, either because they find collected work distasteful or because they lack the right trainer to get them there.

What keeps quarter horses from moving up the levels?

Here's a good guess from a non-expert: Conformation. There is a lot of individual variation in the conformation of a quarter horse, depending on what discipline they compete in. There seems to be a fair amount of thoroughbred blood in at least some quarter horse lines. The desirable traits in a "classic" western quarter horse include low head carriage, a rather straight hock, more upright pasterns, blah, blah, blah. To me, it's easiest to just look at the typical quarterhorse outline (see above). Does it not just SCREAM downhill?

An important quality to look for in an upper level dressage horse (assuming you can pick just one) is an uphill frame to facilitate collection. While there are downhill horses that have made it to the upper levels, it's more the exception than the norm. If I were looking for a quarter horse just for dressage, I'd look for a horse from a breeding program that produces hunter or even dressage types. My Royal Lark is a great example.

My Royal Lark in a dressage test
clipped from
Lynn Palm & My Royal Lark
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Indian Artifact and the DeGraff Stables breeding program provide another example of quarter horses suitable for dressage. An Indian Artifact son is shown here:

A Quarter horse from the Niobe Valley Ranch...

When all's said and done, I see a lot of quarter horses competing in the lower levels, where most of us are at in our riding anyway. They may not all be huge movers but they can really shine in areas like obedience/submission, relaxation, elasticity, acceptance of the bit, etc. I've seen some nice ones in the ring, esp. the appendix registered QH. Even those not destined for Grand Prix can be star mounts, especially for the younger kids/juniors getting started or the adult beginner rider.

American quarter horses in dressage from Equisearch

Quarter horse dressage

New program recognizes quarter horses in dressage

Niobe Valley Ranch dressage quarter horses

Golden horses of the Niobe Valley


  1. Years ago I had a friend who'd bred a little quarter horse gelding that just didn't fit into the qh WP world, so she had a dressage trainer come ride. Being that I was not at all interested, I didn't pay much attention, but I do recall the trainer being impressed and saying that Chance was a nice little dressage horse. She rode him quite a bit and they were moving up, from what I heard. Up to what, I have no idea... :)

  2. Quarter Horses can do dressage exceptionally well, just like any other breed of horse.

    My Quarter Horse gelding which is pictured in my profile photo had Intermediare I level training before he passed on. He also did fairly well on the three-day event courses, with a bonus of admiration from Bruce Davidson who formerly rode on the U.S. Three Day Even Team.

  3. The truth is that Qt. horses are built like they are so they can work cows do ranch work. It doesn't mean they can't do dressage. Although I schooled my daughter's Qt. horse mare in dressage, when I was on her, what I really wanted to do was work cows. You could just feel that's what her front end was all about. That's what I love about them. Be pretty hard for a warm blood to get under a cow.

  4. Kitty bo hit it right. They're built for cow and ranch work, and you can't see the cows if your horse has got it's head up right in your face! They're not commonly built downhill at all--they just are born and raised with level necks. And halter horses are bred for steep pasterns (Eck. But, some halter horses are good for dressage because they like higher neck carriages.), not pleasure horses! ;)
    My Paint could do dressage I suppose, but he doesn't want to hold his neck up that high and it's mean to force him against his conformation. I think you would be fine with any quarter horse, as long as it wasn't built with a level neck.

  5. After watching a video recently of a CAMEL doing dressage, I think it's pretty reasonable to say that yes, Quarter Horses can do it too. :)

    I have two Hanoverians who are stunning when they move, but it's the young QH who does passage in the field. He's beautiful when he does it.

  6. At the moment I only have a quarter horse mare to do dressage with. Her conformation isn't the best, but she is willing to try anything. I'll probably never show her, but I still feel it's good for her to get the basics down and we'll see where we go from there. I would guess any horse can do dressage it's a matter of training the horse to be the best they can be, even if they never make it to the upper levels.

  7. interesting post! i agree that breeding and conformation play a role in deciding which type of horse will excel in upper level dressage competition, and that purpose-bred horses will always have the advantage (in the same way i'm sure an average warmblood could theoretically work cattle too, but not nearly as efficiently as a purpose-bred QH.) there is nothing wrong with a horse specializing in what it was bred to do...

    having said that, i think even upper level movements are accessible to all horses regardless of breed or conformation as long as they are sound. you may not get the biggest movement or the deepest collection out of a typical QH, but watching horses play in the field you can see that the basic movements are natural to all of them - it's just a question of how far we can refine them to our own purposes.

    of course, dressage may be an uphill battle on a downhill-built horse, and i wouldn't want to try it with a western pleasure horse... but, unlike the many lazy and arrogant warmbloods i've met (and own ;-), QH's are probably the best try-ers around. if only there was a way to transplant a QH brain into a warmblood body - that would be the perfect dressage horse!

  8. If this is the same Honey Bright Dream as listed on, you are way off in saying she has no TB breeding.

  9. Hi Anonymous,

    I got this information from Jennifer Mitchell, the president of NCDCTA who reported on this pair's success on COTH. Here is her post:

    If she is incorrect, so am I. Thanks for giving me the chance to quote my source...

  10. Oh, and in re-locating this info I found the BEST photo of HBD on another site. I've added it to the blog entry -- love that engagement!

  11. I board at a reining facility, so I see QH's all day long. I recently had the pleasure of riding a finished reiner as a dressage horse. While different, he had all the abilities and a few extras to do fourth level off the bat.

    I personally dislike the hunter/wp/more thoroughbred-bred quarter horses. To me, these aren't bred for serious performance or work. To me, they're also very hard to ride versus something like a reiner who is very round to begin with, is bred to have their hips under them and have lovely gaits.

    While it may not be competitive on the international basis, they're fully capable of doing a national level FEI.

    I'm actually looking forward to getting on more of them.

  12. I heard that Anky V. Grunsven wants to compete in reining. Maybe she'll give QHs and reining a new credibility among the dressage divas. I used to board at a barn where there was a cutting/reining trainer. His horses were just amazing -- so focused.

  13. This is my favorite post! Me and my dressage QH appreciate the inspiration!!!

    -Amy & Henry

  14. Hi, folks. I'm an AQHA member and was curious about Honey Bright Dream after she appeared in this month's America's Horse magazine, so I took a look at her pedigree. Thoroughbred blood doesn't appear until at least 5 generations back (her paternal great-great-great-grandsire was Three Bars, a preeminent TB in QH pedigrees). That's a little over 3% TB blood, so for all practical purposes, I think that counts as stock QH.

    As for the comment regarding "downhill" horses in dressage - it's certainly more difficult to teach a horse naturally built downhill to do dressage, but not impossible. Dressage requires a horse to be relaxed at the jaw and collected, not to have a big arched neck. In fact, I've seen articles saying the Baroque breeds with the high arched necks can be difficult because their initial reaction is to bring their heads up instead of relaxing down into the bit. I think the bigger obstacle to successful international Grand Prix competition is that QH gaits are naturally "flatter" than the big warmbloods. They can do the moves, but judges want big, expressive gaits to score well. That said, QH gaits are sure easier to ride!

  15. Whoops, call me corrected on HDB's pedigree. I missed Barre Granite, 4th generation sire side, who was a TB. She also has a few scattered in the 6th generation & back. That said, she also traces to Peter McCue in several places, Old Sorrel in at least one line, and Poco Bueno in the 5th generation, so I think her "street cred" as a true QH is still pretty good.

    P.S. HBD's dam's side pedigree on was wrong, and I've now corrected it to match the official AQHA pedigree, which shows far fewer TBs and none closer than 6th or 7th generation. Thanks to whoever mentioned that Web site!

  16. i know quarter horses can do dressage, because i get to be around honey every day(and clean her stall too!). i have an apendix quarter horse and we are working with patrick. in one year(with alot of hard work) went from intro level to 1st level. Honey Bright Dream is the most awesome horse in the world! watching honey has made me ethink that little mare can do anything! did you know that shes only 14.3 hands?

  17. I don't understand how you can make your innocent horse prance around an arena with its neck almost snapping in half, and a load of metal in their mouth. It's just awful. What goes through yalls mind when you think they are having a good time? All they want is a soft hand and to be natural. You should look at parelli natural horsemanship. It will show you what horses want and should be doing.

  18. The last "Anonymous"...
    I admire your attempt to stir up s#*t. There's no better way to do that than accuse dressage people of being harsh on their horse's mouths (hahahahahahaha) or bring up the Parellis.

    If your comment is serious...then you honestly have no idea what you are talking about, at all.

  19. to the last anonymous... you do realize that linda parelli does dressage right?

  20. I don't think it's confirmation, personally because, just like with humans, the muscles we use define our shape. If you work and stretch the muscles in your legs, they shape into a form that fits your body. I have seen a lot of quarter horses that do dressage and their confirmation can be quite a bit better than the warmbloods. They also have a better attitude, learn easier and are pretty much bred for versatility these days. I think that most top competitors are just afraid of what will be said if they take a quarter horse to the higher levels of dressage.

  21. I really do hope quarterhorses can get more recognised in the dressage world, or at least in english riding in general.I own one myself, and he is one in a million. He has big bouncy movement, he is really like a WB cross or welsh cob cross. I do dressage on him mainly, and the schooling we do isnt easy for him at all because he still has some stereotypical qh conformation, but he is only ever downhill in some of our downward transitions, however he is getting much better at this and is improving by the week. He has lovely self carriage and works really nicely in general. Plus he has such a good attitude towards his work, always trying his best and the progress we've made in the last 6 months is astonishing. We are currently at a novice level going onto elementary, my ultimate goal is to do a medium test one day. Ive learnt that really you have to look at the horse itself before you can make harsh and firm judgements on the breed, every horse is different


Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.