Learn Western Dressage With Carey Radtke


Some months back, comic Stephen Colbert ran a recurring riff on Rafalca, Ann Romney’s Olympic mare, even taking a brief riding lesson with Michael Barisone. Colbert lampooned dressage as being an “elite” sport, mocking the formal attire and referring to a piaffe as “fancy prancing.”

It was all in fun, but it tended to reinforce many people’s stereotype of dressage being something done by people who don’t bother to check the price tag when shopping. But here’s the good news: Dressage actually is a sport that anyone can learn and enjoy. You don’t have to be wealthy or own an imported Warmblood. You can learn on your own horse, with your own tack, wearing your everyday clothes. Western dressage is a popular new discipline showing up at a lot of local horse shows, and it’s something Carey Radtke feels passionate about.

Originally from Wisconsin, she spent 15 years in Montana, a little while in Connecticut, and stayed in Wellington for the season for 10 years before finally moving here permanently eight years ago. And she has been competing in and teaching dressage all her life.

“I came up through the ranks,” Radtke said. “I love the way dressage allows you to communicate more fully with your horse. When Western dressage came along, I thought it was a wonderful idea, a way of showing people that anyone can give this sport a try. You don’t have to own that perfect Warmblood. You can learn dressage with your Quarter Horse, Arab, Thoroughbred, whatever. That’s the beauty of this discipline: It invites everyone to participate.”

She is quick to point out that the goal of Western dressage is not to make Western horses into dressage horses. “It’s to help make Western horses better horses through classical dressage principles,” Radtke said. “You don’t want to take the ‘Western’ out of a Western horse — that’s their beauty, their heritage. Dressage allows a horse to do whatever he’s already doing in a better way, and teaches the rider a different way to communicate with him.”

Radtke teaches anyone who’s interested in giving Western dressage a try, either at a barn in Deer Run or at their home barn. She has worked with reiners and many trail riders who simply want to learn more about a different discipline. It doesn’t have to end in a horse show class; sometimes it’s just about learning more.

“Western dressage is very inclusive,” she said. “I work with any horse and any rider, regardless of their level. It tends to be very attractive to women of a certain age who finally have enough time to do what they’d like.”

In the beginning, Radtke accustoms her clients to the dressage ring and common figures, such as a 20-meter circle. She starts with simple movements, such as diagonals and basic gymnastic exercises, so they can find their natural balance and rhythm.

“I want each horse to attain his own personal perfect 10 and be the best he can be. He can, when his rider is consistent and perceptive,” she said. “Once a rider learns how to help her horse bend properly on curved lines, carry his weight on the hindquarters and lighten up the front end, she’ll find her horse easier to ride and much more responsive. Dressage is a never-ending process. You don’t wake up one morning and say, ‘OK, I’m there, I’ve learned it all.’ The fact that there’s always more to learn and work on is part of the fun. You can always keep improving, building muscles, developing better balance, and advancing to more difficult exercises.”

Even though many people view dressage and Western saddles at different ends of the spectrum, Radtke explained that both set the rider in the same position, with shoulder, hip and heel in line, and back over the horse’s center of gravity. One main difference between traditional Western riding is, for dressage, riding with two reins rather than neck reining, but that’s not too difficult.

“What dressage does is give a rider a consistent language which the horse can understand and rely on,” Radtke explained. “When you always do the same thing the same way, a horse relaxes. Horses are happy when they know what’s going to happen, when they understand their job, when there’s a reliable frame of reference. It gives a rider a methodical way to clearly communicate with any horse and interpret the horse’s response. Riding is all about reward and correction, never punishment. Punishing a horse is worthless. Pain confuses horses and makes them fearful, so now you’re dealing with a whole other set of issues. Correction simply shows him a different way of accomplishing something.”

Dressage is a very mental sport, Radtke said.

“I like to call it meditation in motion. When you’re really into it, you hardly know what’s going on elsewhere. It’s like you’re on your own planet,” she said. “It lets you really plug into the horse’s world, what he’s thinking and feeling. It’s very addictive, the coolest thing. And again, that’s the beauty of Western dressage: It’s very inclusive, because anyone can do this with any horse. You don’t have to go out and spend money on special tack or clothing. And you’re never too old or too young to start.”

Radtke mentioned Jack Brainard, a highly successful reining and roping trainer for more than 60 years who helped organize the National Reining Horse Association in 1966. He saw a video of a Western rider doing dressage movements, and, at the age of 91, decided to try a new discipline, finding that he’d already been using some degree of dressage training all along to master the five principles of Western dressage: collection, straightness, control of the front end, control of the hind end, and canter departures.

“Dressage is a beautiful thing, good for all horses and all riders,” Radtke said. “It makes a horse proud of himself, what he can accomplish. It gives a rider a consistent, methodical means of communication. Western dressage is a wonderful discipline, which helps people understand and trust their horses better. I love how inclusive it is, that anyone with any horse can give it a go. It can really help riders of all levels make their horses better. It’s fabulous.”

For more information, call Carey Radtke at (561) 596-3277.