I started my riding career riding hunters, but if I could do it again, I would have started with Dressage. I say this because I believe dressage to be an excellent foundation for all riding disciplines. It encourages a correct, balanced and active seat and light hands for the rider and teaches the horse to move in a frame that develops and strengthens the back while encouraging the horse to use his hind end.
Teaching a horse to move in a proper frame is a slow and careful process best done under the eye of a watchful instructor. Any teaching tool in the wrong hands can be a terrible detriment to the training, but generally dressage is begun on the lunge line with the horse wearing loose side reins. The side reins allow the trainer to teach the horse seek bit contact and to work on flexing and bending. The rider too may spend a considerable number of lessons on the lunge. This is to allow the rider to develop a correct leg position, and a secure, but active seat. The rider can also work on the proper rein tension without worrying about the direction of travel. He can do a better job of following the horse’s mouth with his hands such that he does not damage it. It takes months for the horse to build up adequate muscling to carry himself in frame for long periods of time, but if done properly, it is well worth it. The muscling this sport provides will arguably help your horse stay sound and fit for a lifetime.
There is also a huge debate between the “old” dressage and the “new”. There is an excellent article that can be found here:
Basically, there are two schools of thought; the newer version allows the horse to learn more advanced movements faster, but the horse bends at the 3rd vertebrae and does not track. The older form requires the horse to break and bend at the poll and tilt his pelvis forward such that his legs work beneath him. I strongly recommend reading the article as the diagrams make these concepts much clearer.
Whlie it is up to you as to which format you chose, I will tell you that my own personal horse is doing much better with the classical version. We started the “new” version with an eventing coach, and while it was “pretty”, it quickly soured her attitude and I had to take about a year off and give her only “fun” work. Notice the picture below almost exactly matches the”new” form in the article above. The horse is over bent, behind the bit, and her legs do not track, but trail behind.
We are currently working to correct this frame and strengthen her back to match the old dressage style. Her legs now track better beneath her, and she now bends at the poll rather then the 3rd vertebrae. Most importantly, Aurora appears more comfortable, more fit and has a dramatically better attitude. I will post photos soon.
Even with the classical type, I alternate my training between dressage and endurance training. We build her strength and training level (dressage), spend a few days outside putting miles on, build strength, go outside, build strength, go outside. This has impacted her attitude in a positive way and she has become a much more happy, and responsive mare. As she has gotten stronger, her ability to climb hills has exponentially and then she begins to appreciate the strength work she has done, because no horse loves to race more then Aurora.