It's important to differentiate between dressage(little d) and Dressage(big d) in conversations like this...In contrast, dressage is the training and development of the horse... It's like Yoga for horses, teaching them to use their bodies in such a way as to promote relaxation and responsiveness....
It's like if someone wanted to take up jogging. Most people would think there's not much to it, you just go outside and run...
Anyone who signs up fro a dressage class expects a certain way of riding - a way that is NOT needed for the health and calmness of the horse. Bandit and I work on calmness, responding to my desires, ignoring my desires sometimes, and moving efficiently and effectively every time we ride. Yet no one would call my approach to riding "dressage". The fundamentals of dressage involve using a bit and asking for movements contrary to how I ride. My goal is to do the least possible to my horse. That is not the goal of dressage.
A responsive, soft horse is one who WANTS to do what you want. It has nothing to do with on the bit or traditional rein cues.
Lifelong jogger here. Started jogging in 1972. Did 3.5 miles yesterday. Truth is folks DO know how to jog, or very quickly figure it out. Lessons not needed. Listen to your body. Likewise, horses know how to move. They can move with incredible athleticism and grace. For the average rider
, DO NO HARM is the rule of good riding.
While I agree with some of the things you present, bsms, I disagree in some areas.
While one may ride in balance without ever taken a “dressage” lesson, dressage certainly includes the concept of riding in balance. In fact, balance is stressed. Intentionally changing balance is a major factor in going from collect movements to extended movements and vice versa....
The US cavalry changed its training drastically during the US Civil War when there was not time to train either horses or riders using traditional methods. This was also when the cavalry began using more severe bits. General William H. Carter (1851-1925) wrote about this in his book “The U.S. Cavalry Horse”....
ALL RIDING should stress balance. But there is more than one way to balance on a horse. Dressage teaches a central balance. That works very well for collected gaits. The rider rides comfortably and teaches the horse to shift its balance under the rider. This is very good in an arena.
A forward seat teaches forward balance. The horse is naturally balanced forward and the rider shifts HIS balance to match the horse. Security is found in the lower leg, not the seat. You should "perch", not "sit".
Western typically teaches being a little behind your horse. You sit with your feet a little ahead. Very good if your horse stumbles, or bucks, or spins. Not good for racing.
In reality, a rider focused on balance will shift between all three. Because all three provide balance depending on what the horse is doing and will likely do next. I used all three during the trail ride this morning.
The Cavalry didn't teach riding prior to the Civil War. They had one civilian manual, very badly written, that some bought. But to the degree it was taught, it was taught like this - General Grant posed for hours so the artist could get it right, and he was considered one of the finest riders in the Army:
None of this, in any way, means dressage is bad. Balance can be learned, as can softness and tact, without a dressage lesson. In fact, they should be PREREQUISITES for learning dressage. Let the rider learn on a slack rein before learning soft contact, and let them be good at soft contact before they try "high schooling". Tact is "a keen sense of what to say or do to avoid giving offense; skill in dealing with difficult or delicate situations". The difficulty of dressage makes tact essential, but equine tact needs to be learned somewhere first. No one is born with it.
Softness comes from the mind, not the body. If the horse wants to do what you want him to do, he can respond before you cue him. Their subtlety is always at least 10 times greater than ours.
If the OP wants to learn trail riding and going fast, dressage training may not be the optimum approach: