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Cowboy Dressage: Introducing Western Dressage
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Cowboy Dressage: Introducing Western Dressage

I've always shunned Western riding because, frankly, I'm a dressage fanatic. A dressage snob, if you will. I love a precise dressage test. I love the feeling of lightness, responsiveness and cadence in a good dressage test. Riding a halt precisely at X makes my day. Okay, so there's one in every barn. And I guess I'm that one.

But now, Western riders can enjoy the same challenge as English riders and participate in nationally-recognized dressage competitions. In July 2013, the United States Equestrian Federation formally recognized Western dressage as an equestrian sport, paving the way for its formal rules to be included in the 2014 edition of the rulebook and, in turn, its inclusion in recognized shows.

What Is Western Dressage?

Dressage simply means training, and like English dressage, Western dressage emphasizes correctness, balance, suppleness and responsiveness of the horse. Horses wear Western-style tack including typical Western saddles and bridles. The current rules allow either a Western snaffle or Western bit; the Western Dressage Association seeks to change that rule to allow only Western snaffle bits with caveson. Like traditional dressage, Western dressage riders perform tests according to their horse's level of training. The Intro-level tests require the horse to perform a working jog, walk and free walk, as well as a 20-meter half circle. At each level, a new movement is introduced. Tests may be downloaded from the Western Dressage Association website. The high level test is the freestyle, and new music freestyles have also been introduced.

What Horse Breeds Can Participate in Western Dressage? Any and all breeds from backyard ponies and farm chunks to Paints, Quarter Horses, and even gaited horses! Gaited horses simply gait during the jog portions of the tests.

How Do I Get Started?

Since Western dressage is a relatively new discipline, there may not be a specialized instructor in your area. The Western Dressage Association suggests taking lessons with a traditional dressage instructor first. He or she will help you build your horse's basic skills, and improve his balance, suppleness and responsiveness. You can also contact the national Western Dressage Association for more information on instructors in your area or how you can encourage shows to add Western dressage classes. Downloading the free tests and practicing them with friends or with your instructor is another way to begin your Western dressage activities.

Halt and Salute the Judge

Will I trade in my dressage boots for cowboy boots anytime soon? Probably not, but the older I get, the more I've begun appreciating that dressage is dressage, whether you ride a Tennessee Walking Horse, a retrained Thoroughbred, a draft horse cross or a pony. It's really all about making your horse the best he can be and improving your own riding skills, not about riding into a rectangular ring and halting precisely at X. Dressage is for everyone, and Western dressage opens the door wider to all horses, ponies, adults and children seeking to become one with their horses and achieve excellent horsemanship.

IMAGE SOURCE:  K.C. Blanchett, Morguefile.com

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  1. PonyGirl
    Interesting article. I took dressage lessons in a riding school that I attended when I was quite young. It was one of the things that helped me the most in my riding. (I'll be 60 this year and have made my living solely with horses). I have ridden many styles and disciplines and dressage training was a big help in all of them. The only thing that concerns me about a western dressage event, is that it sounds like it will just evolve into English dressage with a western saddle. I pony horses for a living and my seasoned horses will side pass, half-pass, shoulder-in or out, two track, roll-back (the western version of pirouette),transition seamlessly from and to any gait, collect and extend any gait with the lightest of cues. But this is all done with a curb bit and on a free rein. There is no contact with the mouth, as in English. My horses are trained to work off the slightest pressure of the curb chain and/or neck rein. The whole purpose of dressage is to show the lightness and agility of the horse. A well trained western horse is as agile and as light as a well trained English horse, but they are different in fundamental ways. To disallow a western curb in the more advanced levels of dressage, is to my way of thinking, simply training a western horse to go English. That's not my idea of a highly trained western horse. While I think basic dressage training would be a plus for any rider, I think western dressage should not try to mimic the English style of riding.
  2. Jeanne Grunert
    Jeanne Grunert
    Thanks so much for leaving a comment, Pony Girl. I appreciate your thoughtful response. Your horses sound wonderful and very well-trained indeed.

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