What Is Western Dressage?

western dressageThis December the sport of Western Dressage will be formally recognized by the United Stated Equestrian Federation with its own section of the rulebook and a structure in place for the ongoing growth of the sport. I’ll admit, the first time I heard of Western Dressage, I blinked a few times before my brain would allow the concept to settle. You see, dressage is just so… english. With the top hats (which are beginning to fade from the United States in favor of helmets), tails and classical music abounding, the culture of western dressage briefly short circuited my brain.

training scaleHowever. Whatever the culture of the sport might be, that has nothing to do with what dressage actually is. What defines dressage is not the ridiculous amounts of money we pay for breeches and show coats, or the saddles we sit in, or even the horses we ride. Dressage, as a discipline, is the art and practice of training the horse along correct and methodical lines – namely the scale of training. The moment I saw the training scale front and center on a western dressage website, my arched eyebrow went down and a smile appeared on my face. In my mind, ride in whatever saddle suits your fancy, and we can all call the sport dressage.

There will be many similarities, the rings are the same, either a 20×40 or 20×60 meter dressage ring. The scoring is the same, a one through ten scale with the same definitions for each number. Western dressage will also have collective marks: gaits, impulsion, submission, rider position, rider effective use of aids, accuracy and harmony. There are four levels to western dressage for now, with four tests at each level. That is a slight difference between traditional dressage and western, as now traditional dressage has three tests for each level. The four current levels for western dressage are introductory level, basic level, level one and level two. To take a look at a western dressage test click here. Watch a basic level western dressage test below:

There will be differences as well, for example, the tests include a turn on the forehand 360 degrees as well as a turn on the haunches, which the standard tests do not currently include. Riders are allowed to use curb bits at any level and they may be ridden with one or two hands, while the snaffle (which is also allowed at any level) must be ridden with two hands. Another difference is currently there are not the same helmet requirements that traditional dressage has in place. While I understand there is a culture of the cowboy that resists helmets, as a practically minded creature, that must change. As the sport gets more popular they must also require their riders to adhere to safety standards, just as other equine sports, for the good of all involved. There are also gait differences, with the jog replacing the trot and the lope replacing the canter. An example definition for the working jog is as follows:

Working Jog: An energetic, regular, two beat jog; the horse must go forward with free and elastic steps. The back must be relaxed and the shoulders free, while there is an obvious push from the hind quarters. The hind legs step actively up under the horse. The horse must show proper balance and maintain light contact with the bit. The horse’s nose must be in front of the vertical. In the introductory and basic tests, the working jog may be ridden either posting or sitting. In more advanced tests, the working job must be ridden seated.”

To take a look at the complete rules and requirements of western dressage click here.

Dressage has grown massively in the past thirty years, from an obscure sport in the background to where it is today. Because of this, it is easy to forget that where dressage is at this moment is not where it will be twenty years from now, or fifty years from now. As the popularity of the sport grows, so will different versions of the sport, to allow it to be more inclusive of individual rider’s interests. Imagine fifty years down the line – there might be riders who are exclusively dressage seat equitation riders, others who only ride quadrille, others who are western dressage enthusiasts and those who are working up the levels in a traditional sense. These niches allow people to enjoy the practice and sport of dressage happily with their equine partners. The more options dressage has, the more happy its participants will be, as long as all options stay true to the training of the horse in correct ways. Perhaps a rider has a horse who does not have the ability to move up the levels for whatever reason, an old injury let’s say. With different class options offered that horse and rider combination moves into perfecting dressage seat equitation after training level and can remain focused, and moving forward in their training. What I would like to see happen is have western dressage classes take place at traditional dressage shows, or have western dressage exhibition rides at the very least, to expose the sport to traditional dressage riders. Conversely having traditional dressage exhibitions at western dressage shows is important as well. The reason for my wanting this cross pollination is that there are more similarities than differences in these two sports. Because western dressage is in its formal inception, we have a chance to include it within the larger culture of dressage or have the two sports split and have separate lives. I am a proponent of having the cultures of the sports merge as much as possible.

Finally, I will end on a video featuring Sarah Martin, a person who I enjoy very much, speaking as a dressage trainer on western dressage.  

10 responses to “What Is Western Dressage?

  1. THANK YOU for this! I have loved dressage, but I also love reining. This is the perfect place for my horse and I to go as he is retiring from reining. I LOVE LOVE LOVE being able to use my quarter horse to do dressage!

  2. Lovely horse with a super walk. Just wondering why its head keeps sneaking behind the vertical. I sure hope Western dressage doesn’t end up in the same trap as traditional–hyperflexing to get a “look”.

  3. Pingback: The Ring Is Mine, My Precious! | Dressage Different·

  4. Pingback: Dressage Goal Setting AND Motive Setting | Dressage Different·

  5. Pingback: The Bending Horse And Rider | Dressage Different·

  6. We respectfully disagree about the helmet requirement. Some of us have been riding all our life wearing a good old fashion cowboy hat. We don’t tell people they can’t wear helmets and can’t understand why folks want to force us to wear one. One day you won’t even be allowed to ride a horse ’cause it’ll be just too doggone dangerous. No disrespect intended, but give some thought to letting people be. If they want to do Western Dressage with their hat, let them have the freedom to make a choice of their own. Stroll down to the hospital sometime and check out the motorcycle riders who were wearing a helmet. Life comes with a certain level of risk. Enough said.

  7. After reading disparaging comments regarding western dressage from the editor of a popular horse journal earlier this year, I find your commentary delightfully refreshing.
    I feel a vitally important aspect of western dressage, in addition to its “traditional” dressage parameters, is the mission “…to honor the horse and value the partnership…”.

  8. The helmet requirement is just ridiculous, people need to learn to ride better a be able to keep their balance in the saddle. unfortunately there are to many riders in the showrings who would be better staying at home and work on their seat.
    Most instructors limit riding without stirrups to an absolute minimum, there is hardly anybody able to ride for at least half an hour without stirrups and maintain a correct seat.

    To try to force people to replace skills by extra equipment will only lead to even further loss of skills. Apart from that most of the helmets are incredibly ugly and make people look like creeps from Mars.

    Another aspect would be that the western saddle in its current form is a rather stiff contraption, bas. 2 boards one on each side of the horses spine connected with a stiff fork and a stiff cantle.
    The original intention of the western saddle never was Dressage, more just basic riding & execution of basic maneuvers,

    In Spain where Western acctually comes from, the saddle used for cowork, bullfights on horseback working Dressage is a Vaquera, which has a high cantle and a flexible tree, actually made of straw. Thanks to this the saddle follows with each and every of the horses movement. A vaquera also gives you way more contact with the horse than a western sadldle, actually even more than a lot of Dressage saddles..

Add your voice!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s