Patrick King of Mount Pleasant PA practices western dressage.
There’s a real thrill to getting in on the ground floor of a new movement- especially when the fun incorporates skills you likely already possess. So what’s this cool venture? Western dressage, which dovetails western riding with dressage principles. It’s really no surprise to see these two come together: both disciplines feature common elements based on solid horsemanship and timeless riding.
Something Old, Something New
“I’ve always followed the Californio Bridle Horse process,” explains western trainer Patrick King of Mount Pleasant, PA, whose motto ‘classical principles with a modern purpose’ also sums up western dressage in a nutshell. “If you go back in time, you see that when the conquistadores went into present day Mexico and California, they brought their style of riding, which turned into western horsemanship. At same time, they went up into France during the start of the Renaissance, and that turned into dressage. The lineage of western horsemanship is akin to classical dressage, in a western saddle.”
Just as dressage follows a foundation designed to improve the horse step-by-step, western dressage seeks to develop key components of harmonious riding, such as cadence, carriage, balance, suppleness, rhythm and elasticity. Indeed, western dressage tests mirror standard dressage tests, with movements fluidly following one another in progressive steps which correctly develop the horse, setting horse and rider up for success. “Western dressage is training for the western horse to the highest level,” notes King. “It comes back to the systematic training of the horse, regardless of the tack.”
Get in on the Act
A good place to start is with groups that are developing and promoting western dressage. Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) and North American Western Dressage (NAWD), organizations with prominent equestrian professionals who serve as advisors, seek to educate fellow equestrians and advance the sport.
Whether your goal is to show or to simply improve your horse’s way of going, opportunities in western dressage are becoming increasingly common throughout Pennsylvania. For example, Patrick King Horsemanship offers educational seminars exploring western dressage, including opportunities to test ride western dressage tests.
If you’re in an area in which hands-on training is not accessible, look for distance-learning opportunities, such as NAWD’s virtual shows, for which riders upload their test videos, and online learning opportunities, such as webinars addressing western dressage topics.
King’s advice for getting started: get information about getting involved, learn as much as possible from the highest level riders of any discipline, and stay open-minded regardless of the saddle someone rides in.
From arena dimensions to test sheet layout, western dressage adheres to the majority of elements found in traditional dressage. For example, the levels of the two disciplines follow the same training steps, and tests are scored on the same 0-10 scale for each movement. The test sheet itself is a treasure trove of information; the purpose explained on the sheet clearly details the expectation of the test and level, while the directive for each movement helps explain what the judge is looking for. As with dressage, the collective marks take the big picture into consideration. Nevertheless, don’t expect to see a dressage horse in western tack; these tests are written with both the movement and conformation of western horses in mind.
King notes that many western riders new to the discipline appreciate the feedback on the score sheet. “You’re not so much at the mercy of the judge’s preferences,” he says. “You get the maneuver right, or you don’t get the maneuver right. You’re clean and true to the gait, or not clean and true. You score against yourself, not against everyone else in the class. You can track your progress in percentages.”
The newness of the western dressage trend isn’t just for horses and riders, but for show management as well. The tests themselves have taken a circuitous route from the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Morgan Horse division. In fact, fans of western dressage can thank the Morgan world for spearheading this new movement, incorporating the rules and tests into the auspices of the USEF.
Jacqui Richie, Director of Bucks County Horse Park, and Kristin Hermann, President of Western Pennsylvania Dressage Association (WPDA) note that interest in western dressage classes has had a slow start, with only a handful of competitors at their organizations’ competitions. Some local shows have reported offering classes without any takers, so fans of this new discipline should get out there and keep the momentum going. Nevertheless, Richie sees an interest: “I think that people who are into western and want to do other things with their horses are looking at it as a possibility.”
Show managers who are interested in offering western dressage classes should look to the resources offered by the USDF, USEF, NAWD, and WDAA.
Time to Shine
Once you’ve mastered the skills needed to perform and you’re ready to take your show on the road, look for opportunities to compete at dressage schooling shows. For example, Bucks County Horse Park offered showing opportunities throughout the summer of 2012 at its ‘Tuesday Evening Dressage’ series.
In addition, dressage clubs offer western dressage classes throughout the state at their schooling shows. Some of the USDF Group Member Organizations (GMOs) which have added western dressage to their line-up include Lehigh Valley Dressage Association in the eastern part of the state, which has classes slated for its 2013 events, and in the west, WPDA, which has not only classes on its show season calendar, but a year-end high point award in western dressage as well. While western dressage classes are offered at schooling shows, they are not currently part of USDF-recognized competitions.
Riders with Morgans have the option of showing at USEF-recognized competitions; Morgans are, however, currently the only breed affiliated with the USEF to offer western dressage classes at USEF-recognized events.
As with anything new, there is some grey area while the details are still in the making. Cindy Vimont, USDF Senior Director of Member Programs, notes there are multiple organizations exploring western dressage. “They have detailed information about what they consider to be western dressage,” notes Vimont. “They have rules and tests that they’ve developed, but right now there’s not one specific answer as to ‘What is western dressage?’ because it’s interpreted a little differently depending on the organization as far as rules, requirements, and philosophy.” Vimont goes on to recommend that interested riders contact the various organizations offering western dressage to gather more information.
As organizations come together to collaborate toward a common goal, more and more opportunities become available, such as year-end awards, demonstrations and educational events. Above all else, King urges, “Don’t be afraid- just jump in!”
Ready to Learn More?
Check out online resources for further information, tests and guidelines:
North American Western Dressage: www.NorthAmericanWesternDressage.com
Western Dressage Association of America: www.WesternDressageAssociation.org
2013 USEF Rulebook for Morgans/Western Dressage: www.usef.org/documents/ruleBook/2013/19-MO.pdf
USDF Group Member Organizations in Pennsylvania: www.usdf.org/clubs/list.asp
Cowboy Dressage™: www.cowboydressage.com