Those two words might sound like polar opposites, but the proponents of Western Dressage would like you to know that they’re very complimentary. It’s one of the equestrian world’s newest sports, and it’s growing across the country.
Perhaps it’s a natural offshoot of recent “natural horsemanship” and new Western horsemanship that has been evolving in recent years. Perhaps it comes from the traditional riding of Spanish vaqueros in centuries past. Either way, Western Dressage values many of the same tenets as traditional dressage, such as lightness, acceptance of the bridle, and response to subtle cues.
This means that some changes to the Western look most of us have grown accustomed to. A Western Dressage horse is stretching into the contact, making loopy reins out of the question. Light contact, an arched neck and back, and forward motion all make Western Dressage closer to the English tradition than the past few decades of traditional Western riding.
A Western Dressage test from the Western Dressage Association uses the same 20m x 40m (66’ x 132’) or 20m x 60m (66’ x 198’) arena as traditional dressage, and the same letter system, entering at “A,” the center of the ring at “X,” and the end of the ring at “C.” Tests are also similar to traditional dressage tests. For example, Western Dressage Basic Level, Test 1, looks a lot like the USDF Training Level, Test 1, with slightly different vocabulary: The horse enters at working jog, not working trot. Despite the change in wording, the directives remain the same – the judge is looking for “straightness, quality of the jog, balanced downward transition, straight halt, immobility, and willingness when asked.”
And don’t all of those things sound appealing in your horse, no matter what tack you’re sitting in or what kind of hat you’re wearing? Western Dressage and traditional Dressage are both disciplines in search of the same ideal: a horse who moves to his full potential and happily works in unison with his rider’s desires.
If you’re interested in pursuing Western Dressage, you’ll find information, links, and a guide to getting the discipline started in your own neighborhood at the Western Dressage Association’s website, westerndressageassociation.com.