Grab Your Stetson and Hit the Dressage Court

By Jec Ballou – WDAA Advisory Board Member

Imagine an arena with a relaxed and balanced horse moving elegantly through a pattern that tests its skills. Now imagine the American West meeting the Spanish Riding School. It is what many consider the inevitable marriage of Western and dressage, now officially its own discipline and quickly gaining a following nationwide.

Founded in 2010, the Western Dressage Association® of America has received an early nod from the United States Equestrian Federation and stands poised to soon be included as a national competition discipline. First witnessed at schooling shows and exhibitions by a handful of trainers that helped popularize it, the sport visibly exemplified the objectives of dressage. But in a western saddle. And without a Warmblood.

The burgeoning sport gained early support from not only Western riders who liked the challenge of progressively training a horse for dressage but also from equestrians who saw it as a way to preserve the ideals of softness, lightness, harmony. For those who argue that these ideals are not always seen in modern dressage, western dressage offers an alternative. It also gives Western riders an organized way to train—and compete, if they choose—in skills they have practiced for decades on ranches and in their everyday lives, thanks to the lasting influence of horsemen like Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt.

In its infancy, WDAA is forming affiliate groups in 20 states across the U.S. which promote the discipline through clinics and competitions. For now, Western Dressage tests are modified from regular U.S.D.F. tests to suit the gaits of a western horse. In the future, these tests will evolve to more specifically demonstrate the training and maneuvers of western training. Currently, licensed USDF judges are used at shows since they are the most familiar with test requirements. Dressage luminaries like Olympic judge Anita Owen and U.S.D.F. vice president George Williams helped the sport with early direction.As the sport grows and continues to define itself, dressage and western trainers are working side by side to teach students.

Founding directors of WDAA are committed to the sport embodying the best of both dressage and western worlds.

President Ellen DiBella says the sport has numerous aspects to offer enthusiasts, the largest being a method of riding that “focuses on harmony, correct movement of the horse, and proper sequential training.”

According to the group’s mission statement, it was only a matter of time until this sport took hold in the horse industry.

“It was only natural that at some point on this journey East would meet West, English would meet Western and classical dressage would meet the spirit of the Western horse. When that day arrived, Western Dressage was born,” says the group’s mission statement.

DiBella acknowledged that her fellow founders are scrambling to meet the demand as well as to continue growing and shaping the sport so that it remains true to its mission. Admittedly, some equestrians unfamiliar with the training goals behind WDAA, worry that the sport will become just a costumed version of traditional dressage.

Western Dressage Association of AmericaBut this is a misinformed view of what Western Dressage can achieve, says Colorado trainer Cliff Swanson. When asked the frequent question what exactly IS Western Dressage?, Swanson doesn’t hesitate.

“People need to recognize that this is just classical dressage,” says Swanson, who offers clinics near Castle Rock, CO.


Jec A. Ballou has a foot in both worlds. A dressage rider and trainer, she serves on the national advisory board for Western Dressage Association of America.
Her web site is

One Response to “Grab Your Stetson and Hit the Dressage Court

  • Thank you Cliff Swanson for summing up, in that one simple statement what we are all about!! The newly affiliated Western Dressage Association of Oklahoma will be rolling out our premier event, Classical Dressage meets Western Dressage, Nov 29,30th in Bartlesville, Okla to promote that very idea. Laurie Hedlund, Claremore, Okla, a 4th level, USDF certified instructor and Rudy Lara, western dressage and natural horsemanship clinician will be our instructors. Backed by The Dressage Foundation, well known in the dressage world for funding education and educational events, we will be fine tuning our riding and dressage basics. We welcome anyone who wants to enjoy and learn more about this exciting discipline!!. Come see us and say HI to fellow enthusiasts!!!