Helping Judges Understand Some Differences


Photos taken by Jay Quinlan

Corinna Scheller Fleming was our judge at Harmony Hill Farms Dressage Show (part of The Western New England Dressage Series) on Saturday July 20th. Afterwards she sent me a few questions about the differences between Western and English Dressage. I have posted the questions and my answers below in the hope that the discussion will be helpful.

From Corinna; 

“I would like to know more about circles and corners. I noticed that most western riders at the Harmony Hill Show made an effort to ride proper corners but since the horse is not as “connected” as in dressage I did not see the correct bend. And then riding one-handed, neck-reined corners and circles? Thanks in advance for your input!”

Cathy Response;

“English and Western dressage have exactly the same requirements for circles and corners. The horse should be bent in the direction he is going. That bend should be even all the way from his head to his tail, as the  circle gets smaller the bend increases and the horse’s frame must become shorter and more collected in order to keep the evenness of bend from head to tail. The more advanced the horse and rider, the smaller the turns that they can make while staying balanced and straight.

The riders that you judged at Harmony Hill are mostly new to dressage, for some this was their first show away from home. This is why they were not as connected as they should be, they are learning how to do it. The requirements for connectedness are the same in Western as in English, the movements simply cannot be executed correctly without connection. Western dressage riders should be connected, meaning to have a contact with the horse’s mouth, with him on the aids, balanced and ready to turn, stop or go in response to the lightest of aids.


Photos taken by Jay Quinlan

There is a big difference between the two disciplines at this point in time and it does affect connection. It is that a curb bit is allowed in Western dressage. This may not last as there is a lot of discussion about changing the rules to allow a snaffle only at the lower levels. It was decided to allow the curb to start with because so many western riders have always ridden with a curb and could not imagine doing otherwise. The idea was for Western Dressage to welcome and include as many riders as possible and not to exclude a whole bunch of them from the get go. But I digress, the difference in achieving connection with a curb as apposed to a snaffle is that you have to have a lighter, more precise touch in order to have true connection and this is especially hard for novice riders to achieve. I have to say they do a good job of it and I have been pleasantly surprised to see some great, connected riding from riders who are using two hands on a curb bit at low levels.

Which leads us to the neck reining question. The rule is that you are allowed to ride one or two handed but you have to stick with your choice through the whole test. If you start one handed you must stay one handed until the end and vice-versa. If you manage to execute the entire test perfectly with one hand then you may get a couple of extra points for being one handed. The long term goal would be able to do everything with one hand while staying balanced, bent correctly and light. However it takes a well trained horse and an experienced rider to pull that off. Both novice horses and their riders will generally do better if they train using two hands and wait until they are very proficient before trying with one hand.

So the answer to the neck reining question is that the rider who is one handed should be judged exactly as the rider with two hands and penalized just as much for wrong bend, lack of connection, poor rhythm, lack of straightness etc etc.

Having said all this I must add that I am thrilled and impressed to see these western riders learning the basic concepts of dressage and using it to improve their horses’ way of going. It is good for the horses and good for the riders. My experience so far is that beginner Western dressage riders are the same as beginner English dressage riders. At the intro level they are working on basic control and balance. A 20 meter circle is a challenge, a straight free walk across the diagonal is a mystery, a straight halt facing the judge is nothing short of impossible and what was that you were saying about impulsion and rhythm????

I applaud them every time they get out in that arena, push past their comfort zone and learn something new every time. I see no downside to this new version of dressage, its all about the journey towards better, fairer, healthier and safer horsemanship.”

Submitted by Cathy Drumm | July 2013

5 Responses to “Helping Judges Understand Some Differences

  • Rebecca Algar
    5 years ago

    I thought this was an excellent explanation of what is required in Western Dressage, which as you said, is the same principle of classical dressage. Interestingly, in classical dressage, traditionally the horse was moved from the double bridle to just the curb bit, often depicted as the bradoon rein hanging completely loose on the horse’s neck, prior to being discarded. Of course, this requires a horse to be in self balance, in order that the contact is kept very light. This is not to be confused with a horse going ” behind the bit”, as in, not accepting a contact and not moving forward freely, as can sometimes be seen in western competition. I ride classical dressage, Doma Vaquera and Western dressage, and have ridden multiple other disciplines as well- I find every one has taught me something beneficial to my training.
    I am very excited to see western dressage catching on. Anything that encourages people to train a well balanced, comfortable horse has to be good.

    • Jerry Green
      5 years ago

      Seems many here are calling the kettle black.

  • Shanerobin
    5 years ago

    Dressage is French.

  • Sandy Perez
    5 years ago

    How wonderfully written! To develop any dressage horse correctly there must be an elastic connection. But first the rider must understand the concept and learn the skill! It just takes training and time. Isn’t that what dressage is all about?

  • Corinna Scheller Fleming
    5 years ago

    I think there is a big misunderstanding here. A dressage judge HAS TO and WILL judge according to the standards/criteria and training scale. What I was referring to is the lack of understanding from the riders what these standards and criteria are and NOT a lack of understanding of how or what to judge. Furthermore, the standards stay the same, if it’s the rider’s first outing or the Olympics.
    I think WD is great, it is my firm believe that dressage is good for any discipline.
    I also think it is important that WD will either develop it’s own clearly defined standards/criteria and then train riders/trainers and judges accordingly OR conform to the standards of TD. Right now it’s a bit difficult, when the same terms are used but have a somewhat different “meaning” (impulsion, collection etc) or when a curb bit is allowed in a test that does not require collection in the traditional sense.

    Corinna Scheller Fleming
    Graduate of USDF “L” Education Program for Judge Training, with distinction
    USDF Certified Instructor through First Level