The Right Lead – Western Dressage

Article Courtesy of Massachusetts Horse Magazine
Published by | Oct/Nov 2012 Issue

The term western dressage was born when the principles of dressage were used on western horses. But trainers across Massachusetts have been advocating dressage to their students for years. The division got a boost across the state with the formation of the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) in 2010 and the inclusion of western dressage at many local competitions. According to the WDAA: “While both want to see balance, cadence, and carriage, the western dressage horse will be evaluated with the conformation and movement of today’s western horses in mind. The western dressage horse will have a shorter stride than a dressage horse and the western dressage horse will be asked to walk, jog, and lope as opposed to walk, trot, and canter.”The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) recognizes western dressage and offers six tests in which riders may compete: two in basic level and four in primary.

“Western dressage is growing in popularity. It’s another avenue for people riding western to explore,” says Diane Raucher Miller, of Heritage Farm in Easthampton. “The word dressage means ‘training.’ Ideally it’s a combination of training for horse and rider.”

“I like to tell people that western dressage is a cross between yoga and the gym for your horse,” says Cathy Drumm, of Pittsfield, a freelance clinician/trainer and coach of 30 years. “It increases flexibility and strengthens the muscles horses need to carry a rider comfortably.”

The Background

“I attributed my successes in the hunter/jumper world in large part to my inclusion of dressage in the training of both horse and rider,” Cathy says. “Western dressage can help riders and their horses in all the western specialties, and will improve your ability in everything from cutting to pleasure classes and trail rides.” Although western dressage is based on classical dressage, there are a few key differences riders should be aware of. “In western, comfort and rideability are valued more,” Cathy says. “Western riders aren’t allowed to post, so the jog must be something riders can sit. A slow jog doesn’t always have the necessary impulsion from the hindquarters; I help riders find the balance between a rideable jog and a freely moving trot.”

Barbara Ann Archer, of Fairfield Farm in Rochester, grew up riding western and competing in 4-H and open shows. Then she discovered dressage, and in 1978 became a licensed instructor. “After starting dressage instruction for myself,” she says, “I realized the balance- seat position was the most classical base for instruction with a sequence and system that would make my students more athletic and more in  balance, regardless of whether they want to compete in dressage or western, trail-ride, or ride for pleasure.” Barbara always had a handful of western clients, and that number has increased because of western dressage. “My western students have always ridden and practiced the same figures and lateral work as my dressage riders,” she says.

The People

“I’ve found that western dressage attracts western riders who want to understand more and do more with their horses,” Barbara says. “These are riders who want gymnastic exercises that create more athletic horses. They’ve seen dressage and are interested but enjoy western. It’s a very inclusive discipline.” Barbara’s students range from teenage boys to the grandmother of one of them.

“Western riding has really taken off,” says Diane. “We have a core group of adult riders interested in western dressage. As an instructor, it’s appealing because it offers structure. The tests provide a format for riders and the exact elements required. A rider’s goal is making the elements as smooth and flawless as possible.”

Heather Rush, of Holyoke, has ridden on and off since she was nine. Now in her 30s, she’s had a large chunk of non-horse time while busy with her career. “At the beginning of this year, I had to get back into a saddle, yet somehow all my years of riding dressage, beginner eventing, and hunt seat weren’t where I wanted to go,” she says. “I emailed Diane at Heritage Farm about western lessons. Shortly after I started riding again, the idea of western dressage came up, and I jumped at the idea. Combining the western skills I was learning with my previous knowledge made me feel less like a fish out of water. The principles of dressage can be applied to any horse and rider,” she says, “and those principles are blind to the tack sitting on the horse.”

The Competitions

“We hadn’t heard of western dressage until Jerilyn Jacobs, of Vermont, an event, dressage, and western dressage rider, asked if we’d consider offering tests in our schooling shows,” says Elaine Kachavos, of Xenophon Farm in Montague.

“Once she explained some of the guidelines, we were hooked. Because my sister Janice had been the junior reining champion in Kansas in her youth and we both grew up riding western, the idea seemed too good to miss — a marriage of western riding and our passion, dressage.”

Xenophon Farm has had a terrific turnout of western dressage riders at its schooling competitions this year. The judges have enjoyed the challenge of shifting their thinking from canter to lope and from trot to jog. “We’ll also be offering year-end awards for western dressage along with the regular dressage and combined-test awards at our annual banquet,” says Elaine.

Fairfield Farm hosts two dressage schooling shows every year and Barbara’s western riders compete in introductory and training-level dressage tests. “The judges I’ve hired have been very impressed with the ability of my western riders,” says Barbara. “They put their horses ‘on the bit’ and work on proper balance and bending.”

Clinics and competitions featuring this discipline have been used as an offshoot of the stock horse shows and other activities at Heritage Farm. “If a rider has low scores in her reining pattern, she can go back to western dressage and fill in the kinks she has in her foundation with her horse,” Diane says. For the past eight months, Cathy has been teaching and offering clinics in western dressage at Heritage Farm. She also helped organize its shows and clinics. “I’ve also judged and taught at Emerald Glen, in New York, and encouraged some of my students to show in western dressage at Xenophon Farm,” Cathy says. “I’m thrilled to share my understanding of dressage and all its benefits with the western world and happy to see such positive results.”

“Riders are able to slow down their riding and break each element of a pattern into separate moves,” Diane says. “They know exactly what’s expected and can self-evaluate. There’s also a lot of appeal in competing against yourself; a rider gets the judge’s full attention and feedback.” “Western dressage made me confident to bridge the gap between the riding I did when I was younger and my future with western riding,” Heather says.

“As I saluted the judge and walked out on a long rein, I felt so proud to be able to take part in a new sport and give this a try.”

Moving Forward

Because western dressage is a young sport, there are some details to work out. Many riders are becoming acquainted with the rules of dressage, and judges learn about western attire and tack. Western riders will be anticipating future tests and levels as they are developed by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF.) There’s also debate about whether helmets or cowboy hats should be worn.

“Ideally, I wish there was more education and acceptance within the dressage community,” Heather says. “We’re all doing this to achieve the same goals: to take our horses and enhance their natural athleticism, using minimal aids to get that relaxed, harmonious impulsion that makes us feel connected to them. This can be carried forward into other aspects of riding, whether it’s cows, trails, or reining.”

Cathy has presented clinics from Missouri to Vermont. This spring she’ll be presenting at the University of Connecticut’s Horse Symposium. She would like to add a western dressage clinic to her Equine Affaire lineup in 2013, and is hopeful that there’s enough interest to start a Massachusetts affiliate of the WDAA.

Xenophon Farm runs five schooling shows each year. “Again, next year all of the shows will offer tests in both the western basic and primary divisions,” Elaine says. “People are welcome to try both if it suits their needs.”

“For me, the most rewarding part of western dressage is watching the development of the horse,” Barbara says. “The muscling in their backs and hindquarters changes, and the horses are happier and more comfortable. That’s a big reward. Western dressage is a really good thing for the western discipline.”

“I’d love to continue weaving rhythm, collection, and impulsion into my daily rides, in between learning how to work with cows and reining,” Heather says. “All of these areas in my riding naturally overlap, and I can clearly see dressage helping whatever horse I’m riding.”


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