The Three R’s of Western Dressage by the Morgan Horse Magazine


We asked several exhibitors why they are involved in this new discipline. Their answers provided the reasons why for Western Dressage. Still in its very infancy, the Western Dressage Division has been an almost instant success in many different breeds. The brainchild of legendary horsemen Jack Brainard and Eitan Beth-Halachmy has taken off in a huge way. Its appeal may be simply as a tool to improve your pleasure or trail ride, or you can compete if that’s your thing, or maybe it attracts you as entertainment. Western Dressage Association® of America President, Ellen DiBella, explains that:

“The point is to make better horses and riders.” WDAA’s slogan, “It’s about the journey…” says it all.

Julie Adams and WH Zimbabwe (photo by Howard Schatzberg).

The Morgan community has embraced the new division with large numbers of entries at local and regional shows as well as at The Morgan Grand National. There are many different reasons for giving the new division a try. California trainer Julie Adams has been riding dressage and western since she was 11 years old. She has been a major force since the very beginnings of the Western Dressage movement and now serves on the Board of Directors of the Western Dressage Association® of America as an Advisory Director. Julie says: “I enjoy showing in dressage and the training scale that dressage provides. I also want my western horse to benefit from it. I believe that Western Dressage can help my horses and me learn to focus on our training and partnership by riding the tests. I know they make us better prepared for our rail classes. Dressage teaches you to ride from the hind end to the front end, giving you true balance and collection…I love the feeling of a good western horse that is soft, supple, and has three correct gaits.” The Western Dressage division was offered for the first time in 2011 at The Morgan Grand National. Julie led the way with the wins in both of the tests offered and then went on to win the Grand National Western Pleasure Stallions class on the same horse.

CFF Strictly Byzness & Susan Carlino 2012

Before raising her family, California Morgan breeder Susan Carlino spent time training with and working for Linda Tellington-Jones and Jim Fortier where the focus was on dressage and eventing. Twenty years later Susan got back to the show ring in western pleasure and competitive trail. Susan says: “…when we first started showing Morgans, we saw Eitan Beth-Halachmy and his wonderful western and Cowboy Dressage horses at Morgan Medallion. That is when the seed took root to breed horses that we could “dance” with.” Susan goes on to say: “Inspired by Eitan and his beautiful Morgan and Palomino horses, the kids and I, as Carlino Family Farm, along with my mother and Silver Creek Stables, began our own breeding program of breeding quality Morgan horses with our sights set on Western Dressage and the show ring. Now, with our third generation of GLB and CFF Morgan horses, we’ve been anxiously following the evolution of this amazing discipline by attending clinics and classes and shows.” Homebred CFF Strictly Byzness went into training with Julie Adams in the fall of 2011. Susan enthuses that Julie is an “amazing” trainer and teacher and that she has been teaching Susan and “Slick” all about Western Dressage. “He loves it and so do I.”

Trainer Valarie Siemer journeyed to Oklahoma from the other side of the country to claim the two reserve titles in Western Dressage’s inaugural year at the Morgan Grand National. Valarie’s early riding lessons were in a hunter/dressage barn. She says that she was aware of Western Dressage quite a few years ago and explains: “All of my training that I do now has some aspect of dressage riding incorporated in it. So before I ever met a Morgan, I was showing in hunter classes and dressage shows. I still strongly feel that teaching a horse to move off the legs, be soft in the bridle, bend and flex and be obedient is extremely important in any style of riding we do now. I continue along the same lines as if working for the show ring, just add more circles and halts.” Valarie also notes another reason that led to her involvement in the new division: “My client, Lora Dunlap, was watching as it became more popular, and her stallion, UVM Windfall, was advancing in age and not as competitive in the show ring as he once was. She felt that that would be a way for her to continue to compete with him.”

Christine Nava has been training western horses with much success for 11 years at her Timber Hill Stable in Massachusetts. She has worked closely with western guru Garn Walker for many of those years, but says that while she had no formal training in dressage, she feels that what she does with her western horses is similar in some ways to dressage. Christine explains: “I decided to participate in the Western Dressage Division last year because the division was new and seemed to be popular. I wanted to know more about what was involved with it so I downloaded the tests and reviewed them. It seemed similar to what my everyday workouts are with my western horses so I thought I would give it a try. It was a division that I thought my gelding, Bogalusa, would do well in. I was excited to have another avenue to show him.”

Another trainer based in Massachusetts, Jane Morrell, also says that she had no previous experience in dressage but has always integrated its concepts into her work. Jane trains horses for all disciplines and enjoys the challenge of training the western horses as a change from the higher energy divisions. Jane decided to give Western Dressage a try because at the time it debuted: “I had a western pleasure horse in training that needed to be schooled towards being an equitation horse. I felt that the pattern work would help him towards that goal. Now, my own stallion is the horse that I choose to use for the division and I compete with him because I enjoy it!

As a child, Rick Gervasio, a western trainer now based in Florida, took lessons with a dressage rider. Rick credits his childhood instructor with helping him to develop the proper basics of hand, seat and leg. Though Rick never showed in the dressage division, he has trained western horses of all breeds. He tries to incorporate the basic dressage principles into his work with his western horses. “I decided to try my hand in the Western Dressage Division last year. I feel that it is a great venue to showcase a well-trained western horse outside of the standard arena. The wide variety of showing options (tests, bit selection—curb vs. snaffle, and one or two-handed) offers options for all levels of horses and riders. It has also generated a large amount of interest in competitors entering the division and it is great to see such renewed enthusiasm in any aspect of the Morgan industry. I focus my training on all aspects of the horse, not just going around in a circle. Western Dressage allows me to demonstrate those aspects. It is also a great way to introduce a new horse or rider to a show situation without jumping right into a traditional setting. The horse and rider must be totally tuned into each other, which is the basis of all training.”

Jackie Ross has a strong background in classical dressage. For many years she trained and apprenticed with the many of the top names in dressage and eventing. Jackie has extensive experience competing in both dressage and combined training. Now Jackie trains lots of horses and riders at her Oneonta, New York barn. All of her riders work on dressage regardless of their discipline. Jackie explains how she got into the new division: “I had come in for training a western pleasure horse that I felt would benefit greatly from working on the basics of dressage if he were to be successful in the western show ring for his young rider. As time progressed there were positive changes in his way of going, engagement, balance and purity of gaits, along with a change in his attitude both doing the dressage work and in the western pleasure work he did with his rider.”

Cortney Scionti teaches and trains at her family’s Whispering Meadows Horse Farm in Hudson, New York. Cortney has always loved western pleasure and equitation. She says: “The Western Dressage Division has been a natural progression since I incorporate dressage basics in all of my training. I also wish to promote any venue that will increase visibility and showcase the talents of the Morgan horse.”

Amateur rider Elizabeth Young Fina grew up competing on Morgans in all three equitation seats under the direction of Barbara Irvine. “I grew up with dressage being a part of our everyday language and horse show experience. We often ride dressage tests as part of our wintertime lessons. It seems sensible to me that if we are trying to achieve an advanced level of horsemanship we should be able to ride a dressage test well. I have taken lessons with instructors focusing on dressage occasionally and enthusiastically. I have always been interested in dressage and I always like a new challenge. When considering new challenges for the 2012 show season, Barb and I thought that this might be a fun, new division for me and my longtime horse show partner, Rumor Has It (aka Patty). I love western riding and western equitation. I have been a student of western equitation for more than 35 years. I like to describe it as the yoga of the horse show world. It is very internal and thoughtful and I enjoy the challenge that the western division offers. I loved patterns and working toward perfection throughout my equitation years and dressage is similarly attractive to me.” Elizabeth’s daughter, junior exhibitor Miller Young Fina, says that she competed in the new division because: “…my trainer asked me to and we thought it would be good for me and my horse to try something new. I have no previous dressage experience, but I have been riding western my whole life and have been competing in western equitation for many years. This has helped because I was already accustomed to doing patterns – they were just a bit shorter than the dressage ones.”

Western Dressage Association Buffalo Bob Harb

Western Dressage Association® of America Affiliate Chair “Buffalo Bob” Harb

Amateur “Buffalo” Bob Harb is passionate about Western Dressage. He has gotten involved not only as a competitor but also as the Chairman of the Western Dressage Association® of America State Affiliates. Bob says: “My only previous experience with dressage was to watch dressage classes at The Morgan Grand National and dressage at the Olympics and other events on TV. My experience riding western began when I was a young boy in Oklahoma, riding our “community horse” named Red. Then, many years later, my wife Cindy and I began riding her uncle’s horses at his farm in New Hampshire. After both my daughters began riding and showing Morgans, I decided to get into the ring and began showing in the western classes. I have now been showing in the western classes at open and Morgan horse shows for more than five years. My first introduction to Western Dressage was watching a YouTube of Eitan Beth-Halachmy and his beautiful Morgan horse Holiday Compadre performing Western Dressage to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” I then had the great opportunity to be introduced to Eitan at the American Morgan Horse Association Annual Convention in Boston and to listen to his presentation on Western Dressage. These events sparked my interest and enthusiasm to participate in something new and exciting that I knew I would enjoy. I am fortunate to have a great Morgan mare, Sunny Acres Kaleidoscope (“Kali”), who also loves Western Dressage.”


Rules for Western Dressage in 2012 are included in The United States Equestrian Federation Rule Book in the Morgan section. The rules are also available on the Western Dressage Association® of America’s website ( The newest edition of the rules that will go into effect for the 2013 show season are now available to download from the WDAA website. The rules include chapters that clearly state the specifics of the goals and objectives of Western Dressage, detailed descriptions of the gaits, movements and methods, collection, submission, impulsion, aids, appointments and Western Musical Freestyle. Competitors new to the division will want to pay particular attention to the rules regarding tack, attire and the warm up ring and training area. Be sure to take a good look at the rules pertaining to the warm up ring and training area as these restrictions may not be familiar to competitors new to dressage. Many western riders like to use bit snaps, so be sure to note that the reins must be attached to each shank. You will also see that split, romal or “loop” reins are permitted and that one may ride with one or two hands when using either a hackamore (bosal) or curb bit bridle, but that you must use two hands when showing with a snaffle. Some exhibitors who have romal reins elect to remove the long part that hangs down (the romal) when riding with two hands and to show with the loop that then remains. In the 2012 rules it is not clear if one is allowed to carry a whip -n one section it says you may do so only in the warm up ring and in another section it says you may carry a whip. No problem in the new rules – the 2013 rules clearly state that whips are permitted in both areas. A major departure from the rules and traditions of classical dressage appears in the latest edition of the rules for Western Dressage – under the 2013 rules you are permitted to use the voice quietly and/or click (cluck) to your horse. If one has need of a rule clarification, the show steward or technical delegate should be consulted. Regardless of whether or not you wish to compete, the WDAA rules, tests and resources can provide the structure for logical progression in your western riding and training.


Resources for learning about Western Dressage can be found on the WDAA website. The website offers information about the association, its mission, history and inspiration. There is a list of educational articles that can be downloaded or you can take a look at the “Exercise of the Week”. The Education Center tab leads you to the rules, tests, guidelines, educational blogs and a video gallery. You can also find out about upcoming events, check the news blog, and get ideas on how to organize a clinic, find an instructor or clinician and learn about the new Train the Trainer series. Be sure to check out the FAQ section too, as it is here that you will find out about who teaches Western Dressage and how to learn about it if there aren’t any instructors near you. The links to the state affiliates (currently there are 18) lead to lots more about what’s happening and how to be a part of it. And there’s info on how to compete online and how to sign on to get feedback on a videotaped ride – this can even be done in real time by using a cell phone. A clinician will view and then coach you on your ride. Go to the WDAA’s new corporate partner,, to sign up for this. There are other new and innovative possibilities here as well.

Take a look, improve your ride and enjoy the journey!



Barbara-Irvine The Morgan Horse Magazine

Written by Barbara Irvine for the Morgan Horse Magazine

“I grew up riding Saddlebreds with Joe Vanorio. During my college years in Maryland, I had the good fortune to be mentored in dressage and hunter/jumper work by Major James Martin. Major Martin was a member of the Army Horse Show Team, predecessor to the USET. He had studied dressage at Saumur in France and tutored me every night in all that he had learned. After college, I was hired to train and teach at Robert Morgan Sr.’s Green Mountain Stock Farm in Randolph, Vermont. I was charged with the job of getting a horse ready to compete in the very first competition in dressage to be held at “The National” in Northampton. I did that on Great Hill Jackson and, due to blanking out on my test, got to meet Colonel van Schaik who picked up on my ride and called out the next move for me. I went on to ride with van Schaik at his facility in Vermont for several years. He had been a Dutch Olympic Dressage Team member and was a wonderful communicator and gifted teacher who had great interest in the Morgan as a dressage mount. “As a result of these experiences I have always brought in dressage principles and training to my work with equitation riders. Over the years, I have had many western horses and riders and so when Western Dressage came up on my radar screen, I was naturally interested to learn more about it. This year some of my students gave it a try and, as always, I, as teacher, probably learned the most.”

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