Western Dressage: A Classic Sport Wears a New Hat – Part 2

A five-part series to learn more about the exciting new discipline of western dressage

Part 2: A Very Different Arena
Written By Jennifer M. Keeler

Vickie-Rollack-PhotoCreditSylviaPalmer-PalmerPhotos1More and more western riders are thinking about trying the exciting new discipline of western dressage. While the progressive training principles of dressage can be a benefit to any horse’s development, riders will discover that trotting down the centerline of a dressage arena is a very different experience than they may be used to for a western pleasure or reining show.

The first and most obvious difference is the appearance of the ring. Dressage is ridden in a “small” rectangular arena measuring 20m x 40m (66′ x 131′) or a larger “standard” arena of 20m x 60m (66′ x 197′), often with a low white portable fence as a border. Seemingly random letters serve as guideposts around the perimeter of the arena to mark where movements start and end. The judge usually sits at the end of the arena opposite the entrance; sometimes officials will also be placed on the long sides of the ring for additional perspective. Differing from the group classes which many exhibitors are used to, dressage tests are completed by a single horse and rider combination at a time, and are judged against an ideal standard rather than having their performance scored relative to other competitors.

Currently there are 20 western dressage tests written by the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA), with four at each of five levels: Introductory, Basic, Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3. The dressage tests themselves are a formalized sequence of movements performed in a specific order, such as a 20-meter circle at the lope followed by a downward transition and change of direction across the diagonal at a jog. Judges make an evaluation on the basis of an objective standard appropriate for the level and award a score of zero (0) to ten (10) for each movement. Along with each movement score, space is provided on the score sheet for short comments by the judge, such as “needs more bend” on a circle. At the end of the test, additional comments may be given as well as overall impression scores called “collective marks” for gaits, impulsion, submission, and the rider’s position and seat. All individual movement scores and collective marks are tallied and converted to a total percentage. The higher the percentage, the better.

Cliff-Swanson-TTTCliff Swanson of Colorado has a lifetime of success with multiple breeds of horses. Specializing in training and showing Morgan horses to earn a multitude of World Championship titles, he is also a licensed judge for Morgans, Andalusians, and Friesians and has officiated for Quarter Horses, Arabians, Tennessee Walking Horses, Saddlebreds, Miniature Horses and Ponies. But these days, Swanson is most often seen in the dressage arena as a competitor and popular clinician, as well as becoming a founding member and dedicated supporter of the WDAA. “If you think of these tests as a training map or tool, that helps you understand the design,” explained Swanson. “We use the arena to maneuver the horse and progress with the movements in a stepping stone fashion, so horses and riders advance from easy to increasingly harder requirements. Since the tests are designed with progressive elements to showcase the developing skills of a horse and rider, it’s important to learn how to correctly perform the movements in one test before moving on to the next.”

Experts agree that dressage principles can be tremendously valuable for a horse’s growth as an athlete, regardless of what type of saddle is used. But Swanson believes that western dressage tests are as beneficial for the confidence and development of riders as they are for the horses. “In the tests we ask not only for forward movements like walk, jog, and lope, but also to go sideways, backwards, and laterally, all in response to the rider’s cues through hands, legs and seat,” Swanson said. “Any time that you can ask your horse to do something and he responds correctly, it’s a progression in training; riders grow through this too, increasing their confidence in their mounts and their abilities as riders.” Swanson noted that all these ideas can apply to anyone, whether a beginner or a professional. “Some riders may get to a point where they think they don’t need any more skills to take their horses up the trail or to go in the show pen,” noted Swanson. “But most people like the continued progression of the work – it’s part of a lifetime of learning.”

“When just reading a test, the rider (especially those new to Western Dressage) does not always understand the tests and directives in writing,” said WDAA Board member Karen Homer-Brown. “People tend to learn best when they read it and see it, so a high quality video can provide that extra visual understanding of what the tests require. The riders not only see the movements and understand the flow of the test, but they also see the test from the vantage point of a judge, so they will understand what the officials are looking for.” The WDAA is working to develop a more extensive library of video footage as well as adding videos of rides from the various World Shows that use the WDAA Western Dressage tests.

Discover why the Western community is embracing western dressage more and more every day by learning more about the WDAA tests. “For many horsemen, western dressage is like a breath of fresh air in training,” said Swanson. “Many people want to try it just to enjoy something new and discover the amazing things they can do with their horses. It’s a great way to learn while having fun.”


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