Western Dressage by Jane Carley UK

Courtesy of Western Horse UK magazine www.westernhorseuk.com

Dressage and western may seem poles apart, but the disciplines have much in common and are moving together on a global scale, writes Jane Carley

At the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Kentucky, dressage fans gasped in awe as their sport’s darling, Anky Van Grunsven, performed a freestyle reining routine in the main arena, clad in full western attire and aboard a Quarter Horse. The better informed among them would know that she had already acquitted herself very well in the reining competition as a member of the Dutch team.

Olympic gold medal winning Anky is the most high profile of a growing band of dressage riders who have been captivated by western riding, although this should come as no surprise. Both are rooted in classical riding, with the skills of the educated horse trainer used to good effect in battle before being showcased by elite riders, such as those from the Spanish Riding School, on one continent and deployed to help build a nation by allowing herdsmen to control and direct livestock across a vast and wild terrain on another.

The attraction works both ways, with western riders increasingly seeing the benefit of dressage training to get the most out of their competition or leisure horses. A few years ago, a Morgan horse show in northern California started offering dressage classes for riders who wished to compete using western tack and attire. As the discipline grew in popularity, riders approached the Morgan committee of USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) and asked for help getting these classes approved. The Morgan committee worked with USEF to develop rules and guidelines for judging these classes as well as tests for western dressage classes based on those used in conventional dressage competition.

The Western Dressage Association® of America (WDAA) was formed after classical trainer and western breed producer Eitan Beth-Halachmy joined forces with reining trainer Jack Brainard. They met in 2007 having found common ground in their horsemanship philosophies. Their mutual goal – to use dressage principles and techniques to improve the athleticism of the stock-bred horse – was the inspiration for the foundation of the WDAA in 2010. Demonstrations at WEG Kentucky brought the discipline to a wider audience. The WDAA then emerged as the co-ordinating body for the sport, working alongside the USEF to promote and regulate it.

The Rules

In the USA western dressage classes are judged by USEF licensed judges, using a set of guidelines written to assist them when officiating that differ from conventional dressage judging. Differences mainly relate to tack and equipment. For example, when using a curb bit the rider can use one or two hands, and of course any standard western stock saddle is acceptable. Correct dress may also appeal to those who have been put off the classical sport by breeches and boots, being based on Morgan Western Pleasure appointments and attire.

However, the required way of going is also clarified, with the jog/trot defined as ‘a steady, slow two-beat trot with engagement from the rear, with a lesser need to cover ground than at the trot.’ All paces must be ‘true,’ so a horse that jogs in front and walks behind would be penalised. It is also worth bearing in mind that a western dressage horse is not ridden with a draped rein as used in a pleasure class; a light contact is expected in a snaffle or curb. As long as western paces are shown, any breed of horse can do western dressage – it does not favour stock breeds as some of the show classes do.

The USEF currently offers six set western dressage tests, including two ‘basic’ walk-jog tests, with clear directives on the test sheets as to what the judge is looking for. Ridden in a 20x40m arena marked with letters, a typical primary level test would include 20m circles at the jog and lope, free walk across the diagonal, transitions between walk, jog and lope at a specified arena letter and a halt on the centre line at the start and finish.

Scoring is via the conventional dressage system with marks from 0-10 given for each movement shown on a score sheet, with the score expressed as a percentage of the total marks available.

UK Western Dressage

In the UK, western dressage has been pioneered by Solihull Western Riding Club in the West Midlands, which has held competitions with an expanding schedule and growing following for the past four years. It is also an honorary affiliate of the WDAA. Steve Scott explains, ‘We started in 2009 by resurrecting the old Arena Test A, which used to be a very popular class at Western Equestrian Society (WES) performance shows in the early days but fell into disuse owing to the time taken to run as membership increased and entries grew proportionally.

‘It was eventually abandoned by WES and replaced by the original Preliminary Pleasure pattern [also no longer used] which we adopted as our second test. After WES re-approved the popular Versatility class, we took away the obstacles and used the Versatility pattern for our third test. Since then we have added a walk-jog test and a couple of more advanced ones, as well as obtaining the approval and consent of the USEF and WDAA to utilise their current Basic and Primary Tests at Solihull.’

Solihull Western Riding Club acts as the WDAA’s conduit in the UK. As it would not be viable to hold a western dressage show on its own at such a prestigious venue as Solihull Riding Club, classes are usually held at the end of the club’s own unaffiliated competitions. Western judges who have a knowledge of dressage, or vice versa, officiate.

‘At our March show we had our largest ever number of entries, but there is still a misconception that western dressage is difficult. If you can do a western class, and if you can walk, jog and in some cases lope, you can do Western Dressage,’ Steve explains. ‘We attract entries from all standards of rider, all ages and on all breeds of horse. And remember that dressage is the foundation of all riding, so it will actually help to improve your scores in other western disciplines by enhancing the horse’s response to your cues and increasing the accuracy of your riding.’

Cross Discipline Benefits

The UK western dressage buzz is growing. Classes have been held in Devon, while members of WES Area 13 enjoyed a test riding session and clinic with Irish team rider and Hickstead dressage guru Dane Rawlins at Wye Oak this winter. Bob Mayhew, who is on the judging panel for a number of western breed organisations in addition to WES and AQHA, invited Dane, an old friend, to work with the riders after enquiries about western dressage.

‘Dane and I were in agreement that western riders need to develop more engagement from their horses and improve the accuracy of their transitions, which is also the principle behind dressage riding,’ Bob says. ‘What WES and AQHA judges are looking for is a horse that works through from behind into a soft outline as this improves the quality of its movements. With a pleasure horse for example, riders want to get the neck down, but if the horse is not soft through the jaw, the neck will come up again when they pick up on the reins. Engagement does not mean more speed, but will allow the horse to truly extend the jog, rather than just jog faster.

‘The training can be applied across all western disciplines,’ he adds, ‘In reining if the movement is not performed accurately and with the correct footfalls as specified in the rule book, the marks will reflect this.’ Dressage training can even help the non-stock breeds to be more competitive in pleasure, he suggests. ‘The horses with higher knee action find it easier to engage, and this actually makes it easier for them to work at the right pace and score well when their movement is under scrutiny.’

Case Study

Katrina Pedlar from Leamington Spa was Solihull Western Riding Club’s Western Dressage hi-point champion last year. She explains that when Toby, her 19 year-old Irish Draught gelding became part of the family three years ago she realised that he could benefit from a different way of going to reduce his tension and get some spark back, so she tried western.

‘After a couple WES clinics I realised we really needed to up our game in suppleness, collection and flexibility.’ Katrina says. ‘I’m not very competitive or disciplined and I far prefer to be out and about hacking along lanes, fields and open spaces,

but enthused and supported by some fellow cowgirls I wanted to improve.’

‘Dressage isn’t completely foreign to me and it is meant to be the basis of any good riding so I got quite excited when I noticed that Solihull Riding Club was holding western dressage events.

This gave me something to work towards over the winter months and the patterns have given me an understanding of western gaits, improved my horsemanship and the effectiveness of my western schooling. It has also benefited my accuracy, transitions and overall control.’

‘Although I still have a lot more to learn, western dressage has given me the confidence to go on and take the plunge by competing at our first WES show this summer. My main aim is to have fun with my horse but I’m hopeful that we now won’t feel too intimidated when taking part in other western disciplines. Toby and I recently both discovered how much we enjoy reining too, so who knows what we will be getting up to next!’

Margo Hepner-Hart at Solihuill

Margo Hepner-Hart owns and produces horses including Friesians, Saddllebreds and Half Arabs near Portland, Oregon, USA, and holds a number of judging cards. She also trained with German dressage maestro Gerd Politz near Stuttgart. After meeting Eitan Beth-Halachmy (pictured left) at a demo, she became interested in western dressage and is now a board member of the Oregon Western Dressage Association.

Margo gave the first western dressage clinic at Solihull Riding Club on 15 April and explains, ‘Western dressage has the same principles as the classical sport – the only difference is the tack and the lighter contact, particularly in the early stages of training. The horse learns to move forward into a connection, and to bend through his body rather than flex through the neck. While the initial tests are quite straightforward, tests for all levels are in preparation, but it is not about being able to do the ‘tricks,’ or more advanced movements, horses have to be able to do the basics first.’

Solihull Riding Club hopes to organise a further clinic for September.

For more information visit www.westerndressageassociation.org and www.westerndressage.org.uk for dates of future competitions at Solihull.


Comments are closed.