What Exactly is Western Dressage by Cathy Drumm

Cathy Drumm, Western Dressage trainer, schooling a student. She resides in Western Massachusetts.

Cathy Drumm, Western Dressage trainer, schooling a student. She resides in Western Massachusetts.

There is a new discipline in the horse world that is gaining in popularity so fast that the organizers can barely keep up! It is called Western Dressage and is exactly that. It is Dressage done on a Western horse using western gaits however with some important differences.

First the similarities to Traditional Dressage, it is based on a system of training that uses the same principles of relaxation, suppleness, rhythm, submission, contact, cadence and collection. There is a series of tests that if done correctly can be used as stepping stones up the training scale. These tests use an arena that is carefully measured and marked out. If you take the tests in order, the first one will prepare you for the next one and so on to the top. You can use these tests at home to help you to practice on your own and you can go to horse shows where you perform the tests in front of a judge. The judge will watch every movement that you perform and will give you a score and a comment for each one. Your final score, the total of all the movements and some extra general comments will be added together and given to you as a percentage of the total score possible. You will get to take your score sheet home with you and use it to help you progress towards the next test or a replay of that one if you got a low score. There will also be ribbons awarded to those who got the top scores.

Now the differences, in Western Dressage ride-ability, conformation and breed of the horse are taken into consideration more when the judge is considering the movements. The balance and energy of the horse is expected to come from the rear with the hind end lowered while the front end comes up into collection. If it is a Quarter Horse that is naturally built a little downhill as compared to a Morgan that is built up hill then the Quarter Horse would not be penalized for the different “look”. As long as he was balanced and moving correctly he could compete equally with the more uphill Morgan or Warmblood.

The same goes for ride-ability. The lope and the jog are subject to all the same conditions, they must be balanced, relaxed, rhythmic and in a frame suitable to the level of the test, but they do not have to be as extravagant and therefore less rideable, as is generally encouraged in Traditional Dressage.

What these differences mean is that the tests and the sport in general are accessible to a broader range of athletic ability of horse and rider. It doesn’t mean that it is any less difficult or demanding, just that riders and horses that are smaller, older and perhaps blessed with bodies that are not quite those of an Olympic athlete, can compete on a more equal footing.

Possibly the best thing about Western Dressage is that you don’t have to compete at all if you don’t want to, you can use it to simply improve your horse’s way of going so that both you and he will be a happier, healthier and have a sounder partnership. It will make whatever you do with your horse more enjoyable, better executed and safer whether it be trail riding, reining, versatility or any of the other wonderful activities out there.

I have just returned from a fantastic “Train The Trainers™” clinic in Castle Rock, CO held by the WDA of Colorado. The clinic was designed for professionals who are already teaching Western Dressage but are interested in understanding it better through the WDAA’s education. I am now the proud owner of a Professional Certificate of Completion and am one of only 60 trainers in the country who attended this wonderful educational program by the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA).

Cathy Drumm at the WDAA May 2013 Train the Trainers Clinic

Cathy Drumm listening to Cliff Swanson at the WDAA May 2013 Train the Trainers Clinic.

Cliff Swanson who helped author the new WDAA Dressage tests that we use and that are sanctioned by USEF was the main clinician. We discussed the rules, the tests, what the judges are supposed to be looking for, the differences and similarities between Western and Traditional dressage and how best to teach it. We used demo riders and a variety of different horses covering all levels from the Introduction level to even more advanced levels than there are tests. We all took turns at judging, teaching and lesson planning with extensive peer review. Cliff Swanson and Frances Carbonnel are marvelous clinicians who left us all feeling inspired and confident in our abilities to spread the word about this new discipline that is sweeping the country.


Originally published on The Horse Collaborative by Cathy Drumm – Reprinted with permission.

Cathy Drumm


One Response to “What Exactly is Western Dressage by Cathy Drumm

  • Bless you Kathy for adding additional clarification and insight into how the gaits and collection may look different from one breed to another! I have met many people with traditional stock horse breeds that will be thrilled to know that they have the opportunity to compete successfully in Western Dressage. Please, let’s get the word out to our judges!