We’re all familiar with dressage, but western dressage combines the needs of the vaqueros with the classic riding styles of Europe. Let’s take a look at it.
Dressage, at its simplest, means training. Its goal is to improve a horse’s natural athleticism by exercise and harmony with the rider. Modern dressage takes its roots from as old as treatises from millennia ago. This heritage goes as far back as Xenophon’s On Horsemanship and through literal centuries of development and improvement. Classical dressage is a spectacle to watch, an artform in and of its own. But the goal is always the same: horsemanship and the improvement of the horse under saddle.
On the other hand, the Western style comes from ranch work and has challenges all of its own. Western-style riding has long since become a staple in the New and Old World both, separate from the English style of riding. Each has their techniques, styles of tack and dress, and much more.
Between these two styles, Western Dressage takes a life of its own. It combines the techniques and finesse of classical dressage, with its own, Western-style challenges. Many of the trials are the same between styles, but some are unique to Western — as Western riding, of itself, has unique styles and abilities to measure. Like working equitation, there is some need to acknowledge the peculiarities that go into ranch and Western riding.
The discipline became more official with the founding of the Western Dressage Association and continues to grow.
How it works
A lot in western dressage is like modern dressage, but there are some differences. For one, the horses must wear western-style tack. All levels allow for the snaffle bit, as long as it’s held with the two hands. Also allowed are curb bits, but these must be ridden with one hand only.
There are four levels in western dressage (introductory, basic, level 1 and level 2) with four tests in each level. There are also freestyle and seat equitation tests. The pyramid of training is the same for both Western and English dressage, as the purpose and goal are the same. Western dressage, however, includes tests that are specific to the Western riding style.
In Western dressage, the gaits are the walk, jog and lope rather than the usual walk, trot and canter. Especially at higher levels, the reflection of Western horses becomes clearer, with movements and manoeuvres more adequate and familiar to these horses. The western dressage arena may be 20×40 metres (small), or 20×60 metres (large).
Western dressage is possible for all breeds, including gaited ones. In the latter’s case, an intermediate or saddle gait takes place instead of jog.In the video below, we see Cliff Swanson perform with Victory’s the Cat’s Meow, a Morgan horse.
Cowboy or Western?
In the past, the names cowboy dressage and western dressage were used interchangeably. Now, however, as the discipline grows and spreads, the two begin to look different. While they have the same origin, there are some differences in these. As the discipline evolves, these differences tend to become clearer, although the two still interact and exchange information in many levels.
In essence, cowboy dressage explores the cowboy lifestyle more than Western dressage, which draws more on the classical riding style from Europe. Western dressage has its own rules. It is present in USEF shows (and their website), whereas cowboy dressage doesn’t. In the latter, there is still some informality and freedom, although, with time, this may change.
So what do you think? Do you practice western dressage? Do you want to learn more about it? Let us know in the comments below.