The first time I saw Western Dressage was at a show on Memorial Weekend in 2016. I was introduced to Heidi Potter, a professional horsewoman, CHA Certified Instructor and Accredited Horse Agility Trainer in Guilford, VT. I decided to interview Heidi for an article for Mane Stream newspaper.
Q: What is Western Dressage? How is Western Dressage different from French Dressage and classical?
HP: Western Dressage uses the principles of classical Dressage whose purpose is to provide a foundational program of training for all horses and all disciplines. It provides a stair-step training program while trying to stay true to its Western heritage. It is open to all breeds and types of horses. The training begins with easy movements and the basics at walk/trot and grows from there to the more advanced movements.
Riders progress up the levels from “Intro” (walk/trot) to “Basic” where the canter is introduced and beyond. The judges are looking for working, active gaits that support the practical aspect of how a Western horse would naturally be moving while he worked.
Q: What type of tack do you need?
HP: The tack you would use for showing is likely what you already have. The judges are looking for your Western tack to be clean and in good working order. Any Western type of saddle with a fender is acceptable. It needn’t have a horn. A variety of Western bits are allowed along with bitless bridles. Your apparel requirements are simply long pants, riding boots and a collared shirt.
Q: What are the gaits?
HP: Gaits of the Western Dressage horse should mimic the working western horse. The horse should be moving naturally forward, without being pushed. His hind end should be engaged and his poll should remain above the withers at all gaits with the exception of “free” gaits. The jog needs to be a clean 2-beat gait and can be ridden by sitting or even posting in the lower levels. The desired lope is again powered from the hind end and is a true 3-beat gait. It is expected to be a bit softer than a canter with collection expected as the horse progresses up the levels.
Q: What is the competition atmosphere?
HP: In the Western Dressage shows the tests are allowed to be read aloud by a caller, which helps alleviate stress for the riders. The shows that I have attended have been fun and low stress. This sport seems to attract people who enjoy getting together and willingly support each other.
Q: Who can benefit from Western Dressage training and why?
HP: Horses of all breeds and riders of all levels benefit from Western Dressage training, regardless of whether they plan to show or not. The tests provide riders with a practical, healthful approach to training and conditioning every horse. It gives the horse and rider a specific focus, a platform for growth and a way to measure their progress.
Q: Is it expensive to get into your discipline?
HP: There is always an investment of time and money when we seek education and training. However, my experience has been that riding with an experienced Western Dressage trainer/coach is comparable to working with most qualified instructors.
I don’t think it is any more expensive and maybe less expensive than other disciplines. You can join WDAA (Western Dressage Association of America, NAWD (North American Western Dressage) or NEPHA (New England Professional Horseman’s Association) for $25-$30 per year. They each offer recognition programs and a wide variety of services. Many shows are open and have no requirement of membership.
There are generally a few shows to choose from each month across New England and into New York. For many of these shows you are not required to belong to a club. Check the regulations of each individual event to determine if it a good fit for you.
Q: How does one start? What does one need to have to start?
HP: I suggest reading the WDAA rulebook. That was my first task when I began to consider joining the sport. I was very impressed with their obvious support of the horse. They are looking at each horse as an individual, regardless of breed, and rewarding each horse’s individual potential. Forward, relaxed, rhythmic movement is rewarded. The poll must remain above the withers and the nose should remain in front of the vertical. I also love that they allow the riders to touch and talk to the horse.
Q: What is the difference between all the different dressage disciplines?
HP: I am not an expert in the different dressage disciplines but I can tell you what I respect and support Western Dressage. They provide support and reward a progressive training format that results in a calm, happy, forward, freely moving horse. The WD judge is looking for horses to be moving in a balanced, correct, natural manner that supports the Western tradition of a working horse.
For more information visit www.heidipotter.com