by Mitzi Summers
Western Dressage is quickly gaining in popularity. For many years a type of riding denoted as “Cowboy Dressage” was used in exhibitions. In many ways it resembled some of the movements used in circus and baroque riding. It obviously differed from some of the incorrect western pleasure that was and still can be currently seen in breed shows. The horses were often collected a bit more correctly in that more weight was distributed from engaged haunches, and usually the gaits demonstrated a true four beat walk, two beat trot (jog) and three beat canter. Unfortunately some of the horses used for demonstrations were behind the bit and bent behind the poll, a definite clash with correct dressage.
Now that the USEF has included the selection of the WDAA (Western Dressage Association of America) as the official recognized USEF affiliate for Western Dressage, the popularity and interest in this sport is bound to grow. I think it is of extreme importance that the basic rules and ground lines be established so that the sport follows the tenets of dressage. The USDF (United States Dressage Federation) is continually revising and changing their rules to accommodate what their elected officials feel to be in the best interest in the growth of dressage in the United States.
The WDAA will inevitably be subject to the same interest in continually seeking improvement in their rules and procedures.
The object of dressage should always be the gradual development of a horse physically and mentally through non-abusive methods so that the horse is capable of carrying his rider with ease. The horse should be able to exhibit the movements required in a effortless manner. Dressage is an art and a science, and has been developed through the studies of expert equestrians for over 2,000 years. Western dressage has the advantage of being able to learn and copy many of these methods. It just needs to adjust them according to the needs and differences in riding a western horse.
There needs to continue to be a separation in the way of going between the two disciplines:
Instead of the medium walk that is recognized by the USDF in even the lower level tests, the Western dressage horse should be required to have a working walk. I think it should be required to track up, i.e. hind feet covering the prints left by the front feet, but not to over track until later tests are developed. The collected walk may be introduced a bit earlier than the collected walk is in regular dressage.
Trot (Jog)
Must have a definite two beat rhythm. I believe the horse may slightly under track in the lower tests, but should be able to track up in the more advanced tests, with lengthenings included. There should be enough cadence in the jog so that the feet do not drag through the footing, but are definitely placed in definite and clear diagonals. Over collection and false collection that results in the break up of the diagonal rhythm should be severely penalized.
Canter (Lope)
Care should be taken so that the horse is definitely rounding through its back from engaged haunches. The three beat rhythm is mandatory, with enough energy so that the period of suspension is evident. If the horse has been unduly and incorrectly slowed down so that the second phase of the lope is not simultaneous (the diagonal legs coming down separately), then this should be severely penalized, especially in the collective marks.
I think it is very important that the element of self-carriage is carried through in the final emphasis on the western dressage horse. In the basic first tests it is correct that the horse can be ridden with a snaffle bit, with contact and with two hands. When it is time to introduce a leverage bit then care must be taken. This is where the part of the schooling known as dressage has to be considered to make the training pure and classic in the true sense of the word.
A new discipline is being created. A western horse is being developed that can again move correctly and in freedom and in some self-carriage. There are tapes being shown that have the western dressage horse ridden behind the bit and with the poll definitely too low. This is incorrect and should not be allowed to be the norm. The horse must still be encouraged to go willingly into contact and not curl back from it. This is Western dressage, and there needs to be the sense that the same horse could be taken out of the ring and ridden over at least slightly uneven ground and be able to balance and retain some natural kinesthetic ability.
We are allowing the western horse to no longer be required to carry his head abnormally low, a practice that was often obtained by abusive use of the rider’s hands and head-setting devices. The horse will be allowed to travel as he was meant to travel, with movement through his back and haunches. I believe that this will encourage much more interest in western riding.
I think the number of classes that the horse should be allowed to compete in in a day should be limited. Correct dressage, especially the higher levels, demands a greater effort on the part of the horse. Draw reins should not be allowed in the warm-up ring. Spurs and bits need to be carefully monitored and the rules concerning them need to be constantly reconsidered.
It is mandatory that no wire or twisted snaffles be used. I think that only simple leverage bits with short shanks should be allowed. Western dressage needs to carefully limit the equipment used. Roller bits, any type of “correction” bits, and spade bits need to be prohibited. There has to be a common ground on any artificial aids. Any device that may contribute to the false collection of a horse from front to back instead of rounding from the seat and leg through the poll would only compromise the goals of Western dressage.
The picture of the lower level western dressage horse should be of the horse ridden on light contact with a snaffle bit or, if the rules would allow, a Bitless Bridle or a side pull. The horse is moving in a longer frame to allow for this level, and is demonstrating rhythm, bending, relaxation, and longitudinal suppleness. His three gaits are consistent and ground covering, and he is able to halt and perform transitions in a balanced manner.
The upper level horse is now capable of becoming rounder as he is stronger and straighter. (equally supple on both sides). His poll is the highest point as he starts collection, and his nose does not go behind the vertical. There is a slight “jump” in his lope, and he is able to show transitions within gaits without any change of tempo.
I am certain that everyone involved in the evolution of this sport is interested in the welfare of the horse and the general improvement of western riding and training. Well-being dialogue will be an important part of this transition, with the horse allowed to be the greatest contributor.