It’s rare for a new discipline to emerge on the equestrian scene, but for the past few years the rise in interest and number of shows offering Western Dressage has grown in popularity in Canada and the United States.
The western horse and rider have a long and illustrious history in North America. The allure of riding the western plains, driving cattle on a ranch, trail-riding, are all part of the cowboy mythology that we grew up studying in history and watching in popular culture from John Ford westerns to CBC’s Heartland.
Many Canadians began their riding career in a western saddle ‒ I know I did before choosing an equestrian discipline. But if you’ve wondered about the differences and similarities between English and Western Dressage, here is a primer for you.
According to Elaine Ward, a director of the Western Style Dressage Association of Canada (WSDAC), Western Dressage has been around “forever” but not as a discipline. “I can remember using dressage techniques on western horses over 40 years ago,” says Ward, who has trained horses up to the grand prix level and ridden internationally for Canada in the traditional dressage ring. “The concept of a discipline was originally started in the US in 2010, and an organization was formed. The Western Style Dressage Association of Canada started in 2011 to promote the new sport for Canadians.”
The United States Equestrian Federation defines the sport as integrating “the historically validated principles of dressage with the best of western stock horse tradition… The hallmarks of the Western Dressage horse are usefulness, rideability, willingness, safety, pure gaits, lightness, calmness, and steadiness.”
And in keeping with the principles and development of the traditional sport, the USEF goes on to state, “A Western Dressage partnership should exhibit impulsion originating from deeply engaged hindquarters transmitted without resistance through a supple topline to a light, soft contact with the rider’s hand(s). The horse should move freely forward, laterally, and to the rear via a willingness to work off the hindquarters, which enables the Western horse to be a useful working partner…”
Currently, Equestrian Canada doesn’t have any references to Western Dressage on its website. But the WSDAC lists three provincial chapters in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario and sanctions shows across Canada. It also has its own rulebook and tests which may be downloaded.
Perhaps because the discipline started south of the border, the USEF is firmly on board and their website has an extensive array of downloadable resources including tests, equipment allowed and a glossary of terms. Here are some highlights from the USEF guidelines to get you started:
- While basic seat and leg position is similar for both disciplines, some marked differences are in the tack, starting with the saddle.
- Any working or stock saddle is permissible.
- The bridle must be a western-type headstall.
- The bit can be a snaffle, in which case the rider must use two hands. If using a traditional western curb, a rider can use one or two hands.
- However, during competition if you begin with one hand, you must continue throughout the test this way. Or vice versa. No switching it up!
- You can also carry a whip that is not longer than 120 cm.
- Polo bandages in white or matching the horse’s colour are permissible.
- Splint boots or bell boots, etc., are forbidden.
As for the rider, you can compete in a western hat, but will not be penalized if you choose to wear a safety helmet. Shirts must have a collar, and it’s pants in lieu of breeches, with the requisite cowboy boots. You can express your style by optional accessories such as a scarf, a vest or chaps.
The tests are not the same in Dressage and Western Dressage. A glimpse at the first level tests show variants such as half-circles of 10m at the working trot in Dressage, versus three-loop serpentine at the working jog in Western Dressage. But in terms of difficulty they appear to be in the same range.
Ward conducts Western Dressage clinics all over Canada and she has found that the biggest challenge comes for the western rider learning Dressage, where it’s a “whole new world,” and not the other way around.
And if you’re wondering if you need a quarter horse or another breed that skews more western, Ward says absolutely not. “Western Dressage welcomes all breeds! It’s about helping the horse you have improve and be the best it can be,” she explains. “People have different tastes in horses and WSDAC shows are not breed restricted. Myself, I competed in the first World Western Dressage Championships in the US with an Arabian-Trakehner cross!”
You can watch a Western Dressage Basic Level test 1 ride here: