At first it seemed sacrilegious to place a western saddle on my Dutch Warmblood dressage horse, Bogart. But the desire to return to my “riding roots” had been building to this moment for a long time…
To start, my riding journey began in a western saddle. I rode my pony and grandmother’s Texas-bred Quarter Horse western for years until discovering the equestrian disciplines and switching to English so I could jump.
My interest turned to dressage in my teens and I competed through the levels to Prix St. George and Young Rider’s. In my twenties I took a break from competing until 2004, when I showed third level. But by 2014, due to personal circumstances I found myself no longer able to afford the full-time training needed to be competitive. I sold my horse and quit riding for a year.
But I missed horses and considered looking for a quarter horse and returning to my western riding roots. I wanted riding to be fun again, and it hadn’t been for some time.
I was diverted from buying a Quarter Horse by a friend who was developing an ex-show jumper into a lower-level dressage horse. Once I tried him, I fell in love and bought him.
A Secret Love
I’ve had Bogart for five years now. During this period, I continued to train mostly on my own, but I grew bored and began to fantasize about western riding again, yet I didn’t want to sell Bogart. At the same time I kept my desire to ride western to myself, because my friends were dedicated to traditional dressage and even my casual remarks about riding western were met with eye rolls.
That all changed when I had the privilege of spending this past fall and winter in Fort Myers, Florida. There I found another “snowbird” rider, a woman in her fifties like me, who had just bought a Western Dressage saddle. She rode both styles, but raved about the western tack and its comfort, especially out on the trail. Bogart was well-behaved in the ring, but he has a nasty spook on a hack, especially if out alone. While I have a fairly secure seat, I had a riding accident in 2005 that required surgery and I’ve been timid ever since. I now avoided trail riding – one of my passions – altogether.
Meeting another person who was riding Western Dressage was one step towards my secret goal. The other was taking traditional dressage lessons with a local trainer, Cheryl Quinn. It turned out she had ridden western herself earlier in her career, and her daughter Jessi, is an avid barrel racer.
Cheryl understood and had experienced Bogart’s spooks herself, and she saw how it made me nervous. She also knew I was a little bored with traditional dressage. So, when I expressed my interest in trying western, Quinn wasted no time in letting me ride in one of her daughter’s barrel racing saddles. “Sometimes I think, for various reasons, the traditional dressage arena can feel intimidating. Western Dressage offers the opportunity to learn quality, ethical horse training and riding skills while enjoying a competitive environment on any breed of horse,” says Quinn. “It’s an accessible alternative and super fun!”
So that’s how I found myself in Florida, placing the western saddle on my horse. As it turned out, Bogart seemed completely at ease with the western saddle. In fact, he was so relaxed under saddle that I began to borrow the tack more regularly. For me it was equally comfortable and when hacking, it provided a level of security that was reassuring and allowed me to relax even if he did one of his “nasty spooks.” I was hooked!
I began to ride in the ring and out in the fields for longer stretches, and even got Bogart to ride past herds of longhorn cattle with confidence. He was more relaxed because I was more relaxed.
It wasn’t only security in the saddle that got me excited; the saddle also felt nostalgic, like I was a kid again, rediscovering the sheer joy of riding. It gave me a sense of freedom and fun with my horse that I hadn’t experienced in years. Western riding was a lost art to me and sitting in a western saddle brought back a wave of emotions and also a sense of history.
“Western Dressage is not a renaissance, but the rejuvenation of the original way of Western riding,” wrote Elaine Ward, a Director of the Western Style Dressage Association of Canada (WSDAC) on her blog. Ward did a deep-dive into the history of western riding and discovered the two main influences came from the Spanish Vaqueros (cattle herders) and European military or cavalry. Both styles would find their way onto the expansive cattle ranches of North America. Hence, as Ward explained to me, Western Dressage has been around “forever,” even though its discipline as a sport is new, appearing in the US around 2010. The Western Style Dressage Association of Canada started in 2011 to promote the new sport for Canadians.
Fun – and Safe
One thing I’ve discovered from the women I met along the way is that I was not alone in my desire for a safe, fun way to ride, while maintaining my interest in training.
Stacy Cornale began riding as a child and tried several disciplines including barrel racing, jumping and English dressage. A former police officer, Cornale also took a long break for her career, and later to have her daughter. She began training in English dressage with Elaine Ward in 2017. “I had to overcome a lot of obstacles starting over after having such a long break, such as anxiety and [lack of] confidence not to mentioned getting back into shape.”
She credits Ward’s patience with helping her work through most of her issues. During this time Ward told her about Western Dressage. Cornale’s horse is a Quarter Horse she’s owned since he was a foal, and she never felt comfortable entering the traditional English dressage ring, feeling it was overly competitive and even unfriendly.
Instead, she helped run three Western Dressage shows and finally entered one in the fall of 2017. “The people were friendly and supportive,” she says. “Cheering each other on, no matter what level you were in or what breed of horse you had. All riders were treated equally.” Later that year she made a further committed to the sport and bought a Harmony Western Dressage saddle and hasn’t “looked back.”
Indeed, Cornale won the Canadian Introductory Amateur Western Dressage Championship in 2018 and the Canadian Western Dressage Level 1 Reserve Championship in 2019 and is also a director for the Western Style Dressage Association of Canada. “In one year, I progressed two levels, and my riding and my horse’s performance is better and better every day,” she says. “Every month we are a different pair and I have never been so bonded to him.”
Different Sport, Same Goals
I identified with Cornale. Yet the question remained for me was did I want to show Western Dressage? How different would that be for me and my horse?
“The horses, tack, and riders’ dress might be very different, but the principles are the same,” agrees Karen Ashbee, a medium level judge who is based in Calgary and has judged western dressage.
Ashbee points to the Equestrian Canada rulebook, page 2, where they emphasis is on “the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education.” The discipline of Western Dressage is no different, Ashbee explained, “They strive for ‘a happy acceptance of the western bit achieved through proper training techniques which allow the horse to move in total balance and harmony.’ We all want the same thing, improved cadence, balance and carriage with no tension.”
Ward agrees, saying that dressage principles can be applied to any horse regardless of tack and that the rulebook for Western Dressage follows the same as traditional dressage. “The goal is to produce rideability by developing the basics,” she explains.
Bogart and I left Florida early due to the ongoing Covid-19 scare and have returned to Ontario. As we wait for the pandemic to subside, I’ve been spending a lot of time online researching western saddles to find the right one for me and Bogart, and dreaming of summer trail rides and yes, perhaps one day entering a Western Dressage show.
Read part one – Western Dressage 101: Give this Fun New Discipline a Try!