The Future of Western Horsemanship

pk.chase1 There’s a new discipline that’s taking the equestrian world by storm and changing the face and future of western horsemanship. Have you heard of it? Are you competing in it? Maybe you’re riding your horse with these principles in mind during your everyday training but don’t even know it. Heck, maybe you’ve been doing it for years before it really even had a name.

What is this new discipline? What could be causing such changes in the horse world? Western Dressage, that’s what. Western horses, being educated and developed with the principles of classical Dressage.

The western horse has long been known as a working partner on the ranch. Dressage horses are often idealized for their athletic ability, beauty, and strength. The Western Dressage horse will be developed as a strong and beautiful athlete that still has the ability to be a working partner on the ranch… talk about an elite equine!

Aside from creating such a partner, what are some of the specific draws to Western Dressage for riders that are getting into this sport and helping it to be one of the fastest growing disciplines in the world?

“Now What?”

Thanks to horsemen like Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and their successors, along with the wave of “natural horsemanship,” many more horse owners are establishing great foundations with their horses based on mutual understanding, emotional stability, and disciplined control. Once this foundation has been laid, many owners find themselves faced with the questions “Now What?” or “Where do I go from here?” For many western riders, Western Dressage IS the Now What. Once control is not an issue and the horses are emotionally solid and mentally connected to their rider, the rider is ready to develop them physically into an athlete that is mentally AND physically engaged.

The progressive nature of Dressage and Western Dressage is appealing, as well. There is always another level of progression that the rider is working to attain. There is, basically, a ladder to climb that will take the horse and rider to higher and higher levels of athletic performance and synchronicity.

Standardized Expectations and Feedback

Elvis1Many modern horse owners have become disillusioned with horse show classes that are judged in a large simultaneous group. It’s easy to feel disheartened when ribbons are chosen from a judge’s personalized perspective. One often wonders if the winning performance was really worth the blue ribbon or if that horse and rider just happened to be the “best of the worst” in the ring at that time. And for many riders in many classes, the different between a ribbon and “getting the gate” may feel like simply a judge’s preference of movement, color, breed, or tack. We’ve all seen it happen – there’s no denying it.

Western Dressage is scored just like traditional dressage (keeping western gaits and tendencies in mind), with standardization for how points are earned (or lost). This takes out the idea of a judge’s breed preference or affinity for bay horses over chestnuts or any such nonsense. Each movement in a test is scored, along with general attributes like the rider’s equitation and use of aids, the horse’s gaits, submission, etc. Often a few pieces of each performance hold more importance, and those scores are doubled.

Along with a score, there’s a space on each test for the judge to offer comments and critiques of movements and general attributes. This is found to be very helpful, as the riders now know what to work on to improve their performances for the next time around.

Occupational Breakdowns

One of the reasons why I find Western Dressage not only appealing but necessary to our modern western horses is the expectation and development of improved carriage and frame. Many western horses are going lame simply by the nature of their job. Expected to be slow and smooth in gait, with a low head set, most are taught to perform in a way that limits the movement of their joints and muscles. Limiting proper movement and adding more weight to the forehand by causing unnatural and unnecessary low head carriage is puts a horse at a tremendously higher risk for front end lameness. I’m not suggesting that we want a Western Dressage horse to be “fast and rough” simply because I am saying that forcing a horse to be “slow and smooth” has the potential to do his body harm… what I am saying is that the horse’s natural movement and carriage is being developed and enhanced through training that encourages proper carriage within the realm of his conformation.

A few other reasons that seem to be drawing folks to Western Dressage:

Self Improvement – To bring out the best in your horse on a continuous basis, you yourself need to continuously improve.

Confidence – Some riders may have lost confidence in their riding abilities, and having a larger saddle built more for utility seems to give them a sense of confidence to help them tackle their fears.

Bling – YES, bling! Dressage with a Western flair! While not as “blinged-up” as we see some competitive western outfits, Western Dressage certainly makes more room for personal style and appeal.

DSC_0571Fun – Everything is more fun with like-minded friends. Thanks to the competitive avenues for Western Dressage (traditional Dressage schooling shows, online virtual shows, and more) many riders are joining teams and finding themselves interacting more with other folks that share the same horsemanship goals.

With all of these reasons to be trying Western Dressage, I have to ask… and you should have expected this…. What is YOUR reason for wanting to get started with Western Dressage? Share a comment with us and let us know what got you and your horse interested in Western Dressage!

5 thoughts on “The Future of Western Horsemanship

  1. Karri says:

    Looking forward to a series of stepping stones to improve as a rider and develop my horse physically. I like the idea of a plan to improve – not be judged by a clock or making my horse move differently – but naturally.

  2. Brenda Nichols says:

    A continuum of self improvement and growth with the focus on the horse-rider relationship.i enjoy the feedback on our performance as opposed to just ribbons bring handed it in a group class.

  3. Nancy Maurer says:

    Hi there, You may or may not be aware that there are 2 groups… Western Dressage & Cowboy Dressage. I won’t go into the differences between the two other than a different court and difference in judging with greater emphasis on softness &partnership(Cowboy Dressage)
    Wondering how you feel about Eitan Beth-Halachmy’s split from Western Dressage and his journey with Cowboy Dressage.
    Both Eitan Beth-Halachmy and Lyn Ringrose-Moe have spent time with organizers and riders in Saskatchewan, Canada helping get Cowboy Dressage Canada going here.
    What I’m wondering is, b/c your website only addresses Western Dressage, would you be adverse to doing clinics with Cowboy Dressage
    followers/riders in Canada?

  4. pkhorsemanship says:

    My students ride dressage “of any denomination.” I have many students that ride Cowboy Dressage, and I am well aware of all the differences. I met Eitan through an event years ago where we presented together (before the split of CD and WD). He has started quite a change in the Western horse world and that’s a tremendous thing!

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