Western Dressage: The Changing Face of a Discipline

By Michelle Binder-Zolezzi
My first pony ride was in 1967. I was 18 months old. It must have stuck with me because I rode horses forever after that. I have been a professional in the equestrian industry since 1989 and my parents have supported my horseback riding activities all my life. In 2012, seeking that formerly ever present support, I shared with my mom my desire to get involved in Western Dressage. Imagine my surprise when she exclaimed “Western Dressage? That’s an oxymoron!” As the conversation proceeded, she came to realize that I had actually been practicing a form of horsemanship that is now being described by that moniker for at least twenty years. The term “dressage”, literally translated, means “to train” but in the equestrian world “dressage” has come to refer to the standard of riding and training practiced by those who put proper carriage, biomechanics and strength, thus a specific “rideability” in the horse, at the forefront of the development of a riding horse. When dressage principles are properly applied to our everyday western training the result is not circus tricks, it is not a dressage horse wearing a western saddle, it is not a western pleasure horse (of any breed) making circles in the dressage court. Rather, the result is unique, beautiful, harmonious and just plain good for western riding horses. That result is now a reality shown by the growing success of the WD competition at the World Show level. WD is open and accessible to riders of all levels, and to any breed of horse, in fact at 2019 WDAA World Championship Show in Guthrie OK, 29 different breeds competed equally together at a single show venue – incredible!

I am excited to report on the current developments in Western Dressage as the newest USEF discipline moves toward its eighth anniversary. I think WD has helped riders develop horses that are supple, responsive and light to ride, with free forward movement and good use of the classical principles. As I did in the beginning, I see Western Dressage as a viable alternative to western pleasure, gaming and rodeo sports. We continue to face the challenge of finding a balance between a classical approach to dressage training for western horses and the western tradition of loose rein riding, but good biomechanics and free forward movement have taken their place as important foundational values. This in turn has kept the training consistent with the classical principles, progressive, and beneficial to the horses. Even in competition, Western Dressage is based on the training of the horse, not on the inherent gaits of the horse. I believe that Western Dressage has the potential to bring the best in western horsemanship together with classical training to produce a horse that is light, balanced, calm and obedient, and capable of moving with ”throughness,” energy and expression in the gaits.

This still developing discipline is very exciting to many riders, trainers, breeders and exhibitors, who choose horses of all breeds as our partners, and who, for various reasons, prefer to sit in stock type saddles. Good dressage train-
ing benefits any horse/rider combination in any discipline and western dressage will open doors for education and increased understanding of classical training previously closed to many. The organizations spearheading the development of WD are dedicated to finding common ground between the two disciplines, educating riders from all backgrounds, and to making dressage concepts accessible to western riders. Today, teaching and training Western Dressage horses and riders requires both a classical dressage background and experience with many different breeds in both dressage and western riding. 

One simple but primary problem in defining WD involved the integration of western riding and dressage gaits. In the beginning, WD took place in the Morgan show world. Because of this, the way of going in the horses was not as consistent with the classical principles as it is today. Now, a USEF rulebook and official Western Dressage tests are designed to reflect that classical training. Today’s WD tests are progressive, symmetrical, and designed for all levels of the horses and riders. They include both working and free gaits, lengthening of stride, collection and dressage movements like shoulder-in and half-pass. Tests that emphasize balance, bending and lightness, use of progressive exercises, transitions, circles and changes of direction improve the horses’ responsiveness, and help riders develop timing and coordination of the aids.

As WD has evolved and come out of its infancy what we see in the competitive rings, especially at the World Show level, is much more consistent with training that follows classical ideals. Public presentations and media exposure that are inconsistent within the discipline as well as with the principles of dressage (modern, classical OR practical) have made it difficult for the riding public to know what the western dressage ideal should be. However, it is important for enthusiastic followers understand that today’s western dressage horse reflects a successful combination of training from two distinct worlds and that the standardization we looked for in the early days is happening. WD “westernizes” dressage without minimizing the importance of the training pyramid or sacrificing the principles that are fundamental to classical dressage. It is my hope that Western Dressage continues to develop as a unique discipline in this country and around the world, one that is distinct from dressage and differentiated from other western riding styles.

A comment from a rider at a recent clinic summed it up quite nicely when a young USDF dressage competitor spoke about the Western Dressage that is happening in the barn where she rides: “I think that the Western Dressage should not have the form of a flat and on the forehand horse, or a running, pulling modern dressage horse, but like what was doing on her horse the other day. That was pretty! Riding that kind of trot, also, makes me want to ride it and it may make other people want to ride it too.” Voilà, Western Dressage!

Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved
Printed with Permission in Horse Previews Magazine

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