Western Dressage Overview

Western dressage at a horse show
In western dressage, the judge is looking for a fluid, swinging stride and correct tempo. Photo by Elizabeth Moyer

If you’re the type of person who enjoys setting a goal and tackling each step to achieve it, chances are good you’ll find a western dressage show quite satisfying. For the newcomer, barriers to entry are low, but the payoffs in terms of training refinement and partnership with your horse are enormous. Shows are affordable, low-key, and do not require special equipment or attire.

Mastering a western dressage test pushes you to polish and assemble many of the skills you’ve probably already worked on in clinics and everyday schooling. Many riders discover that they can perform certain skills in isolation, but weaving them together in a dressage test is an unexpected challenge. But it’s a challenge that often gets riders hooked.

Below are some tips and guidelines to get you started or further your involvement with the sport.

Making Contact

The first question that arises for most people, especially those coming from other western disciplines like reining or pleasure, is how much—or how little—contact the horse and rider should have with the bit.

The short answer is a slight positive tension. The longer answer is that it all depends on how ideal the horse’s body carriage and gaits are. In other words, slackness or drape in the reins will not be prioritized above the horse moving with correct rhythm, body mechanics and alignment.

A western dressage horse moving correctly on the bit should stretch into the contact. He shouldn’t be shown with exaggeratedly draped reins. Instead, there should be light rein tone evident. It should appear that the horse is seeking a feel of your hands, with his neck arching and stretching forward from his body. This is called “looking through” the bridle.

As the horse progresses through the levels of training and showing, it’s expected that the rein contact will become lighter as a result of attaining perfect posture and balance. At this point, the reins will appear nearly loose.

Riding one- or two-handed is permitted, but you must perform the entire test without changing back and forth. Curb and snaffle bits are permitted, with snaffle bits being most common.

A horse wearing a curb bit at a horse show
Curb bits are permitted, although most people opt to show in a snaffle. Photo by Elizabeth Moyer

Using strong, visible rein cues, constantly bumping the bit, or causing a horse to gape his mouth are considered serious faults. Special emphasis is given to a quiet mouth with head carriage that reflects the appropriate degree of collection and balance for each individual horse. This means the judge takes account of your horse’s natural conformation and balance when evaluating his specific outline or frame during competition.

Movement of a Western Dressage Horse

The western dressage horse should demonstrate a full, swinging stride in all gaits with the hind feet coming forward and landing under the rider. He should move with impulsion, a forward-thinking attitude, engagement and looseness.

The general assumption is that a western dressage horse moves slowly, but this isn’t necessarily the case. A horse that moves well, as noted above, is more important than how rapidly or slowly he jogs or lopes. Slow-moving gaits are not an end goal unto themselves; they should be proof of balance, the result of correct training that includes schooling in lively working gaits.

A correct tempo for each western dressage horse differs according to his individual conformation, limb length and flexibility. As your horse’s balance and strength increase and he’s therefore able to carry more weight on his hind end, his tempo will naturally slow down. What he gains in loftiness, joint flexion and a softly swinging back, he trades for the quicker gaits of an undeveloped, unbalanced horse.

The Walk is Queen of All Gaits

In this video from Ridely, Western Dressage trainer and clinician Kristen Whittaker explains why her mantra is: “walk is the queen of all gaits!”

Here, Kristen explains why this is the case by taking you through the different gaits within the walk and explaining how you can train these to help the horse’s western dressage work more broadly. Especially for a horse that can be tense, Kristen explains how using the walk allows us to create better communication and better feel so that we can answer the many questions that come about in the other gaits by starting with the walk. Register for Ridely PRO to access 450+ other useful training videos.

Western Dressage Competition Notes

As you prepare for a western dressage test, it’s important to keep in mind that this quality of movement is what you will be primarily evaluated on. A successful test is not just the ability to ride an accurate pattern, though that is a component of what judges look for. A much larger part of the evaluation comes from consistent, high-quality gaits and movement demonstrated throughout the pattern.

For competitions, working western attire and equipment are the norm, as opposed to flashier show-ring styles. A clean pair of riding jeans and plain long-sleeve shirt will get you started in the sport. Chaps, chinks, and helmets are optional.

A Paint Horse being shown in western dressage
Jeans and a plain long-sleeve shirt will get you started; chaps, chinks, and helmets are optional. Photo by Elizabeth Moyer

Western dressage was officially branded in the U.S. in 2010, and in 2013, U.S. Equestrian named the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) an affiliate organization. At whatever level you choose to participate—locally, regionally, or beyond—your horse’s athleticism will bloom.

This article about western dressage appeared in the 2021 special edition of Western Life. Click here to subscribe!

Jec Ballou

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