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The Right Horse for Western Dressage

Debbi Sullivan  | Published on 5/28/2018

So many breeds of horses to choose from – which makes the best Western Dressage horse? The answer is…it depends! Here are some things to keep in mind when deciding which horse is right for you.

Choosing Your Goals for Now and Beyond

If you are just getting started in Western Dressage, or if you want to participate as a supplement and enhancement to your regular equine sport, the great news is that the horse you have right now is perfect! Any breed and style of horse is capable of working well and learning at the lower levels. Gaited horses, draft style horses, any breed (or combination of breeds) will do well and benefit from working through the building blocks style levels of Western Dressage to learn balance, flexibility, and a deeper communication with the rider.

If your goal is to make Western Dressage your primary sport, to work through to the highest levels and be competitive, there are other factors to consider.

A Beautiful Mind

One of the most important factors in selecting your Western Dressage horse is a mind that is ready and willing to learn. Your horse needs to accept your aids to be ready to face the challenges ahead. Western Dressage is the right job for him if he’s willing to go forward into the bridle, accepting light contact from your hand and direction from your legs. The old trail guy who has never been asked for collection in his life, the mare who only stops when there’s a wall in front of her – these are horses who could benefit from Western Dressage, but may not be the right pick for advanced levels. Choose a horse who is willing.

The Perfect Body

A Western Dressage Horse working at Level Two and beyond is going to be asked for collection and impulsion in addition to bend and balance. Keep this in mind when looking at conformation in your potential horse. Any of the ‘traditional’ stock breeds such as Quarter Horse and Paint, the Arabians, Morgans; there are many breeds with a suitable build for Western Dressage. Grade horses can also have the right body type – there is no requirement that your horse have ‘papers’. Gaited horses can compete in Western Dressage, but be honest in your evaluation of your horse. A horse that was born to to cover miles on a plantation at great speed may not be as capable or comfortable when asked to do a 10-meter circle at that gait, with bend, impulsion, and cadence. A horse that was originally bred as a carriage horse is built to carry his hind legs out behind him and push forward – but will his conformation allow him to bring those same hind legs up underneath himself to create the impulsion necessary at the higher levels? While any breed is allowed, be sure that your horse is going to be capable and willing to do the kind of work you are going to ask of him. Horses struggle when asked to work at cross purposes to what thier bodies were bred to do, and it will be difficult to achieve the lightness and forward movement you desire.

The Western Horse

Moving forward in the sport, you want to be sure your horse is truly western in style and movement. Although this is open to interpretation, again you will need to be honest in your evaluation of your horse. Putting a western saddle on a Grand Prix jumper won’t make him a western horse; the way he carries and uses himself will. If you’re unsure about your prospect, ask a western dressage trainer to help you. An educated but unbiased eye can see things you might be missing.

From the Rulebook

As you set your goals and evaluate your horse for progression in Western Dressage, consider the following passage from the USEF Rulebook to help you find your the perfect partner:

https://www.usef.org/documents/ruleBook/2016/30-WD.pdf

SUBCHAPTER WD-1 WESTERN DRESSAGE HORSE GOALS AND OBJECTIVES
WD101 Goals and Objectives

The goal of Western Dressage is to develop a partnership between a happy equine athlete working in harmony with his rider. A system of progressive training produces a horse that is physically strong, balanced, supple, and flexible; this equine athlete also demonstrates a calm, confident, attentive attitude and is happy to do his job.
1. A Western Dressage horse achieves this goal by using the principles of classical dressage training while emphasizing the lightness and harmony with the rider which is a hallmark of a Western Dressage horse.
2. The Western Dressage horse demonstrates free flowing, comfortable strides. The gaits are free, regular in cadence and rhythm, consistent in speed and tempo. The horse presents a balanced appearance.
3. The Western Dressage horse’s head and neck are carried in a relaxed, natural manner; head and neck carriage are dictated by conformation and serve as a balance arm to facilitate proper movement.
4. The Western Dressage horse engages his hindquarters; uses his back freely; and lifts his forehand. These characteristics of framing and movement are more pronounced as the horse advances in his training and development.
5. The Western Dressage horse carries his body in a straight line when required by the maneuvers of the test; The Western Dressage horse carries himself in a consistent curve whose degree of bend is consistent throughout a movement that calls for a curve. The straightness or bend is consistent throughout the horse’s body and is dictated by the requirements of the maneuver being performed.
6. Lightness and harmony are the hallmarks of the Western Dressage horse; he willingly accepts a light contact on the bit without tension or resistance. He gives the appearance of performing the requested gaits and maneuvers of his own accord. The horse and rider appear as one.

And always remember to enjoy the journey!