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5 Things You Should Know About Western Dressage

Debbi Sullivan  | Published on 5/28/2018

Number One: It’s Easy

Western Dressage is a sport that’s very easy to get involved in. It doesn’t require any special tack or equipment or clothing – your regular Western tack and attire are perfect. It doesn’t require a big investment to practice correctly at home, either. If you don’t have your your own dressage court, safety cones with the letters painted on them, and a tape measure to get the distances correct are all you need to build one! And if you’re just starting out in the sport or in riding in general, the Intro Level is devoted to walk-jog tests. You can learn, improve your riding skills, and still be involved in competition. Another plus? Western Dressage shows are all scheduled ahead of time. That means you sign up the week before the show (or whenever the show asks you to sign up!), and receive your ‘ride times’ before show day. Yep – you don’t have to get on the road at 5am, only to find out you won’t be competing until 2pm anymore. You know exactly what time you’ll be riding your tests!

Number Two: It’s Tough

They don’t call them ‘tests’ for nothing! No matter what level you ride, the tests are designed to progressively challenge you to build on the skills you’ve already mastered. The patterns are deceptively easy at first glance, but the goal in Western Dressage is not to simply perform the gaits at the specified points on the court, but to improve the quality of the ride as you advance. From the lower levels where horses and riders begin to find balance and bend, through the higher levels where understanding and maintaining collection and impulsion are expected, there is always something more to learn.

Number Three: It’s a Great Way to Master ‘Feel’

We’ve all heard about collection, and bend, and feel, and timing, and…you get the idea. But what does it all mean? When you focus your attention on learning  to ride Western Dressage well, the meaning of it all starts to become very clear, very quickly. As you ride those 20 meter circles, then 15, then 10, you find you actually can feel the moment your horse steps up under you with his inside hind leg. When you come down centerline, staring at “C” for all you’re worth and praying for a straight halt, you suddenly begin to understand how to keep your horse “between your reins and your legs,” and how you really do need to ride forward into a stop, not just pull back. These are basic principles of Western Dressage – it’s all about how your body and your horse’s body work together. You’ll be grinning wider than ever that first time you feel your horse get “light” – and you’ll know instantly that you’ve achieved something wonderful!

Number Four: It Has Benefits for Other Disciplines

Everything about Western Dressage leads to building a stronger, more balanced equine athlete. Everything about Western Dressage leads to building a more aware, effective rider. Take what you’ve learned and apply it to your chosen sport! A horse that’s developed impulsion from learning how to push from behind instead of drag along from the front will naturally do better in reining and versatility pattern work. A horse that knows how to move off your leg is going to ace those tricky sidepass obstacles. A rider who can recognize when their horse is leaning on their hands or pushing against the leg with their rib cage is going to be able to fix it, and get a better performance in any discipline.

Number Five: Shows are for Learning

Western Dressage tests are not a mystery. Each test tells you exactly what the judge will be looking for, what parts of the movements are being judged and in what way. And when you’re done riding, you get that scored test back, along with the judge’s comments. Not just a number for each movement on the test, but a short comment explaining why you got that number. You will also get scores for the harmony between horse and rider, and even an overall comment about your ride. It’s great to go home knowing exactly what you can work on to get a better score next time. And if you make a mistake, it’s just one movement of the test. The rest of your ride is still judged on its own merit. So if you get a wrong lead you’ll get a low score on that one movement, but you can still do well on all the other movements and come out with your head held high. One mistake doesn’t “zero” you out.

Western Dressage improves every aspect of communication between horse and human. It’s easy to get started in, challenging for any level of rider, useful in other disciplines, and you never stop learning. So what’s stopping you? Get out there and give it a try!

For information on clinics and local shows, check out the CAWDA events calendar.