What is Western Dressage?

Thursday, June 21, 2012
Posted by Michelle Binder-Zolezzi


If you are new to this conversation you might ask, “What is ‘Western Dressage’?”  This 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 training benefits any horse/rider combination in any discipline and western dressage will open doors for education and increased understanding of the classical training previously closed to many.  North American Western Dressage is dedicated to finding common ground between the two disciplines, educating riders from all backgrounds, and to making dressage concepts accessible to western riders without minimizing the importance of the training pyramid nor sacrificing the practical principles that are fundamental to classical dressage. It is the hope of the organization that western dressage continues to develop into a unique discipline in this country and around the world, one that is distinct from modern competitive dressage and differentiated from other western riding styles. North American Western Dressage (NAWD) was conceived to answer the desire for a venue in which western riders could ride, train and even show horses traditionally thought of as “western horses” but who perform in the manner of a classically trained dressage horse. Western and English riders have many differences, but all want to build a better relationship with their horses.  Dressage training, with its focus on relaxation, rhythm, balance, connection, suppleness and finally collection, is one avenue via which riders can improve communication with their horses.

Bringing the idea of western dressage to life has been a process.  There were and continue to be many questions to answer.  The first of these, “What is Western Dressage?” is the most important as it provides the foundation from which all other points of development arise.  How should this question be tackled?
 Should western saddles be put on dressage horses? Probably not.
Should western pleasure horses be put in dressage saddles?  Certainly not!
Should trained western pleasure horses be put in the dressage arena and ride dressage figures?   At the lowest levels, the result is an 11 minute walk-trot test with no gymnastic benefit and little resemblance to classical dressage.
Should an attempt be made to blend these seemingly different disciplines into one new thing?  This will certainly be the most challenging solution to the problem of defining western dressage.

How can the discipline stay true to either foundation, and if one is chosen, which one?  Good horsemanship is good horsemanship through the centuries and around the world… surely common ground can be found!
Who will teach and coach Western Dressage riders?  Industry professionals, of course, but only trainers and instructors who demonstrate a clear grasp of both classical dressage training principles and familiarity with western breeds and disciplines are actually qualified to do so.

How will a “correct” western dressage horse be judged?  USEF credentialed judges that are fluent in BOTH western work and dressage must to be located, no matter the difficulty.
 Should the tests reflect dressage language or western terms and vernacular?  Ideally, a blending of language and concepts throughout the test series will give western riders a progressive training pathway to the upper levels.
North American Western Dressage has taken the stand that a blending of the two disciplines is both possible and desirable.  That means that western dressage riders will embark on a progressive training project in which horses of any breed are brought along slowly and are developed along classical lines.  They will cultivate relaxation, rhythm, balance, suppleness and the rest of the concepts located on the training pyramid AND they choose to do the work in stock type saddles.

Riders make a distinction between what they want Western Dressage to be and the training seen in both the western pleasure ring and in the modern dressage ring.  When we listen, we hear a yearning for more activity and impulsion from western working horses; for more softness, lightness and greater ‘rideability’ from dressage trained horses.  It is also clear that riders want a progressive training program that helps them cultivate a positive relationship with their horses.  This means bringing the blending idea into practical application in the riding arena and while blending may be the most difficult way to define Western Dressage as a unique discipline, for North American Western Dressage, it is the best way.

The perfect western dressage horse will have a reining spin and a canter pirouette, go bridleless or beautifully on the bit.  Will it be a stock horse, or an Iberian horse, or an Arabian that has relaxation, rhythm, balance, connection, willingness, engagement, adjust-ability, collection, suppleness...?  In any case, these are the principles that must under lay the development of the discipline if it is going to call itself "Western Dressage."  Organizations, trainers, instructors and riders that support and promote western dressage must be completely dedicated to the use of good western horsemanship and classical dressage training to improve the relationship between horse and rider while acknowledging the value, talents and comfortable “rideability” of our western working horses.  Take a moment to find out more about Western Dressage from North American Western Dressage.  Western Dressage has the potential to bring people together, make the classical principles more accessible to everyone, bridge gaps between the breeds and ultimately marry the very best from both worlds in a way that is good for ALL of our horses.