Western dressage
Photos courtesy of Rein Photo.

All western riding disciplines, from gymkhana and barrel racing to jumping and pleasure riding, can benefit from dressage’s time-honored lessons.

Everyone should have access to the highest level of horsemanship they desire, regardless of the saddle they ride in, the clothes they wear or the horses they ride. That opportunity has never been more available to you than right now, so giddy-up! I’m talking about Cowboy and Western Dressage.

The truth is – and I’m staring at all you western riders – is that principles of riding that are older than dirt have been locked away from you. I’m talking about a riding foundation called dressage. As a western rider, I have a culture. It includes my cowboy hat, my boots and all my western tchotchkes. It’s the decor and ambience of my house and barn – from the wagon-wheel chandelier swinging in my arena to the maneless, flea-bitten blue, happy Appy in the barn. In other words, my identity as an equestrian lies in the western world. The world of dressage was off my radar because I blazingly rode with a lariat. The thought that I might have to give up my western saddle, my daisy-clipper and my cowboy hat for duds that would be too tight was preposterous to me. But the good news is that the world of dressage has finally come to us western riders.

The evolution of dressage

Horsemanship has a history that dates back much further than what we do here in America. In fact, it’s thousands of years old. Techniques born out of military function – battle maneuvers and quests for survival – evolved to an age in which horsemanship developed to its highest form of art. These developments are very much alive and available to us today through the discipline of dressage.

Most western horsemen will not give up their western lifestyle to embrace breeches and formal attire. There is no appeal for a discipline that doesn’t seem to agree with the work ethic of the western horse. But the age-old foundation of dressage is so much bigger than the stadiums we see dressage horses compete in today. All these years of horsemanship, called dressage, have now come to us in the form of Western and Cowboy and Western Dressage – two practical but distinct applications of biomechanically engineered foundations that bring the highest level of horsemanship from the ages to you. And it means you can still ride in your comfy jeans, in your beat-up western saddle, with ole Thunder.  Western Dressage truly allows you to “come as you are”.

The new kids on the block

As most of us know, western horsemanship and its contributions have made a significant mark in the world of horsemanship – we have amazing ways to gently start horses now. But the other truth is that multiple generations of western riders, trying to harness the power of the horse, are still tryin’ to pull the cat out from under the porch. I’m talking about understanding movements like shoulder-in, which helps teach a horse to stay balanced under you. Many competent horsemen miss what dressage did for the horse, because if you ride western pleasure or any other discipline, dressage is something they do in the other ring, over there, with other breeds, and vice versa.

Since dressage has been around for millennia, the important truth is that we should have been taught those basics regardless of the discipline we ride. Take it from me. I’m a Catskill Mountain cowboy, training horses and teaching riders in upstate New York, and I’m here to tell you that a gymkhana horse needs dressage, a pleasure horse needs dressage, and so does a jumper – all saddle horses do.

Since dressage has been around for millennia, the important truth is that we should have been taught those basics regardless of the discipline we ride.

An influential dash of dressage, for every western rider, is what the next chapter of American horsemanship might look like. Whatever western discipline you adhere to, it might very well be reshaped with the current smash of “dressage meets western”.

Create a potent cross-blend of dressage with America’s own fine western hossmanship and you have something to make a cluster of barn cats purr.

Western and Cowboy Dressage are great opportunities for riders who want to do more with their horses but don’t necessarily want to compete in shows anymore. Many riders just want safer horses, and to have an experience with the horses they own. Western and Cowboy Dressage offer that opportunity.

What does this trail look like?   

Let me give you some background. As the highest expression of horse training, classical dressage is a progressive system designed to produce a horse’s maximum riding potential. Both Cowboy and Western Dressage have progressive goals of achieving lightness, balance and looseness as overall partnership goals, similar to traditional dressage. One important difference is that the western horse is being enhanced to better perform his current job, not being reshaped into a dressage horse.  American horsemanship was built on necessity and utility. There were jobs that needed to be done – cattle to move, people to defend, and westward travel.

Both disciplines have a competitive aspect featuring individual progressive tests. Western Dressage uses the standard dressage court, while Cowboy Dressage uses a 20m x 40m arena by adjusting the distances between the letters to 5m; this accommodates the smaller-strided gaits of typical western breeds.

“When dressage suits your needs but a Stetson suits your lifestyle” – this is the slogan that sums up Cowboy Dressage. One important concept designed into the tests for Cowboy Dressage is soft feel – a western tradition based on the release of the rein rather than the emphasis on contact. Furthermore, terms and ideas found in the classical dressage world have been “re-termed” to match the western feel of Cowboy Dressage, and to help the western world embrace dressage.

What you need to get started

Although both Cowboy and Western Dressage are new disciplines, there are more and more places offering training and schooling shows. Look around for one that fits you. Start discovering new ways to school your horse. Again, these disciplines are not there to replace what you are already doing with your horse (barrels, roping, trail riding, etc.), but to build a foundation into your daily riding habits that will help your horse make his job easier. To contact the governing bodies of each, visit WesternDressageAssociation.org and CowboyDressageWorld.com.

Dressage is beneficial, even for cowboys

So why do I need dressage? If your nose runs and your feet smell, you may have been built upside down. Some horses have training foundations like that – upside down. The chief training conundrum (western) people struggle with is based, I believe, on horses ridden in tension – with a lack of balance and suppleness, poor rhythm, etc. Folks don’t realize their horses are leaning into the corners when they ride, or are drifting away. They may have learned to control the shoulders, but miss how the body shapes the movement when riding in a court.

I’ve ridden some western champion horses trained only in their specific discipline, a form-to-function program; these wonderful horses would have seriously benefited by truly becoming supple. For riders who don’t ride in a ring, establishing a reason to further educate their horses means showing them the benefits of collection to produce lighter, sounder horses. To experience being carried in the most optimum frame, regardless of the current speed, turn or gait transition you are riding, is to ride a light horse – something most people have never done.

The list of behavior problems based on a horse being braced or behind the bit is endless. I’m also talking about the “woes” folks are aware of but don’t know how to solve – for example, trail horses that are spooky, ring horses that are stiff, or working horses that struggle to stay balanced. Dressage principles can help with these.

Dressage for the western horse? Your friends might think your cornbread isn’t done in the middle, but pull your cowboy hat down over your head and go find a chance to experience this beautiful blend of cross disciplines. American horsemanship has never been better. Oh, I haven’t even mentioned the best part – you’ll have fun!