This week, Horse Nation’s cowgirl columnist Kristen Kovatch shares her thoughts on Western Dressage, a hybrid discipline that’s gaining popularity around the country.
The concept sounds like the marriage of two polar opposite ends of the spectrum: western riding, with its reputation of rough-and-ready cowboys and yahoos or overly-glitzed riders spur-stopping around the arena, combining with dressage with its air of snobbish “dressage queens” in an oddly-regimented world marked with arbitrary letters and impossible-to-keep-white white pants. (Or, if you’re our friend Mr. Colbert, “competitive horse prancing.”) Regardless of how you view either discipline, you’ve got to admit that they seem to be operating on different wavelengths.
Or are they?
Western Dressage is rapidly gaining in popularity all around the country, blending the best of both western and dressage to create a new discipline which places emphasis on the horse, first and foremost. From the homepage of the Western Dressage Association of America:
Our mission is to build an equine community that combines the Western traditions of horse and rider with Classical Dressage. We honor the horse. We value the partnership between horse and rider. We celebrate the legacy of the American West.
Okay—let’s break this down a little bit. Western riding, in all its various forms, has remained a distinctly American style of riding (which is recently exporting all over the world.) According to popular legend, the west was won from the back of a horse, and most western disciplines honor this rich history one way or another, descended in various mutations from cowboys riding their horses to get a job done. Western culture has always placed the horse first, at least in word if not in deed, and being a cowboy meant honoring one’s partner and placing his needs first.
I’m not going to climb on a soapbox and describe all the ways in which modern western riding has failed to uphold this cowboy tradition (or ways in which the original cowboy may have failed his horse in the first place.) It would be a similar line of argument to how modern dressage is not doing the horses any favors either (I’m thinking of rolkur, of course, and the debates over the self-carriage in the modern sport.) It looks like these western dressage people might have a pretty good thing going here, however. The goal is to get back to the shared core value important to both western horse culture and classical dressage: doing what is best for the horse.
In browsing the WDAA website, phrases jumped out at me like “[…]consider the horse’s soundness and future use so the horse remains comfortable and free of lameness for years of use” and “[…]consider the horse’s limitations as well as its assets” and “[…]horses learn better in an environment conducive to that learning process.” Coming from western disciplines in which horses are finished their competitive careers by the age of six or seven, often physically or mentally burned out, these ideas appealed to me—especially when I apply them to my own training project, a young and fiery reined cowhorse mare. Two years of trying to rush her into the bridle to compete in reining has left both of us burned out and frustrated, as well as developed a slew of other issues—most of which either never would have happened or would have been easily addressed had I had the patience to apply some classical ideas in the first place. Instead, I jumped on the bandwagon of cranking out a “finished” reining horse in as little time as possible—and reaped the consequences. Time to go back to the basics and work on simply riding.
The ultimate goal is to create lightness in both the rider and horse, using classical principles applied to western horses and riders. Working through the levels of dressage rather than the limited-age events of the breed show world can only bring good things to the western industry. With a western dressage foundation, there’s no limitation to where a horse could go—a balanced, light and well-trained horse could go on to be a reliable trail mount, a cutter, a reiner, or almost anything. Western dressage looks to be a positive step for the discipline and the industry as a whole.
Here are a couple videos from the Western Dressage Association of America website:
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.