Western Dressage: Why I Gave It a Try (And Loved It!)

We are pleased to welcome back Kristen Brennan as a regular contributor. For her first piece back, she tells about her beginnings in the world of Western Dressage.

If you read any of my blogs last year about my road to the Retired Racehorse Project, you know that my journey started with the retirement of my long-time partner, Marcus. Marcus and I had, especially towards the end, a bit of a “volatile” partnership. But that didn’t negate the fact that at the end of the day he was the horse that gave me confidence to try so many new things — from my first adult hunter trip to my first time leaving the start box. By late 2019, I was at peace with my decision to retire Marcus, but one thing became clear — he was not. I decided to pull him out of retirement and add one more name to our already long list of “it seemed like a good idea at the time” discipline changes. For a brief period, I thought trail riding would be our next discipline and after a few rather “enthusiastic” trips, I came home, declared him the “WORLD’S WORST TRAIL HORSE” and told my husband I was going to buy a Western saddle. A few hours on social media and $450 later, I was the proud owner of a Circle Y Equitation saddle that was older than me.

At the same time while at home, I started playing with Marcus again in my arena and re-discovered all the fun buttons we had installed so many years before — leg yields, collection and extension, turn on the haunches, turn on the forehand and perfectly square halts. He seemed to enjoy his return to employment, and I enjoyed not having a bored, grumpy horse to deal with.  A few months later, the Kentucky Dressage Association (KDA) offered a Western Dressage clinic, so on a whim we decided to give Western Dressage a try. It was a blast and with some gentle encouragement from the organizer, I entered our first WDAA Western Dressage show in July.

Marcus and I working our way through the WDAA Intro 3 test at his first show back since 2018. Photo courtesy of Kristen Brennan.

Horses always seem to know when you hit the “submit payment” button on a horse show entry, so after never taking a lame step since his retirement, Marcus ended with a bad stone bruise a few days before the show. I was disappointed and acted like a spoiled brat, snapping harshly “NO! I’m scratching,” when my husband gently suggested taking my young eventer, Geoffrey, in his place. After a few minutes, I thought of horseless, horse crazy 12-year old me and how she would have been appalled at the fit I threw over not showing my first choice of my nice horses. I came to my senses, called the show secretary and asked to change horses.

Boy, am I so glad I did. The show was so much fun, Geoffrey seemed to enjoy it and I had a great experience. I had such a good time that soon as we got home, I entered both of my horses in the next Western Dressage show offered.

Warming up Geoffrey for our WDAA Basic 1 test. Photo by Natasia Lind/ NL Equine Photography.

There is a lot to love about Western Dressage, but a few of the things that got me hooked were:

No. White. Breeches. Even before I was rocking my post-baby mom bod, white and tan breeches were not my friend. They can be expensive, and I never managed to make it into the saddle without mud, horse slobber (or let’s be honest, red wine) stains all over me. I also learned the hard way after a rainy dressage test that your show morning underwear choice did in fact matter in light-colored breeches. Western Dressage on the other hand meant I could wear jeans, paddock boots and a basic button-down shirt. But if I wanted all the bling? There are plenty of fringed chaps, sequined vests and bright colored shirts out there and all is totally acceptable.

Lucky for us, we have some great friends who lent us nice tack and clothes to help us look the part for Western Dressage. Photo by Natasia Lind/ NL Equine Photography.

Extra stickability. The reason I originally bought my Western saddle is another reason why I love Western Dressage — the security of a stock seat saddle. Marcus’s trademark “spook and spin” move is no match for me when I’ve got a horn to grab onto. While Geoffrey is quiet at shows, he is only five and my Western saddle helps me feel more confident when I show him. I also find that I can sit his jog and lope a little bit better and use my seat and body more effectively than I can in my jump saddle. What most surprised me is that from riding in my Western saddle, I began to feel more comfortable with a longer stirrup length in my English saddles.

Fun patterns let you show off your horse’s strengths. Marcus and I put a lot of time into flatwork early on — as a result we always scored well in dressage during our eventing days. When I was exploring his post-retirement options, I knew I didn’t want to jump him anymore, but I didn’t think straight dressage was the right fit for us. He seemed to really like what I asked of him for Western Dressage and I felt like I could show off his talents like accuracy and obedience in a way that best suited him. Geoffrey on the other hand is green and we are constantly working to improve our dressage work. I’ve done more USDF Introductory dressage tests than I care to admit and while they serve their purpose, they aren’t the most exciting tests to ride. The WDAA tests, even at the Intro and Basic levels, are interesting and include things like basic serpentines and multiple changes of direction. Adding a little bit of variety by incorporating Western Dressage into our training has helped keep our dreaded flat work from getting boring and has given us much needed extra time in the sandbox to improve our dressage scores.

So what are the disadvantages of Western Dressage? I can only really think of two. First of all, that saddle is HEAVY. I am only 5’6”, and while Marcus is fairly petite at 16h, I stopped measuring Geoffrey at 16.3h+ last fall. After having to get a running start to get my saddle up that high, I now completely understand why cowboys ride 15h horses. Second, though Western Dressage is a growing sport, class numbers are still small in some areas. My largest class to date has been four entries, and there have been several times where I was my only competition. I have faith this will change in time and until then I’ll proudly help represent the sport in my area.

I am lucky to have two all around good boys that tolerate me wanting to try different disciplines. Photo by Echo Gotsick.

Last Saturday as I was waiting to walk into the show ring on Marcus, the warmup steward looked at me and asked, “What made you want to try Western Dressage?” I smiled and laughed as I said, “Well, I didn’t know what else to do with this horse and it sounded like fun”. I never intended to find my way to the Western Dressage ring with both of my horses, but I am happy I did and I can’t wait until our next show.