Western Dressage

Western Dressage: What Is It, and Could This Benefit Your Program?

By Bradie Chapman

What is Western Dressage?

US Equestrian defines Western Dressage as, “The riding and developing of the western rider and horse to improve themselves as individuals and partners through the use and discipline of dressage.” In 2010, the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) was formed and approved by US Equestrian in 2013 as a national affiliate. Under the guidance of US Equestrian, WDAA developed the rules and tests and have maintained the western traditions that have been used over the years and combined this with classical dressage.

Western Dressage provides riders with a plan of progression. The tests are designed to start you at the very beginning in a walk-jog test and then build off of one another until you reach the highest level of test (which is currently Level Four) where you perform pirouettes, flying changes on a serpentine, and 8 meter jog circles. Even if you or your riders don’t want to enter a show arena, it gives you a training guide and things to work on with your equine partner.

Like any discipline, Western Dressage is goal oriented. It provides riders with a plan; if they can achieve a particular movement, then they can move on to the next movement in their training. This can be helpful for riders that aren’t able to be in consistent lessons and also for riders who are in lessons because they know what they need to accomplish to move up the levels.

Overall, Western Dressage can:

  • Help the rider improve the cadence, balance, and carriage of the horse
  • Help the rider utilize the fundamentals of dressage to create suppleness, flexibility, and increase the horse’s ability to work from his haunches
  • Promote the love of the horse and the development of a rewarding partnership between horse and rider
  • Make competitions available to any breed of horse
  • Provide opportunities for students and horses from a variety of disciplines
  • Provide realistic tests that have been designed to be appropriate for each level

Our History and Experience with the Discipline

In 2013 in our program at Ohio University Southern, we introduced Western Dressage to our students. In the same year, two faculty members attended the WDAA Train the Trainers Program to better understand the discipline, rules, and judging standards set forth by the association. In 2014, 10 members from a variety of riding and show experiences began competing at shows outside of our facility. Students currently compete successfully in non-collegiate dressage shows in Ohio and Kentucky. Our equestrian team was also the first collegiate program to compete in the Western Dressage World Championship Show.

We teach our Western courses using the Western Dressage exercises and principles. Our students have a variety of backgrounds entering our program, but through Western Dressage, we can help them to see that the things we work on in class can be applied to what they are doing in their chosen discipline. As instructors we have seen the following:

  • Riders are developing a better understanding of effective communication with their horse.
  • Position and attitude are becoming a focus in their riding.
  • The various tests and movements are providing students with obtainable goals for their riding level, helping them utilize their aids effectively, and strengthening their partnerships with their horses.
  • There is a unity between the horse and rider, with both consistently being relaxed and happy in their work.
  • Our horses are happy in the work because we are allowing them to move in a natural way and not trying to make them fit into a mold.

Since the addition of Western Dressage, we have seen that it has strengthened our riding program by having goals set up by the WDAA that give the students a clear-cut path in their training for their level. We also find that our inexperienced students have admitted that they would not have attempted classical dressage. However, with the option of Western Dressage, these riders are progressing rapidly and competing with much success.

Using Western Dressage in Your Program

Western dressage can be for the everyday rider. You can use the tests to add variety to your current riding plan. In riding different Western Dressage movements, you can work on your horse’s suppleness, attentiveness, and overall communication with your horse. You can progress through the levels of Western Dressage on your own time once you feel that your horse is ready to move on.

In a lesson program, there are many different ways to incorporate the Western Dressage principles. Riders could work on the test in their lessons but then also have the test to take home and study to help prepare for the next lesson. This could help teach them responsibility and preparation in relation to riding and as a life skill. We have riders design exercises that they can teach to the class. These are designed to help them with an issue they are working on with their assigned horse. This activity allows the rider to help problem solve an issue they have been experiencing in their riding and provides them with the opportunity to lead the class.

You may decide, like we did, that this is a good fit for your horses in the show arena. Riders may decide to compete to test their skills at their appropriate level. After the test, a rider will get written comments and scores that can be used to help set goals for the future. Shows may be set up at your home facility on a smaller scale, which will still provide your riders the opportunity to try the sport. If you want to go to bigger shows, you can find WDAA shows at https://westerndressageassociation.org/all-wdaa-recognized-shows. Our students do all of their own fundraising to be able to compete in competitions, whether locally or to the World Show.

Another option we started at our facility is to offer a Western Dressage invitational. Because this sport is new, we offer a show and invite in other collegiate teams, 4-H clubs, and area equine career center programs to encourage more riders to give it a try. Each team has four members and they have a rider compete in the test determined ahead of time (for example: Intro 1 & 3 and Basic 1 & 3). Riders compete individually in their class and after all of the rides are complete; we average the three top scores to determine the team placings. The host team provides the horses and the tack and the others show up the day of to show. We set a limit to the number of teams that can participate. Since our facility hosted the first show of its kind, we have continued to host and have had other facilities follow our lead and host as well.

Western dressage is about the journey you take with your equine partner. There isn’t a set target or given route for all riders to follow to reach their goals, which is what makes riding so exciting and unique. The addition of Western Dressage to the equine industry provides another option for riders.

Bradie Chapman is a CHA Master Instructor, Site Visitor, and Clinic Staff, along with an Associate Lecturer for the Ohio University Southern Equine Studies Program (www.ousequinedegree.com). The OUS facility is an CHA accredited college program that holds CHA Instructor and Equine Facility Manager Certification Clinics for students and the community. For more about Bradie Chapman, visit https://cha.horse/western-dressage-what-is-it-and-could-this-benefit-your-program/.