Western Dressage: Why Not?

Introduction by Peggy Gaboury

The idea of riding dressage in western tack is steadily growing in popularity. There are lots of people who feel safe and comfortable in the western tack that they are accustomed to, but who are interested in the content and intent of dressage classes. Some local dressage clubs are offering western classes at their schooling shows.

Charlotte Trentelman is a USEF “S” dressage judge, who judges dressage classes at the highest national levels. Her local dressage club, STRIDE, in Ocala Florida has included western dressage in their schooling shows, and she has experience judging those classes. The STRIDE dressage club started to offer Western Dressage when the Morgan horse division promulgated rules for the Western Dressage classes held at its USEF recognized shows.
By Charlotte Trentelman
For several years, our Group Membership Organization (GMO), STRIDE Dressage, Ocala, Florida, received requests from Western riders to participate in our schooling shows in their western tack. There were lots of reasons for wishing to ride in a Western saddle (back problems, don’t feel safe unless I use a curb, can’t afford another saddle). Our Board, not being sure of how to deal with this, politely said, “No, because, it is not a USEF recognized class.” 

By the time the Morgan division came out with rules for Western Dressage, we had many riders practicing and hoping for some trial classes. The classes were well attended and by the second year, we began offering year end awards in Western Dressage. They are now a strong division in our club, fun competitors, and our judges (mostly “L” graduates) seem to have no problem adjusting to the “tack change.”

There is more than one association that is developing tests and rules for Western Dressage.  Our choice was to use the rules accepted by USEF in the Morgan division. The USEF Morgan Division Western Dressage tests are written at Basic and Preliminary levels, which are equivalent to Introductory and Training level tests. We have also offered a “Test of Choice” class for those interested in riding First level and above, using the regular USEF Dressage Tests.

My suggestion for show managements allowing Western Dressage participation is to clearly spell out what is, or isn’t allowed in the warm up ring. For instance, we allow curb bits for Western Dressage, but only when warming up for those classes. We do allow cross entering. 

In the rules section for Western Dressage (under the Morgan Division), most of the definitions are worded similarly as in the Dressage Division. They have traded the word “jog” for “trot,” and, “lope” for “canter.” The definitions for both still clearly require balance, elasticity and engagement. So, does this mean that the judges should be looking for the same qualities with either type of tack? Not exactly.

Under the judging directives sent out by the associations, obedience and training should be rewarded more than brilliance. Demonstrating relaxation of the back is important. A smooth, balanced, harmonious performance given by a horse with a normal range of motion and correct rhythm in gaits should receive higher scores than a horse with above average motion (brilliance) who is not obedient. The horse should go willingly forward to the aids. There should be light connection, even with a curb bit. (Think of it more as working western frame.) Acceptance of the bit is very important. A gaping mouth or jerking the reins for connection are major faults.

The position should be similar to a good Dressage Equitation seat with consideration for the difference in the construction of the Western saddle. The imaginary line from ear to shoulder to hip to heel is desired, as is the straight line from elbow to bit. The seat/weight aids are very important. 

Where the rules differ is in the use of the reins. One or two hands is accepted, but the rider should not switch back and forth in any one test.  There is a slight difference in holding the reins if they are split or closed by a romal. Judges and prospective competitors should look over the rules closely in the Morgan division.

 Although I have seen classes with Western riders competing in Western Pleasure show outfits complete with “bling,” a workmanlike appearance should not be discounted. However, boots, jeans, a shirt, and helmet will work as well. We do not allow English boots and breeches (unless hidden by chaps) in the Western classes at our schooling shows.
By the Federation rules, a safety helmet is allowed, but in our shows, anyone mounted on the grounds is required to wear an ASTM safety helmet. The option of a western hat that is not ASTM-approved is not allowed at our GMO schooling shows. The prize list for schooling shows should be clear if requirements are different from the USEF rules. Let your judges know in advance that they might have to judge these classes and that the complete rules can be found in the USEF Rule Book in the Morgan Division. Let them know about any changes or allowances in the rules that are particular to your club’s show. Be prepared to welcome some new people into the sport of Dressage!
Western Dressage photo cutline:  A winning Preliminary Western Dressage ride at a STRIDE schooling show. Vickie Rollack, on Secret Blessing, shows the connection, energy, and relaxation that is desired, with a quiet acceptance of the bit. Two hands are allowed with the curb bit. Because of the width of the stirrup tread, it is acceptable for the foot to appear “home.”

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