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What’s ‘Western dressage’ all about?

By RAY ARISS - Horsetrader columnist - February 2nd, 2012 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY: I’ve read articles and seen shows on Western Dressage. I’m not sure what to make of it. My wife has a dressage horse, and I have a western trail horse – to me, they are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Allen Hollis, Rancho Cucamonga

HEY ALLEN: The disciplines of English/ Dressage and Western have been on opposite sides of each other for years – not just on how they do things, but how they feel about each other. One thing we should never lose sight of regardless of the discipline or breed is that a horse is a horse, is a horse.

Dressage is the oldest of disciplines that has been appreciated and admired by many equestrians, but not necessarily accepted or applied into their own discipline because they saw it as too different or difficult. What is valuable about dressage is that it has an extensive, well thought-out system that is based on a series of exercises and tests meant to challenge, teach and evolve any horse. Like with any exercise, learning how to do the exercise correctly is only part of it. The real value comes from the benefit of doing the exercise over time. Dressage teaches us that. When done correctly, you eventually recognize the purpose of all these fancy movements is to improve and strengthen the body, challenge the mind, and enhance the natural gaits of the horse.

It’s the difference between walking, and walking like a runway model, or dancing, and dancing like a ballet dancer. In other words, an upper-level dressage horse must simply be able to walk, trot, and canter better than horses without this training. Their gait should exhibit greater grace, quality and ease in everything they do, more than a horse that has not mastered and practiced the more advanced movements. This is HUGE! It’s no different than a person taking advantage of the benefits that come from learning how to use all of the equipment at a gym and working out consistently.

A knowledgeable athlete who is in better physical condition and moves with grace and precision will perform better in any sport or discipline. For this reason alone, dressage should be a part of every horse’s training program. Recognizing that there are exercises that can build, stretch, coordinate, shape and strengthen the body of a horse is reason enough to accept and adopt this discipline. Combine this with the training that goes into the mind of a Western horse that is capable of running at high speeds, stopping and turning with the slightest of ease and willing to focus with the distractions of cattle, ropes and firearms could only produce a valuable partner.

Where we need to be careful is when we assume we know what the other discipline is all about. Most of these disciplines have evolved into being very specialized. When we underestimate or minimize what we think these disciplines are all about, we will fail to take advantage of what they have to offer in order to meet our own goals. We not only have to appreciate and inform ourselves about each other’s disciplines, we have to develop relationships with these people that are free of fears, insecurities and secrets in order to make this work. I strongly feel that if we are ruthlessly honest about where our discipline is lacking and are capable of recognizing which disciplines can help us strengthen those weak links, in the end everybody wins, especially the horse. Dressage and western are more than just a different saddle and some showy movements. They are as much a science as they are an art. And as such, we should try to become open-minded students in order to learn all that we can to help evolve our horse at whatever game we play. The word dressage simply means ‘to teach’. Sometimes we teach the horse, but we always learn from him because the horse – especially the challenging ones – teach us the most. So, we could say that every discipline practices their own kind of dressage, but from a different perspective. What the traditional discipline of dressage brings to the table is 2000 years of history, knowledge and experience. Over the years though, dressage, gradually moved away from the practical every day use of the horse for battle to more of a refined, civilized and artistic application. What used to be exercises for war have turned into precise ‘art-like’ movements of ballet. The state of mind of most dressage horses has changed from that of their warhorse ancestors because competition moved into a safe, quiet, controlled environment. On the other hand, the Western horse has only been around for about 200 years. That’s only 1/10 of the history and experience of a dressage horse. But the Western horse has kept in touch with his ability to apply what he has learned to real life situations. Things like cattle work, roping, trail riding, and mounted shooting are things that require specialized training in order to develop an overall good horse. This practical approach allows the educated western horse to leave the training or show arena and venture out into situations that would unsettle most arena horses. Developing a trusting, confident, focused, calm, willing and predictable horse under any situation is a must for a western horse. The techniques work and would benefit horses of any discipline. Another contribution the western discipline brings to all horses is the ability to establish light and responsive aids. Figuring out how to incorporate such qualities into your horses training would only make a better horse.

The value of blending the western horsemanship with old world equestrian techniques was adopted by our U.S. Cavalry years ago.

To me, it’s a no-brainer. I know that many disciplines stand separate and alone and are happy to do so. For 30 years, I have seen horses as a single species that are capable of doing horsey things because they are horses. Therefore, if I see a technique that works well on horses, I’ll make it mine.

I competed in the first Extreme Mustang Makeover in 2007, where 100 trainers nationwide were given 100 wild Mustangs from Nevada to train in 100 days, then show in Texas. If I hadn’t of used all the knowledge I accumulated in my lifetime that was borrowed from many disciplines across the board, I could not have produced the $50,000 Mustang, ‘Hail-Yeah’, that changed my life.

Western Dressage attempts to blend two disciplines in the hopes of creating a situation that will improve the quality of life between man and horse. Makes sense to me if the disciplines are practiced according to the standards of excellence that they were intended to be performed.

I put on monthly cross-over clinics every month where we ‘cross over’ from one discipline technique to another as treatment to reinforce or help improve the weak links in your particular horse. The purpose is to make you better at your own game. We donĂ•t try to make the dressage horse a jumper. We expect him to be a better dressage horse after learning to jump. And the jumper becomes a better jumper after experiencing how to gain confidence by working through a western trail obstacle.

Allen, I feel that the key to continued growth from learning lies in keeping an open mind. Seems to me like these western dressage folks are looking to move their western horses to another level. I wish them luck!


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horse-and-human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco CA, at his bustling StarBrite Riding Academy. Does your “horse-human” relationship leave you with a question for Ray? Just go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Hey Ray!” section, then submit it!

4 comments have been made on “What’s ‘Western dressage’ all about?”

  1. Barbara Molland Says:

    Hey Ray,

    Those of us connected with the Western Dressage Association of America want to thank you for your very thoughtful explanation of Western Dressage. If any of your readers would like to learn more, they can visit http://www.westerndressageassociation.org. Also your California readers now have their own Affiliate of that national organization, the Western Dressage Association of California. Both organizations are nonprofit 501(c)3 and we welcome all riders, no matter the breed of horse they ride. We truly appreciate your comments!

    Barbara Molland
    Advisory Board
    Western Dressage Association of America

  2. neide cooley Says:

    This is a fantastic article and an elegant description of why Western Dressage is becoming so popular and relevant.
    Let us know if we can publish this article or anything else you would like to write about Western Dressage on the Western Dressage Association of America’s (WDAA) website http://www.westerndressage.org
    Neide Cooley
    WDAA, VP Affiliate Coordinator

  3. Sherry Beaudoin Says:

    Well written!!! A must for all equestrians to read as the horseworld evolves and promotes this new discipline which unites East and West..Bravo Ray!

  4. Julie Vosberg Says:

    I couldn’t have said it better.

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