Have You Tried: Western Dressage

Ever wondered how dressage might benefit your horse? Interested in a new competitive venue? Western dressage might be for you.
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The Association: The mission of the Western Dressage Association of America is to build an equine community that combines Western riding traditions with classical dressage. WDAA honors the horse, values and promotes the partnership between horse and rider, and celebrates the legacy of the American West.

Though traditionally viewed as an English discipline, dressage now has a Western version that's practiced and performed in Western tack and attire.

Though traditionally viewed as an English discipline, dressage now has a Western version that's practiced and performed in Western tack and attire.

The brainchild of Western trainers Eitan Beth-Halachmy and Jack Brainard, WDAA was founded in July 2010 through the vision of that pair as well as that of other well-known horsemen and horsewomen. WDAA currently has 600 members across the nation.

"It doesn't sound like a lot, but just a year ago we had only 50 members," says WDAA president Ellen DiBella. "We currently have seven state alliance partners, and there are 18 more in the forming process now."

Riders: "It's for everybody, really," says DiBella. "We see new members who never want to compete, but want to learn Western dressage so that when they go trail riding, they have a more reliable horse. Or they compete in a different discipline, and know that dressage will make their horses more responsive and athletic for, say, barrel racing. Dressage works to improve anything else you do with your horse."

The new discipline also gives Western riders who've been interested in the traditional sport of dressage?where horse and rider are judged individually and work their way gradually through well-defined levels?a way to try it out without changing gear.

"More than half the people in this country ride in a Western saddle," DiBella observes. "Western dressage gives them a way to participate as they are."

Horses: Any breed that can walk, trot, and canter is eligible to participate in the sport. According to the WDAA, this broad acceptance gives all horse owners "an incentive to enable their horses to benefit from the teaching of good training techniques."

"Any horse will benefit from Western dressage because the focus is on building basic skills," notes DiBella.

Tests: Currently there are six published tests?two that involve work at the walk/trot only, and four that include the walk, trot, and canter. Those tests were originally devised by the United States Equestrian Federation for Morgan horses. (The American Morgan Horse Association has sanctioned Western dressage for its members for the past several years.)

In 2013, WDAA will debut an entirely new set of rules and tests. The new tests will measure a horse and rider's level of accomplishment based on the different levels of achievement; changes will enable gaited breeds to be accommodated as well.

Benefits: Riders learn correct horsemanship skills and horses become more responsive and athletic. "Because Western dressage is modeled after classical dressage, riders learn fundamentals that follow a perfect natural progression for the training of their horses," says trainer Lynn Palm, four-time AQHA Superhorse rider and a longtime devotee of dressage. "The ultimate goal is to build a harmonious partnership between horse and rider, resulting in a willing, balanced horse that's happy in his performance."

Good to Try If: You like classes that involve patterns or challenges, such as Western horsemanship, Western riding, reining, or trail. "Also, if you're seeking a really strong partnership with your horse?give it a try," says DiBella.

Coaching Opportunities: WDAA is now involved with horseshow.com. "We use it as a way to coach riders," DiBella explains. "Participants can upload videos to the site and have them critiqued by Western dressage coaches. It's also a continuing education resource for coaches and riders."

Learn More: info@westerndressageassociation.org; westerndressageassociation.org.

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