The Good: Three Cheers For The USDF

USDF on Western Dressage

I don’t often agree with the USDF but in the case of their current stated stance on Western Dressage, I do believe they got it right. Very right (if there is such a thing).

Where to start? There’s just so much wrong with this discipline, er…pattern riding. It’s easy enough to understand the stated noble intentions of the founders and supporters; to increase the knowledge of participants, who prefer to ride in a Western saddle and sequins, thus making life better for the horse. But there’s just so many problems with how they’re going about it, such that it promotes ignorance of Dressage (uppercase ‘D’).

1. There is a reason that Dressage (uppercase ‘D’) is done in an English saddle, specifically a Dressage (uppercase ‘D’) saddle and not a Western saddle. There’s also a reason why dressage (lowercase ‘d’) can, and often is done in saddles other than a Dressage saddle. But it must be noted, nobody does Dressage (uppercase ‘D’) in anything other than a Dressage saddle…again, there’s a reason.

That reason being a Dressage saddle is designed to help the rider maintain the most technically correct posture and position, while allowing freedom of movement to apply aids accurately and timely. It’s design allows for the horse to have freedom of movement through the shoulder and loin, areas often blocked by the sheer bulky design of the Western saddle. And finally, the restraint of material allows for a high degree of feel between horse, and rider’s legs and seat.

2. Since we’ve now established that Dressage (uppercase ‘D’) is done in a Dressage saddle for a reason, then it must be concluded that you’re not doing Dressage (uppercase ‘D’) in a Western saddle. Therefore Western Dressage is a myth. There certainly is doing dressage (lowercase ‘d’) in a Western saddle, which means ‘training’ in a Western saddle. But there is no such thing as a discipline called Western Dressage, unless…nope, there’s no such discipline as English Reining.

3. According to the Western Dressage Association the Dressage (uppercase ‘D’) tests listed on their site are to be performed in various forms of the gaits; jog and lope. In their own description of the jog, it should have a period of suspension (as a trot would). I challenge anyone to find a video of a jog, that would be awarded in the Western ring, that has a period of suspension. The jog is a ‘stepping’ gait and has been for a very, long time. Don’t believe me? Then check out this video example of what’s considered good Western Dressage on their website.

Besides showing that the jog doesn’t have a period of suspension, this video also shows a horse in a forced, false frame with the throat closed, the neck breaking at C3, the hocks trailing, the haunch being carried to the right, and a total lack of forward. How many times does she cue the horse and pump her seat from the opening halt before the horse moves, and how many times does the horse stall during the test? And then I stopped watching after the freewalk, where the horse got popped in the mouth several times as he tried to figure out what his rider wanted from him. I’ll have to try that technique next time I want to encourage a freewalk from my horse, and I’ll make sure he’s in a shanked curb bit when I do it too.

I quote from their website:

What better way to learn about Western Dressage, than to watch it being performed. Education is the key to success and what the Western Dressage Association® of America believes in! We have gathered some amazing videos here for your enjoyment. Please feel free to browse them and watch them over and over.

What better way to learn about Western Dressage, indeed!


24 thoughts on “The Good: Three Cheers For The USDF

  1. I don’t think any reasonable person can question the value of working on dressage (lower-case d) with whatever type of horse they ride and whatever discipline they usually participate in. If a bunch of western riders want to do that…great! However, as you said, it’s not Dressage and coming up with Western Dressage seems fairly pointless to me. So we have western horses, doing western gaits, and doing them at certain points in a ring. Do we not already have reining? It’s been a long time since I went to a show with western classes, but we used to have something called…oooh…trying to remember…Western Riding? I’m pretty sure it was a pattern class where…wait for it…western horses performed western gaits etc at certain points, in a ring.

  2. I say if a person wants to do Dressage (capital D) than they should buy a saddle and get some lessons from Dressage instructor. Not go out and make up a sport that just takes the horrible aspects of WP and shoves it into a “new” discipline.

  3. OMG watching that video is my first exposure to western dressage and it almost makes me feel ill. What will that rider do if the test calls for a medium or an extended trot? She just gets by with what they call a working trot.

    I think it ridicules the true nature of Dressage and does not allow or enable the horse to move naturally as they would if free. Is that not what Dressage is all about?

  4. Your points are very well made.

    I just hate it when videos of that sort are put out there as examplar. It’s how the unacceptable and poor becomes accepted and even something to attain.

  5. Wow! Her riding is neither subtle or graceful. What is the point in jerking the reins in her free walk? The horse tries to stretch until she jerks his mouth.

  6. Apologies- I actually found the original comment! Aren’t you lucky……

    Firstly, I really do think you need two reins to perform Dressage correctly- you possibly could get away with one bit and I do know that low level Dressage can and is performed in a snaffle (not sure if they have changed the rules on the mouthpiece- used to be a plain joint I think now you can use a French Link??) but the snaffle, as the curb , was never devised to be used on it’s own especially for this sort of work, This video explains very well why a curb, on its own, cannot get the results, just as a snaffle, on it’s own, does not do as good a job as a double bridle, although I am a little dazed by the horses conformation- even without the rider with all the talent of a Yorkshire pudding- the horse just isn’t up to the job. It is a shame, it really is, as that is obviously a very well tempered, willing animal and, once again it is shown being hampered by the dumb animal on it’s back! As you say there is a reason why people do things- we could start a thread on NH just with those words!!

  7. I’ve been saying this (not in so many words) for years. And man do some Western riders get all in a tizzy.

    It seems Western Dressage was devised by those whose talents and ambition are not superior in either Dressage (upper case) or Western…anything. Mish-mash the two and voila! A mediocre new event is born.

  8. Let’s see, like Kiri mentioned about bits, there’s a REASON higher level Dressage is ridden with a double bridle. And I do agree, you need both reins to perform Dressage well. Lower level can obviously be done in a single bit, but beyond circling and general steering and halting, I can’t see how you can do it without both reins.

    Also, English tack is built for performance. It’s built to give you a close contact with the horse and put your legs and seat in the optimal position. Western tack was built to be comfortable for both horse and rider for long periods of time. It was built to be used on trails and ranches and to be treated like a tool for working with livestock, not dancing around the arena or jumping for that matter, I hate seeing people jump in Western saddles. If you want to learn Dressage, get a Dressage saddle. Leave the Western tack for Western events or trail riding. Horses CAN be ridden in both types! It’s true! At least five of the horses at our barn are Western/English trained and will go either way. English tack is also meant to be ridden with a tighter rein than western, hence the usual bit difference.

    And the free walk! I always learned that the free walk was when you gave the horse his head and he was supposed to reach down and stretch quietly and politely, NOT jerk his head around like the horse here did. Then when you reached the end of your free walk you quietly gathered your reins up and off you went. I saw a horse that’s not used to being ridden in a tight rein try and jerk himself free of constraint the second he was allowed, then when he went to reach down like he’s SUPPOSED to do, she jerked him back up again.

    And that trot! Dressage tests are ridden in a minimum of a working trot, and that would have gotten points docked in an actual Dressage test. My first show on my energetic mare, I held her back so she was going more like that because I was worried she’d get strong otherwise. Got points docked because she was “sluggish”. And she should be posting, right? Plus whenever they ask for an extended trot, what will she do? Probably bounce around like a sack of potatoes.

    He’s a lovely boy and seems to be very willing to work or I can’t imagine they’d be doing well, but goodness. I agree that this “sport” should never exist.

  9. Wow, was that painful to watch. Dressage is usually beautiful and is rarely boring, unlike that video! I’d like to know what that rider is doing with her feet and legs that keeps tipping those stirrups back at that angle too. Her leg blends with the horse, so I can actually see it, but those silver stirrups hide nothin! I will say, while I don’t actually like the horse’s frame, it is nice to see his poll above his withers and he’s still moving forward more than any western pleasure horse I’ve seen.

    And, yes I ride western. 🙂

  10. That should not be used as an example of correct western dressage. I’m a western rider and though I’ve never ridden wd, I could trump this ride 10 fold. IMO this horse has a super short hip, he’s trailing behind and tense through the bridle all the way to his tail. He’s over bitted and afraid to move forward. He also appears off in his right hind at the jog. The rider’s hand is sloppy and bumping the horse every stride causing more tension. If you’re going to ride in romal reins with one hand, that hand needs to be very soft and forgiving. We need a better video than this.

    • But the whole point is that it is being used as an example, and not by Mercedes but by the WD people themselves- this is what they think WD should look like! You may well be able to ride abetter test- I had a six year old who could ride a better test without me shouting the instructions (you are allowed to do that with very Novice riders) she hissed at me to shut up as she went past as she knew the test and I was confusing her! This rider is on a video purporting to be one of the best and she still needs the test called for her? What does that, alone, tell you?

      • I agree, this is a terrible example. I do support the sport though and hope to see it grow. It surely beats what’s become of western pleasure, it’s open to all breeds and all levels of riders. Putting the forward back into a lope is just fine by me. I hate that people are dissing the whole concept because of this poor example and I hope to give it a try myself. WD is in its infancy, there are improvements to be made but really, who’s it hurting? It’s a lot kinder to the horses than most of what we see these days. Let ’em ride.

  11. Wow, it’s been years since I rode in a curb, I switched to barrels and generally use a snaffle or hackamore now. But when I was a kid i had a fantastic pleasure pony that would have firmly planted me in the dirt if I’d tried to have half that amount of contact on her with a curb… And that’s not an exaggeration, she had done just that to a few riders, I credit her and my fantastic coach for my light hands lol.

    That is one tolerant horse… I could ride that test on my out of shape mare in a side pull, that was terrible.

  12. Wow, that poor horse. Jerk, jerk, jerk goes the rein. If you cannot keep a steady hand you should not be riding with a curb. My jaw and mouth hurt just watching. No wonder the horse looks so tense. If this is a “good” example of Western dressage I’d hate to see what a poor example looks like.

  13. I mean if you’re using a curb you should not have constant contact. That’s not what a curb is designed for. If the concept was to show a western horse that was collected on a loose rein doing a pattern, maybe I’d understand. Oh wait, we already have that class, and it’s called Horsemanship. Disregarding that nasty video, they’re trying to do regular dressage in western tack.. why wouldn’t you just go get a dressage saddle and show in regular dressage??

  14. That’s really a lousy example for them to give – kind of a turn-off for anyone wanting to try ‘western dressage’ I would think. This is a much better example – noting that the rider here is using a snaffle two-handed.

    I think this is the right way for the western disciplines (ie WP) to be looking toward but agree that the name is probably a misnomer. They need to call it something else.

    • Better, but still not great. Is it just me or does she have that bit cranking on the horse’s mouth like the ENTIRE time? Otherwise, she seemed better than the last rider. The horse looked like it was carrying itself better and it’s nice to see them doing actual dressage, though. I still don’t get it. They are riding English. The only thing Western about that was the cowboy hat and the tack. If you want to do Dressage, then you need to invest in the proper tack. Different tack is made for different things. Like you shouldn’t, IMHO, jump in a western saddle..Trying to jump in a Dressage saddle would be very awkward, while trying to do Dressage in a jumping saddle would also be awkward.

      I’m all for the idea of meshing the English vs. Western world together, so if they’re going to do this, maybe they should make some Western Dressage Saddles. Basically a Dressage saddle with a horn glued to it and extra padding so the rider is comfy? And maybe those Western stirrups if they make the rider feel safer? The bridles are still fine, since you really don’t NEED a nose-band to ride a horse in Dressage (just according to show ring fashion, yes?), but they must must must not wear a curb. That part of the video made me happy.

      This seems like a cool idea, but it needs to be done right. Just like English has different saddles for jumping, endurance, and Dressage, and Western has different saddles (I believe?) for reining, barrel racing, cutting, etc. they simply need to make a dressage one 🙂

  15. They do make western saddles with the contact and position of dressage saddles, just not all the requirements together per say, but many barrel saddles are now being made lighter and with better contact… Though the leg position varies greatly, (often tend towards more forward for deeper seat and security?.. That’s what people say it gives them at least) some designs/styles do have the proper position, so it really isn’t that out there of an idea.

    As for the contact… I agree, but don’t we see that in the real Dressage ring way to often and at all levels as well? I also don’t see how this is so different from reining or horsemanship patterns either.

  16. So how about gaited dressage? Horses that are ridden in a Dressage saddle, but do not trot because of a genetic predisposition? Currently, the USDF is also not recognizing gaited dressage. But if I go put a Dressage saddle on my Walker and ride him like a Dressage horse, he can learn to do the same types of things. He can collect and extend, he can do lateral movements, he can change his frame. I mean, he’s no Warmblood, but he can do lower level dressage as correctly as many other horses out there, except for the whole trotting thing. So because his brain is wired differently, that isn’t Dressage?

    • A large component of Dressage is purity of the gaits according to rather specific definitions. So technically a horse that does not ‘do’ certain gaits is not ‘doing’ Dressage. That is part of the objection to “Western Dressage”: the gaits as defined by Western standards are NOT pure by the established Dressage standards. (The sad thing here is that a LOT of horses out there competing – and placing – are not *technically* ‘doing’ the gaits, either!)

      Go ahead and apply the principles of Dressage to your horse’s schooling. It can only help. And that is what it is meant to do.

  17. Hoo, boy. That first video is TERRIBLE!!! I can’t believe the WD people are promoting it as any kind of an example. Literally the only redeeming factor is the horse’s head is not at his knees. Otherwise, it’s like Western Displeasure, or Horsemanship, or Western Riding, or whatever you want to call it done in a small ring with letters on it. Or an extremely slow Reining pattern. 🙂 But no, THAT IS NOT DRESSAGE! I can state that unequivocally and I’m not a dressage (large or small d) or a Western rider.

    Thanks for writing about this topic because I knew this aspect of the Western world existed, but knew nothing about it. I naively assumed that it would, in fact, be like real Dressage. I know a really good, really broke Western horse (a “bridle horse,” I think they call them?) can and should be able to do a lot of genuine Dressage movements. But this video – I’m sorry, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. Bleck.

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