Which western discipline is for you?
At first glance, it may not seem like the grace and beauty of a perfectly executed dressage test has much in common with roping cattle and riding the open range. After all, dressage and Western-style riding were developed centuries apart on entirely different continents. But could dressage and Western riding have more in common than first meets the eye?
Although their roots are slightly different, dressage, cowboy dressage, and Western dressage have more in common than you might think. This post celebrates the similarities and differences of these rapidly growing sports. Cowboy and Western dressage retain the classical horsemanship principles of traditional dressage while infusing real-world skills required of the American working Western horse.
Dressage: An Overview
Translated from French, the word “dressage” means training. Over hundreds of years, the discipline has been developed to enhance a horse’s natural athleticism.
Through steady and correct training, a horse performs a series of athletic movements with barely perceptible cues from the rider.
At its best, dressage is a dance between horse and rider.
While many riders prefer to perfect the art at home, the world of dressage competitions is active and diverse. Judges award points for individual movements done within increasingly complex movements called tests.
Point values from 0 to 10 are awarded for the quality of each movement culminating in an overall score.
Tests are arranged in a series of levels. In the United States, lower levels are regulated by the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) and the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). In order of increasing difficulty, the lower levels include Training Level, First Level, Second Level, Third Level, and Fourth Level.
Because the skills mastered in each level are designed to build upon each other, it’s not recommended that you ride the next level until you’ve mastered or achieved at least 60% on your current level.
Beyond the lower levels are a series of increasingly complex levels culminating in the Grand Prix, the level ridden by Olympic riders. The upper levels are governed by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI).
One of the most exciting parts of dressage competition is freestyle, which is a set of specific movements set to music. If you’re curious to see what it’s all about, check out this thrilling video of Olympic medalist Charlotte Dujardin and the legendary Valegro.
Western dressage combines training principles of traditional dressage with that of Western tradition to create a versatile, useful horse that is a pleasure to ride.
Like conventional dressage, riders must also develop their skills to develop a willing partnership with the horse.
Rider aids are equally clear and subtle in both Western and traditional dressage. The ultimate goal of Western dressage is to achieve harmony and lightness between horse and rider.
What are the levels in Western dressage?
There are currently 7 levels of Western dressage. They include Intro and Basic, followed by Levels 1-5. You can also compete in Freestyle tests at each level.
If you’d like to see a Western freestyle performance, check out this harmonious duo:
What do you wear to a Western dressage show?
Attire for Western dressage is relatively simple compared to that worn for a recognized traditional dressage show. A Western hat or helmet, long-sleeved collared shirt, trousers or pants, and boots.
Additional clothing items such as a necktie, vest, or chaps are optional.
What saddle do you use for Western dressage?
A Western saddle is standard for Western dressage.
Other saddles, including Australian, English, Baroque, and Spanish, are NOT allowed in competition.
What is the difference between dressage and Western dressage?
Both traditional and Western dressage are built on a foundation of balance and rhythm. Horse and rider teams progress through levels that gradually increase in complexity. You will find an arena marked with letters for both traditional and western dressage.
There are a few marked differences between the two, the most prominent being the tack and rider attire.
Traditional dressage requires an English-type saddle, while Western dressage utilizes a Western saddle. Traditional dressage attire includes breeches, a coat, and a helmet, while attire for the Western dressage rider includes a long-sleeved shirt, pants, and a Western hat.
In general, attire for the dressage rider is more conservative, while Western riders can assert their personality through brighter colors.
Another difference between the two sports is how much contact is desired between horse and rider. Western sports traditionally favor less contact via the reins and even mandate one-handed reining in some cases. On the other hand, dressage encourages more contact between horse and rider. Holding the reins in both hands is standard in traditional dressage.
Although biomechanically the same, there are a couple of slight differences in reference to vocabulary for the 3 gaits in dressage versus Western dressage.
In dressage, the gaits are referred to as walk, trot, and canter, while in Western dressage, they are known as walk, jog, and lope. There are differences in opinion about whether the trot and jog and canter and lope are indeed different. Western pleasure horses are notorious for incredibly slow gaits, which is where the thought that jog and lope mean slow comes from.
Various dressage principles require a certain amount of energy and impulsion to achieve correctness in the gaits. You will, therefore, observe dressage riders encouraging their horses at a different pace than Western riders. At their core, the trot and jog refer to a two-beat gait. The canter and lope refer to a three-beat gait.
Lastly, Western dressage is built upon a foundation of traditional dressage, and not vice versa. It really is a combination of dressage training with the principles central to the art of Western riding.
Many people credit the development of Western and cowboy dressage to Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy. Born in Israel, Eitan initially had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian and attended school in Vienna, where he spent a great deal of time watching the Spanish Riding School and learning principles of dressage.
Eitan came to America and became more interested in horse training than veterinary medicine. He soon became known in show circuits for the elegance and self-carriage evident in the horses he rode.
One horse, in particular, a Morgan stallion named Holiday Compadre, catapulted his individual riding style into what is known today as cowboy dressage.
Cowboy dressage exemplifies the partnership between horse and rider. Its tenets are kindness and the flow of information from rider to horse and, equally importantly, from horse to rider.
Known as Soft Feel, this sense of two-way communication is at the core of this riding style. Eitan’s wife, Debbie, has been equally instrumental in bringing this riding style to others.
Cowboy dressage is about creating a horse that is not only a pleasure to ride but is functional from a practical standpoint. It recognizes that not everyone has access to a riding arena or even enjoys riding in endless circles within said riding arena. Horse and rider teams of all backgrounds and abilities are welcome.
If you’re at all curious about cowboy dressage, you can’t miss this spellbinding performance by Eitan and the incredibly gorgeous and talented Holiday Compadre:
What are the levels in cowboy dressage?
Levels are divided into several categories, such as whether the test will be ridden or performed as groundwork. They are subdivided into the walk and jog or walk, jog, and lope.
Cowboy dressage also has different levels for gaited horses and musical freestyle.
What saddle do you use for cowboy dressage?
A Western saddle is required for cowboy dressage.
What is the difference between dressage and cowboy dressage?
Cowboy dressage was developed using principles of traditional dressage. However, cowboy dressage evolved into a movement that makes riding accessible to every horse and rider. There are even principles of cowboy dressage that can be applied via groundwork for horses unable to be ridden due to injury or stature.
Dressage competition is governed under USEF rules, while cowboy dressage has its own governing body.
Dressage competition follows one set of judging standards, while cowboy dressage standards defer to individual breed standards for head carriage and other features.
Similarities and Differences
At their core, cowboy dressage and Western dressage are about the partnership between horse and rider. And to some extent, they are both about adding an element of real-world cowboy practicality to the elegance associated with traditional dressage.
Similarities between Cowboy Dressage and Western Dressage:
- Fusion between the horsemanship of the Western tradition and that of the ancient art of dressage
- Based upon principles created by Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy
- Traditional Western tack and rider attire
- Contact between horse and rider via the reins is less than that expected in traditional dressage
Differences between Cowboy Dressage and Western Dressage:
- Cowboy dressage has its own governing body, while Western dressage follows USEF rules.
- Cowboy dressage welcomes horses and riders of all levels and abilities, including groundwork, while Western dressage follows the stricter guidelines of traditional dressage.
- Judging cowboy dressage takes breed variations into account, while Western dressage follows a single standard regardless of breed.
Are cowboy dressage and Western dressage interchangeable?
Historically, yes. Each was developed out of principles created by Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy. The Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) was formed in 2010, and since that time, there has been a more definite split between cowboy and Western dressage.
What breed is most commonly used for Western-style dressage?
Although the American Quarter Horse is extremely popular for all Western-style types of riding, there are 49 different breeds represented at the Western Dressage Association of America World Championship Show in 2021.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can you ride dressage in a Western saddle?
You can practice dressage in a Western saddle at home, however you can’t enter a traditional dressage competition in a Western saddle.
Q: Is Reining Western dressage?
Although both have been heavily influenced by the Western cow horse tradition, Reining and Western dressage are two separate sports.
Q: What is a Western dressage saddle?
The rules for Western dressage state that any Western stock-type saddle can be used for the sport. A Western side saddle is also permitted in competition.
Q: What should I look for in a Western dressage saddle?
Rules surrounding saddles are relatively permissive as long as the saddle is a Western stock-style saddle. Several types of saddles are not permitted, including Australian, English, Spanish, Baroque, endurance, and McClellan.
Aside from the basic kind of saddle, it should fit both you and your horse.
If in doubt as to whether the saddle is agreeable with your horse, find a qualified saddle fitter. This extra step ensures optimal comfort for both you and your horse.
Q: What bits are allowed in Western dressage?
Most standard curb and snaffle bits are allowed in Western dressage, but the WDAA has a ton of great information about exactly what types of bits are legal. If in doubt, check the rule book!
Q: What does “change rein” mean in Western dressage?
Change rein means to change the direction of travel within the arena.
Q: What is a good score in Western dressage?
Scoring in Western dressage is similar to traditional dressage. Consistent scores in the 60s mean you are probably ready to tackle the next level. Scores in the 70s are exceptional.
Both Western and cowboy dressage are growing in popularity at fast paces. And with the combination of classical training principles and real-world practicality, it’s no wonder that more and more riders are starting to explore these sports.
Riders want safe horses who are also a pleasure to be around, both elements that are central tenets of each sport. Not to mention the fact that they’re just plain fun to watch and perform!
If any of this intrigues you, get out there and give it a try for yourself! Western and cowboy dressage are incredibly inclusive and welcomes riders of all levels and abilities. There is a place for everyone in the sport, so find yours today!
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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Bryant, J. O. (2006). The USDF guide to dressage. Storey Publishing.