Riding Tips

Western Dressage for Horse Rookies: A Beginner’s Guide

Written by Kelly Bitter

The Best of Both Worlds

Interested in dressage, but have a stocky, western-bred Quarter Horse? Want to pirouette, but ride in a Western saddle? Well, there’s a relatively new equestrian sport just for you! Introducing western dressage.

Western dressage combines the elements and principles of classic English dressage with the best parts of Western horseback riding tradition.

Similar to more traditional dressage, riders showcase clear, subtle aids combined with light, responsive hands to efficiently communicate with their horse. Western dressage is a relatively new discipline in the United States, established in 2010.

What is Western Dressage?

If I had a dime for every time I was asked this, I would have a lot of dimes! Western dressage is a fairly new discipline, especially on the East coast. I started my western dressage journey in 2014.

At that time, I relied on YouTube to learn, as there were no instructors around me. Frequently, I asked friends who rode classical dressage what things like “change rein” meant.

Today, I am happy to report there are many more western dressage riders and shows. It warms my heart to hear riders say, “western dressage, what is that?”as I can jump right in and tell them what it is and what a great discipline it can be for both horse and rider.

Evolution of the Sport

Western Dressage evolved from the love of riding horses combined with promoting a partnership between horse and rider. Humans have learned a lot about equine behavior over the years, which has changed how we train horses. This journey prompted a group in Colorado to start a new riding discipline based on harmony, partnership, and respect for the horse.

In 2010, the Western Dressage Association of America was born, and western dressage officially came into existence.

So, what exactly is western dressage, you might ask? Is it just classical dressage in a western saddle? Well, no, and sort of.

Western dressage adopted some principles of classical dressage, such as carriage and balance. Western Dressage, however, places a bigger emphasis on horsemanship. It combines the western style of riding with the balance and precision of the classical dressage world.

Maneuvers of the western horse are combined with the rider’s balance and the horse’s acceptance and response to the rider’s aids.

Have you ever seen old Western movies and watched how easily the cowboys can move their horses over rough terrain while herding cows? It is truly an art—the horse and rider seem to work as one. That concept is where western dressage is rooted.

While western dressage gaits are western (walk, jog, lope) they are not to be confused with western pleasure gaits. All gaits are to be active, emphasizing the horse’s natural movement. Excessive slowness is not acceptable.

The horse should be allowed to move freely, but under control. Consistency, tempo, and rhythm are all emphasized. The rider should use quiet aids to effortlessly move the horse through the test. Judges look for partnership and harmony between horse and rider.

The Western Dressage Test

In Western Dressage, the rider demonstrates training, balance, precision, and partnership through riding maneuvers in a test.

There are five different levels of tests that the horse and rider can progress through.

Each level has four tests, increasing in difficulty. Horsemanship skills and harmony between horse and rider are emphasized in each test and movement.

western dressage

source: Kelly Bitters


The WDAA (Western Dressage Association of America) is one of many organizations that supports and promotes western dressage. The North American Western Dressage Association (NAWD) also has programs that foster the partnership between horse and rider. NAWD has online shows and a year-end championship.

Shortly after the WDAA was formed, a similar organization was created in Canada. The Western Style Dressage Association of Canada (WSDAC) was formed after the WDAA, in 2011.

While there are a few differences between rulebooks, the two organizations share the same goals.

Western dressage was officially recognized within the United States Equestrian Federation in July, 2013.

western dressage

source: Kelly Bitters

Western Dressage Today

Western dressage has steadily gained in popularity, not only in the US but internationally, too. The Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) holds an annual International Challenge Online that brings in riders worldwide. Additionally, the WDAA holds a World Championship that draws horses and riders from across the United States and Canada.

Western dressage classes can be found at schooling, WDAA, USEF, and breed shows.

Schooling shows are a great place to get started in the sport. These shows are very laid back, and you can get a lot of feedback on your ride. They are usually less expensive as well. Oftentimes, schooling shows are put on by an organization that may have high-point or even year-end awards.

In WDAA, USEF, and breed shows you can ride for points.

If you’re competitive and targeting a year-end award, it would be a good idea to ensure you fully understand the rules for each specific show, as they can vary slightly.

I have been privileged to ride western dressage for the last nine years. The sport has expanded to have a presence in almost every state today. Personally, I have grown as a rider and horsewoman using the ideas and principles of western dressage.

western dressage

source: Kelly Bitters

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: Can you use two hands in Western dressage?

Yes! If you’re riding in a snaffle bit, you can ride with two hands. Those using a curb bit can ride one-handed. Switching (going from one hand to two) during the test is not allowed.

Q: What is a respectable dressage score?

A score of 70% or higher is considered to be very good. If a horse/rider team is consistently scoring 60% or more, it is probably time to move up in difficulty to the next level.

Q: Can gaited horses do Western dressage?

Yes! Dressage is for every horse, including gaited ones.

Q: Is Cowboy dressage the same as Western dressage?

Nope, pardner! Western dressage was created in 2010, while Cowboy dressage was founded in the 1990’s. While there are similarities between the two, they are not the same.

Q: Can you post the trot in Western dressage?

Posting the trot (jog) is acceptable in certain Western classes, such as Western dressage and ranch riding.



Get Started in Western Dressage


About the Author

Kelley Bitter has been riding and showing horses for over 50 years. She has been training and instructing western dressage for 8 years. Kelley has a blog where you can find more information on western dressage at www.horsehappyhour.com.

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About the author


Kelly Bitter

Kelley Bitter has been riding and showing horses for over 50 years. She has been training and instructing western dressage for 8 years. Kelley has a blog where you can find more information on western dressage at www.horsehappyhour.com.