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The History of Western Dressage

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Western dressage is a fascinating sport that combines the elegance of classical dressage with the tradition of western riding. It is a relatively new discipline in the United States, established in 2010 by the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA). However, its roots can be traced back to the ancient art of horsemanship that has been practiced for centuries by different cultures around the world.


Western dressage is based on the principles of dressage, which aim to develop a harmonious partnership between horse and rider through progressive training. Dressage originated in Europe and was influenced by the military, classical, and baroque schools of riding. It is often considered the highest expression of equestrian skill and artistry. Western dressage adapts these principles to suit the western style of riding, which evolved from the needs of working cowboys and ranchers in North America. Western riding emphasizes practicality, versatility, and responsiveness. Western dressage celebrates the diversity of western horses and tack, allowing any breed of horse, pony, or mule to compete in traditional stock attire and equipment.


Western dressage tests are designed to assess the level of training and communication between horse and rider. They consist of a series of movements that must be performed in a specific order and direction in an arena marked with letters. The movements include transitions between gaits (walk, jog, lope), changes of direction, circles, loops, serpentines, leg yields, shoulder-in, haunches-in, turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches, and simple and flying lead changes. The tests are divided into four levels: Introductory, Basic, Level 1, and Level 2. Each level has four tests that increase in difficulty and complexity. The tests are scored by a judge who assigns a numerical mark from 0 to 10 for each movement, as well as collective marks for gaits, impulsion, submission, rider's position and seat, rider's correct and effective use of aids, harmony between horse and rider, and overall impression.


Western dressage is more than just a sport; it is a way of training and enjoying horses that fosters their physical and mental well-being. It also promotes a respectful and ethical approach to horsemanship that values the horse as a partner and friend. Western dressage riders strive to achieve balance, lightness, calmness, steadiness, and willingness in their horses through clear, effective, and subtle aids. They also seek to improve their own riding skills and understanding of equine behavior and biomechanics. Western dressage is a rewarding and educational journey that can benefit horses and riders of all backgrounds and disciplines.


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