This article is excerpted from Your Complete Guide to Western Dressage, by world champion trainer Lynn Palm, with Sue M. Copeland. Published by Horse&Rider, the forthcoming book will be available later this year at HorseBooksEtc.com.
Western dressage is hot. It's showing up at events around the country, where riders enjoy the ability to be judged while riding a standardized "test," or pattern, which calls for precision, balance, and rhythm at the walk, jog, and lope.
What separates it from "regular" dressage? You get to ride in Western tack and attire rather than the typical English equipment.
You'll ride with a rein in each hand (two-handed), for direct-rein control, and with light, elastic contact to your horse's mouth.
I've been teaching dressage to Western riders for years, because it's the basis of good riding in any discipline. The term "dressage" actually means training of animals. But to me, it's also about communication. With it, you develop a way to "talk" to your horse in terms he can understand. The more dressage you do, the larger your vocabulary.
Eventually you can ask him to do anything: go slow or fast, put his head down or up, hold his body straight or move his shoulders or hips to one side or the other, gallop down a hill, do a rollback...you name it! My bet is that you'll love the control you'll net once you try dressage.
To get you hooked, I'll talk you through a real Western dressage test. Your goal: to flow seamlessly through the maneuvers, with rhythmic gaits, precise transitions, and accurate maneuvers.
Sure, it's designed to challenge you, but you'll find using the letters (which act as markers) in a dressage arena will help you ride with the required precision.
Western dressage is open to any breed. I love Quarter Horses because of their quiet temperaments and forgiving natures, so we'll demonstrate this test aboard Larks home run, a Quarter Horse gelding owned by Dr. Elizabeth Stauber-Johnson, and ridden by Marie-Frances Davis.
We'll use United States Equestrian Federation Western Dressage Primary Level, Test 1 (which has since been updated; go to usef.org for the latest tests). For information on finding current tests, and about Western dressage in general, see "The World of Western dressage," on page X.
WD Tip: If you want to show, but worry about forgetting parts of a test, don't panic: You can have someone call the test to you as you ride, as I'm doing for Marie-Frances in the photo above. With repetition, you'll learn to memorize it, and won't need a "caller."
This test is divided into 12 sections, each of which calls for different maneuvers. I'll break each section down for you, step by step. Helmets are optional, but suggested.
1. A: Enter working jog. X: Halt, salute. Proceed working jog.
Warm up your horse. When you're ready to ride the test, circle him in his best direction just outside the entry to the ring, at the letter A. (See diagram, below right.) establish an active, steady working jog. (see "Western dressage glossary," on page 3, for a description of gaits.)
When you're ready to enter, turn toward the imaginary center line (which runs lengthwise down the ring, between A and C, where a judge would sit). Then enter the ring down that center line maintaining the working jog.
WD Tip: When you make the turn from your circle toward A to make your entrance, look down the center line to C. That's going to help you stay straight.
Transition from jog to walk (only a step or so), to halt at X, by pushing down with your seat, keeping both legs on your horse, and closing your fingers. Keep his body straight on the center line; that's how you get a "square" halt, meaning his front and hind legs are under his body and evenly spaced, indicating balance. (if you show, judges will reward a square halt.)
WD Tip: Use your peripheral vision to watch for E and B. When you can no longer see those letters, you're at X. It usually takes at least 10 to 12 feet for your horse to process transition cues, depending on his responsiveness. Since his shoulder should be on top of X when you halt, plan your transition aids accordingly.
Women: Put both reins in your left hand. Move your right hand (with your fingers pointed down) to your side behind your right thigh. At the same time, nod your head down and up.
Men: take your hat off and make the same movement with your arm.
WD Tip: If you show, the judge will nod back. Be sure to make eye contact; that shows confidence.
Now pick up your right rein and continue the test. For the upward transition to a working jog, push your horse forward with your seat first, then press with your legs…but be light with them. If you start kicking, he may resist or jump forward, ruining the smooth flow of your test.
Keep him straight, by maintaining even rein contact on both sides of his neck. Prepare to track to the right at C, by flexing your horse's head to the right a stride or two before you reach that marker.