What is Working Equitation?

A dressage rider and Lusitano breeder shares her passion for this emerging sport.
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Say “equitation,” and many riders think of a hunter-jumper flat or dressage-seat class, but far too few are aware of the exciting equine sport of working equitation (WE). For an individual horse and rider, this three-phased competition begins with the Dressage Phase—a test of classic dressage skills and movements, then continues to Ease of Handling Phase, which demonstrates their partnership by navigating an obstacle course, and finally, the Speed Phase, which measures their gusto by redoing part of the course at speed. Like dressage, there are many levels from Introductory through Advanced. Although WE has long been an international competition, it is a young, wide-open sport in the United States. 

The following is an interview with Linda Graham of Runaway Farm in Magnolia, Texas. A dressage rider, breeder and chairperson for WE at the historic Pin Oak Charity Horse Show in Katy, Texas, Graham became captivated with WE in 2007, when she watched a competition in Brazil where Olympic-level dressage riders participated for the sheer fun. Several years later she rode her 8-year-old Lusitano stallion, Amuleto VO, in their first event. In both 2012 and 2013 Amuleto won Pin Oak’s L3: Basic Championship (Level 3 of 6). 

Here Graham shares her passion for the discipline and explains why WE is an enjoyable and beneficial addition to the repertoire of any dressage horse and rider.


Q:Why do you love working equitation? 

Linda Graham: I love it because my horse loves it. Horses like variety. They want to have a job. WE broadens a horse’s scope and teaches him to be a good partner in any equine sport you care to pursue. It is especially good for improving dressage skills. The obstacle course is not only fun, it hones your aids. For instance, at the lower levels (L1/L2) Amuleto and I worked on basics like bending, leg yields and transitions. Now that he is schooling the higher levels (L3/L4), doing flying changes around a line of poles gives him a visual reference for the timing and purpose of the change. 

As I learned in my last clinic, developing the collection and balance required to canter around a very tight set of cloverleaf barrels is an excellent interim step toward achieving good canter pirouettes. Plus, accustoming a horse to many of the obstacles serves a practical purpose, especially if he regularly goes out for a hack. He learns what it’s like to open and close a gate, jump a log on the path and cross a bridge.

Q:What qualities help to make a horse and rider successful in WE?

LG: The rider must enjoy a challenge and be open to trying different things. The horse must have a good mind and a willing attitude. He also must be balanced. At the higher levels he needs the ability to lighten the forehand and achieve true collection. Success in the third phase of WE—Speed Phase—requires impulsion, straightness and accuracy. So a horse must be easily adjustable both physically and mentally.

One of the reasons baroque horses do well in this sport is that they can be brilliant in the Dressage Phase, obedient in the obstacle course, turn on the afterburner in the Speed Phase and then walk calmly back to the barn. They understand that it is a game and they want to play. 

As I watched my new Lusitano filly, Infanta, entertain herself today by cantering circles around the trees in her paddock, I knew I had an awesome WE prospect. But for aficionados of any breed or discipline, the real plus of WE is that you don’t have to abandon everything you know and start over at the bottom. You can bring the horse, the tack and the training you already have and simply add another layer of expertise.


Q:How do you train for the obstacles in lessons with your dressage instructor?

LG: I am fortunate to train locally at Haras Dos Cavaleiros, in Magnolia, Texas, with Tiago Ernesto. He likes to use obstacles to add variety or a break from tension during dressage work or as a different way to teach a skill. They are his primary training focus maybe 10 percent of the time. He will teach a horse three or four obstacles at a time, and when he is proficient at those, add another. There are around twenty different obstacles that a course designer may include in any competition. Most components are easy to assemble, such as barrels and poles, gates and hay bales, and there are many websites that describe the obstacles as well as YouTube videos of all three phases of WE.

A Working Dressage Test

Q: What do WE judges look for in the different phases of competition?

LG: A competent WE rider is always in balance with his horse, giving the impression of harmonious cooperation. By maintaining a correct position, with a commanding but relaxed presence, the rider is able to direct the horse with nearly invisible aids. The WE dressage tests correspond loosely, all the way to Grand Prix, to those used by USDF/USEF. They are scored similarly. In the second phase of WE competition, the judge wants to see horse and rider navigate the obstacles with calmness and precision. As in dressage, he gives a score of 0 to 10 for negotiating each obstacle as well as for the quality of riding between the obstacles. There are also collective marks for agility, style, maneuverability and harmony. The Speed Phase is solely a timed event without any concern for style. It tests the rider’s coordination and anticipation and the horse’s qualities of submission, speed, attention and finesse. There is a fourth phase, the Cow Trial. But this is only in international team competitions at the advanced level.

The History of Working Equitation

By Helena Ragoné, PhD

All riding disciplines, like all breeds of horses, can trace their origins to how horses have been utilized both in the past and in the present. At its most basic, working equitation assesses a rider’s skill and the progression of a horse’s training. A relative newcomer on the world-equestrian stage, working equitation debuted in the United States in 2008. But its origins date back to the mid-1990s when it was developed in southern Europe as a way to preserve and promote the riding traditions of Italy, France, Portugal and Spain, as well as to showcase the horses typically bred and used there for ranch work. Today, the World Association of Working Equitation, based in Portugal, standardizes the rules and oversees international competition. It lists on its website 12 countries that are currently members. There are several more, including the United States, where the sport is in development with the goal of future membership. 

Breeds that typically excel at working equitation are known for their ability to work cows and bulls. They include the:

Murgese horse of Italy, whose roots can be traced to the 13th century and the legendary warhorses of Emperor Federico.

Camargue horse of southern France, one of the world’s oldest breeds, known for the stamina, hardiness and agility it developed in the marshes and wetlands of the Rhone delta.

Iberian horses of Portugal and Spain, mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and ridden by William the Conqueror in the 1066 Battle of Hastings.

Much like the American Quarter Horse, all of these European breeds are legendary for their ability to execute lightning-fast turns, stops and spins. Extremely agile, they are able to canter sideways. This makes them ideal for working the breeds of cattle found in southern Europe, which tend to be aggressive and difficult to rope. In moving the herds, riders use a long pole or lance both to prod the animals and protect themselves and their horses should the cattle charge. Riders carry this same device in the Ease of Handling Phase of working equitation.

To Get Involved

There are currently a number of organizations promoting working equitation in the United States. Each organization has its own set of rules, so it is important to study the rules and procedures of the competition you plan to enter. To learn more about the sport, visit the World Association of Working Equitation (wawe-official.com), Working Equitation USA (workingequitationusa.com) for rules and obstacles used in WEUSA events or pinoak.org for rules and obstacles used in the Working Equitation Championships at Pin Oak.