UNDERSTANDING WESTERN DRESSAGE
by WJ (Noni) Hartvikson, President Dressage BC
Photo by Steve Charles, Totem Photographics
Western Dressage is defined as the use of historically based
dressage principles to train and develop the western rider and
horse. The goal is to develop rhythm, relaxation, balance and
the acceptance of the aids through the tried and true historical
methods of traditional dressage. Western Dressage is not
intended to build a dressage horse, nor simply put a western
saddle on a dressage horse. It is a means by which the rider is
able to improve the performance of a western horse.
Western Dressage horses are generally lighter and
handier, and don’t have the extravagant movement i.e. lift and
ground cover observed in those commonly seen in traditional
dressage. Of note, the western dressage horse still needs to be a
forward moving horse, requiring impulsion, suppleness,
engagement and a swinging back.
Of critical importance are three good gaits. The walk needs to
have a pure four beat rhythm and over-track. The jog should be free
and elastic, with some suspension. The lope should be a clear three
beat rhythm with a level, or uphill balance. After Training Level, the
horse is required to be adjustable in stride length within the gaits. A
horse with these attributes in addition to a good mind will do very
well in Western Dressage.
The tests are very similar to traditional dressage tests with
directives for each level and movement which should be well
understood by the rider.
Expectation of Performance
Western Dressage is more than just riding
a test in Western tack but it should be clearly recognizable as
Dressage. The traditional scale of training is applied to the
western horse. Relative to the level ridden, there should be
contact and/or connection where the horse is clearly working
over his back. Beginning at 1st Level, the tests call for
lengthening of strides, therefore impulsion and ground cover are
required. At 2nd level, the horse is expected to be reliably on
the bit. Collection is judged relative to the level ridden, and the
degree of difficulty of the movements increase accordingly.
Directives are set out for each level.
A good western dressage horse should be able to attain a satisfactory
score of 60% or above, at the level of capability. The principles are the
same, the tack is different, but the training is compatible with
At this time, licensed dressage judges are judging Western
Dressage. They need to look for, and reward correct basic dressage training
no matter what the tack is.
WJ (Noni) Hartvikson is a licensed Equine Canada Basic Dressage Judge. She was a candidate in the first USEF Western Dressage Judge Training Program and is one of fourteen judges (four in Canada) to obtain a license in 2014.