With its diversity in disciplines, every single horseback rider to takes on various challenges with their horses. Some jump, while others rope cattle. Some ride dozens of miles of rugged terrain, while others yet will fearlessly bound over hurdles into deep pools of water.
No matter the discipline, though, one thing is common: every equestrian discipline is firmly planted in the harmony between one rider and one horse, a harmony that can only be achieved through a cultivated connection. If we were to take this foundation and give it a name, we would call it Dressage.
Named after the French word for “Training”, Dressage is not only the basis of all equestrian sporting, but is also a discipline of its own. Dressage showcases, up close, the extraordinary depths of connection that horse and rider can reach.
What You'll Learn Today
Origins Of Dressage
Since its induction to the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, Dressage has long been regarded as a classical English riding discipline. Consisting of a series of skill tests, horses and riders compete by executing the maneuvers of the test together, and are scored based on their rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection.
The roots of Dressage hail all the way back to Greek Horsemanship in 400 BC, where the Greek military commander, Xenophon, was known to have produced the earliest writings on horsemanship. Dressage evolved through the military further through the Imperial Spanish Riding School of Vienna (est. in 1572).
Even in its early Olympic days, Dressage was restricted to military riders only. In 1953, competitions opened up to civilian men and women to compete in the discipline. Classical military precision carried down through English Dressage as the basis of horsemanship and harmonious connection.
That is, until the cowboys stepped in – as they do – and showed us how horsemanship is done in the West.
The Cowboy That Changed Dressage Forever
Cowboy Dressage enthusiasts attribute the sport to one day and one man. Classical Dressage was a standalone sport until a fated day in 1993 at the Morgan Grand National Show, when Eitan Beth Helachmy took a victory lap with his winning Morgan Western Pleasure horse, Holiday Compadre:
“Eitan showed that his stallion could as easily go from a western pleasure jog to an extended trot to a reining spin and sliding stop and then a canter pirouette all with soft feel, lightness and partnership. They shattered the rules about what a Western horse was supposed to do and look like and a new style was born,” (from Cowboy Dressage).
Eitan Beth Helachmy inspired a movement known as Cowboy Dressage, which soon led to the induction of Western Dressage, a discipline ordained by USEF and standardized as the WDAA, the Western Dressage Association of America.
Dressage: No Longer Just An English Discipline
While Classical English Dressage is still dominant in the equestrian world, there is now a huge draw towards Western Dressage.
First and foremost, it attracts the competitors from Western disciplines – such as roping and barrel racing – and gives them a space to showcase the connection they have established with their horses. Western Dressage is welcoming to beginners and all horse breeds, which has only added to its success as a discipline.
Western Dressage, like Classical Dressage, takes place in a large arena (20 by 40 meters or 20 by 60 meters) that is marked with the same signifying letters, and requires the horse to execute a similar combination of moves within a test. It also requires the horse to bend through their whole body (nose to tail) through the inside of a corner or circle.
Differences Between Western And English Dressage
Though very similar in approach, Western and English Dressage maintain a few differences.
Firstly, Western and English attire and tack remain true to their original disciplines. By extension, Western Dressage permits curb and snaffle bits to be used. Both can be ridden with two hands, but if a competitor chooses to ride their curb bit with one hand, they cannot switch hands or go between one-handed and two-handed riding.
The allowance of the curb bit shows the lightness and precision of contact that the horse and rider have achieved with such a sensitive bit, thereby showcasing their connection.
Western Dressage also differs in gaits, replacing the trot with the jog, and the canter with the lope in its tests. Western Dressage, unlike English Dressage, also includes a 360-degree turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches.
But possibly the greatest distinction between Western and English Dressage is the range of expression in movement. While Classical English Dressage seeks specific expression in the horse’s movement, Western Dressage judges will take breed-specific conformation into consideration when evaluating movement.
For example, a judge would expect very different expressions of the same movement from a Quarter Horse, an Arab, and a Morgan. While the focus is still on the six tenets of the training scale, their expression can be more or less extravagant, depending on their breed.
Cowboy Dressage Vs Western Dressage
Though Eitan Beth Helachmy inspired the induction of Western Dressage, the movement has resulted in two distinct disciplines. Once the equestrian world acknowledged Western Dressage as a sport, it departed from the original tenets of Cowboy Dressage, and arguably became simply a Western version of Classical Dressage.
The heart of Cowboy Dressage is the well-being of the horse. To Cowboy Dressage founders, that implied training the horse to have a minimal contact with the bit, creating a light and nuanced connection with its rider.
This fundamental difference caused Cowboy Dressage to split into its own discipline with a distinct set of competition rules. While the competition structure is very similar, judges look for self-carriage, and for the horses to move off the bit instead of reaching into it.
Harmony And Connection – Classical, Western, And Cowboy Dressage
Despite all their differences, the focus of every Dressage discipline is the connection between the horse and rider. The rider cannot progress without the wholehearted participation of the horse.
Whether you are a Classical, Western, or Cowboy Dressage enthusiast, the name “Dressage” rings true in that the tests, practised at home or displayed at a show, exist to help the horses and riders “train” and progress together in their skills as one. The core of all Dressage is to create a happier horse, healthier connection, and a growing partnership between horse and rider.