Begin the Dance with Sandra Beaulieu - Introduction to Western Dressage

I have had many western riders join my dressage clinics to improve their balance and skills. Some have previous experience showing western dressage, but many are just getting started. As a judge, I saw an average of 1-4 western dressage riders per schooling show last year but those numbers are going to keep rising. I really like the western dressage tests; they are well thought out and helpful for the progression of the horse and rider. I particularly like their emphasis on soft contact, stating "never create more impulsion than your bridle can handle". I would much rather see a horse with less impulsion that is light in the hand than a horse at full impulsion leaning heavily into the bit.

Valerie Hodder rides her horse Moondog in a lesson at Connecticut Equestrian Center in Coventry, CT. Photo taken by Karen Hendrick Lendvay.

Valerie Hodder rides her horse Moondog in a lesson at Connecticut Equestrian Center in Coventry, CT. Photo taken by Karen Hendrick Lendvay.

The western dressage levels are similar to regular dressage. The Intro level in western dressage has walk/jog with emphasis on relaxation of the back and soft contact. Basic level is similar to Training Level with walk, job, lope and 20 meter circles. Level 1 is similar to First Level except that it has turn on the forehand, a move that you will not see in any regular dressage tests. Level 2 adds shoulder-in like Second Level and has simple changes, turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches. Level 3 adds half-pass like Third Level.


Western Dressage FAQ:

  • Do I have to ride a western-type breed of horse? No, western dressage is open to all breeds.
  • Do I have to ride one-handed? If you are riding with a snaffle bit you will ride with TWO hands. If you have a curb bit you may ride with one or two but need to stay consistent throughout the entire test.
  • What is the judge looking for in a jog or lope? There is a lot of confusion amongst riders about the amount of activity or ground cover the judge is looking for. The type of jog or lope you see in western pleasure classes lacks activity for a western dressage test. If the horse is dragging his feet and looks "lazy" then he will score lower, the same as regular dressage. I tell people to make sure the horse shows energy, willingness and activity but he certainly shouldn't be rushing out of balance. You can watch some sample videos on the WDAA website to get a better idea of what your test should look like.

If you have any more questions please contact me by email, beginthedance@gmail.com. I would be happy to work with western dressage riders in any of my clinics and I hope to see some new faces in the show ring this year!

Teaching Valerie Hodder on her horse Moondog during a clinic at Five Oaks Equestrian Center in Tolland, CT. Photo taken by Karen Hendrick Lendvay.

Teaching Valerie Hodder on her horse Moondog during a clinic at Five Oaks Equestrian Center in Tolland, CT. Photo taken by Karen Hendrick Lendvay.


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with Sandra Beaulieu, USDF bronze and silver medalist with competition experience through Grand Prix, USDF "L" judge, dressage trainer, bit-less instructor, equine artist, and author: