When you think of dressage, what do you envision? Probably an English rider wearing white breeches, a coat with tails, and a top hat, on a leggy Warmblood, doing maneuvers like the piaffe or the passage. That is the traditional image of Classical dressage, which is no surprise considering it has been around for hundreds of years. But, there’s a new kid in the dressage arena and they are shaking things up in chaps and cowboy hats.  

Western Dressage is the hot new discipline taking the horse world by storm. The Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) organized in 2011, but it has grown up fast. The United States Equestrian Federation officially recognized Western dressage as a discipline in 2013 and WDAA as the representative body for it. The annual WDAA World Championship Show attracts so many riders that it has turned into to a five-day event.

Western dressage might be the fastest growing discipline in the country. So what makes it so appealing? For one, it’s accessible. WDAA is open to all breeds (including mules and ponies) and all levels of riders. You don’t need a fancy horse or fancy tack to compete, so it’s also relatively affordable. Western dressage was created with the working horse in mind so it has a practical feel to it. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t go out chasing cows in my show saddle,” says Frances Carbonnel, a founding member of WDAA. “This is for everyday people.”

Frances Carbonnel talks about seat position during an equitation lesson.

Frances is a professional rider and instructor based in Colorado. She has a long career in the dressage world, including a gold medal at the Grand Prix level from the United States Dressage Federation. She’s also racked up more than a handful of awards at the WDAA World Championship Show. For nearly a decade Frances has helped to shape Western dressage. When the WDAA was forming and invited her to join, she jumped at the chance to contribute to a discipline that she hoped could honor the horse in a more humane way.

“If you’ve been in the show world for as long as some of us have been, what you see, quite frankly, is a lot of abuse,” says Frances. “Now, that may not be politically correct to say, but there is an awful lot of yank and spank, especially in the Western world. Pulling on bridles, spurring hard. A lot of us got really tired of seeing that go on and, a lot of times, even winning. So we thought, there’s a better way of training these horses and we know what it is – it’s dressage.”

But, don’t think of Western dressage as just dressage with a western saddle. Western dressage combines the principles of Classical dressage with the western stock horse tradition for a discipline that emphasizes lightness, balance, and partnership. The maneuvers are intended to be the foundation for any other type of Western riding, whether that is reining, cutting, or even trail riding. WDAA makes it clear that it is not their goal to create Western horses that compete in traditional dressage but to develop better Western horses using the principles of dressage and good horsemanship.

“[WDAA] is not into the piaffe and the passage yet, and we might not ever be,” says Frances  “But what we are into is making our working horses more supple, more usable. I take my fourth level freestyle champion horse and go play with cows! I believe very much that this system of training, based on dressage, is a great foundation for anything you want to take your horse into afterward.”   

Cliff Swanson watches a rider walking a gray horse in the arena.
Cliff Swanson watches a demo rider free walking a Mustang.

But perhaps what is most intriguing about Western dressage is that it judges each horse against itself, not against each other or a gold standard. If classical dressage is about the maximum expression of gaits, then Western dressage is about the relative expression of gaits. In other words, judges look to see if the horse is performing the maneuvers to the best of his capability. In that way, a Mustang, a mule, a pony, a gaited horse, and a Quarter Horse can all compete at the same level.

“Any horse can do this if they’ve got the right instruction,” says Vivian Mevorah, Vice President of the California Western Dressage Association (CAWDA). “In Classical dressage, if you don’t have a performance bred horse or a horse that has those natural suspended gaits, you really can’t compete past the second level. You can be out there, but you’re not going to get the marks.” She would know.

Vivian has been involved with Western dressage for about six years, but her background is in Classical dressage. She was competing at the Intermediaire I level and received a Bronze Medal and Masters Challenge Award at the FEI level when her horse decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. “We came to the point where he wouldn’t get in the trailer to go to the show and I said ‘That is telling me,’” says Vivian. “So I thought, what am I going to do with this well-trained horse that doesn’t want to compete?”

When a neighbor suggested Western dressage, Vivian decided to try it out. To her surprise, her horse loved it and so did she. “When I let him be able to just exist at his own gaits, instead of trying to make them bigger and bolder and stronger, he said ‘I can do this!’” Today, Vivian is competing in Western dressage on her Dutch Warmblood/Anglo-Arab cross gelding (once priced at $60,000) as well as her prison-trained mustang.

“Western dressage gave me a whole different perspective on the training of the horse,” she says. “In English dressage, everything was up and brilliance and suspension and getting your horse so revved up that you could pull the energy from him. Western dressage tones everything down and concentrates more on what that horse’s ability is and then bringing that to the front.”

Frances Carbonnel looks at Vivian Mevorah on her horse.
Frances Carbonnel looks over Vivian Mevorah and her horse Reveler.

Western dressage may be growing in popularity around the country, but it is still unknown to a lot of Nevada equestrians. Vivian is hoping to change that. She moved to Las Vegas last year from the Sacramento area and brought her love of Western dressage with her. If there was enough interest in the state, Nevada could form its own affiliate group under WDAA, but for now, Nevadans can join and compete under the California affiliate. Vivian has been organizing clinics and events in southern Nevada hoping to generate more interest in the discipline.

Her latest event not only drew in Nevadans but equestrians from around the country. Earlier this month, Vivian helped organize a two-day WDAA Train the Trainers clinic in Las Vegas. Nearly 40 amateur and professional trainers attended the clinic, some from as far away as Ohio and Mississippi. They all came to learn from the foremost experts in Western dressage: Frances Carbonnel and Cliff Swanson. There are few that know the discipline better than they.

Cliff is a founding member of WDAA and sits on the advisory board. He runs his own training stables in Colorado where he has won national and reserve world championships in all divisions of the Morgan Nationals. Cliff is also USEF certified judge and has taught clinics and judged shows all over the world. Together, Cliff and Frances developed the curriculum for WDAA’s Train the Trainers program in 2012 to help equine professionals better train their clients about Western dressage.

The program consists of morning classroom sessions that dive into the essential elements of Western dressage including gaits and paces, biomechanics, equitation, attire and tack, judging methodology, and more. After lunch, the group heads to an arena where demo riders show training techniques while Cliff and Frances take turns critiquing and answering questions. Attendees who complete the program receive a certificate of completion.

Cliff Swanson holds a bit as he talks to the audience.
Cliff Swanson discusses bits and other tack with clinic attendees.

“It was wonderfully put together,” says Barbara Callihan, owner of Happy Hoof Beats Equestrian Center in Pahrump and attendee at the recent clinic. “The love for the discipline is shown in their technique of coaching and mentoring.” Barbara is new to the Western dressage world but plans to incorporate it into her passion of Extreme Mountain Trail, a sport that she introduced to Nevada in 2017.

Barbara’s facility is the only sanctioned International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA) course in the state. Extreme Mountain Trail is also a relatively new discipline in the equestrian world, but Barbara sees the parallels between it and Western dressage. “Mountain Trail also has benchmarks and also has your letters,” she says. “You have your entry, your body, and your exit. You’re to do certain things at certain places to get the maximum safety and performance from your horse. It’s the same thing as with Western dressage.”

While Extreme Mountain Trail is her passion, Barbara is a big believer in using multiple disciplines to create the best horse and rider team. “I’m not one to believe in a single focus only,” she says. “And why shouldn’t I support another discipline? I don’t want to isolate myself.” Happy Hoof Beats recently announced plans to team up with Lisa Horning of NVS Morgans in Pahrump for a cross-training initiative.

Lisa has been showing in Western dressage for years and, ironically, was the neighbor that introduced Vivian to the discipline in California. Barbara and Lisa plan to team up to offer a variety of multi-discipline riding options in Pahrump to help equestrians strengthen their partnership with their horses, including Extreme Mountain Trail and Western dressage.

Barbara Callihan listens during the classroom portion of the clinic.
Barbara Callihan listens during the classroom portion of the clinic.

The Train the Trainers clinic was Barbara’s first foray into Western dressage, but she says the thing she likes about it is that it offers a level playing field for all horses and riders – just like Extreme Mountain Trail.

“It honors, supports, encourages individual horse movement and framework. It also honors and supports the individual person. In Western dressage and in IMTCA, I can keep improving my scores,” she says. “I find in contemporary horse shows, the look has so much to do with it. Here? It’s what can we see you do with your partner. I love it.”

The next WDAA Train the Trainer clinic will be held in Texas in November. Closer to home, Barbara has already organized a coaching clinic in Pahrump on Saturday, May 11 with Sasha Stark, a Grand Prix Dressage trainer and competitor who also specializes in Western dressage. On Saturday, May 18, Cottonwood Farm in Las Vegas will host a CAWDA Schooling Show. Vivian says more events are planned for southern Nevada in the future.

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