Frequently Asked Questions

What is Western Dressage?

 Western Dressage is a renaissance of Western riding. It merges the Classical Dressage principles with working Western riding. The objective is to develop and train a horse to move with freedom and regularity, remaining soft and light to the riders aids while being light on the forehand and engaging the hindquarters. The Dressage training concepts build a horse to be strong and soft through their body (laterally as well as longitudinally). 

The Western Dressage tests are not to be mistaken as “patterns”. The tests are designed for different training levels for both horse and rider. These tests are designed to do exactly that- test! They test the horse and rider on their training. Receiving marks on each individual movement will help the rider gage where in their training needs improvement as well as their strong suits lay and where they are excelling. 

The directives you are judged on in the movements in a Western Dressage test are bend, balance, regularity and quality of movement, willingness, straightness, rhythm. Each movement will not be requiring all directives at once, however more than one. The test is divided into many different movements- each one receiving a mark from 0-10. At the end of the test there are collective marks which is where the horse and rider will be marked on the test as a whole. These consist of, the overall accuracy of your test, the quality of the horses gaits, rider position and equitation and the compliance of the horse. The lovely thing about a test is that if you have a movement or two that is a weak point or does not go well, there are many other movements for you to be judged on. It is important to remember as you ride your test that life is like a dressage test- If your too busy thinking about your last move that was poor, your next one won’t be much better either. 

Many of those who are already riding western, use Western Dressage as almost like a “cross training” method to help with another western discipline they also train or compete in. I have spoken to reiners, barrel racers and cow horse riders/trainers that all agree they use Western Dressage principles in their training. On the other end of the spectrum why Western Dressage is so fabulous, is for riders like myself who just can’t seem to find a Dressage saddle they love to sit in, a Western saddle is much preferred. Western Dressage allows those riders who are passionate about Dressage to stay in their preferred Western saddle. 

To recap, Western Dressage isn’t just English Dressage with Western tack, although they are closely similar, Western Dressage is designed to show the best qualities of a Western horse using their own tests and movements. Along with Classical Dressage, the concepts promote a free, light, sound moving horse so the longevity of your horses life and riding career are preserved. 

-Alyssa Van Wyk 

SMWSD Chair 

Western Dressage Coach, Trainer, Competitor 

Western Dressage Canadian National Champion 


What is the Difference Between Western Dressage and Cowboy Dressage?

  There are far more similarities than differences between Western Dressage and Cowboy Dressage. Both are based on dressage principles of developing a harmonious relationship between a well schooled horse and a sensitive rider.

Eitan Beth-Halachmy came to the USA in the late 1960s and over the years developed a method of training western horses using classical dressage principles. He laid the foundation for both disciplines. He established his trademarked business Cowboy Dressage as well as being on the advisory board for the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA). Cowboy Dressage World is the infrastructure for the Cowboy Dressage company while the WDAA runs under the umbrella of the United States Equestrian Association. Our national body is the Western Style Dressage Association of Canada. 

Both Western Dressage and Cowboy Dressage feature tests that evaluate the horse and rider’s progress up through increasingly difficult levels. They are ridden in an arena where particular movements such as circles, straight lines and halts are performed at specific points marked by letters. Both also offer the opportunity to make up your own freestyle rides. Western Dressage is more closely related to classical dressage in that it uses exactly the same ring and many of the same movements. While Cowboy Dressage has a similar but smaller ring, they also have a challenge court which includes ground poles and cones at specific spots of aid in riding the movements. Cowboy Dressage also offers classes for ground work showing horses in hand. Western Dressage has a Ridability course in which obstacles are added to the arena in a test somewhat similar to that of Working Equitation. 

There are subtle differences in the main focus of each disciple. Western Dressage is a systematic and progressive system of training for the western horse and rider to help the horse become more supple, strong and responsive and the rider to learn to use the lightest of aids and softest of contact. It is a structured program where each step builds upon another to develop a happy, harmonious, horse and rider relationship.

“’Soft Feel’ (the ability to send messages and the sensitivity and awareness to feel the messages the horse sends back) is the goal of Cowboy Dressage®. Light or soft contact does not mean using long, uncommunicative, reins and allowing the horse to travel imbalanced. It means Light/Soft contact. Soft Feel is achieved when the seat, hands and aids are used correctly. It is the end result of all aids in proper use, balance, rhythm and partnership.” Of prime importance is the partnership between horse and rider. 

Although they come from slightly different points of view and training methods both Western Dressage and Cowboy Dressage work from the love of horses, respect for horses and the importance of a deep trust and bond between partners. In the United States many riders compete in both disciplines very successfully and all enjoy a deepening relationship with their horse. 

-Barb Wansbutter

SMWSD Membership Director


What Are Western Dressage Tests?

  Dressage means training….whether that dressage is performed in an English saddle, a Western saddle, or a driving cart, the principles are the same – working your way up through progressive levels of a training system over a period of years. 

“Tests aren’t just TESTS…they’re a full training program, a philosophy, a tried and true method of training horses from beginning to Grand Prix, and if done in the order of the tests (not skipping steps), then following these tests, learning them one by one, is one of the best ways we have to improve the horse’s health, fitness, oxygen uptake and strength.”

The Western Style Dressage Association of Canada produces the tests for Canadian riders. As with all dressage, these tests are carefully built so that each new skill builds on the previous ones. There are 6 levels: Introductory, Basic, Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 and Level 4. Each level is comprised of 4 tests (A, B, C, & D) of increasing difficulty. So 6 levels, 4 tests per level – 24 tests to work through over a period of years. Horse and rider partnerships work at their own speed, there is no timetable for going through the levels. When one level has been mastered you move on to the next one. 

Dressage tests are prearranged movements ridden within a 20x40m (Introductory) or 20x60m arena with the movements happening at specific letters always showing relaxation and a very light contact. The first test (Intro A) is comprised of large circles, straight lines and halts with all work at the walk and jog. The last test (Level 4 D) includes collected and lengthened work, lots of lope movements – half pass zig zags, flying changes every third stride, half pirouette and more. Riding these figures allows us to test our partnership against a standard in front of an experienced judge and receive feedback which helps us to continue to learn and grow. 

All the Western Dressage tests in use at our shows can be found at the WSDAC website It may be interesting to read some of them over to get a feel for it. One thing to note is that you may do rising or sitting jog or a combination of both up until Level 2 when the jog must be sitting. 

Let’s use Basic Level as an example of how the tests build on each other – The biggest change from the Introductory level is the addition of lope movements. Basic A introduces lope circles, picking up the lope riding through the first ½ of the circle at the end of the arena. Nothing new is added at Test B, things are just mixed up a bit. Test C introduces 15m half circles at the jog and a three loop serpentine at the jog. Test D asks for a 15m full circle at the jog, a 20m half circle at the lope along the side wall and a 20m free jog circle (on a loose rein). Once these tests are all mastered, the new challenges of Level 1 such as lengthened gaits, leg yield, reinback, 10m circles and more are brought into the training program. And so it goes, learning something new at each level with your horse becoming stronger and more responsive and you becoming more sensitive and softer, lighter in your riding. It is all about building a harmonious partnership between you and your horse. And having fun doing it!

- Barb Wansbutter

SMWSD Membership Director