Have you recently attended a dressage show and spotted some seemingly out of place western horses? Western dressage is a fairly new addition to equine competition, and whenever I compete at recognized dressage shows with my two mares decked out in western, I certainly get a lot of questions.

What is Western Dressage?

The United States Equestrian Federation defines it as “a systematic and progressive system of training for the western horse and rider in traditional stock tack with the purpose of enjoying a safe, pleasurable, versatile, and useful working horse.” Each level adds new movements that build upon the skills proven in the last level. The end goal, according to the Western Style Dressage Association of Canada rule book is, “an athlete that is a pleasure to ride, and works in harmony with the rider.”

Karen Nelson on her Arabian x Dutch Harness horse at the Sparkles and Spurs Dressage Show. Photo by Linda Linstad

Karen Nelson on her Arabian x Dutch Harness horse at the
Sparkles and Spurs Dressage Show. Photo by Linda Linstad.

Unlike typical western classes, a horse doesn’t need to show in a curb at a certain age, and the development of gaits is done as a progression of training through the levels, rather than requiring collection right from the start.

7 Benefits of Western Dressage over English Dressage

1. You don’t have to braid. No more mane pulling, roaching, or worrying that your horse is rubbing out its braids while you change into show clothes for your class. A neat and tidy groom job is all that is required.

2. No white breeches. If you are like me and can’t help but look like a grubby little kid after a few minutes of holding your horse in sparkling whites, then you will appreciate the dress code of Western Dressage. Competition wear includes a western hat or helmet, long sleeve shirt, boots with a proper heel, and long pants (chaps optional). No restrictions on color or sparkle! Aside from the boots and hat, you can literally buy your show clothes at your local department store.



3. You can go bitless. Or with a snaffle. Or a curb. Western Dressage does have some limits on what type of bits or bitless options you can use, but there are definitely more choices than with English dressage, which makes it a good option for some horses who struggle with a bit, or riders who would just prefer bitless.

4. A jog is easier to sit than a trot. How many riders get stuck at first level because they just can’t sit their big warmblood’s medium trot? In western style dressage the gaits are meant to be easy to sit. They aren’t looking for huge movement, they are looking for “pleasure to ride”.

5. A suitable, competitive horse costs less. If you are getting frustrated that your pleasant-but-very-average-moving little horse can’t compete against the fancy, floating-on-air warmbloods, you may want to consider western dressage. The gaits in western dressage are more within reach of your average horse and only include working, collected, lengthened and free. No more worry about achieving medium and extended gaits. Common breeds such as Quarter Horses, Arabians and Morgans are well suited to the western style, as are many other breeds. A pleasant, trainable horse will take you far.

©flickr/Katherine Mustafa

©flickr/Katherine Mustafa

6. You can compete online. The Western Style Dressage Association of Canada holds regular online competitions where you submit a video of your test to be judged and placed. This can really help competitors on a limited budget or who live in remote areas.

7. Gaited horses can play. Both Canada and the US have dressage tests and rules specifically for gaited breeds.


Western Dressage is something to consider for riders who like the format and progressive nature of dressage, but appreciate the difference Western Dressage offers, so if you happen to see a western saddle at your next dressage show, maybe take some time to see what it is all about.

Did I mention you don’t have to braid?


About the Author

Karen Nelson is owner/operator of Hillside Stable near Edmonton, Alberta. She has been showing rdressage since 2007, and western dressage since 2015