It has been interesting to watch the different directions that Western Dressage and Cowboy Dressage have taken since their public inception only a few short years ago. Developing a new "discipline" in which you encourage others to participate obviously has its demands and difficulties as you try to make sure that everybody is on the same page and viewing the goals, methods, and definitions of the discipline in the same way. In order to establish any form of competition in which people can showcase their work a common ground is necessary. Establishing that common ground can be most challenging.
I was one of the first members of the WDAA. I participated in their members forum as many of the definitions and terms and goals of this fledgling organization were discussed. It was frustrating to be part of, quite frankly. There was such a vast gulf in where folks were coming from with backgrounds in such opposing methodologies and training practices. Just deciding what a WD "trot" was supposed to mean and whether or not it would be called a trot was a long and painful discussion with passionate opinions on all sides of the discussion. I'm afraid that the beginning of the end of my participation with this organization was the decision to be adopted by the USEF. While I understand how inclusion in this organization lends a fledgling group credibility, it really began to interfere with what I felt was the purpose of Western Dressage as I had been introduced to it. Don't get me wrong, Western Dressage and the WDAA is here to stay. It offers a well thought out and very structured discipline for folks that like to ride dressage but prefer the comfort/style or lure of the western tack. It allows many dressage horses to branch out a little and explore their ability to be ridden under two styles of attire and gear. Unfortunately, it is this very aspect of the thought of a dressage horse in western tack that gives the discipline its most vociferous opponents as well.
But, riding a dressage horse in western tack has never been my goal.
I was introduced to the notion of Western Dressage as Cowboy Dressage by Eitan Beth-Helachamy. As a devout Morgan enthusiast I had long admired Eitan and his dancing Morgan Holiday Compadre. Watching Eitan represent the United States in the Equestrian Games on the ever impressive Santa Fe Renegade brought tears to my eyes. I jumped at the opportunity to ride with Eitan at a regional clinic and my devotion to this style of riding and the goal of lightness was cemented. I assumed at that time that Western Dressage would be my avenue for that goal.
As it became increasingly obvious that Western Dressage was evolving into something much different than Eitan's original goals for Cowboy Dressage the two entities respectfully parted ways to pursue what they believe to be the purpose of their respective organizations. While folks continue to use the two terms interchangeably I am quick to correct that misconception. Cowboy Dressage is NOT Western Dressage and vice versa.
One of the many ways to illustrate that principle lies in the recent inclusion of the Suitability class in the Western Dressage shows. Suitability is defined as "the quality of having the properties that are right for a specific purpose". Many Western Dressage shows are now including this class for young horses that have never shown Western Dressage before. They are to be shown at gaits to include extensions of the jog and collected walk. They are to be judged on their ability to move freely in a steady rhythm with light contact on the bit and suppleness and lightness on the forehand and engagement of the hindquarters. My understanding is that this class is a group class similar to other horse show venues where the horses are all asked to perform at the same time. I'm told it's a great way to introduce a green horse to the environment and see if your horse is well suited to pursuing work in Western Dressage.
Many of you might be reading along thinking, uh-huh, of course, that makes sense. It is common practice in many other disciplines to judge young horses for the potential to succeed in the show ring down the road. Here is my issue with the class. Looking at a group of horses that have yet to embark on their training in the field of dressage and judging them on whether they are suitable to continue is like evaluating a class of first graders on their ability to go on and be rocket scientists.
Cowboy Dressage is about getting the absolute best out of both you and your horse. It is a personal journey to correctness of form, lightness of aids, and elevated communication between rider and horse. It is NOT about which horse has the "springiest" movement, or stretchiest jog, or lowest headset. It is about where you are today and where you are going tomorrow.
Cowboy dressage has a come one, come all attitude of inclusion. You and your horse, no matter your ability, background, breed, age or training style are welcome to participate, share, learn and grow for the improvement of the movement of the western style horse.
There are no membership fees. There are no dues. There are no training packages or special tack items that you need to buy to participate in Cowboy Dressage. Nobody is going to tell you to don a helmet or ride with one hand or not ride in your ranch saddle fresh off the range. There is no "type" or "breed" of horse that is designed to excel in this endeavor and that is why judging a horse on its ability to respond to lightness and correctness before its journey has even begun has no place in Cowboy Dressage. You, the rider, gets to decide what direction your horse's ability and aptitude will take you, not a judge. The judge is there merely to help you mark your progress along your way.
Let me just make this perfectly clear. If you are a rider who embraces the Western style and mentality and you have a horse that you would like to help reach his full potential as a collected, correct and responsive partner in ANY western discipline, you and your mount both are very well suited to Cowboy Dressage. Welcome, friend, and let the journey begin.