Sea of Changes

Nearly 10 years ago, I ran into a gentleman at the Minnesota Horse Expo by the name of Randy Byers.  Behind him was a lovely photo of a Quarter Horse performing shoulder-in down the long side of a dressage arena.  At the time, Quarter Horse were participating in dressage, but it was a little shocking to see a large poster of one; most posters exemplifying dressage would show a warmblood, usually performing a ridiculously huge extended trot with his nose pulled in close to his chest and the highest point of his neck at the third or fourth vertebrae.

The fact that Randy’s horse, Carbon, was a Quarter Horse on a poster showing dressage was shocking enough, but my next observation stopped me in my tracks—he was in a Western saddle, and Randy was wearing jeans and a button-down Western shirt rather than breeches and a top hat.  Wow!  I was instantly filled with excitement. I was a backyard amateur horse owner who had recently started taking dressage lessons but didn’t want to give up my Western saddle. “Dressage Queens” had a well-known reputation for turning up their noses at people like me.  And so, with help from my sister, Greta, and others, Midwest Western Dressage was formed; that group later morphed into North American Western Dressage a couple of years down the road.

Since then, Western Dressage has been accepted by the United States Equestrian Federation as a recognized discipline.  But so much more has changed—so many things that are far more important.  Remember the Dressage Queens?  I ran into an astounding amount of them when I started this journey and many of them reacted with shock and dismay to my suggestion that we could all play together.  I heard comments such as “This is just dumbed-down dressage for people that can’t do the real thing” and “Western saddles don’t have the right feel for dressage.”  But they were the minority.  Many more people embraced the concept and fought to allow Western Dressage at traditional dressage shows.

I also connected with several dressage professionals who understood that dressage is more than a sport—it is a foundation for all disciplines and a way to keep your horse healthy and sound.  I discovered that some hard-core dressage enthusiasts were very dissatisfied with the way the sport had evolved, that the biomechanics involved in the huge extended trot and the tight nosebands that often accompanied horses with their faces behind the vertical and broken at the third or fourth vertebrae were actually hurting the horse both mentally and physically.  These were the people who flocked to Western Dressage because they saw it as a chance for change.  And changing we ARE!  Back in 2010, very few people were talking about riding horses with a long neck and the face in front of the vertical.  A sea of change IS happening; here is a short list of what I am seeing as evidence.

  1. New articles are posted nearly every day about how to ride your horse with a long neck in front of the vertical.
  2. Horses in Western tack performing dressage are no longer considered strange or inferior.
  3. Dressage, while once reserved for the elite, is accessible to anyone (especially through budget-friendly virtual and online horse shows).
  4. Backyard riders are learning that dressage gives them goals and a great sense of achievement.  They are no longer saying, “I’m just a trail rider.”
  5. Equestrians are beginning to understand that dressage can be performed by any breed.

Indeed, we have a long way to go.  However, as the late great Steve Jobs said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

By Jen Johnson, North American Western Dressage

About North American Western Dressage
North American Western Dressage (NAWD) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating horse enthusiasts about the universal benefits of Western dressage and providing fun, affordable ways to participate in this popular new sport. NAWD offers a variety of programs as well as virtual coaching and showing opportunities, achievement awards and more. To learn more about Western dressage, virtual shows and how you can get involved, visit North American Western Dressage:

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