The Best of Both Worlds
Stereotypes are dangerous things. I try to avoid them, but at the same time, some sweeping generalizations contain a grain of truth. The self-righteousness of the horse world is one of them; it contains a heaping scoop of truth, not just some stray kernels.
When they are not riding, horse people of all stripes spend a lot of time talking about what is wrong with other horse people. Dressage riders condemn the roweled spurs and shank bits Western riders use as cruel and unnecessary. Western riders say the same about the tight nosebands dressage horses wear. Dressage riders look down on Western riders as a bunch of undereducated cowboy types who yell yee-haw and yank their horses to a stop instead of using a civilized series of half-halts. The cowboy types, in turn, view dressage riders as a bunch of stuck-up middle-aged women in tight pants who pay huge amounts of money for a huge Hanoverian they are then too scared to ride and too embarrassed to sell again. Both groups routinely accuse each other of animal abuse and ignorance.
Having spent over twenty years in the horse business, I have formed some pretty strong opinions about some things, too. I believe that patience is the most important quality for anyone who works with horses. I have argued with many owners of dressage horses I had in training over the importance of daily turnout, preferably with another horse or two, because I think it’s cruel to keep a horse in a box stall for 23 hours a day while they think it’s cruel to not protect a horse from the elements. I have tried to explain to many owners of Western horses I had in training that soft rein contact is not the same as pulling on the horse’s mouth and does not make horses dull to the bit, just the opposite. So yes, I have formed my share of core beliefs around horses and horsemanship. But I don’t think either style of riding is in any way “better” than the other.
Western riding evolved from using horses on cattle ranches, first in Spain, then North America. It’s a working style of horsemanship, meaning that the rider usually has a job to do in addition to riding the horse, like roping, moving cows across a pasture, or checking fence lines.
It’s important that Western horses are light, responsive, and balanced for this work. It's just as important that horse and rider understand each other. But the original Western riders needed to focus on the task at hand, not just on riding, which is why communication between riders and their horses consists of intermittent signals, like “keep trotting until I tell you otherwise.” Ranch work can take all day, which is why the Western saddle is designed for maximum comfort of horse and rider: lots of padding creates some cushion, but also some distance between the rider’s seat and the horse’s back.
The movements of classical dressage evolved in the context of the European cavalries that used horses in battle. But at places like the Spanish Riding School, dressage has been an art form with an emphasis on aesthetic qualities for centuries. Dressage horses are the equivalent of human gymnasts, or figure skaters. It’s important for them to be light, responsive, and balanced, just like a good Western horse, and just like in Western riding, horse-rider communication is crucial. The difference is that a dressage rider and horse can focus exclusively on each other, without worrying about anything else. Communication is more constant because of this, more like “now prepare to transition to the trot . . . Now transition to the trot . . . Now prepare to bend left . . . Now bend left . . . Dressage saddles are designed to allow very close contact between horse and rider, which would not be comfortable in the long run, but that’s ok because rides last about an hour at most.
Both riding styles evolved over the centuries. They continue to evolve. Today, competition has eclipsed the importance of their historical contexts. Dressage and Western shows reinterpret the respective original purpose of both types of horsemanship. Some riders do this in a responsible way that respects the horse. Many less experienced competitors who want to win simply imitate what the winning riders do and how their horses look, without really understanding why. The show arena produces spectacular exaggerations, like a flashy extended trot with spectacular front leg action but little real engagement, or a stop in a reining class that, had it been executed during actual ranch work, would have given the cow lots of time to get away while the horse is still sliding. Competition creates extremes because a competitive atmosphere encourages a mindset of “more is better.” During the infamous peanut roller craze of the 1990s, Western Pleasure rulebooks specified, correctly, that a relaxed horse should travel in a low frame and at an unhurried pace. But because many of the horses with the lowest neck and the slowest gaits won, Western Pleasure soon became a contest of how slowly a horse could crawl along the rail with its nose brushing the ground.
In spite of these extremes, and in spite of the competitive atmosphere, most show riders try to be fair to their horses. Both good and bad horsemanship happens at dressage shows, and at hunter/jumper competitions, and at Western shows, and on endurance rides, and in people’s back yards. Good horsemanship is not limited to any particular style of riding or any specific type of tack. Good horsemanship means that horse and rider understand and trust each other. Good horsemanship means that a horse’s mental and physical well-being is more important than its show results. This is why labels like “Dressage” or “Western” don’t mean much to me. I hope that the new discipline of “Western Dressage” is a sign that more people focus on what Dressage and Western riding have in common, instead of on what makes them different. What unites us is so much more than what divides us.