California Riding Magazine • June, 2012

Ask Charles Wilhelm
The rules of Western Dressage

Question: I am interested in Western Dressage and I would like to compete but I have found that they have some rules that I do not agree with. For one, you can't communicate with your horse verbally. I have a reined cow horse and I am not allowed to use slobber chains nor am I allowed to use a hackamore. What are your thoughts on these rules?

Answer: Every discipline has its own rules but I do agree with you. I believe that every horse should be able to perform their best and verbal communication and encouragement is part of that. Also, every horse should be able to do anything no matter what you put on the face. The exception is when you ride bridleless. Riding without a bridle you don't have connection to the face and for dressage you need that connection in order to engage the hocks. Sometimes this is referred to as the horse being on the bit. You need to be able to make that connection from the back to the front.

The bit is a connection from the poll to the rear hocks of the horse. When I rode dressage with Major Miguel Travera, I did ride my horse in a hackamore and he gave me a hard time about that. However, he did like the way my horse traveled, the way he carried himself, his responsiveness and collection. I did find that by using a snaffle bit I was able to communicate with the horse more specifically. With a bit your communication is much more specific and this is desirable for dressage. You can use a leverage bit in cowboy or western dressage competition but there are certain bits that they don't want used. Those are also the same types of bits that are not allowed in reining cow horse competitions.

The rules against using slobber chains or riding with a hackamore don't make much sense to me. In doing western dressage it is not the equipment or the look but the performance and the principles that matter. For me, the principles are the most important aspect. There is a person on the East Coast who has teamed up with a saddle company and is marketing a special western dressage saddle. To me, that is not being western and is not real western or cowboy dressage.
Western and english dressage use the same basic principles. I like the principles because this discipline engages the horse's mind. The horse becomes very obedient. You can get along without using verbal cues because your physical cues must be very specific. For example, if you need energy, it comes through your seat or legs, or both as needed.

Your body position plays a role as well. I refer to that as body english. A correct (balanced) position is necessary for good performance. Again, it is the principle of the correct position that illustrates what dressage is all about. Just like the rules for anything else, the rules must be followed if you are going to compete. I have horses here at the ranch that at 8 years old can do everything in a hackamore or a snaffle bit. Because of the American Quarter Horse Association age limit rule, a horse after age 6 is required to be shown in a bridle. When those horses are shown, they are ridden with a bit. When they come home, we ride them in hackamores and snaffles. Do we disagree? Yes, but we comply.

I do disagree with some of the western dressage rules but I believe the competition is an opportunity to do something different with your horse and increase your riding skills. Doing a dressage test will cause you to be very specific in your communication with the horse. This is one of my biggest complaints with my clients and riders who come in for clinics. They believe their horses are very obedient but when asked to transition at a certain letter on the side of the arena or halt at a certain point, they are not able to do it. They are not specific with the commands. The horse should be extremely obedient when the commands are specific.

The word dressage means well-trained. I like to think of a dressage horse as a well-trained horse that is obedient. Don't be discouraged with the rules. Around here at the ranch we call our well-trained horses, super horses. They can do dressage, play with cows, do ranch work, go on the trail, drag tarps, play with the ball, carry a flag, be ridden in a parade or go in a show. The more a horse knows, the more you can do and the more fun you can have. Get involved with the competition, enjoy building your skill level and that of your horse and have fun.

God Bless,
Charles Wilhelm