Judging Western Dressage

Last weekend I had my first venture into judging western dressage. I’ve gone on record as not being particularly happy about the term “western dressage.” To me dressage is dressage, and tack does not define it. My biggest concern with the idea is that, instead of trot or canter, the gaits referred to in western dressage are jog and lope. Because of that distinction, the U.S. Dressage Federation has not adopted western dressage under its aegis. However, The U.S. Equestrian Federation, which writes the competition rules for straight dressage shows, now has a separate western dressage division, and it is to be judged by licensed USEF dressage judges like myself.

The western dressage score sheet doesn’t include impulsion.

I was invited to judge the dressage classes at a Morgan show, open only to horses of that breed. (Some breed shows open their dressage classes to all comers, but not this specific show.) I was told it would include western dressage classes, and I explained my reservations to the show management, that I would need to score as insufficient any jog that wasn’t clearly a diagonal two-beat gait or any lope that wasn’t clearly three-beat, just as I would at any regular dressage show. They said no problem. I then studied the USEF rules and the western tests at length. They also emphasized that the jog would be a diagonal two-beat gait and the lope a clear three-beat gait. So far, so good.

The Morgan division used to write its own rules for western dressage, but since the USEF added a separate western dressage division last year, the Morgans have dropped their own rules and tests in lieu of those rules instead. This was a good plan – makes things more consistent and less confusing to have one set of rules and tests rather than two. At the show, I judged only the Intro and Basic classes, equivalent roughly to Intro and Training in regular dressage. Things seemed to go pretty smoothly, although the tests clearly call for freedom in the strides, and at times that seemed to be lacking.

A significant difference between the score sheets for straight dressage and those for western dressage is found at the bottom in the boxes for collective marks. Straight dressage has six boxes there: gaits, impulsion and submission plus three more for the rider. Western dressage has five boxes: gaits, submission, rider position, accuracy and harmony. The gait box uses the same directive for both western and straight dressage: “Freedom and regularity.” The important distinction on the western sheets is that the impulsion box is dropped while the submission score is multiplied by a coefficient of 2. Coupled with the harmony box, that is a significant emphasis on submission for western dressage over straight dressage.

I also found some of the western dressage rules to be very interesting, at least in contrast to the straight dressage rules. For example, bucking requires elimination in western dressage, while it’s merely a score reduction in straight dressage. There was no reference to rearing, which I consider to be a much bigger issue than bucking in terms of both safety and submission. Both curb and snaffle bits are allowed (as are hackamores) and riders can choose to ride with one hand on the reins or two. Posting is allowed. Drop nose bands are not allowed. Use of voice aids is allowed. Wow, that would be a big one in straight dressage, where any use of voice is an automatic deduction.

The lower-level tests that I judged flowed fairly well but were considerably longer than their counterparts in straight dressage. I suspect they will continue to be reviewed as this new discipline gathers interest. It will be interesting to see how the gait score and the term “freedom” continue to be interpreted as both more riders and judges give these tests a try.

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