Roundabout Sisters - Cowboy Dressage


Last updated 5/4/2022 at Noon

Alison Toon

Cowboy Dressage has become a popular equestrian event.

Cowboy Dressage is one of the fastest-growing disciplines in the equestrian world. Who knew? The words Cowboy Dressage sound like an oxymoron, since cowboy horsemanship and Classical Dressage are miles apart in style, execution, and format. Picture horses of all breeds (even gaited) and equestrians of all levels performing graceful dressage movements in Western saddles and Stetson hats. Still not getting it?

Dressage has been around for 500 years, originally designed to train warhorses. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna had its beginnings in the 1500s. The American cowboy rose to prominence after the Civil War, a newbie in horsemanship skills. A cowboy’s riding skills were formed in long hours steering cattle hundreds of miles over rough country in all kinds of weather.

Today’s dressage horses perform exquisite movements in levels of competition, including Olympic. It’s really about the horse, its versatility, and a cowboy or cowgirl mastering it. A cowboy’s horse is already a marvel of versatility. So why not in a show ring?

Think of classical dressage embellished by Western tack and attire, only for the Western type of horse. Cowboy Dressage is meant to develop a happier, sounder horse that excels in all he does. It is not the intention of Cowboy Dressage to promote dressage horses in Western saddles and then judge them as dressage horses.

Who says men and women can’t do a canter pirouette and a spin, or a rollback and a piaffe in a Western saddle? Don’t snicker. Why wouldn’t there be competitions where riders of all ages and abilities compete at their own level, increasing their horsemanship as well as improving the quality of their horses? Now you’re getting it.

Cowboy Dressage has grown to enhance all types of working and pleasure horses and riders of all levels. The dressage element of this sport is crafted to feature the movement and grace of the Western horse, while not erasing his Western roots.

There are three areas of competition for Cowboy Dressage. The first has the horse and rider ride a test in an open court through a series of moves executed at various markers or letters on the outside of the court. Each maneuver of the test is individually marked and the judge gives feedback or comments back to the rider.

Next is the Cowboy Dressage Challenge. This segment is ridden in the same Cowboy Dressage court with the letters in the same place, but with the addition of ground poles strategically placed within the court to improve not only the rider’s understanding of the Cowboy Dressage Court but to increase the rider’s ability to improve their horse.

Then it ends with Freestyle, the most appealing segment for spectators, using the rider’s choice of music over a four-minute time. The rider is free to do anything that he or she likes as long as it includes a short list of required maneuvers. This is where you will see numerous maneuvers not seen in other horse competitions. It is the ultimate expression of what the horse and rider have learned through their involvement with Cowboy Dressage.

Actually, the two disciplines — classical and cowboy —are nearly identical. Both seek to get the horse and rider to progress with structured and focused training, and physical and mental development of the pair. Both seek balance, carriage, and even cadence in their tests. There are many similarities, including either a 66-by-132 or 66-by-192-foot dressage ring. The scoring is the same, a one through ten scale with the same definitions for each number.

There are some differences in the execution of some of the fundamental elements. The Western dressage horse is evaluated with the conformation and movement of today’s Western horses in mind.

Alison Weston runs Emboldened Equine in Sisters. She soured on the practices of the highly charged classical dressage world to the point of thinking she’d never get in a show ring again. Then she discovered Cowboy Dressage, a discipline where she could blend the philosophies of kindness, listening to the horse, and doing less, with the study of classical riding.

“Cowboy Dressage did not benefit from the sacrifice of the horse,” she said.

It took just one Gathering for Alison to know CD was a good deal, not only for the horses but also for the people. The feel of the Gatherings was not one of competition, but more like, as the name implies, gathering of like-minded individuals.

“The participants are on their own journeys, of course, but the underlying theme is the same: Do right by the horse and do right to each other,” Weston said.

Its origins? One of the founders of Cowboy Dressage World, the International organizing body, Eitan Beth-Halachmy, was a young boy in Israel. He had a dream that was a culmination of driving mules, working in his family’s agriculture fields, laboring as a shepherd, and intensely observing horses at the Spanish Riding School.

With a twinkle in his eye, Eitan says the sport connects: “When dressage suits your needs, but a Stetson fits your lifestyle.” If you want to see it all up close and personal, go to one of Weston’s clinics and just watch for free. May 1 and May 7, noon to 4 p.m. at 68810 Holmes Rd.


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