Transforming Trail Riders by Allison Whisler

In the summer of 2016 I came across a great new discipline—Western Dressage.  I had been riding dressage since I started riding as a sixteen-year-old and had just started back to showing in 2016 after taking a hiatus from showing for a few years.  I noticed this new “western dressage” on the prize list and quickly jumped on the Internet to discover more.  While I was trained in dressage, I spent a lot of time in a western saddle through the years and thoroughly enjoyed riding western (I’ve always been more of a jeans versus breeches kinda gal), so this new sport was intriguing to me.  I printed all the tests, saddled up my western mare, and off we went!

Maria Hayes enjoying her day of showing Western Dressage.

It took one show to get hooked.  I was so hooked that I couldn’t just keep this to myself.  I started with my lesson students.  They were already learning dressage, whether they knew it or not, but now my western students had tests they could ride.  Now all the things that I had been teaching them in their lessons started to make sense and had a point.  I showed them how to ride through the tests and it typically only took one test to get them addicted.

I planned on getting way more than just my lesson students hooked as well.  I had a barn full of boarders that primarily did trail riding and I had every intention of getting them addicted to my brand-new world.  The best way to go about this?  A clinic!  I talked them all into doing an “Intro to Western Dressage” clinic with me.  We started with theory-learned what all those random letters in the arena were for, where invisible “X” was, what diagonals were, the difference between working walk and free walk, and what type of tack was allowed.  We then saddled up and learned those tricky circles, discovered centerlines, and even tried a few tests.

The next day I discovered how well-received the clinic was.  Prior to the clinic it was fairly common to see these ladies riding their horses, but it usually was in the form of aimlessly wandering around the arena at a walk.  After the clinic I would come into the barn and see them practicing circles, riding diagonals, and schooling their tests with new found determination.  They now had something they could work on, and quickly started taking lessons to improve themselves and their horses.

The next step was to get them all showing.  By now I was so enthralled with the sport that I wanted to grow western dressage as big as I could get it here in Indiana.  The best way to grow the sport was to encourage more people to get out there and not only try it, but to show!  When I first started showing there were typically only two or three riders in the class and I wanted to see that change.

Carolyn Stovall and Dee Page of Gold showing at the 2017 May IDS Schooling Show.

For my riders the first step was to give them a relaxed show experience for their first show.  They were pretty sure they weren’t show material at this point, despite my urging otherwise.  I’m sure they’ve tired of hearing me say things like “It’s not about the ribbons, it’s about improving yourself each and every ride” and “No rider is perfect, it’s about getting out there and showing the world that we’re serious about western dressage!” I found a judge and held a dressage show at our barn.  What better way to start showing than in your home barn?  It must have worked.  We offered both English and western dressage at the show. The shocking part?  Over half of the show entries were western dressage!  And not only did they survive their first show, they all rocked their first show!

The show also brought new western dressage riders to the barn.  We had several people watch the show to learn about western dressage, and soon after they started taking lessons and haven’t turned back!

Seeing everyone’s enthusiasm grow has been fantastic.  What’s even better is the difference in their horses.  And the riders have noticed it.  They see how much softer and suppler their horses can become.  They’ve noticed that all that dressage they put on their horses also helps in other disciplines that they ride.  They love these “new” horses that they have! They’ve also discovered that by riding dressage they have actual goals they can work on with their horses and can see whether their meeting those goals or not.

So what’s the next step?  For my riders, to keep on showing, to keep on improving themselves and their horses, and to maybe qualify for some of those year-end awards.  For me?  To continue to grow the sport; to see more and more people enter the classes each show.  And not just from my barn, but other people as well.  It’s exciting seeing the sport grow, and I can’t wait to see how big it can get!

About the author: Allison Whisler