Posted Wednesday, Jan. 02, 2013
Gayle Pruitt and her husband, Bill, have always been Western riders -- his specialty is ranch versatility; she loves hitting the trail. When they added a 12-year-old, English-trained quarter horse named Possum to their stable outside Granbury, however, Gayle wanted to try something different.
Instead of retraining him, she decided to meet him halfway with a new discipline called Western dressage.
"It was the perfect fit with my little guy," she says.
And it was a great fit for Gayle, too, says her instructor, Jennifer Burk, owner of Deer Creek Stables in Burleson. "Western dressage allows her to have a deeper relationship with her horse, without having to leave her Western saddle," Burk says. "It's the best of both worlds."
But Western dressage isn't just English technique with Western tack, says Jen Johnson, co-founder and director of Minnesota-based North American Western Dressage, an affiliate of the United States Equestrian Federation. Rather, the discipline merges the progressive, structured movements of the dressage training pyramid with Western-style attributes like relaxation, suppleness and rhythm, along with a Western saddle and classic Western attire.
It's an approach that's definitely catching on. Since its launch in 2010, NAWD counts more than 1,000 registered members from across the country, Johnson says. The Western Dressage Association of America, formed the same year in Pilot Point, added its first state affiliate in 2011 and is now closing in on 20 affiliates. From Texas to Colorado, from Oregon to North Carolina, the number of clinics, classes and competitions continues to grow. Johnson hopes to be able to organize a regional show this year, and possibly even a national show.
Driving its popularity, says Burk, is its unique appeal to Western riders, especially trail riders like Gayle, who spend a lot of time in the saddle and are looking for an increased connection with their horse. "It's like yoga -- it doesn't matter how old you are or how long you've trained in a specific sport, there's a type of yoga for you. And that's what Western dressage is -- a combination of stretches and ballet that benefits any horse and any rider by making both parties more self-aware and balanced."
Although Western riders get to keep their saddles, there are now Western dressage-specific saddles on the market, designed to get the rider sitting closer to the horse to better direct its motions and feel its movements. Circle Y of Yoakum offers two styles on its website, and Justin-based dressage saddle maker Mike Corcoran has developed his own custom Western dressage design, which he is launching this month. "I used to make Western saddles, and when Western dressage showed up, I thought, 'This is perfect for me,'" he says. But Corcoran doesn't just make Western dressage saddles, he uses them, too: He has been involved with the WDAA for two years and competed in his first show last fall in Oklahoma.
Corcoran's Western dressage saddles combine an important element of the Western saddle -- the tree -- with construction elements of the dressage saddle, giving the rider more contact with the horse and the ability to use body movements to direct it. Corcoran's Western dressage saddle has less padding in the seat than a typical trail-riding saddle, making it easier for the rider to feel the horse's back, and smaller stirrup leathers and fenders allow the rider to feel the horse's rib cage.
When it comes to attire, jeans and cowboy boots are the rule, even for competition, so long as the shine stays secondary. "We don't want to see a lot of bling like in Western pleasure -- we like the judges to focus on the partnership between the horse and rider," says Johnson, but she allows that there is room for decoration in belt buckles and on chaps. Riders also can wear cowboy hats, but Burk says she encourages Deer Creek students to wear helmets instead, for safety.
Deer Creek has offered private lessons in Western dressage since September, and Burk says she hopes to host clinics and schooling shows this year. Gayle hopes she and Possum will be ready to show this year, too. "We've just gotten started, but it's great for us to learn these things and use them out on the trail," she says. "For me, it's a new way to communicate with my horse."
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