Cowboy/Western Dressage v. English Dressage
You may have heard of cowboy or Western Dressage and wondered how this discipline is different or similar to English Dressage. The two disciplines share many similarities and both are designed to progress both horse and rider through structured training. Both disciplines require physical and mental stamina to build balance, carriage, and cadence. English and Western dressage have the same requirements for circles, corners, and the horse maintaining bend and flexibility through their entire body as they travel.
Ring size and scoring are also the same across both disciplines. Dressage tests are completed in two different size rings and are scored on a 1-10 scale for each movement, resulting in a cumulative score at the end of the test. The training principles and horsemanship are aligned in both disciplines. However, despite numerous similarities, there are some fundamental differences between Western and English Dressage.
Western Dressage is designed with a western horse and rider in mind. Performed in a western saddle and bridle, the rider also wears traditional western attire. In Western Dressage the rider can choose between a safety helmet or cowboy hat.
Curb and snaffle bits are allowed, though snaffle bits are only allowed when the horse is ridden with two hands. While this may seem odd, it is because snaffle bits were not made to be ridden one-handed and make it difficult to communicate small movements effectively to the horse. Whether a rider is using one or two hands, they must complete the entire test the same way they started and cannot switch hands during the ride.
Western dressage tests can include turns on the forehand and the haunches. These turns are not included in an English Dressage test. There are also minor gait adjustments. The trot is replaced by the jog and the canter is replaced by the lope.
Just as in English Dressage, the test elements become more challenging as the horse and rider progress. However, these tests are designed to be reflective of movements and duties you would normally ask a Western horse and do not necessarily include traditional Dressage movements. Western Dressage horses are evaluated on conformation and movement based on Western standards — they should be calm, willing, safe, and demonstrate good gaits and lightness. Keep in mind, Western Dressage was designed to develop better Western horses, not to create Western horses to compete in traditional English dressage.
English Dressage is the variation most equestrians associated with the word dressage. Named after the French word for “Training”, Dressage is the foundation for many different disciplines. English dressage is performed in a Dressage or All-Purpose saddle and the rider wears English riding attire. Riders are required to wear a helmet or can select a top hat for higher levels. English Dressage allows snaffle bit variations at the lower levels, and double bridles for higher-level horses and riders. All tests are performed with two hands, unlike Western Dressage.