Judging Western Dressage at Schooling Shows – What USDF L-Graduates need to know

Jan 28, 2020 by

Judging Western Dressage at Schooling Shows – What USDF L-Graduates need to know

Judging Western Dressage at Schooling Shows – What USDF L-Graduates need to know

As an L-Graduate, you’ve just agreed to judge a schooling show several months away, and as you look at the entry form, you realize that you are also going to be judging Western dressage.  Although as an L-Graduate you have attended and passed the excellent L-Program sessions and the required annual continuing education, you have no experience with judging Western dressage.  Wanting to give the Western Dressage competitors comments which are appropriate to their discipline, you seek out additional information about Western dressage.  As you begin researching and reading, you realize that contrary to what you perhaps initially believed, Western dressage is not just English dressage ridden in Western tack.  Although Western dressage as a discipline may be fairly new, there are many resources available for you to learn the basics and more.

Western Dressage Educational Sessions.  Western dressage became a US Equestrian Federation (USEF) affiliate in 2013 and the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) has their own program to train Western Dressage judges with licensing completed through the USEF.   Similar to the USDF L-Program sessions, anyone can audit the Western dressage judge training program (click link for more information:   https://westerndressageassociation.org/western-dressage-judges-education-program and anyone can also attend Western dressage “Train the Trainer” seminars held several times a year.  Many of these training sessions (both classroom and live demonstration) are taught by WDAA officials as well as USEF licensed “traditional” dressage judges or riders/trainers who have various USDF medals to their credit.  These two educational programs offer the best opportunities for L-graduates to learn about Western dressage principles from knowledgeable professionals who understand the difference between traditional dressage and Western dressage.

If you have not been able to attend any of these sessions, but still find yourself with Western dressage to judge at an upcoming show, how do you prepare?

WDAA Website Documents.  WDAA.org has several documents on their website which discuss the judging principles (https://westerndressageassociation.org/western-dressage-rules-tests/ ) including a Glossary of Terms, Judge Guidelines, the USEF rules, and Judge Guidelines for Gaited horses.  The Judge Guideline document also discusses how the breed and conformation of a Western dressage horse are to be considered when judging the various portions of a Western Dressage test.  There is also an Attire and Equipment book which discusses the required attire for both horse and rider.  There are videos of rides of various levels for study (complete with judge comments), but to access them you must be a WDAA member (membership link is on the WDAA website). All of these resources will assist you in developing a foundation for what Western dressage is all about.

Western Dressage Tests.  As with any dressage show, become familiar with the tests to be judged (https://westerndressageassociation.org/wdaa-tests/ ).  Western Dressage tests have some movements not seen in traditional dressage tests, such as turn on the forehand, turn on haunches (which can be performed as a pivot), and “free jog.”  One of the Level 2 tests has a centerline turn on the forehand directly to a turn on the haunches, which takes careful attention to watch for the proper direction of the turns, the sequence of footfalls required for the turns, the appropriate score and comment for each turn —all in a matter of 5 to 10 seconds.  The collective marks for Western dressage are similar (Gaits, Impulsion, Rider Position Seat/Hands, Rider Effectiveness) with the notable omission of  “submission” score, which is replaced by the fifth collective  mark for “Harmony.”

The Western dressage tests start with Introductory and Basic, and go through Level 4, with freestyles able to be shown at all levels.  As with traditional freestyles, the tests themselves list allowed and forbidden movements, and indicate the various coefficients for harmony, choreography, degree of difficulty, music and interpretation.

Introductory – Walk/Jog only, with halts at various points in the tests.

Basic – similar to Training Level, with circles of 20 meters, canter to jog transitions.

Level 1 –similar to First Level (leg yield, lengthened lope)  with some elements of 2nd Level (canter to walk transition, turn on haunches, reinback)

Level 2 – similar to Second Level (simple changes, counter lope, turn on haunches). Sitting trot is required at Level 2.

Level 3 – similar to Third Level (but no flying changes, and turn on the haunches where horse must pivot at this level)

Level 4 – similar to Fourth Level (non-sequential flying changes, pirouettes at lope)

Gaits of the Western Dressage horse. The Western dressage horse must have 3 clear gaits – a 4-beat walk, a 2-beat jog with a moment of suspension, and a 3-beat lope.  Any impurity in the gait is not to be rewarded.  Excessive speed or slowness which puts the horse out of balance is to be penalized.  The Western dressage horse, while exhibiting these pure gaits, is not meant to show the “maximum expression of gaits,” like traditional dressage; therefore there is no medium or extended paces in the jog or the lope, only lengthening.  Gaited horses are also allowed in Western dressage, but are to be judged in classes for gaited horses.  The walk of the gaited horse still must be 4-beat, and the lope 3-beat, but the “jog” is replaced by the “saddle gait,” which can have various rhythms depending on horse breed, but the same rhythm must be maintained throughout the individual test.  Gaited horses have more difficulty bending in the corners and on circles, as well as performing leg yields and half passes, but tests do not make any concessions for the physical limitations or challenges faced by the gaited horse.   See the Guidelines for the Gaited Horse on WDAA site under “Education and Tests.”

Rules.    The source for definitive answers regarding rules is the USEF rulebook chapter on Western Dressage (https://westerndressageassociation.org/western-dressage-rules-tests/ .  For the most part, judging the Western dressage test is similar to traditional dressage (score of 0 to 10, with half points allowed, 3 errors or prolonged resistance results in elimination, rider must enter within 45 seconds of bell)  but there are some notable differences as well as other similarities:

  •             Bucking results in elimination (exuberance into lope in usually not considered bucking)
  •             Quiet use of voice is allowed
  •             Rein holds (riding with one hand or with two) must be examined to determine if correct,   and rider cannot switch from one rein hold to another within the test (see Equipment and         Attire book on Rules page)
  •             Curb bit is allowed at all levels (see sidebar for further discussion)
  •             Turn on Haunches – horse can perform a pivot or step-step-step turn, but at Level 3 and             above the pivot (nearly stationary hind foot) is required to meet test requirement.
  •             Lengthenings occur at jog and lope, but there is no medium or extended in the jog or         lope.              There is an extended walk.
  •             Sitting or posting is allowed up through Level 1, with sitting jog required at Level 2 and             above.  In tests of ALL levels, the lengthened jog may be ridden posting.
  •             Gaits  – Free walk – should have overstep, just like traditional, dressage and lope must      be 3 beat, not 4 beat.
  •             Hard hat is allowed, but a traditional western cowboy hat is also allowed (but local or       prize list rules may require a hard hat)
  •             Free jog is required, which is somewhat similar to a “stretchy trot.”  The horse’s neck is out, down,  and forward, with the nose slightly in front of the vertical, with a loose rein and the poll at approximately the same height as the wither (the neck is level). The horse’s strides are longer, in balance, but not hurried

Helpful Tips when Judging:

  • Remember to use the words “jog” and “lope,” not “trot” and “canter” when dictating to the scribe.
  • Know what figures and movements are within each “box” on the test, requiring a score.  Some tests have scores for a corner, or a 12 meter segment, and without knowing the test it is easy to miss a score. The Western tests do not necessarily follow the same patterns of the English tests as related to specific movements or patterns, and then a score.
  • Cowboy hats are allowed at USEF- Recognized shows, but safety helmets may be required by local standards. Check with local show organizers for their rules.
  • Watch the rein holds and penalize appropriately(eliminate) if rider clearly switches from two hand to one hand or vice versa.  Romal reins must be ridden one handed.  See Equipment and Attire book for more information.
  • Gloves are not required, but long sleeve shirt is required.  White polo wraps  or polos the same color of the horse are allowed, but protective boots are not allowed.  Fly bonnets of discrete color are allowed.  Mechanical hackamores are not allowed, but Western bitless bridles are allowed (but not sidepulls)

Western Dressage is still a very young discipline, and judging methodology and criteria have been developing through this discipline’s early years.  Riders seeking input from judges expect to receive fair and appropriate comments for their discipline, and therefore those judging Western Dressage classes for the first time would do well to take a bit of time to study the discipline’s basic principles and study the tests that ask increasingly difficult questions of the competitors.  Every rider who presents themselves to a judge should have a positive experience and come away with scores and comments which encourage them to go home and school toward creating a better equine athlete and partner – whether in Western tack or English tack.


SideBar – The Bits of Western Dressage.

Although the leverage (curb) bit is not introduced in traditional English dressage competition until Third Level, Western dressage allows the use of a curb bit at any level, including Introductory.  A person new to judging Western dressage needs to be aware that most any bit is allowed, curb and snaffle, at any level.  See the USEF rules and Western Dressage Attire and Equipment Guide for more information and pictures of legal/illegal bits.

The reasons behind Western dressage allowing the curb at all levels are two fold – one, Western dressage is strongly steeped in the Western tradition, up to and including the rare finished spade bit horse, and the traditional Western horse is usually introduced to the curb bit relatively early in its career.   The second reason is that many of the horses who are transitioning through the levels of Western dressage are doing so after a prior career (after all, Western dressage is quite new) and many were trained and shown in curb bits and are more comfortable being shown in a curb.   Just as in English dressage, the bit in the horse’s mouth should not be considered  in the score, but the overall performance of the horse, as well as the effectiveness of the rider’s aids may be affected by the horse’s acceptance of the rider’s choice of bits.

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