In 2010, the Western Dressage Association of America was created to organize some aspects of the budding new discipline ins...pired by Eitan Beth-Halachmy and his work with horses such as Holiday Compadre and Santa Fe Renegade. At the time, people were using the terms “cowboy dressage” and “Western dressage” interchangeably. Some people still do, and this can lead to confusion, although in many ways cowboy dressage and Western dressage are similar.
Both trace their roots back to the inspiration of Eitan Beth-Halachmy, and the sacrifices he and Debbie made in order to share the vision with a wider audience. Cowboy dressage and Western dressage can appear very similar, perhaps due to that shared origin---Eitan on Holiday Compadre will forever be the founding image for both, the spark that lit the fire. However, they are evolving to fit the needs of different groups of people, and as time goes by the differences become more apparent.
Some groups try to minimize the difference: In Oregon, the Cowboy/Western Dressage Alliance caters to those who want to do one or the other, or both. In fact, many people who are active in the cowboy dressage community also compete in Western dressage. Cowboy dressage clubs keep up with the events in Western dressage, and vice versa. Riders who want to do both have many opportunities to do so and are often successful in both arenas.
It can still be difficult for anyone but the connoisseur to say what dif-ferentiates the two. Both emphasize the relationship between horse and rider. Both seek to combine the best of the Western cowboy tradition and traditional dressage; both focus on training that takes into consideration the horse’s nature.
The differences? Cowboy dressage puts more emphasis on lifestyle and the diversity of its community. Western dressage is familiar to those already on the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) show circuit. Western dressage relies a little more on the traditional dressage aspect; cowboy dressage, in accordance with its name, leans more toward the cowboy or Western-style horse.
Cowboy dressage emphasizes its unique style that caters to the specific way of going of a Western horse, whereas Western dressage focuses on a horse who can multitask, accommodating the bigger gaits and specific movements of traditional dressage to Western tack.
As the two disciplines have forged their own paths, growing apart in some ways along the line, the differences are becoming apparent mainly in competition rules and venues---you will find Western dressage divisions at major USEF horse shows; cowboy dressage organizes its own events. Accordingly, Western dressage has its section in the USEF rulebook, which largely applies the rules of traditional dressage to horses shown in Western tack.
In contrast, cowboy dressage is in the process of creating and expanding its own rules, adding to them as more and more people ask for more divisions and more tests. Over the past few years, the increasing demands of an expanding community have led to the development of guidelines for shows and judges, using classical dressage techniques and testing methods to build a better Western horse.
The biggest differences between cowboy dressage and Western dressage are seen in the tests. Western dressage has opted for an arena and tests that are very similar to traditional dressage competition. Cowboy dressage took the traditional dressage arena and turned it into a classroom for the Western horse, resulting in a unique court with patterns scaled to the movements and goals of Western horses.
For the most part, what one notices about cowboy and Western dressage is that, although their rules and competitions are becoming increasingly different as both carve out their own special niche in the horse world, people from either tend to support the other. Importantly, both grew out of the vision of Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy, with the enthusiastic collaboration of many, in order to offer new possibilities for training and showing, always emphasizing, above all, the relationship between horse and rider.
Adapted by permission from Cowboy Dressage: Riding, Training and Competing with Kindness as the Goal and Guiding Principle, published in 2015 by Trafalgar Square Books. Available from Cowboy Dressage.com
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #460, January 2016.