It’s About the Journey: An Interview with Past WDAA President, Ellen diBella.

by Katherine Rosback

“I would say, ‘not right now!’” she replies with a hearty laugh. After a couple of weeks of phone tag, I have finally connected with this incredibly energetic past-President of the WDAA, Ellen diBella, and have just asked her if the WDAA has their sights on the Olympics. “Right now we are working on just bringing out the best in people and in people’s horses and developing the needed pool of judges.” Ellen is one of the founding members of the WDAA. She has owned and shown Morgans since 1972 and is an avid supporter of the Western stock horse.

“We’ve come a long way,” she adds as she relates that the WDAA was incorporated in December 2010 and now how a membership of

 about 1400. “Our journey was initially guided by people in the Western world. These horses have a unique athleticism and bringing the tools of classical dressage can really bring that out. But we have found that there is a significant demographic—women riders—who want to do something for themselves and their horses and these tools really appeal to them. But we’ve also gotten interest from some older English riders who are no longer comfortable with riding horses with those great big gaits but still want to show.

As with most disciplines, there is a degree of understanding. “There is some confusion, especially about the bits. Sometimes people think that Western Dressage is just for a crippled, throw-away, ex-Pleasure class horse. Nothing can be further from the truth!” Indeed, many top riders in the Western disciplines of reining or cutting are using the classical dressage principles to start and finely tune their equine athletes.

Even with the continued growing interest in the sport, this is not a path that she envisions the WDAA is walking alone. “More hands make for lighter work,” Ellen acknowledges, “and the more people that get involved, the more we can preserve the parks in which we ride and show. It is getting much more expensive and complicated to show. There are fewer and fewer places that even want to have a show, along with an ever-diminishing base of volunteers. So I think the partnership between the WDAA and the English dressage groups makes perfect sense in every way.”Not unexpectedly, some groups are very open and have been eager partners while other groups have not been as receptive. Florida is one of the most active state for shows but our show distribution for 2018 is very wide spread across the country. North Carolina and Georgia are pretty sparse for WD showing opportunities“It’s really happening on a state-by-state basis,” Ellen explains. “But we do offer a competition calendar and people can earn lifetime points.

Like the KDA or IDS shows, the WDAA does require that a USDF-licensed judge be present. “Of course when we started, we needed an immediate pool of judges, so we’ve been working on that. At our recent judge’s seminar in Denver, we had over 60 people.” Starting in 2019, all judges will need to have a Western Dressage judges card. What’s the difference between being WDAA judge and a USDF judge? “The test are written to bring out the unique athleticism of the Western horse, so we look for some different things.”

As Ellen hands over the reins to new President Cindy Butler, her enthusiasm for the discipline is unwavering. “Horses offer us an opportunity to be much better people than we could ever be without them,” she shares, directing me to the WDAA Mission Statement which includes the following:

  • We honor the horse

  • We value the partnership between horse and rider

  • We celebrate the legacy of the American West.

Her final comments? “Whether your ride English or Western, you have the opportunity to have a 2-way trusting partnership,” Ellen notes. “The tools and principles of classical dressage naturally make for better and healthier horses and makes us a better human being. It really is about the journey.”

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