Your First Western Dressage Show....A DIY Experience

Your First Western Dressage Show....A DIY Experience

If you are reading this you are probably at the same point my husband and I were three years ago. It was at this time that we wanted to try something different with our horses. Something that would complement our trail riding as well as the ranch riding classes we were showing. We wanted something that would build on the training we have always done with our horses here on our farm. We also wanted something to stimulate our senior brains; a challenge for both memory and learning. We wanted something that was, like our trail riding and ranch shows, an event where the class or activity was warm up the horse and go. We also wanted something a two hour or less drive from our home so that it was not an overnight trip. Yes, even retired people still have responsibilities at home. Most importantly we wanted something that was good for the horse; awards and ‘being the winner’ was never the objective. Western Dressage has proven to be all of the above for us and more!

If you are thinking of trying a competition which is known as a test (free on the WDAA site) here are some things that we have learned along the way. Things that we like to call “you don’t know what you don’t know.” If you have a trainer or coach that is experienced with dressage you can probably stop right here. A true professional will tell you all this information and much more. But if you DIY, like the two of us, perhaps our lessons learned will help you get started and cut through some of the ‘unwritten’ procedures and lingo that stumped us from the start.

Before Showing:
• Go watch a show even if it is a classical event with no western classes. Search for a show with local or state dressage groups. About five days before the event ‘ride times’ will be posted. Each test takes about five minutes and tests are grouped together by level and the tests within that level.
• Watch and take notes as to what people are doing both before and after they do a test. You will notice a high degree of concentration on the part of the exhibitors. Therefore if you want to ask questions talk to someone not competing. You will notice the absence of announcing both before, during, and after each test as well as the calmness of the show. Riders know and are held accountable for reporting to the warm up ring and when to ride their test. Scoresheets and results are available at the entry booth about 20 minutes after all of the horses in the same level and test have ridden. You will also notice that unlike some ‘western horse shows’ you will not hear whistling, hooting, and cheering. Dressage events are ‘proper’ like having tea with the Queen.
• Observe the warm-up (outside the show arena) and schooling areas. This will help you learn the etiquette. Learn what is meant by ‘left to left’ in the schooling arena. To put it simply go the same direction as the other horses, circle if you need to pass, and if you are going the opposite directions pass left shoulder to left shoulder. The track is the ‘lane’ along the boards or the edge of the arena. You will see people that are riding their horse at the walk staying off the track. If they are trotting or cantering they stay on the track. . If they need to adjust equipment, talk to someone, etc. they exit the arena. If you need to lunge DO NOT do it near the show arena and try and avoid the schooling area. Above all you will see people being polite, courteous, focused on riding their horse and not on their phones.

Preparing For Your First Show:
• Have yourself and your horse in great physical condition. It takes a great deal of energy to ride a dressage test.
• Buy a Dressage Illustrated book (under educational material on WDAA) for the level you are interested in trying (Intro is walk/trot, Basic is walk/trot/canter/lope).
• Educate yourself. Yes it is possible to do this yourself. However don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek help. As we continue our journey we will certainly need advice as there is much we still do not know.
o Free articles on the web, clinics and demonstrations are some of the resources but nothing will ever replace talking face to face with a highly trained, experienced professional. One of the reasons we had the courage to try western dressage was because of Lynn Palm. We went to Equine Affair two years ago to watch her presentation on western dressage. After the presentation we went to her booth. Lynn was willing to answer our many questions. She is an amazing horsewoman and generous with her knowledge. If you ever need a source for information on properly training your horse I highly recommend her book The Rider's Guide to Real Collection: Achieve Willingness, Balance and the Perfect Frame with Performance Horses as well as any of her other resources.
• Read the rule book (link on WDAA website). Know if your equipment is legal.
• Learn your test. You may have a caller. If you choose to have a caller make sure you understand that process. It is your responsibility not that of the show management.
• Practice drawing the test. Paper and dry erase boards work equally as well.
• Find a place to practice both on and off the horse. Walking the tests on foot is very eye opening for learning your spacing and is also good exercise for the rider.
o You don’t need a fancy arena. We ride in our fields and use laundry bottles and milk jugs for markers. I use the saying All Fat Pretty Black Red Mother Cats Have Seven Eight Vicious Kittens to remember where the letters are located the large 20 x 60 court AFPBRMCHSEVK. For the small court, 20 x 40, try the mnemonic A Fat Black Mother Cat Had Eight Kittens for AFBMCHEK. Going the other direction AKEHCMBF All King Edward’s Horses Can Make Big Fences. You can also make up your own. Do what suits your learning style. We also don’t have the dressage boards (rail/fence) as we ride out in the open and do things like weave the markers as well as trotting, cantering, and backing around them. We also put poles for ranch riding and trail class close to them on the outside. There is so much you can do when you are not ‘fenced in’!
o I bought a measuring tape with meter marks on it this year. But last year I used a tape measure in feet and had the meter conversion written on paper. I know how many of my footsteps are in both one and ten meters (3.2 and 32.8 feet respectively). This way when I go to set something up I don’t always need a tape measure.
o If you board your horse perhaps the barn owner will not want markers left in their arena. Be creative and think of something small, lightweight, stackable, and colorful that you can transport and set up both at the barn and at home. Here is a simple way to set five markers that will allow you to practice some common elements. Take one of the markers and set it in the center. Then set the other four markers like a clock (12, 3, 6, and 9). From that center marker step off 10 meters to 12 o’clock, 10 meters to 3 o’clock, 10 meters to 6 o’clock, and 10 meters to 9 o’clock. Now you can practice riding 20 meter circles or on days at home, when you can’t ride, you can walk them. You can also practice riding straight to a marker and halting squarely between two makers. You can take those same five cones and set up one long 60 meter line of F, P, B, R, M or K, V, E, S, H. The combinations are endless.
• Make sure your horse can do the maneuvers with the transitions. The transitions, for the most part, need to happen when either your horse’s shoulder or your leg are beside the marker.
• Practice knowing what 45 seconds is by learning to count in your head. You have 45 seconds to start your test once you hear the bell or whistle.
• Have your tack, your horse, and your clothing clean. Nothing needs to be fancy. We use the same tack for dressage, daily use, trail riding, and showing ranch classes. For dressage we do not use a breast collar or back girth. We have shown in just a work pad and sometimes we put a show blanket over the work pad. We show in Wranglers, clean boots, a long sleeve shirt, and a helmet or neatly shaped cowboy hat if allowed. If we want to look a little more cowboy we ride in chinks. We use plain bridles and cavesons. You can do silver and bling but once again everything we use we also use on a daily basis, for trail riding and in ranch classes. It is a great way to save money.

Attending Your First Show:
• Find a schooling show close to home through local or state dressage groups. Read the prize list and know the rules as well as if you need any type of proof of vaccinations or Coggins. Helmets are often required. Enter before the closing date.
• Check your ride times about five days before the event. Plan on what time you need to arrive so that you have plenty of time to get checked in. Checking in will entail going to the office and picking up your bridle number. That bridle number needs to be on your horse any time you are leading or riding the horse. Also ask in the office where the schooling and warm-up areas are located as well if there is a place to lunge if your horse needs it. Please remember do not lunge near the show arena. It is also worth mentioning that unlike a typical western horse show there is no riding in the dressage show arena at breaks or at lunch. Sometimes they will allow you to lead your horse around the outside of the ring, but not always, so make sure you ask. If the facility has a helmet rule you must wear the helmet when you ride.
• In regard to the bridle number we use a headstall with an ear piece. The bridle number fits in that slot of the ear piece perfectly. When we show we put it on the right side and we make sure we go past the judge’s area with the number to the judge. Before we went to our first show we practiced with the round part of a rosette ribbon as the hook on the back is the same.
• You and your horse also need time to relax as well as warm up. Watch a few tests so you are comfortable with the sound of the bell or whistle. During that observation you can look for things like quarter lines and any area that might upset the horse. Watch how the judge salutes so you know their signal. Some judges stand up and some do not. Let the warm up ring person know you are there and find out if the tests are riding on time. If multiple arenas are being used determine which is ring 1, ring 2, etc. It is always your job to be on time and know which arena you will be riding.
• Be at the warm up arena two tests prior to your test. You can calculate this out by looking at the ride times. I wear a watch to help me keep track of time.
• When the horse before you finishes and rides forward on loose reins then you may start your warm-up. Make sure you do not interfere with the previous rider if the judge is talking to them. If the warm up is outside the arena you can walk, trot, and canter/lope around the boards but first you need to check in. Ride up to the judges’ area and say ‘good morning/afternoon and say your number”. You don’t need to pause. The judge is busy writing comments for the last horse. The scribe will get your number. If the warm up is inside the arena you also check in and ride around the boards. You may also cross the arena or make a circle. When the bell/horn/whistle sounds you have 45 seconds to come in at A and start your test. Make sure your center line is straight, your horse stops square, and you put the reins in one hand before you salute. When the judge salutes back begin your test.
• If you make a mistake during your test you will hear a whistle. Stop and go right to the judge. The judge will explain what happened and have you resume at a certain point.
• After your final salute, with the judge saluting back, walk straight forward a few steps on a long or loose rein and say thank-you. If the judge wants to talk to you they will. If not just turn and continue to WALK out. Try to stay off the track as the other horse will be warming up.
• After your ride congratulate yourself and reward your horse. Cool your horse down and relax. Your test scoresheet and results will be available about 20 minutes after all the horses in your same level and test have finished. Use those score sheets, with written comments, to inform and form the basis for your continued training with your horse.

If you are a DIY person who is considering trying a western dressage show you now ‘know what we did not know’ but have had a great time learning. Our adventure into western dressage has been eye-opening and everything we had hoped for and more. We are challenging our senior brains with an event that does not take all day. We have found that setting goals has helped us find success no matter our scores. We have met many great people and all of them have been giving with their time and advice. This is one sport that is not about ‘beating the competition’ but rather doing your best and improving. We have seen all sizes, shapes, colors, and breeds of western horses as well as all ages and abilities of riders including many DIY. Western dressage has a level and a place for all riders and horses along with being the perfect complement to trail riding and ranch riding classes. It gives the rider great mental stimulation while helping them improve their riding and their horse’s training.

About The Author
The author (Karen Kent) and her husband of 40 years (Steve) are both in their sixties and are retired from the field of education. Life-long horsemen of more than 55 years (each starting with ponies when they were eight years old and later meeting through 4-H) they have successfully shown and trained their own Quarter Horses and have bred and raised champions in AQHA, NRHA, ApHC, and NSBA. Enjoying their horses, on their seventeen acre farm in Ohio, they ride year-round in their fields without the benefit of indoor or outdoor arenas. They enjoy trail riding in the state parks as well as showing in ranch classes at local events.

"Photo credit: Miranda Akins/Photography In Stride"

Submitted by Karen Kent on 10/10/2018

Share this post:

Comments on "Your First Western Dressage Show....A DIY Experience"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment