CAWDA Talks with Joyce Swanson

Joyce Swanson, Western Dressage Association Advisor and Licensed WDAA/USEF Judge, answers some questions for CAWDA members about what Western Dressage has to offer riders, where the sport is heading, and about her upcoming talk at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center.

Hi Joyce, thank you for doing this interview! I read that you competed in Morgan Horse shows, where there have been Western Dressage classes for quite a while now. What made you think that Western riders of other breeds might be interested in the sport as well?

Western Dressage was never meant to be breed specific because it is a performance discipline dependent more on conformation and suitability than a particular breed.  Many of the founding members owned Morgan horses and their relationship with AMHA led to the Morgan division developing the first rules, tests and guidelines for judging.  In 2010 WDAA was incorporated in the state of Colorado and reached out to all breeds and riders with robust educational programs like “Train the Trainers”™.  Our mission statement to “honor the horse and value the partnership it has provided us on our American journey” attracted so many like-minded equestrians from all over the world.  We had twenty-two breeds represented at our 2014 World Championship show and close to 40 state affiliates!

What benefits does Western Dressage offer to riders who primarily participate in other disciplines, such as reining, competitive trail/extreme obstacle, or versatility?

“Provide a model of training and horsemanship which optimizes this partnership for the benefit of both horse and rider.” WDAA

The concept of Western Dressage was embraced by numerous horsemen years ago.  Many of us have been influenced by the surge of educational dressage programs developed with the founding of USDF in 1973 and we carried that knowledge into our chosen equestrian concentrations.  Great working western horsemen were already honing their skills using non-confrontational progressive training methodologies that they learned from masters like Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance.  It is now common knowledge that suppling and strengthening prepares all horses for more challenging tasks like reining, trail and cattle classes.  The beauty of Western Dressage is that it can be a standalone competition with an opportunity to receive feedback on your journey through its levels AND the best preparation to pursue other Western disciplines.

In developing the Western Dressage tests, were there any aspects of English Dressage testing that you wanted to preserve? What components make these tests uniquely Western?

We intended to use all suppling, strengthening and straightening exercises from Dressage but arranged them with the western horse in mind.  Western Dressage is not a Dressage horse in a western saddle.  Western horses work closer to the ground to catch a cow and are more efficient in motion to last on an all day roundup.  The transitions, combination of movements and progression through the levels is foundation work for a balanced, focused and willing reiner, cutter, pleasure horse or just a well schooled, responsive trail horse.  For example, we brought back the turn on the forehand and combined it with a turn on the haunches to acknowledge that a handy working western horse needs to maneuver readily off of both ends.

As a Western Dressage judge, are there any general areas that you see where riders consistently “leave points on the court”? Are there things that we as a group should be paying more attention to developing in our western horses in order to improve our scores?

Each level of Western Dressage has its own focus.  Some riders miss the intention of the test.  For example, the introductory tests have lots of walks and halts to set a strong foundation for the horse to settle and approach the confinement of the half halt and halt squarely with relaxation and confidence.  For practical usefulness, a good cutter must “wait” on a cow so as not to incur a miss penalty, a reiner must hesitate in their patterns and a judged roper must stand quietly in the confinement of the roping box.

Greater accuracy will come from better preparation for transitions.  A good transition is the direct result of what happened before it.  More time at home should also be invested in the free walk and jog.  The relaxation this promotes is a prerequisite for developing regularity in gaits with a confident, purposeful tempo.  Stretching over the topline from rear to front is valued throughout because it correctly develops the horse’s musculature to create a resistance-free softness.  Break up each ride often with intermissions of stretching at the free paces and generously rewarding your horse.  The adjustability required at higher levels are the result of developing a happy, willing partner at the lower levels.

 Are there any areas that you’ve noticed some overall improvements as riders have learned more about the sport?

I have had my pulse on our evolution by reviewing hours of video to use at the judges seminars.  The improvement has been truly remarkable.  Western Dressage has attracted some very fine horsemen who are coaching their very talented riders.  The popularity of Western Dressage grows with every clinic and show.  The tests are very rideable and easy for the horses to assimilate because they progress incrementally with understanding as the basis.

I often think of western riding as a very “American” thing, but I read that you gave a Western Dressage Clinic in New Zealand! Are you hearing of more countries that are becoming involved in Western Dressage? Any hope that it may someday make it to the level of an F.E.I. sport, the way reining has?

The American Cowboy as a cultural icon has been exported for years all over the world by the stock horse world and the film industry.  When I go to New Zealand the stock type American breeds are already there.  Combine that with their culture of Dressage riding and Western Dressage is a perfect fit.  It is easier to jump into competition at the lower levels of Western Dressage than immediately setting a goal to perfect a reining pattern.  It is also hugely popular in Australia and growing in Europe.

As far as a future FEI sport? That is difficult to speculate and carries with it an implied exclusivity.   WDAA is dedicated to building an atmosphere of inclusion to positively influence as many equine partnerships as we can.

As riders improve and work their way through the levels, how do you envision the tests developing? Will we someday see full speed turn-arounds, or lope pirouettes, or maybe a little of both?

In looking forward to the fourth level tests, the focus will be on flying change.  It will be offered in several ways.  Some of the tests will have half pass before the change, preceded by the counter lope sequences explored at third level.  Other tests will root the change of lead in  figure 8 patterns seen in reining; some from a lengthening others from a collected 10 meter circle.  Western Riding events utilize serpentines for executing flying changes.  I think it is important to continue to acknowledge these familiar western methodologies.

Western Dressage tests are intended to set a strong foundation for the other western events.  We value correctness over speed.  Level of difficulty is considered within the spirit of harmony and overall calm willingness.  So for now performing “turnarounds at speed” will be limited by the number of pivot repetitions.  I think 2 1/2 turns will be enough for now to emphasize correctness and open the door for a moderate demonstration of “speed”.

We will definitely see lope pirouettes in the future.  There is so much value for pleasure horses to collect the lope with forwardness, balance and engagement.  It also improves movement of the outside shoulder with the outside rein for improved neck reining.

You are set to judge Western Dressage at The Fiesta Charity Spectacular: Fiesta of the Spanish Horse, being held at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center starting on May 6th, 2015. The night before, May 5th, you’re scheduled to give a talk with Karen Homer-Brown. Can you give us a sneak preview of some of the topics you’ll be covering for us that night?      

My presentation is a visually interesting look at the “Western” in Western Dressage.   This will include clarifying the difference between a lope and canter and a jog and trot from the standpoint of conformation and suitability.  We will also look at some movements and tests as seen through the judge’s eye.

“Celebrate the American West where all these things came to pass.” WDAA

 Joyce, thank you for all the work and knowledge you’ve contributed to developing the sport of Western Dressage.  And thank you for taking the time to do this interview for CAWDA – we look forward to seeing you in May!

For information and to sign up for a spot at Joyce’s talk on May 5th, visit The Western in Western Dressage

Interview by Debbi Sullivan for CAWDA