Western Dressage Applied to Other Disciplines? Yes! It Really Works!

by Debbi Sullivan
with Christine Ramsey

Charles Wilhelm’s Ultimate Super Horse Challenge came to the Horse Expo in Pomona this February, and I was thrilled to have been chosen as one of this year’s 10 participants. It was my first time competing in an event like this, and upon arrival I discovered that another of the “first timers” was fellow CAWDA member Christine Ramsey with her horse Bartender Nic.

Christine was CAWDA’s 2015 Level 1 Amateur Reserve Champion and finished the year as a Top Ten Amateur Division Rider. I’m proud to say that we both finished Top Five in the Super Horse Event – me (Debbi Sullivan) and my horse Sundown Slim in 5th, Christine and Nic in 4th. Here’s how Western Dressage helped us each do our best with our Super Horses!

First, some background: Charles Wilhelm’s Ultimate Super Horse Challenge (video) tests the relationship between horse and rider over three days using a series of six events that showcase the pair’s versatility. Horses are worked in-hand, through a riding pattern (dressage or versatility), and over a trail equitation course. They work with cows, hold a meet & greet for Horse Expo visitors to talk about the event and allow the public to get up close and personal with the horses, and finally compete over an intricate (and wild!) obstacle course. Participants are scored on everything from correctness to sportsmanship – this is no simple ‘obstacle race’!

From Christine Ramsey: “What do the Ultimate Super Horse Competition and Western Dressage have in common?  On the surface many people may think “not a lot”….  However the Ultimate Super Horse and Western Dressage both look for a horse that is responsive, relaxed, has impulsion and uses itself well.  Many people see the obstacles in the challenge and think that is what it is all about, however competitors are also scored on transitions, being on pattern, proper equitation and good horsemanship skills.  It is in these areas that riding western dressage for the past couple of years was very beneficial.  The practice of memorizing patterns, knowing how to ride a circle with good geometry and correct bend all helped to prepare us for this competition. Working to be very precise in the Dressage court allowed me to understand the timing and rhythm needed to execute the transitions/maneuvers at the designated markers. This was a big help since most of the patterns were distributed less than 24 hours before we were judged on them.”

I agree with Christine. The courses were detailed and specific, and learning to ride Western Dressage tests really made it possible for me to be functional at this event at all. I used to get “show paralysis.” That’s what happens when you go to a show and sort of watch yourself not doing what you set out to do, while doing nothing to fix it. Before Western Dressage I approached showing by telling myself, “Go forward, make a circle, make a faster circle, lead change, make a circle…” and so on. So when my forward drifted left, and my circles were different sizes, I just shrugged and went on.

Once I started Western Dressage, I developed a whole new way of thinking about what I’m really doing during a test. I’m not going straight and then making a circle at E anymore. That’s too broad – thinking about a test in specifics makes each move better. ‘Go straight’ has become, “Ride forward, push, left leg blocks the drift, soften the back, follow, follow, push…” Circles have become, “Bend, inside leg to outside rein, outside leg controls the shoulder, more impulsion, keep the bend…” See the difference?

Learning to actually ride the tests, ride each part fully and with awareness of what both myself and my horse are doing, has helped me do my best each step of the way and to be less flustered when I make a single mistake. I’m still working on it – yes, there were times during the Super Horse Challenge that I was so amazed and nervous about what I was doing that I forgot to do it! But for the most part applying the way I ride a test to every part of Super Horse helped me to get higher scores through all the details of the event.

From Christine Ramsey: “Being in The Super Horse Competition has made me a better rider and has taught me how to adjust and adapt better when going through a pattern/test.  I believe this will help as we progress through the Western Dressage tests and will make us a stronger team for years to come.”

And for me, Western Dressage gave me the confidence to get out there and try the Super Horse Challenge with a plan in mind for overcoming my nerves and making the most of each individual move. And I’m so glad I did! I got to meet Christine and Nic, and all the other riders in the Challenge who were so skilled and supportive, and really cared about seeing every rider do the best that they could do. Charles Wilhelm and his crew put on a great event that really tests you and your horse, while still being an absolutely great time. I’m looking forward to riding with them again someday, and to meeting more CAWDA members this year, whether at a dressage show or at a completely different kind of event!

Have a great 2016, keep learning and trying new things, and hope to see you out there soon!