Western Dressage: The Perfect Fit For The OTTB - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Western Dressage: The Perfect Fit For The OTTB

Zecchin with Buckeye Warrior at the 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover Finals

Dressage is perhaps the oldest training discipline in the horse world. Its purpose initially was to be used to increase the strength and suppleness of the horse. The cavalry roots have progressed to a more formal style seen on the international level with powerful, fancy movements and a more international flair.

In recent years, there has been a division in the traditional world of dressage. No longer are top hats and coats the only apparel seen in the lettered rectangle, but, now there are leather chaps and cowboy hats entering the arena.

According to the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) website, Western dressage “integrates the historically-validated principles of dressage with the best of Western stock horse tradition. It is a systematic and progressive system of training for the Western horse and rider in traditional stock tack with the purpose of enjoying a safe, pleasurable, versatile and useful working horse.”

The hallmarks of the Western dressage horse are:
• Usefulness
• Rideability
• Willingness
• Safety
• Pure gaits
• Lightness
• Calmness
• Steadiness

It is a discipline now recognized by the USEF and managed by the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA). The WDAA hosts a world championship show each year, most recently at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma.

While the descriptions are heavy on “stock horse,” the discipline is starting to see an influx of Off-Track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) entering down the center line, dressed in full Western garb and taking home more ribbons. In fact, Buckeye Warrior was the winner of the dressage during the 2022 Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover while riding Western dressage tests. An Ohio-bred gelding by Majestic Warrior, Buckeye Warrior was the first to win as a Western entry.

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“Thoroughbreds are naturally good at Western dressage because they have a natural impulsion that all dressage horses need,” says Holly Zecchin, a veteran eventer and dressage rider who rode Buckeye Warrior. The pair won the WDAA World Championship at the Basic Level in the weeks leading up to their trip to Lexington.

Zecchin explains that the ideals of dressage showcase the horse's ability to use his natural athleticism and balance. The ideal dressage horse has the ability of the horse to shift his weight to the rear, thus lightening the forehand. However, as you go up in levels and expertise in the traditional dressage arena, horses with a flashier movement, such as Warmbloods, are raking in the international accolades.

This is why Zecchin has transitioned to showing her OTTBs in Western.

“The judge's objective is to evaluate how effectively the rider is riding the horse and how the horse is using his body in the best possible way to create that movement,” she said. “It can be accomplished aboard any breed from Haflinger pony, Quarter Horse to a Thoroughbred.”

Zecchin with Buckeye Warrior at the 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover Finals

Thoroughbreds are Zecchin's choice in the pen not only because of the natural impulsion, but she sees more of a willingness in the Thoroughbred to work more than other breeds.

“For me, an hour of agony is to sit on a draft cross,” she laughed. “They can be super athletes and are wonderful for some, but I feel they are slow processors and just not for me. I want to think it and have my horse do it, immediately. The Thoroughbreds I train give you that hand-in-the-glove feeling. I'm going to start a circle or a turn and I just need to shift my weight, turn my head and shoulders and the horse is already getting ready to turn. It's like you're thinking and the Thoroughbred is doing.”

Western dressage has a series of tests for riders to memorize and perform, much like traditional dressage. There are six levels in Western dressage, with tests start at the Introductory and Basic Levels, then Level 1 through Level 5. There are standards for freestyle and therapeutic riding (leadline). The tests provide the opportunity for the team to demonstrate growth through progressive elements as they move up levels. Judges score each movement for an overall total score.

There are two rail classes that are offered as more of an introductory class:
• Suitability (for beginner horses)
• Hack (horses with more show ring experience)
• Equitation (judged on the rider).

Required rider attire includes a long-sleeved, button down shirt, cowboy boots and a Western hat or helmet. Riders can wear leather chaps and attire with bling or more traditional style. Horses must be ridden in the heavier Western saddle (plain or adorned with silver) and can be ridden one- or two-handed.

There are no restrictions on breeds competing at WDAA shows. Gaited horses have different tests than non-gaited horses, but Quarter Horses, Paint Horses, Arabians, Haflingers, Thoroughbreds and Tennessee Walking Horses can and will compete against each other.

Another reason Zecchin is a fan of the Western discipline is because the rules allow for the use of a bitless bridle, whereas the traditional discipline does not. And when you're rehabbing and retraining a retired racehorse, forgoing the bit might be the best choice for comfort.

Zecchin with Buckeye Warrior at the 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover

“I had a horse that did not go well in the bit—it was an annoyance and distraction for him,” she said. “It wasn't that he was dangerous with the bit, but he was constantly fussing. Riding him with a bitless bridle allowed him to focus on me and what he's being asked to do.”

Western dressage has a focus on harmony and balance, which is what every OTTB is looking for in their next career off the track.

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