A dash of dressage, an obstacle course, speed and a little bit of cattle work. That's the recipe for working equitation, a discipline that is well established in Europe, gaining popularity in the United States and just now getting a foothold in California.
Working equitation originated in Portugal, Spain, France and Italy, where it grew as a means of showcasing the field (aka "ranch") work skills honed by horse and rider over hundreds of years. The
World Association of Working Equitation governs the sport internationally.
"Its aim is to promote competition between the traditional ways of riding used in the field or ranch work of various countries," explains Sue Watkins. The owner of Kigers del Los Californios in Placer County's Sheridan, Sue is establishing herself as a point person for the discipline's emergence in the United States, particularly on the West Coast.
Sue loves the sport's emphasis on rewarding the unity between horse and rider. "It is always testing you for the outcome of a perfect team. It doesn't go down any one road too far, and none of the tests allow you to forget about your horsemanship or to let horsemanship become secondary to the contest. Some horses do one thing perfectly, but you can't take them out of the ring." As in the sport of ranch versatility, a horse that's an ace in only one ring won't be the winner in working equitation.
Sue also likes the sport's celebration of the cultures from which it emerged, especially regulations about wearing the costumes of your country: in her case, those of the Californios.
Three Or Four Phases
Working equitation competitions consist of three phases: working dressage, ease of handling and speed. A fourth category, cattle work, is included in regional, national and international competition. The first international working equitation competition was held in 1996.
The first phase, working dressage, emphasizes dressage used as a foundation for training a horse for any kind of work. "The test shows rhythm and regularity of the natural gaits and the precision of the horse to prepare for the other three phases," Sue explains. She likens it to traditional dressage and reining in its effort to demonstrate a horse's natural athletic ability, willingness to work and lightness. It differs from traditional dressage in that, the higher the level, the less extension work there is, emphasizing instead collection because that's more practical in the life of a ranch horse. There is also less trotting as the levels rise because that gait is rarely used in ranch work. Unlike reining, working dressage does not include stops, spins or slides.
The ease of handling round is a trail-type test in which participants navigate obstacles they may come across in their work: bridges, gates, etc. This round is judged on the horse's agility and attitude.
The dressage and ease of handling phases are scored on each movement, with additional collective marks for overall horsemanship.
The third round, speed, is typically the most exciting to watch. It's a timed obstacle race judged on time but over a course built to require handiness and maneuverability. "Promoting only speed would be contrary to the spirit of the discipline," Sue explains.
The cattle handling phase is very similar to team penning or team sorting. A team of three or four riders is timed on how long it takes them to separate an individual cow from the herd.
Points are awarded for each phase, then totaled at the end of the competition day.
Given its origins in Spain and Portugal, it's no surprise that horses of Iberian descent are popular working equitation mounts. The discipline's popularity with these breeds also stems from the fact that most available trainers hail from the same countries these breeds do.
Both the International Lusitano and Andalusian Horse Association and the Foundation for the Pure Spanish Horse have staged working equitation classes at their championships or shows in recent years and promoted clinics in the States.
"The IALHA is playing a leading role in bringing the sport to the United States," says the organization's Oregon-based president Julie Alonzo. "We are assisting in writing the rules and working with the United States Equestrian Federation to get them formalized for use with multiple breeds." The two-year-old Florida-based Working Equitation USA (WEUSA) is off and running with actual and virtual clinics and competitions and help finding instructors and judges, which are keys to the sport's growth. The association's next challenge is establishing state chapters and WEUSA's Jean White welcomes inquiries from interested Californians.
Working Equitation offers all breeds equal opportunities for success. That's an added plus for owners of Mustangs and other breeds without registry-driven competition circuits. "Most Mustangs, for example, are not registered so they can't compete in a lot of breed specific shows, but that doesn't mean they are not awesome all-around horses," Sue says.
WEUSA's Jean White relays that, at the Working Equitation World Championships in France last fall, a Quarter Horse helped the German team earn bronze and the Italian squad featured an Appaloosa that won the speed division.
IALHA's Julie Alonzo describes herself as completely smitten after being introduced to working equitation at the 2010 IALHA Nationals. "After participating in three of the four (West Coast) clinics last year I decided to begin training my favorite mare, Odalisca GF, for the discipline," she recounts. "I've been so impressed by how well she is coming along. Odalisca has always been a very athletic horse, but spending time focusing on working through the obstacles smoothly and on improving our upward and downward transitions and her ability to collect and change leads has truly helped her thrive. I'm so excited by her progress, in fact, that I've selected the stallion to breed to her for a 2012 foal based on the cross that I think is most likely to produce a great working equitation mount. Yes, you might say I'm completely smitten!"
As is typical when a new discipline or breed arrives in the United States, there are a few different organizations and people attempting to lead the way and different ideas about how to go about that.
The resources below are all good sources for getting involved in working equitation.
Horse Expo Debut
The United States Working Equitation Association plans to make its debut at Horse Expo, June 8-10 at Cal Expo in Sacramento. The group's founder Sue Watkins says the organization's coming out party will consist of demonstrations and an informational booth during the show. As a warm-up, Sue held her first working equitation clinic April 22 and plans another for June 2-3. An early California advocate for the discipline, Sue recently returned from working with Jose Manuel Correia Lopes, an international working equitation, Portuguese equitation and Lusitano judge from Portugal.
For more information, call Sue