December 2018 - Getting Started in Working Equitation
Written by by Nicole Chastain Price with Kip Mistral
Friday, 30 November 2018 02:13


Have some serious fun!

by Nicole Chastain Price with Kip Mistral

I  am often asked how a rider new to working equitation can get started, and I have several suggestions for people just beginning to explore the sport to see if it might be right for their horses and themselves.

As a first step, I would suggest that riders interested in learning more about and getting started in working equitation should consult one of the websites of our two governing bodies in the United States, which are WE United and The Confederation for Working Equitation. There you can read about the history of the sport, its definition and the requirements. We offer multiple levels in working equitation: Children, Introductory, Novice A, Novice B, Intermediate A, Intermediate B, Advanced and Masters. We also have multiple phases: Dressage, Ease of Handling (How well you do the Obstacles), Speed (Obstacles at Speed) and a Team Cattle Phase. The Introductory level does not include a Speed Phase. At this stage in the U.S., the cattle phase is not usually offered, and if it is it is an optional phase.

Reading the rulebook and the test descriptions will answer many questions. The top riders in the world will be competing under the World Association of Working Equitation (WAWE), and doing an Internet search on those keywords will take you to videos posted online. While it is fun to see this sport as it was created to be it can be intimidating to look ONLY at the international Master’s Level. It’s kind of like looking at an Olympic horse; you are likely to get a little intimidated if you compare your own horse to it! In the case of working equitation, people think, “Oh well, I don’t look like that, and I don’t have that kind of horse or tack. So I can’t do this and neither can my horse!”  But yes, yes you can!

As a second step, it is important that you find teachers that are specific to working equitation. Both organizations I mentioned have regional directors, and the websites will tell you if there any local clubs, or trainers or clinics in your area for learning this sport.

Susan Watkins riding her branded Kiger Mustang stallion, Dios Estoy Aqui KCA. Photo: L. Kurzt Photography. 'When I learned about working equitation 10 years ago, I knew it was the perfect sport for every working horse breed and every level of rider. Since that day I have devoted my life to bringing working equitation in its entirety to the U.S.A.'

If there isn’t a local teacher or group, it is particularly important as a first step to read the rulebook to better understand what is required at each level of participation for the U.S. We may often have our first exposure to working equitation by seeing high-level international competitors, but the purpose of working equitation is to showcase the working horse and traditions of each country and each country will have a different idea of what that means at the lower levels. Many other countries don’t allow for lower levels while the upper level Master’s requirements are the same in all countries.

As a third step, if you can’t find a local working equitation-specialized teacher I suggest finding one that has a background in dressage basics, or an english or western trainer who understands that working equitation has a dressage basis--we need balance, suppleness, engagement, and collection. The working equitation horse doesn’t have to have the lofty suspension and the ground covering gaits of the dressage horse, but they do have to have a more overall level or, preferably, uphill balance than the typical western or hunter horse does. However, the trainers, riders and horses with a western foundation tend to be more seasoned about the obstacles and are often coming from cattle working events, so they are true partners and understand what is required to actually get a useful job done- in this way blending the english and western approaches can make a very well-rounded working equitation horse.

Start with the Horse You Have

Working equitation is truly something you can do with the horse that you have.

You might wonder, however, what the “ideal” working equitation horse might look like. No matter the breed, ideally the working equitation horse is naturally balanced and easily adjustable. Being a little more square in shape instead of long and rectangular gives a horse the ability to maneuver easily in order to get around the obstacles, and collect himself. Many assume you need an Iberian horse to do this sport. Not true! I have seen almost every breed do WE from almost every size, shape and breed.

Equally important, the successful working equitation horse of any shape or size must have a good basic training background. They must stay on your seat, maintain suppleness, have prompt and smooth transitions, be focused, relaxed and brave and eventually be able to do everything with on one hand in the Advanced and Master’s divisions.

Nicole Chastain Price showing Catattak, AQHA cutting bred gelding. Photo: L. Kurzt Photography

Start with the Tack and Attire You Have

Will you have to buy new tack and attire for working equitation? Probably not!

Internationally, each country votes on a single tradition for the tack and attire they will use, but there are no breed requirements. Each country might promote the breeds that are prevalent in use there, however most countries will have many different breeds represented. For example, the French team originally used the white Camargue horses from the marshland because those were considered the working horse of the country, but today on the French team you will see several different breeds.

The United States is unique in the sense that we represent multiple riding traditions within one country, and that is why the U.S. working equitation organizations do not have only one approved set of tack or attire. In American competition, I could ride my Lusitano stallion in dressage tack, western tack, Portuguese tack, even jumping tack, because I can choose from multiple riding traditions.

Can we mix and match tack from different disciplines here? Yes and no. Our rules do not strictly prohibit the mixing of attire and tack styles….we don’t want to discourage people who are just starting the sport from competing if they don’t already have a complete presentation from their chosen tradition. However, it is a rule that you may not change tack and attire from phase to phase during a competition; if you start in dressage tack with a snaffle bit, you may not change bits or traditions for the next phase.

Additionally, we do have a presentation score for both dressage and ease of handling. If you mix tack and attire styles you will not get a high score in that mark, which will affect your overall score for the test.

Eleanor Thomas with her PRE Valentino. Photo: Courtesy of WE United - 'Coming from a mostly dressage background, I have always enjoyed playing with a variety of riding styles and activities with my horses. Working equitation was a natural fit for us because it requires such a variety of skills and strong communication between horse and rider, and it is a ton of fun!'

Start with the Basics and Go Up the Levels

How is your horse’s basic training? I feel the difference between working equitation and other equestrian sports is that even at the Introductory level, you need to have a more organized, balanced, more active horse than you do in basic dressage or basic western riding. Even at Introductory level the horse is introduced to obstacles, required to make a lot of transitions, maintain his activity, show clear bend, and demonstrate a level balance.

Each level has its own rules and choices about which gaits to use. For example, in the Introductory level you trot between all obstacles and you have the choice of walking or trotting all of the obstacles, except for the slalom and double-slalom which must be trotted. The bridge you are required to walk. As you go up the levels as skills progress, you are cantering in between obstacles and walking, trotting or cantering the obstacles, which are all outlined in an easy chart in the rule book that tells you what your gait choices are. The changes of direction between obstacles graduate every level from trot-canter-trot to canter-walk-canter to flying changes.

Finally, in the Advanced and Masters levels, you are riding with one hand and in Masters you ride your dressage pattern to music. It is like a freestyle in the sense that every movement has to come in a certain order and direction, but you decide where in the arena you place the movement and you choreograph the test to your own music.

Don’t let all this sound intimidating! Remember that you are working on this training over time as a process, and working up the working equitation levels is really an excellent protocol for training an all-around horse as the skills increase in each level.

Teach Your Dressage Horse Obstacles and Your Western Horse Dressage

Now our dressage riders must prepare a dressage horse that is accustomed to an empty arena to obstacles and the flowers and decorations around them, to go over a bridge, get them comfortable carrying a garrocha pole and even confronting those scary looking two-dimensional bulls. The obstacles are a really great way to get a horse understanding that the skills required in dressage actually have a purpose!

I recommend that riders engage an obstacle trainer if at all possible. In our ease of handling phase, the course is posted but the path to get through the obstacles is up to the competitor. In a separate navigation mark at the end of your test sheet, you are judged on the path that you choose to get from obstacle to obstacle as well as your transitions, so it really pays to learn to ride these patterns from someone who understands how to best approach obstacles and how a course will flow. Some of the western obstacle and ranch horse training helps you understand how to ride cohesive, flowing lines, and hunter jumpers and event riders are good at riding lines between obstacles.

Competitors are always allowed a course walk before the obstacle phase. Round up some obstacles at home and give it a try! Cones, barrels and poles work well to start.

For our western riders, finding someone with a dressage background and taking dressage lessons is a good idea. A teacher with a western dressage background or a traditional/classical dressage background can help. Most of the time western horses are trained and responsive, but they may need better bending, a little more engagement from behind, and to cover more ground in their gaits without losing their balance. Also, when I teach western riders it seems to be an intimidating factor that they are not familiar with the figures of the dressage test; for instance, how to ride a 10-meter circle. The dressage court we use is a 20 x 40 short court, so mark off your court, place the letters and learn the basic figures required in the level you will be competing.

I have seen people coming straight from the western world with no dressage training, that have done exactly that--just put up the arena and the letters--and they’ve been able to figure out how to get through the basics. When they get to the shows, get experience and are able to watch a few other rides, they go home and practice and I see they keep improving every time out.

You can come from any discipline and train your horse better and better, whether you are coming from dressage or western or jumping. With training through working equitation, you end up with a horse that is much better balanced and you are both having great fun. And that is important!

Polly Limond, WE United President, R Judge and Bronze Medalist, competing Flying Tiger, Andalusian/Kiger Mustang cross owned by Patti Rust. Photo: Jesse Lora Photography - 'I was looking for a way to revitalize my dressage practice, but was intimidated by the idea of buying into a whole new sport. When I found working equitation, I realized my dressage horses would be really good at it and I have made zero investment in tack or equipment for the switch.'

A Community of Inclusivity

Working equitation in California got its start largely because of Susan Watkins, who organized the first competitions and clinics and has avidly promoted the sport from the beginning. Susan coined the phrase “Where we have fun riding seriously.” Today we are growing in participation and have educational events, clinics, schooling shows and recognized competitions from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego. In the spirit of creating inclusivity and an environment of support, encouragement and kindness, the people in the working equitation discipline are the nicest I have ever met.

Join us today and have some serious fun with your horse!

About the authors:
Nicole Chastain Price is a life-long horse lover and has been a professional in the industry for 27 years, competing in eventing, hunter/jumpers, dressage, western dressage, reining, sorting, ranch horse and working equitation. She is a USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold Medalist, a USDF Certified Instructor, a USDF “L” Graduate with Distinction, a USEF “r” Dressage candidate, a USEF WDAA “r” Judge, WE United “r” Judge and a Confederation for Working Equitation “r” Judge. She is a WDAA Graduate of the Advanced Train the Trainers. She lives on a ranch in Central California’s Buellton that features award winning wines, a cattle breeding program, and is home to a new equestrian facility where she trains and teaches. Learn more about Nicole at
Kip Mistral is a lifelong horsewoman, widely published equestrian journalist, former editor of an equestrian magazine, co-author of a bestselling book about training horses in-hand, boutique publisher, blogger and currently creating an online course.