Beginning Dressage for Tennessee Walking Horses

Beginning Dressage for Tennessee Walking Horses

By Claudia Coombs

At first glance, the sport of Dressage may seem to be a complicated and mysterious pursuit, but in reality the training and riding are based on a simple scale which begins with rudimentary exercises and builds progressively to the upper levels of the sport.

This article will introduce you to some of the basics of Dressage competition as it relates to the Tennessee Walking Horse. The guidelines for Gaited horse Dressage are based on the rules for all Dressage competitions (below the FEI levels) in the United States as written by the United States Equestrian Federation and the United States Dressage Federation.

Competition Rules

The rules for Dressage competitions are very specific and are too detailed to go into for the purposes of this article. All riders would be wise to read the rulebook prior to showing, since some of the rules will incur elimination from the competition if violated.

The governing bodies for Dressage are The United States Equestrian Federation ( and The United States Dressage Federation (

Dressage for Walking Horses follows the same basic rules, with some minor exceptions for our own specific gaits and traditions/turnout, such as saddle seat attire being acceptable.


Dressage competitions for Walking Horses are the same as for all horses, with some minor changes in the tests to accommodate gait differences such as, working trot equates to our flat walk and lengthened/extended trot is our running walk. Judges will be looking for horses that are supple, obedient and relaxed with rhythmic gaits and a desire to move freely forward with impulsion and in harmony with the rider, responding easily to the rider’s requests. Riders will be judged on correct riding position and effective use of the aids, along with accuracy of the test pattern ridden.

Judges will score each movement during the test ,as well as collective marks for the overall performance.
Beginning horses and riders may start at the Introductory Level ( 2 gait) and progress up the levels from Training Level through Third Level ( 3 gait). The test patterns are progressively more challenging as you move up through the levels, with each level consisting of several tests.

Tennessee Walkers are currently not allowed to compete at USDF recognized shows, but many larger Tennessee Walker shows do offer a Dressage division. Most local Open Dressage schooling shows will allow Gaited horses if you ask the management ahead of time and provide them with the tests you wish to ride. These shows are a wonderful opportunity to introduce the Dressage world to our breed, and I have seen many Walkers score higher than the more traditional Dressage breeds.


In a Dressage competition you will be riding a test pattern individually in front of the judge. Ideally the test is to be ridden from memory, however use of an assistant know as a “reader or caller” is allowed. This person stands beside the arena and reads each movement to the rider as they are performing the test.

It is the rider’s responsibility to provide their own “caller” if they decide to use one. Also, there are rules that govern the responsibilities of these assistants, so be sure to familiarize yourself and your “caller” with the rules prior to the competition.

Horse Turnout and Tack

As in any equestrian competition, horses should be clean and neat when presented to the judge. Dressage horses are typically shown with a braided mane and forelock, but no braiding of the tail, however most horses have their tails trimmed at the top of the dock on the sides and cut straight (banged) at the bottom.

Dark hoof polish is not used in competition, otherwise basic grooming and clipping practices apply.

In Open Dressage competition a traditional Dressage English saddle is the most popular, however , All Purpose english saddles are frequently used. In Walking Horse Dressage a cutback english saddle is acceptable. Traditionally, saddle pads are square and conservatively colored (black or white). Fancy colored pads are popular for schooling shows. Leg wraps or boots are not allowed during competition, as well as any kind of training tack.

An English bridle fitted with a noseband is required, along with a snaffle bit. The use of a double bridle is optional at Third Level and above. Fancy jeweled browbands are popular now, but stay away from excessive “bling” in your turnout as it can be distracting to the judge.

Whips and spurs are allowed in competition, but the whip may not be longer than 43.3 inches (including lash). For a complete and detailed description of all approved equipment, see the USEF rulebook.

Rider Turnout

Rider turnout is based on two principles: the rules and tradition. Conservative and tasteful are the name of the game for rider attire. While there are specific rules governing dress for Dressage competitions, most rider attire is dictated by tradition. Consult the USEF rulebook for exact descriptions of attire, but basically it consists of a dark, conservatively colored short coat, light colored breeches (white, full seat breeches are preferred), conservative colored gloves (here again, white is preferred), a stock tie, tall black boots and a riding helmet, derby or top hat. At Walking Horse shows Saddle Seat attire is acceptable.

Dress for schooling shows tends to be much more casual, leaving out the coat and stock tie, while opting for a polo shirt and breeches along with half chaps and paddock boots if you like. Here you may show your individuality with colors and patterns, while still keeping everything tasteful. Remember you want the judge to be looking at the horse and not the rider’s outfit!

Hopefully this article has given you a good overview of the sport of Dressage. It is really just good basic training for all horses, and the competitions are an opportunity for the rider to test the level of the horse’s training in a competitive environment ,while getting constructive feedback from the judge in the form of written comments which are designed to help the rider stay on track with correct training.

I urge everyone to give Dressage a try, you might just get hooked!

Green Ridge Farm