Fast, Furious, & Precise!
The sport of working equitation, relatively new to the U.S., is finding ardent fans among Western performance-horse enthusiasts.
Working equitation? It’s the hot new sport finding ardent fans among Western-horse enthusiasts in the U.S.
What combines the beauty of dressage, the thrill of speed events, the precision of a trail class, and the skill set of a working ranch horse?
That would be working equitation (WE), a discipline popular in Europe and rapidly gaining adherents in the U.S. Founded in the mid-1990s in Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy, this international sport showcases the equitation techniques developed in countries that use horses to do ranch work. And, within the last four years, the WE craze has taken off in earnest in the U.S. “We’ve been seeing an increase of about 20 percent per year in the number of licensed competitions offered,” says Julie Alonzo, past-president of WE United, one of the organizations promoting the discipline here in the States. “Western riders with a solid foundation in ranch riding and those who follow the vaquero traditions have been making an impact in the sport.”
Working equitation involves four phases—working dressage; ease of handling with obstacles; speed with obstacles; and, in the highest-level events, cattle handling. (For details, see “Working Equitation, Explained,” at right.)
Is WE for you and your horse? Read on to learn how others have found their way into this fascinating sport.
Perfect Starting Point
Robin Bond trains out of Deer Springs Equestrian Center in San Marcos, California, and nearby Rancho Descanso in Valley Center. A fan of the traditional vaquero method of training cow horses, she’s shown three mounts in the National Reined Cow Horse Association Futurity. Her gelding Chapo (Joses Perfection) was top 10 in NRCHA bridle horse competition in 2006. In 2014, she pulled the 14.3-hand Quarter Horse gelding out of retirement to show in her first WE event.
“It was at the Andalusian World Cup in Las Vegas, where the working equitation was held as an open class,” she recalls. (WE was introduced to the U.S. by breed organizations for Andalusians and Lusitanos, the natural cow
horses of the Iberian Peninsula. Now a large portion of entries in this country are Quarter Horses.)
“We were in the intermediate division,” Bond continues. “My little cow horse went around under a Portuguese judge and wound up the high-scoring horse—our first time out. It was great!”
WE encourages competitors to show in the traditional gear of the rider’s country and/or of the type of horse ridden. At an event, you’ll see entries turned out in all manner of English and Western gear, all competing against each other.
“I adore the fact that you can go to a show and see someone in dressage attire, someone in a charro outfit, someone in California bridle horse gear—and we’re all doing the same thing. It’s an incredible concept,” Bond says.
She adds that regardless of the tack you’re in, you’ll be judged in part on your horse’s quality of movement. “You’ll have to break out of that jog— you’ve got to genuinely trot— and your horse must show some engagement of the hindquarters.”
Bond’s ultimate goal for herself is a challenging one.
“I want to compete in the ranch versatility riding class at the Quarter
Horse World Show,” she says, “then compete with that same horse at an equally advanced level in working equitation. I don’t know if it can be done, but that’s what I’m shooting for.”
You needn’t have your sights set that high, though, to benefit from WE.
“This sport will teach you a variety of skills, and you can work your way up naturally in the competition,” notes Bond. “It’s not like reining, where right away you have to manage sliding stops and lead changes.”
That means the lowest levels of WE provide the perfect starting point for novice riders.
Don’t Fear the Dressage
Jill Lovelace boards and trains at the Emerald Valley Equestrian Center in Eugene, Oregon. She and her 14-yearold Foundation Quarter Horse gelding, Driftin Juniper, have competed in drill team, mountain trail, stock horse, and cow sorting.
“And now working equitation!” she says with relish, noting that she had some major challenges along the way. “I started riding late—at 49—and my horse has had a number of issues, both mental and physical. Plus I wasn’t initially a fan of dressage.”
She found, though, that lessthan-optimal dressage skills don’t necessarily kill your chances.
“It’s a progression,” she explains of the competitions. “The dressage comes first, then the ease of handling, then the speed. You can be fourth in dressage, then move up later on. I’ve won several times while being ‘not the best’ in dressage.”
For all these reasons, she says, WE is something you can do with “the horse you have.”
“Like dressage alone, working equitation will make your horse better and better. I hated to see the natural carriage go away in the stock horse events I’d been showing in. WE, by contrast, is much more ‘body-friendly’ for your horse—there’s a lot of suppling and stretching. I wanted to learn self-carriage for my horse and the proper biomechanics of riding for myself, and that’s exactly what I’ve gotten out of it.”
And, as a bonus, she says her horse “loves it as much as I do.”
To learn more about this emerging sport, including how to get involved, see “Booster Groups," above.
Robin Bond in the dressage phase (below). Bond and Joses Perfection, a former top-10 NRCHA bridle horse (at right), were the high-scoring entry their first time out at intermediate-level working equitation.
Dressage is the first phase of a working equitation event. Entries execute a set pattern; judging criteria include the rider’s horsemanship and the horse’s balance, impulsion, and willingness.
Jill Lovelace of Oregon says she’s won several working equitation classes after being “not the best” in dressage, then moving up after doing well in the two obstacles phases.