Cowboy up! for Western dressage

Photo by Bob Silbernagel—Jim Farmer works with his horse, Isabelle, recently at his farm near Fruita, in preparation for Western dressage competition.

Jim Farmer and his horse, Isabelle, won the Introductory Level Western Dressage championship at the Grand Valley Dressage Society Western Slope Championships last month.

It helped that Farmer and Isabelle were the only competitors in the Western Dressage category through most of the year. But they also worked hard throughout the spring and summer to ensure they were ready for the dressage tests during each of the GVDS schooling shows, and for the championship.

“I just started messing with this a year and a half ago,” said Farmer, a lifelong horseman who has trained horses, shown horses and competed in reining and roping contests. “Dressage is kind of a new discipline for me, a new training tool. I can see you can use a lot of the same techniques in other disciplines.”

Dressage is not a new training method for many in the horse world. It is considered “classical training,” the style of riding and training utilized by European royalty for centuries.

The Grand Valley Dressage Society’s website explains it this way: “The word dressage (rhymes with “massage”) is derived from a French term meaning ‘training.’ It is not only a method of schooling, but also a competitive equestrian sport. Dressage is considered ‘classical training’ because it uses gymnastic exercises — a series of movements and figures — which have been studied and developed for centuries ... today dressage has evolved into a discipline and competitive sport accessible to all horses and riders.”

Dressage exercises were also the basic elements taught to Army cavalry troops in Europe, the United States and other parts of the world. In fact, some of the earliest dressage training has been attributed to Xenophon, a Greek cavalry officer from the time of Socrates.

But dressage hasn’t been embraced by most Western-style riders, at least not until recently.

In recent years, trainers in various Western disciplines, especially reining, have come to realize that many of the training exercises from dressage can help their horses prepare for competition. Conversely, some dressage riders, jumpers and eventers have begun to incorporate reining exercises into their training.

But it wasn’t until last year that Western Dressage Association of America was formed. “Its purpose is to educate, inform, promote and teach dressage principles to Western riders,” long-time trainer Jack Brainard wrote on the association’s website. Brainard helped to found the organization.

Western Dressage Association of America also honors the horse in the development of the American West, from Coronado’s time until the present.

Western dressage has been growing nationwide. But, with the exception of Jim Farmer, there haven’t been many regular participants in the sport in this region. Consequently, Farmer has had to learn the elements of the sport without the assistance of traditional dressage riders and trainers.

“Grand Valley Dressage Society has been really supportive. They’ve helped me all they can,” Farmer said. Trainers such as Inka Spatafora and Allison West have been particularly helpful, he said.

Farmer also competes with Isabelle in traditional dressage gear — a European dressage saddle, tight breeches and tall boots.

But, he admits he’s more comfortable in blue jeans, cowboy boots, hat and the chaps he wears in Western dressage. And his regular Western saddle, with a horn and thick leather fenders leading down to the stirrups, works just fine, he said.

“You would think it would affect the rider’s feel of the horse more (than a European saddle) because of the thickness of the leather, but it doesn’t,” he said. “My reining saddle works well because it allows more freedom of movement for my legs” than, say, a roping saddle.

Farmer grew up in Wheat Ridge and Morrison. He began training and showing horses at an early age. He and his wife, Johnnie, worked on her uncle’s cow ranch in Collbran for a number of years, before moving to their current location just outside of Fruita.

Their granddaughters, Jordan and Justine Ham, remain committed to Western riding, competing in events such as barrel racing and Western pleasure.

At their Fruita farm, Jim and Johnnie have a number of horses, including two mustangs from the BLM’s Piceance Creek herd, and a rescue horse that once was part of an outfitter’s string.

Isabelle, a Friesian-thoroughbred cross known as a Friesian sport horse, was purchased on the Front Range with the expectation she would become Johnnie’s horse.

“The first time we took her out on the trail, she freaked out,” Farmer said. So she became his training project, instead.

Isabelle was also supposed to have been trained as a first-level dressage horse. But, Jim said, “I don’t think she ever had any dressage training.”

She’s getting it now, under both a European saddle and a Western saddle. And, she is doing very well under Farmer’s careful tutelage.

Jim Farmer just hopes that, when the 2012 dressage season gets going next spring, there will be a few more riders and horses to compete against him in Western dressage.

Grand Valley Dressage Society:

Western Dressage Association of America:


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