Working Equitation

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By Elizabeth S. Hussey DVM

Editor’s Note: This article won first place for a GMO Newsletter Award for first-person experience for GMOs with fewer than 75 members category. It appeared in the November 2016 issue of the Columbia Dressage and Combined Training Association newsletter, Direct Rein.

In September, I had the opportunity to fly out to Las Vegas to volunteer at the 3rd Annual Andalusian World Cup (AWC). While it is primarily a breed show, they also offer an open dressage show and Working Equitation (WE) competition. You can probably guess that I enjoyed the dressage portion, but to my surprise, WE also captured my attention! For those who are unfamiliar with WE, it is an event with three phases. The first phase is dressage, the second is ease of handling, and the third is speed. Some WE competitions offer a fourth phase, working cattle, but that wasn’t offered at AWC, so I am unfamiliar with how those are typically run. Dressage is pretty self-explanatory – there is a dressage court and each combination rides a test for their particular level. Each movement is graded, and they are given an overall score at the end of their test. At AWC, there were three levels: novice, intermediate, and advanced. There are additional levels, depending on which organization’s rules you compete under. AWC was run under the rules from the Working Equitation International Association of the USA (WEIUSA). Watching each test, I could see elements I was familiar with from USDF/USEF dressage tests.

Ringing the bell
(photo courtesy of Frances Hughes)

The second phase, ease of handling, was intriguing. If you’re familiar with trail classes/obstacles, a WE ease of handling course might look a little familiar. Several obstacles were familiar: a bridge, a gate, a pole to sidepass over, etc. There were also a few that seemed out of place for the average trail pattern: a jump, a bell to ring, a water pitcher to pick up, etc. And probably the most foreign, yet interesting, obstacle — the garrocha and bull. One of the most interesting aspects of WE (to me anyway) is picking up the garrocha (essentially a long pole) from a barrel as you ride by, and using it to spear a ring off a “bull” (typically a plywood silhouette), before setting the pole and ring back into another barrel. In the ease of handling phase, each pair rides a pre-determined course, typically cantering between the obstacles. As the name suggests, the round is judged on the ease of which the horse and rider complete all of the obstacles, and given a numerical score.

The last phase, the speed phase, is where I really became hooked on WE. The speed phase uses the same obstacles as the ease of handling phase (potentially set in a different order), only the goal is to complete course as quickly as possible. If you complete certain obstacles correctly (successfully spearing the ring with the garrocha pole, for example), you can reduce your time – incentive to ride both quickly and skillfully! While the atmosphere in the arena was somewhat reserved during the dressage rides, and slightly livelier during the ease of handling rides, during the speed phase, the crowd became electric! I, along with the crowd, participated in spontaneous cheering, sighs of disappointment at mistakes, and lots of vocal appreciation for feats of coordination and successful completion of obstacles!

Because this was an open competition, horses of all breeds were entered, including a rather adorable mule! While there were some fairly impressive stock horse types, by far and away the best were the Lusitanos – ridden in traditional Portuguese attire, these horses showed off moves that make them skilled at everything from being agile bull fighters to elegant dressage horses. Another thing that fascinated me about WE was the wide variety in tack and attire – there were people riding in dressage tack and attire, western rigs, native Portuguese and Spanish costumes, and more.

Like most equestrian sports, the horses that excelled the most at WE were both athletic and trainable. I think horses that were bred to work cattle are the best choice for WE mounts (which makes sense, considering some WE competitions also offer a cattle working phase) – so Iberian horses (the original cattle horses!) and stock horses definitely have an edge. However, the mule at AWC was the reserve champion of the novice open division, and the same rider also showed a Dutch Warmblood stallion in the advanced open division and came in third. In that way, WE really reminds me of dressage – any horse and rider can be competitive as long as they have a solid foundation with the basics!

The bull with the ring for the garrocha
(photo courtesy of Kris Garrett)

At any rate, the competition was extremely interesting to watch, and I am contemplating building a few of the obstacles at my own house to practice with. There are thriving WE communities in several states, including Illinois, so maybe someday I’ll be able to attend an introductory WE clinic! I’m a big fan of crosstraining my dressage horses, so working some of these obstacles (particularly the garrocha!) will help break up some of the winter indoor arena blues once the cold weather sets in.

Due to my being a volunteer at AWC, I wasn’t able to photograph the actual competition, but some friends who participate in WE were kind enough to share photos from past competitions, clinics, or practice sessions.

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