Working Equitation

By Glenn Cochran

A new equine sport has stirred the imaginations of horsemen across the country.  It is called Working Equitation, a sport which has grown out of the varied traditions of stock horse disciplines across the globe and through the centuries.  Almost every country from China and Mongolia to Hungary, Arabia, Europe, South America, and the good ‘ol U.S of A. have traditions of livestock herding from horseback.  Rodeo, reined cowhorse, and cutting horse competitions as well as ranch sorting and team penning are sports which have grown out of these traditions.  This newest sport originated in Italy, and has been very popular first in the mediterranean countries, but has now caught on in the rest of Europe and has crossed the Atlantic to the western hemisphere.

We first saw videos of Working Equitation at the Eastern Regional Andalusian Show in 2003, brought by Andre Ganc from Brazil. We watched as a Lusitano ridden by a Portuguese rider in  Campino style attire blazed through the speed phase obstacle course, and we were hooked!

The sport is both a team competition and an individual test.  The purpose of its parent organization, World Association of Working Equitation (WAWE) is to promote a competition which is designed to enhance the equestrian technique used in field work and livestock work.

There is also an emphasis on the ethnic and cultural uniqueness of tack and attire of the participating countries, and are open to any breed of horse.Most countries prefer to use their indigenous varieties of stock horse, such as Camargue, Criollo, Lusitano, and Quarter Horse.  Hence, this is a very colorful event as well as one which moves along quickly with a lot of maneuvering.

The competition is divided into four phases, the first three, country dressage, ease of handling obstacles, and speed phase of obstacles, are performed by a single horse and rider.  The fourth phase, cattle handling, is performed by a team of three or four riders, and is a form of team penning.

One unique feature of the competition, distinguishing it from modern dressage, is that the tests are all to be ridden holding the reins in only one hand.  This is due to the frequent need for a free hand to do other tasks involved in stock and field work.  Another unique aspect of the sport is its emphasis on a high degree of collection, again related to the need for the horse to have agility and precision of movement in field and livestock handling conditions where footing can be tricky and responses often must be instantaneous.  The rider is meant to appear balanced and confident, giving invisible signals to an obedient, willing horse.

A good example of the difference between working equitation ease of handling and the usual trail class, is to compare the approach to an obstacle such as the bridge.  In the trail class, the horse is expected to lower his head, inspect the obstacle, then carefully cross it.  The WE horse stays collected, and marches across the bridge in a businesslike fashion as if it weren’t even there, completely taking the obstacle in stride, and on to the next job.  He gives the appearance of saying, “yeah, I got this!”

Andre Ganc told me that the two things you really need your horse to be good at in preparation for this sport are the flying change, and the canter pirouette.  This is because the working stock horse must “stay with” his rider and work quickly and assuredly around obstacles and livestock, with a minimum of “muss, fuss, and bother.”  There isn’t time to slow to the trot and change leads around the poles, so you link flying changes.  The barrels require you to almost canter in place while you pirouette around them.

Now, there are different levels of test for beginner horses and riders, and the discipline is taught first at the walk,even the cow work is taught at the walk. Speed comes with repetition and practice, as the aids and timing between horse and rider develop and improve.

That’s where the term equitation comes in, and that’s the reason for the dressage phase.  While dressage may at first seem about as exciting as watching grass grow or paint dry, this is where the nucleus of balanced, coordinated equitation is learned and displayed.  When you get this right, it’s a rush! And it’s pretty neat to see all the wonderful costumes worn by the riders.  

Watch for this sport to grow, it’s colorful, and the action is as thrilling to watch as it is to perform.