Cowboys and cowgirls are becoming better riders having fun challenging their horses to be softer, more responsive, consistent, enjoyable mounts.

Rachel Zenger is an enthusiastic leader of the Kansas Cowboy Dressage Association (KCDA) with rapidly increasing membership for the equine sport.

Admitting there’s still frequent comment about dressage being only for horseback riders with English tack, Zenger quickly rebutted that opinion.

“Dressage is the French word for ‘training.’ Dressage is about training a horse in a manner that develops willingness, suppleness and balance,” she said.

“As a discipline, dressage has a rich history with ancient roots of nearly 2,000 years evolving through the centuries as an important equestrian pursuit,” Zenger pointed out.

Rachel Zenger, secretary of the Kansas Cowboy Dressage Association, rides her Paint gelding, Diddy, performing a freestyle routine to music at a Cowboy Dressage Show.

“Cowboy Dressage is more than classical dressage with a western saddle,” Zenger clarified.

“It is a combination of the best of traditional, western and classical horsemanship,” she said. “Horse and rider are challenged in a measured and consistent way improving the horse’s ability to do its job.”

Growing up showing Paint Horses, Zenger was on the K-State Equestrian Team and world champion collegiate horse judging team. Zenger and husband Drew with two young sons, Jack and Joe, live in Manhattan where she‘s the assistant city attorney.

“I enjoy competition, but I want to focus most on improving my own riding and developing my horses,” Zenger contended.

“That is exactly what Cowboy Dressage is about,” she emphasized. “Most of our riders have a high standard of excellence. Yet, they also enjoy a fun and relaxed atmosphere more than a traditionally competitive environment.”

Attending a western and cowboy dressage clinic in 2010, Zenger came home eager to develop herself and her horse. “I helped organize Western Dressage of Kansas in 2011, which became the Kansas Cowboys Dressage Association (KCDA),” she said.

“We sponsored our first event at Topeka in the fall of 2013, and had more than 90 rides,” Zenger reflected. “Since then, we have grown a loyal membership amazed by what they can actually do with their horses being soft and consistent.”

KCDA is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to improve performance of the western horse and rider for all the disciplines and inspire riders to achieve “soft feel,” Zenger explained

“We offer educational events including seminars and clinics as well as play days,” Zenger said. “We also call our events ‘gatherings,’ like cowboys come together for a social time. They’re to benefit members in achieving harmony and partnership with their horses and strengthen friendships among like-minded horse people.”

Competition has been developed to offer riders the opportunity to ride movements on a court broken into set increments.

Movements include the working and free walk, jog and lope with turns on the haunches and forehand plus backing.

Sheryl Strathman, president of the Kansas Cowboy Dressage Association, performs a walk jog test on her mustang gelding, Blaze, at a Cowboy Dressage show.

There are also in-hand tests as well tests designed specifically for gaited horses.

“All tests are offered for youth, amateur and open divisions,” Zenger said.

Riders are not placed, but given a score on each maneuver, and a total for the ride.

“The score sheets are intended to be carefully evaluated by every rider in order to improve their next ride,” Zenger said. “There’s not the feeling of competition among riders, but working to ride your horse better every time.”

“Soft feel” is defined as “not only sending messages to the horse, but having the sensitivity and awareness to feel and receive the message the horse sends back.”

Timing and use of release, relaxation, preparation and execution are fundaments of soft feel, and the mission of Cowboy Dressage.

Inspired by the system used in Kansas 4-H competitions, riders are awarded rosettes by color according to their score rather than class ranking. “Any score over 63 percent is considered a satisfactory ride and receives a red ribbon in our organization,” Zenger said.

Scores of 75-79 percent are considered good, receiving blue ribbons, while a purple ribbon goes to those with excellent scores of 80 percent or higher.

Lower scoring rides of 54-62 percent receive white ribbons with a green ribbon to those earning 53 percent or lower, “rewarding the try.”

Margo Twaddle, treasurer of the Kansas Cowboy Dressage Association, leads her granddaughter Sylvia Flannery on the Quarter Horse gelding, Charlie, in the warm up arena at a Cowboy Dressage Show.

There are nearly 100 members of the KCDA with competitions sometimes attracting 100 rides a day in a weekend event. “Each ride is from five to eight minutes so that makes a full day, even running two arenas simultaneously” Zenger said.

Most riders are from Kansas with other competition from throughout the Midwest. “We have the best judges come in from all across the country,” Zenger noted.

Entry fees cover costs of indoor facilities and judges while there is additional charge for stalls.

“Our schooling shows are usually in smaller venues or outdoor arenas to lower our overhead. We then pass that savings along in the schooling show entry fees,” Zenger said.

Leadership of the KCDA is strictly on a volunteer basis with Zenger serving as secretary. Other officers are Sheryl Strathman, president; Cyndi Harris, vice president; Margo Twaddle, treasurer; and Leslie Borden, board member.

Speaking at the recent Kansas Horse Council Foundation banquet, Zenger encouraged scholarship recipients to continue to be involved with horses.

“Regardless of your profession, horses provide widely diverse opportunities for relaxation and improved mental health,” she said. “The people who you meet and become acquainted with through horses create a common bond of lifetime friendship.”

Information about participation in activities and membership in the Kansas Cowboy Dressage Association can be found at