Sunday, November 25, 2018

La Garrocha: The magic schtick!

I can still remember the very first time I saw a performance with a Garrocha pole in person.  Rebecca Wirth, one of our Cowboy Dressage professionals, was performing as part of a Cowboy Dressage exposition in Albany, OR, not too long after I started my own Cowboy Dressage journey.  I was immediately impressed with her control of the great big long pole and the way she and her horse danced around it.  Now, this was a form of pole dancing I could completely get behind!  I set my sights, right then and there on being able to ride with the magical "schtick" as Eitan referred to it.

The Garrocha pole is a spanish tradition of the Doma Vaqueros.  The long pole was used to both tend cattle and then to perform in the bull fights.  The handy vaquero horses had to be able to turn and spin around that pole while the rider intimidated the bull into fighting by poking it with the long stick.  The speed and collection demonstrated by the Doma Vaqueros is impressive and awe inspiring and a beauty to watch.  In gatherings and expositions of skill the vaquero may perform around a lovely lady who danced while the Vaquero danced around with prancing pony and long pole.  Those particularly proficient in performing with the Garrocha pole are called  “Garrachista”, a term of respect and honor for the Doma Vaquero. 

Today the Garrocha pole is a tool that can be used to help give meaning and purpose to the suppling and lateral maneuvers that we often use in Cowboy Dressage.  The dexterity required in handling the pole requires that the rider guide the horse with all the aids and not just the reins.  The presence of the pole gives the horse something to focus on in the maneuvers adding bend and suppleness.  It’s an excellent cross training tool that you can add to your workouts.  And best of all, it’s fun!
There is something magical that happens when you ride with the Garrocha.  It's almost as if there is something hardwired into the horse to move around and with the long pole.  It adds focus, bend, and purpose for the horse as you carry on with maneuvers such as turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches (pirouette), leg yield, roll backs and perfect bend.  It removes from the rider the ability to micromanage the horse as your hands are literally quite full and your attention is split between guiding the horse and not beaning either of you with the pole!

It's easy to get started with the Garrocha pole and I recommend it for adding focus to your training program.  The Garrocha pole is generally about 13 feet long.  A rider that is taller or mounted on a tall horse (over 16 hands, say) may need a bit longer pole at 13 1/2 feet.  A shorter rider or one mounted on a short horse (less than 14 hands) may prefer a little shorter pole at 12 1/2 feet.  The pole should be relatively rigid.  A long PVC pipe has so much bounce that it is difficult to control.  A long wooden closet dowel, or even an aluminum pool cleaning pole makes a good lightweight tool for practicing.  While a heavier pole is difficult to get used to at first, I prefer the added weight for the stability at faster gaits.  My Garrocha pole is a hardwood three piece that screws together like a pool cue.  It makes it quite easy to store and travel with but less easy to hoist around when you are first learning!

I introduce the Garrocha pole to my horse on the ground.  While I have found that all my horses respond  well to the pole, I have also seen a few horses quite troubled in the beginning.  I begin the introduction by leading the horse while dragging the pole with the pole in my left hand and the horse in my right.  I then switch sides so the horse can see the pole dragging next to him out of both eyes.  Once that is accomplished. I begin to have the horse change eyes on the pole by sending him back and forth under the pole.  Once he is quietly walking and turning under the pole I will change to yielding his hindquarters under the pole.  I will be careful at first to allow the horse to become accustomed to the pole before I become a little less careful of whether the pole is touching the horse or not.  As the horse gets used to the pole I will become careless and have the pole touch the hindquarters and forequarters as it is likely to do as you, the rider are trying to master changing the position of the pole from the saddle.  

My final exercise from the ground is to send the horse around me with the pole in the position that it will be when being carried by the rider.  I do this at the walk, jog and lope finally progressing to resting the pole across the saddle.  This ground work session may take several days and it may take 15 minutes.  It depends entirely on the horse and rider pair and their experience and agility with introducing the pole to the horse.  My best advice is to not rush it and to be sure that the horse is 100% accepting of the pole prior to getting into the saddle.  

For your first session with the pole in the saddle it is useful to have a helper to hand you the pole and to take the pole should the horse display some wariness.  If you have down your groundwork thoroughly this should result only in your helper handing you the pole.  If the horse is nervous with you holding the pole from the saddle I may choose to go back to more groundwork before proceeding with saddle work.  But, with a good helper you can go through the same exercises that I described in the groundwork with the helper introducing the pole while you steady and reassure the horse.

Under saddle I begin by dragging the pole behind the horse in a slight leg yield so the horse’s attention and line of sight includes the pole.  After dragging for a bit I will change directions under the pole with a turn on the haunches with forward movement then repeat the forward dragging of the pole on the other eye with a slight leg yield. 

Now you are ready to start using the Garrocha to create magic between you and your horse.  The simplest of the maneuvers with the Garrocha pole and one of the most universally beneficial is to walk a perfect circle holding the pole steady.  Just as the Cowboy Dressage markers on the court help you to ride point to point and hold your circle the Garrocha allows you to practice this concept with each stride.  Since your hands are preoccupied by holding the pole the job of holding the circle and the bend as well as the cadence become the job of your other aids.  The Garrocha pole can truly help you learn to seek the place where your horse is completely within your aids.  Most horses will look towards the pole which helps to initiate the lateral flexion in the head and neck.  Your seat and legs create the bend through the body.  The rider’s balance shifts with each stride helps to balance the horse on the circle and correct for missteps on the circle. 

You can make the circle larger or smaller in several ways but the simplest of which is to simply change your balance from the inside to the outside of the horse without changing the horse’s bend.  Don’t shove the horse to the inside or outside of the circle but ride the horse to the inside and outside of the circle by using  your center of gravity. 

Because you necessarily must ride one handed when handling the pole it is important to remember that your reins are connected to the front feet through the horse’s shoulders.  Use the outside rein at the junction of the neck and the shoulder to help create bend and initiate the maneuvers of Turn on the Haunches, shoulder in and rollbacks.  If you attempt to create these maneuvers with your legs, you will interfere with the bend that the pole has helped you to create.

The Turn on the Forehand can be performed by moving the haunches under the pole or away from the pole.  A Turn on the forehand of 180 degrees will result in a change of bend when performed either direction. 

You can also change direction and the side of the horse on which the pole is carried by moving the pole behind the horse’s hindquarters when moving forward.  This change of bend is a little subtler and encourages forward movement through the change of bend.  By using this maneuver, you can either perform figures of  8 or a serpentine series. 

Really the maneuvers and ways in which the Garrocha pole can be used is limited only by your imagination.  I’ve seen some amazing performances with the Garrocha and each is as unique as the horse and rider performing.  Once you and your horse are comfortable with the pole and you can swap from side to side you can begin to add the faster gaits and more intricate turns.  Just remember that as always your goal is soft feel and partnership.  Build through the maneuvers slowly not pushing too hard in order to prevent the loss of soft feel.  I’ve begun to add the Garrocha pole into our lessons for my younger horses as well and they certainly excel at it. 

So, head to your local hardware store for a 13 foot dowel and begin your introduction to the Garrocha pole.  It’s a great way to celebrate our vaquero roots, ride to some great music and work towards the kind of finesse and partnership we are all after!

All photos by Trish Knight

Sunday, October 21, 2018

CDW 2018 Final Gathering

We are home and the horses are settled into their own beds again after a 10 day trip to Northern California and back for the 2018 Cowboy Dressage World Final Gathering.  This was our 5th Final Gathering and they just get better each year.  So many amazing things happened at the Ranch Murieta Equestrian Center this year.  I’ll try to put into words the magic that goes on each year when we bring together like minded horsemen from across the globe to celebrate soft feel, but if you weren’t there to experience it yourself, there is always a little something loss in the translation.  It’s like the difference between being in the audience to watch an amazing freestyle performance and seeing the video of it later.  You kind of have to be there to experience the magic. 

We arrived on Monday to begin set up and decoration for our barn isle and to allow the horses a day to recover from the 2 day trailer ride.  Greeting old friends and meeting new ones as you settle into camp always sets a welcoming tone.  I was pleased by how our horses settled right into the calm and relaxed environment.  Chico is now a seasoned traveler and campaigner, but Dan’s mare Mia hasn’t been to many shows with us.  Because the rest of the horses are happy and settled and quiet, it’s easy for the new horses to settle right in.  I know of two young horses that arrived at finals for the very first time this year during one of our busy show days and they walked onto the grounds like there was nothing to worry about.  I think it speaks volumes for the calm and relaxing atmosphere that we work so hard to cultivate. 

The Cowboy Dressage World Partners work so hard to make this Gathering an event to remember each year.  This year we were treated not only to a special lectures on disaster preparedness by partner Wyatt Paxton and equine behavior by Dr. Robert Miller, DVM.  Then after some amazing cupcakes provided by the cupcake wars we were all entertained by 7 time WMA Cowboy Entertainer of the year, Dave Stamey.  Dan and I have long been Dave Stamey fans and the opportunity to see him in this intimate private concert setting was so wonderful.  Dave is an amazing songwriter capturing the essence of the western spirit with a healthy dose of horseman in there as well.  We were thrilled to listen to 2 full sets of Dave and his amazing guitar playing while we all sang along.  I could have listened to Dave for hours and it sounds like plans are already in the works to bring him back to see us again next year.

Wednesday kicked off our first day of classes.  The office staff, volunteers and gate folks made the running of the show seamless this year.  Keeping 5 arenas flowing with tests and happy riders is a feat itself.  We had two large warm up arenas in two convenient locations and of course, the atmosphere at each arena remained welcoming and quiet for the horses participating in the show.  We had riders in our group in 3 of the 5 arenas keeping us hopping and logging lots of “steps” as we campassed the grounds.  No problem there, though as it gave us ample time to mingle and nod and say hello to our friends as we traveled from one end of the grounds to the other. 

Wednesday evening was the opening ceremony with all 5 of the Cowboy Dressage Partners welcoming the participants.  Aside from having all 5 of the partners mounted to ride into the court, we also featured our fellow Idahoan and veteran Marcia Moore Harrison carrying the American flag for the anthem.  Then demo riders showed any newcomers what a test ride might look like in each of the divisions including partnership on the ground. 

Thursday evening after a full day of tests we were all entertained by the golf cart competition.  I was amazed by the level of participation and the effort that went into the 11 entries.  The decorations and enthusiasm displayed by the groups was awesome to see.  What I originally thought was going to just be a parade of golf carts turned out to be a driving competition with fun directives such as “Stop at 8 and do the hokey pokey” or “10 m circle working drive”.  Many of the entries had folks on foot that followed the cart along.  The MM Connection entry featured “Bad” Betty Nagle driving while they blasted “Bad to the Bone” on the boom box.  Watching 84 yr young Betty get out and do the hokey pokey while getting tangled in the fake cobwebs decorating the cart had me in tears of laughter.  The judges agreed and awarded this cart the award for the evening.   Jessica Hutchings entry with the Peter Pan theme was also a crowd favorite.  They had all the characters of Peter Pan including Capt. Hook and Wendy with Tinkerbell riding along.  The best were the inflatable costumes for the parrot and the crocodile that ran along behind the cart during the test.  We were all cracking up watching them try to hoof it behind the cart through the test.   The last entry was Australian entry featuring Phil Monaghan at the wheel and Dink riding shotgun.  Phil decided to drive the course riding backwards straddling the steering wheel.  One minor little wreck and they survived the drive with Dink holding on screaming for her life!  It was a great event and I’m sure we will see a repeat of this one with the level of participation and the crowd getting into the act as well.  Be planning your golf cart entry for next year!

Friday evening was the final night of musical freestyle performance and for that evening they moved the freestyles from arena 4 to the big arena 1.  The acoustics and seating are so much better for the freestyle performances in that arena.  There were several excellent freestyles this year that were a pleasure to watch.  The quality of the rides continues to improve and this event definitely continues to be a crowd favorite.  We had 2 hours of freestyle performances on Friday.  It was fun to watch all the performances.

Saturday wrapped up the regular tests and concluded the show as we prepared to watch our Top Riders gun it out in the Top Hand Competition.  11 riders threw their hats in the ring this year allowing all of the preliminary qualifying rides to be showcased during a catered dinner in arena 1.  The rides were great and the food was fabulous as we gathered to watch each rider give their best.  This test (Challenge WJL Test #2) continues to be a great one to separate the men from the boys and none of the rides were perfect, each rider having a bobble or two on this difficult test.  The highlight of the evening for everybody that was in attendance was a moment that I won’t soon forget as it is best example of our Cowboy Dressage Culture and putting the horse first.  Phil Monaghan who travels each year from Australia to ride on a borrowed horse with partner Tanja Kraus has been competing in Top Hand since the 2015.  Each year Tanja and Phil hop on these horses that they only see once a year to come and compete at the highest level at finals.  The horses are used as therapy horses for the rest of the year and have to really step up their game to come and compete not only in Top Hand but in the other upper level tests as well.  Phil and his horse, Smoke had had a very good week with some beautiful tests.  But as they rode into the court on Saturday it was obvious that Smoke was not as interested in the Top Hand ride as Phil was.  Phil attempted to get him back in partnership but after a few maneuvers pulled up and tipped his hat to the judges explaining that his horse wasn’t with him tonight and he was pulling him from the competition.  The crowd gave him a standing ovation.  The Top Hand Competition is not undertaken lightly.  Its expensive to enter and the rides up to that point had not been perfect either.  Phil likely could have muscled through and completed the test with no more serious bobbles than some of the other riders had.  But, he knew Smoke was tired and had given his all the previous days of the test.  He pulled up, took himself out and earned the respect of everybody else there. 

When the tests were tallied and scored that night we were left with our Top 5 riders.  Jessica Hutchings, Tanja Kraus, Rudy Lara, Heath Parsons and Abigail Miller.  As always the switch rides on the mystery test the following day allowed the cream of the crop to rise to the top and after a great ride on both her own mare and the switch horse, Sparkles, owned by Heath, Tanya Kraus of Australia was crowned the victor and Sparkles was awarded the top horse. 

After the conclusion of the Top Hand rides the remaining high point and soft feel buckles along with some special awards were given out.  I love how the awards in Cowboy Dressage tend to spread out and there were many different faces coming up to receive special recognition for their hard work and achievements.  Having the final awards presented on Sunday afternoon allowed for a seamless awards presentation as all of the point tallies were calculated the previous day.  This year, the big prize and trophy saddle went to Cherie Cross.  After riding right along side of her all week, I can’t think of a more deserving rider.  What a beautiful example of soft feel and kindness! 

And just like that we are all wrapped up for the year.  Rumor has it that CDW has some exciting things in the works already for 2019.  As this discipline and family grow each and every year we are so gratified to see that the original vision of a horse community based on kindness and soft feel continues to be strong and protected not only by the Partners guiding this dream but by each of the participants as well.  We truly are a family of like-minded horsemen and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Riding With CDW Partner Lyn Ringrose Moe

We were excited to bring Lyn Ringrose Moe, Cowboy Dressage World Partner, to Lucky Duck Ranch this September and knew that we would be receiving quality instruction.  But, I don’t think any of us were ready for the magic that was created in our arena and the positive changes that occurred in every single horse and rider over the 3 magical days. 

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect nor the setting more peaceful for these horses and riders to fully focus on their education and refinement.  Lyn began the clinic with a group session on the ground using multiple exercises that helped to convey to all the riders exactly how important it is to be a conscientious rider and the value of preparation in your cues.  The ground exercises before we even got on our horses opened our hearts and minds to conscientious and courteous riding.  I know, I personally was thinking of every time I had failed to properly prepare my horse and making a promise and a pledge to do better in the future. 

We next moved to evaluating each of the horses as individuals on the ground through looking at their conformation and muscle development.  It was easy to see where each of the horses were likely to struggle once under saddle just by looking at where they were lacking strength in their bodies.  Then, by moving the horses around we could see how they traveled and what side they may need to have a little more support on from the rider when under saddle.  Again, this exercise helped us to be better prepared and informed and more conscientious under saddle to allow our horses become the very best athletes they can become. 

Once mounted both the groups were challenged with finding our balance, center of gravity and all our aids to fully communicate with our mounts.  The old adage of “ride every stride” took on heightened meaning as we were carefully maintaining balance, cadence and softness through the working walk without relying so heavily just on our rein aids.  Lyn asked us to be aware of all our aids equally as we lengthened and shortened our horse’s frames in the walk.  Then she tossed us all in the deep end as we moved directly into lateral work.  Every horse and rider struggled with the work at first doing to much with our bodies to create the maneuvers.  Through careful coaching Lyn helped each of us realize that our horses were there with us, willing and ready to respond to just the subtlest of changes in our body position and weight distribution.  The reoccurring theme for all the participants throughout the entire clinic was “do less to get more”. 

We continued to build our understanding of the subtle nuances of our lateral work through ground exercises in pairs without the horses.   On the second day we again spent some time exploring the phenomenon of dragging or pushing our horses around rather than riding and guiding in harmony.  Each pair took turns being the rider and the horse so you gained an understanding (or an approximation at least) of what the horses may be feeling when we are attempting to create these maneuvers.  Once mounted we again explored how little it takes in a change in our weight, balance and cues to create the aids necessary for the maneuver.  For the turn on the forehand exercise Lyn took away our ability to micromanage and make up for poor riding through our seat and legs by having us ride with one hand behind our backs.  The change in our body awareness and positioning was completely evident in the improvement in the quality of the turns created one handed.  The balance improved, the accuracy improved and the horse’s engagement certainly improved.

In working with the horses in the jog work we used our new understanding of lateral movements to carry our engagement of the hind end through our upward and downward transitions.  Lyn helped us to understand the importance of riding back to front and maintaining a soft connection that allows the horse to feel supported without over-fixing the head and neck.  For many of us that over-ride our horses heads we were surprised to find how forgetting the head and riding the body allows the horse to find the most natural place for the head.  We didn’t work on poll flexion or lateral flexion through the neck at all, instead often riding our horses much straighter at times to improve the balance but by the third day all the horses had found a better carriage for the head and neck then they had on Friday. 
We spent some time on our final day with Lyn after lunch again in pairs without horses exploring the nuances of soft hands by pairing up and having one person with the reins and the other with the bit.  It’s amazing how much you can feel in the bit with your hands and the horse’s mouth is so much more sensitive than our hands are.  Simple things like holding your breath, opening and closing your fingers, jumping your reins and riding with uneven reins can make a big difference to the horse.  While always seeking to ride with the softest touch possible, I was unaware of the little inconveniences that I am asking my horse to ignore daily.  We cannot be too careful or too respectful with the hands when riding.  Bit choice, rein choice and the different attachments all feel quite different to the horse. 

In our final session with Lyn she challenged us to ride through a series of maneuvers requiring accuracy and subtilty through our bodies that none of us would have been able to accomplish on Friday.  The stair step exercise included shoulder fore, half pass and leg yield in one exercise with a change every 5 meters.  All the horse and rider pairs were successful at both the walk and the jog creating a sense of true accomplishment for everyone.  All the horses improved their self-carriage.  All the riders improved their feel and timing. 

Riding with a masterful rider is always inspiring and educational.  Riding with a masterful rider that is also a first rate teacher is like a gift.  Opening that gift with your friends in a beautiful peaceful setting creates the magic that we all got to experience this past weekend.  Lyn, we can’t wait to ride with you again. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

3, 2, 1 Contact.

One of the challenging concepts that riders new to Cowboy Dressage struggle with is the idea of soft contact and soft feel.  For many of the Western disciplines, the long draped rein is the norm and riding with a soft connection with the horse can feel like too much or that you are hanging or "plow reining" the horse.  So, with that in mind, let's explore this idea of soft contact and soft feel and see how the two work together.
Developing soft but effective rein aids can take time and dedication but the results are worth it to both horse and rider. Photo credit, H. Moats

The reins and our hands are just one of our many aids.  The seat, legs, weight and energy that we ride with are just as important as our hands.  All of our aids are necessary and should be used in equal measure when we are having a complete conversation with our horses.  Soft Feel means that we are working with our horses as one being.  We are moving in harmony as a unit.  For this to occur, we need to be on the same page, mentally and physically with our horses.  That connection happens through our aids.  When we rely on one aid to the exclusion of the others it can make the entire message we are sending to our horses much more difficult to understand.  For instance, if we ride only with our legs and not with our seat we may only be saying "GO!" and when we could be saying "Move forward in a nice soft jog and prepare to bend".  If we hold onto our horses with too much contact we may only be saying "STOP" and not, "Softly bend around this corner and then prepare for the lead departure from a nice shoulder fore."  What's more, like any self respecting teenager (which properly describes all of my personal mounts) they will soon block out and ignore any command given in all caps.   They become dull due to overuse or oversimplification of a single aid and learn to just tune it out.  So, it behooves us to ride conscientiously with all of our aids, and soft contact is one of those important aids.
Soft contact through the reins is an important and elemental aid. Photo credit L. Duetsch 

So, what does contact mean, in the context of Cowboy Dressage?  What does it feel like?  To me, it feels like holding hands.  There is enough connection so that my horse can feel the subtlest change in my hands through weight or energy in the rein.  There is enough connection so that my horse can communicate back to me through the reins when he is struggling with balance or carriage.  There is enough contact that I can make a change in direction, bend or frame without first gathering up a handful of new rein.  There is enough connection that I don't have to move my hand back behind my body or up to my chest in order to make a connection or significant change in my horse.   Soft connection is not soft feel but it helps to build soft feel.  Soft connection is just the hand hold between two ballroom dancers.  It allows those dancers to move together in rhythm and tempo through multiple changes in direction or complicated maneuvers.  For me, personally, the goal of soft contact is to have a slight float in the rein.  That soft float says that my horse has recognized the connection, accepted it and is ready to carry on.  This builds not only soft feel but self carriage.
Soft contact occurs irrespective of rein length.  There should be just a hint of a float even in the short frame. Photo credit MM Harrison.

Soft contact is also instrumental in establishing frame in the horse.  A shorter rein indicates to the horse a shorter frame while a long rein should indicate to the horse a long frame.  There are other changes that must be made through the other aids to completely help the horse through the frames, but rein length is important in helping the horse establish those frames.  It is very important to understand that soft contact has little to do with rein length.  You can maintain soft contact on both a long and a short rein and the goal should be to establish a soft float in the rein no matter the rein length. 
Soft contact in different rein lengths and different frames. The rein length helps determine the frame of the horse but the soft contact doesn't change.  Photo credit L. Duetsch 

Like soft feel and partnership, soft contact is a goal that we work towards with our horses.  We can always be forgiving and light with our hands and reward our horses for their try.  In the real world, this doesn't mean that we don't ever have to pull on our horses.   But, it's the way in which we pull when we have to that is so important.  First of all it is important to not be a post on which your horse can lean.  It is easy for some horses to get into the habit of always leaning on the rider's hands and for some riders to get used to the feel of the weight of those reins in their hands.  Teach your hands to crave that lightness and then fix it up so that you are looking for that lightness in your hands.  When you feel like you hanging on or pulling on your horse it is up to you, as the rider, to change the situation to change the message and find the softness that you can reward.  Perhaps that means going to bend so that you can soften one side of the horse at a time.  Perhaps that means sending some alternating energy down the reins so that you aren't a steady post to the horse.  Only you can determine which is the right answer in each situation and it takes some trial and error to figure it out. Every time a student says to me (as I have said to my mentors in the past), "I feel like I'm just hanging on the rein." I reply to them, "then stop."  That was the advice I was given as well and I know it can be frustrating, but if this was easy, anybody could do it!  It takes commitment, time and an ability to "feel" for that softness so that you can reward it in the horse. 
Soft contact on a long rein helps encourage the horse to reach down and forward extending the frame and the gait. Photo credit M. Fabion.

Secondly, it is important to never grab the reins without properly preparing the horse for the contact. Respect is a two way street and nothing will diminish the horse's respect for the rider as the loss of that respect from the rider.  When you reach for your horse, with any of your aids, reach softly.  Snatching, grabbing or yanking on the rein is not well received by the horse and he will learn to brace for that unexpected pressure.  Always ask first with the maximum of softness and allow your horse the opportunity to respond to that first. 
Soft contact during the free frame walk. Photo credit L. Duetsch 

There is absolutely a time and a place for that long draped rein.  I use that draped rein with no soft contact in a number of different ways.  Sometimes I want the horse to ONLY listen to my seat.  Leaving that rein draped so that my hands are not tempted to assist the horse in finding the answer that my seat is trying to convey.  Sometimes I want the long draped rein to weigh on the bit and encourage the horse to relax down with that weight of the rein.  But, when we are riding a test and I am asking for every once of communication and response from my horse, soft contact is the necessary tool that allows us to ride in harmony, partnership and with soft feel. 

Soft contact is a very important concept for Cowboy Dressage riders.  I encourage all of you to play with the feel of soft contact and allow your horse a chance to adjust to it.  When the horse understands and accepts the soft connection through the reins you may find your communication become much more refined and advanced. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Get your motor running . . .

Ah, a brand shiny new year.  While I am not a fan of this time of year in North Idaho due to all the snow on the ground and the lack of saddle time, I am a fan of the concept of the new year.  There is something so refreshing about the thought of a whole new year of possibilities laid out before us.  Resolutions, goals, plans, and dreams all figure big into this cold and snowy month.

So, if you are like many horsemen and women across the country you may be dreaming about finally getting involved in this new community of Cowboy Dressage.  Perhaps you have been watching from the wings these past 5 years, waiting to see if it would amount to anything;  perhaps you have been waiting for a gathering or clinic to come into your neck of the woods.  Well, let me be the first to encourage you to stand on the side lines no more!

While the organic growth of Cowboy Dressage means that it has been slow to reach some areas of the country, it is not because the community isn't growing.  Cowboy Dressage is unique in that the growth and opportunities are completely instigated by curious horsemen and women just like yourself that take steps to bring Cowboy Dressage into their local community.  Many start just like Dan and I did so many years ago by putting up a court, printing some tests and inviting some friends over.  Others start by hosting a clinic or a play day.  It doesn't take much, and most people are hooked on their first try.  If you are still wondering how to go about bringing Cowboy Dressage to your neck of the woods, here are some of the tools available to you.

1.  Gather information.  One of the very wonderful things about Cowboy Dressage is that everything you need to know is available for free on line.  You are welcomed to join the movement and the community through an old fashioned cowboy handshake agreement (though this is a high tech digital handshake, it's the thought that counts!).  Then you are welcome to explore the many diagrams, tests, rule book and videos of example tests that are available at and is the home web page for founders and Cowboy Dressage World Partners, Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy.  There you can also find several of Eitan's excellent videos and DVD's. is the source for all things Cowboy Dressage across the world, including upcoming events, lists of resources, updates and changes that are in the works, newsletters and blogs.  Everything you need to set up your own court and start practicing are right there at your fingertips for the taking.
With your good ol' fashioned handshake you are a welcome addition to the movement of Cowboy Dressage

2.  Contact a Cowboy Dressage Professional.  One of the things that Cowboy Dressage World has worked very hard to do is to bring into the community qualified and passionate horsemen that believe in and want to spread the word of Cowboy Dressage and Kindness and Soft Feel with the very same message that Eitan and Debbie first envisioned with they founded Cowboy Dressage.  These professionals have all ridden with one or more of the Cowboy Dressage World Partners.  They have proven their skills on the Cowboy Dressage court and have been recognized by the Cowboy Dressage Partners as folks that they entrust to carry on the message of Cowboy Dressage.  These professionals love nothing more than traveling to far flung areas and helping to introduce Cowboy Dressage.  If hosting a clinic sounds like it is too much hassle, I encourage you to reach out to a professional and explore the options.  All of the Cowboy Dressage Professionals will go above and beyond to help you and to make sure it is an enjoyable and welcoming experience for everyone.  The list of Recommended Cowboy Dressage Professionals can be found on the Cowboy Dressage World Web page.  They are organized by area, but don't be afraid to contact any of them for information.  Most of us travel quite a distance throughout the year bringing Cowboy Dressage to new areas.
Cowboy Dressage World Professional Association members Jenni Grimmett, DVM and Martina Bone.

3.  Organize a Playday.  Perhaps you and your friends have had a professional come into the area recently.  Now, how do you keep the ball rolling?  In our area we hosted weekly ride nights for several years to help expose people to Cowboy Dressage as well as to give people a place to practice.  On Thursday evenings throughout the summer we opened our court and welcomed like minded budding Cowboy Dressage riders as we took turns calling tests and practicing on the court.  Cowboy Dressage is about so much more than just the work on the court.  The community it engenders is as much a part of the movement as anything else.  Our ride nights are a wonderful evening of laughs and fun followed by a BBQ all summer long.  You don't have to have a fancy arena.  Any 20m x 40m chunk of flat ground will do.  If you want to take it one step further and provide a judge for your play day to give it more of a light competitive feel, the Cowboy Dressage Judges program has learner judges always looking to get their judging experience.  Inviting a learner judge is a great way for everybody to get the feel of a real Gathering while keeping it loose and informal.
Lucky Duck Ranch Thursday Ride Nites open Cowboy Dressage Court and BBQ.

3.  Organize a Schooling Show.  While we will all tell you that Cowboy Dressage is about so much more than the competition we also recognize that it is the Gatherings and the opportunity to have a goal to work towards that seems to keep Cowboy Dressage growing and healthy once it has been introduced into an area.  There are many resources available and guidelines for hosting a schooling show if this is something you would like to do in your area.  Within the Cowboy Dressage Professionals Association there is a category for Ambassadors.  These are folks that are committed to promoting and building Cowboy Dressage in their area through hosting clinics, schooling shows, and playdays.  Your Ambassador membership allows you access to resources and support by other professionals and allows you to keep your thumb on the pulse of all the latest events and opportunities that are being developed by Cowboy Dressage World.  If you would like to see Cowboy Dressage grow and thrive in your area and are interested in hosting a schooling show, I encourage you to check out to learn more about becoming an Ambassador for Cowboy Dressage.
Any flat piece of ground can become a Cowboy Dressage Court

4.  Travel.  Now, I understand that traveling with your horse can be intimidating and an expensive undertaking.  When Dan and I first became involved with Cowboy Dressage and realized we would have to travel not only out of state, but across several states I was concerned that we would never be able to manage it with our busy schedule and career.  That first 2 day trip on the road with the horses was nerve wracking!  But, there are plenty of folks that travel with their horses full time.  Once you and your horse both figure out the ins and outs of travel, I promise, both of you will be better for it.  My first summer as a Cowboy Dressage professional I hauled my horse more than I had in the past 10 years combined.  We stayed in several different barns, traveled both with friends and without, and learned where the best places were to stop and eat and rest along the way.  Before that summer my horse was a very nervous traveler.  After one summer of clinics he was a seasoned road warrior!  So, when I hear other folks dismissing events that are more than a few hours drive, I get it.  I do.  But, you never know what adventures lay in wait for you out there!  A half day of traveling is more than worth it to discover a whole population of friends you didn't know you had.
Find your tribe!  Friends are waiting to welcome you.  Photo credit R. Horst. 

5.  Volunteer.  Now if the above suggestion of traveling with your horse is just too daunting, then travel solo!  There are multiple opportunities for volunteers at any Gathering and most clinics welcome auditors as well.  For the summer Gatherings you can help in the office and learn how the tests are tallied or run test papers back and forth from the court to the office allowing you a front row seat to all the action.  Or you can get to know the riders and folks in the community by helping keep the show running smoothly at the gate.  There is no shortage of opportunities for the person longing to be a part of this growing group of horse people.
A few of the Cowboy Dressage World Finals volunteers and their thank you awards.  

So, now is the time.  This is the year.  Don't just wait for Cowboy Dressage to come to you.  Bring Cowboy Dressage to your community!  Or head out on the open road and find your tribe out there.  Eventually, I know Cowboy Dressage will be found in every corner of the globe. Until that time we are going to need a little help from our friends.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering 2017

It still feels to me that my Cowboy Dressage 2017 season just started a few weeks ago.  As I’m looking back on a year of accomplishments and growth and fond memories of my Cowboy Dressage family it is hard to reconcile our Final Gathering has already come and gone.  If you are like me and still reeling from the long weekend or were unable to attend, allow me to share with you what you missed!

Though there is no doubt the temperatures can be quite challenging in early September, there is also no denying that the gorgeous setting of the Rancho Murrieta Equestrian Center outside of Sacramento, California is an amazing setting for our Final Gathering at any time.  The immaculately maintained facility is large while still seeming to be cozy and close enough to attempt to stay engaged with all the activities that are occurring across the grounds.   The Cowboy Dressage World Partners and volunteers worked hard to bring us a variety of educational opportunities as well as fun competitions to keep the action hopping all through the extended weekend.   This is part of the reason why our Final Gathering of the year continues to be an event that draws participants from all corners of the country as well as far reaching regions of the globe. 

The Gathering kicked off on Tuesday September 5th with the first day of Power Clinics and educational opportunities offered to a lucky group of participants that could take advantage of the excellent instruction presented by our Cowboy Dressage World Partners, Eitan Beth-Halachmy, Lyn Ringrose-Moe and Garn Walker.  Riders could attend sessions with each of the talented horseman to concentrate on varied topics including transitions, lateral maneuvers and lope departures.  Each of the Cowboy Dressage Partners bring their own unique skill set and different point of view while all teaching the same basic principles of soft feel, partnership and harmony and building self carriage in our budding Cowboy Dressage Handshake members. 

Wednesday September 6th the Gathering really got rolling with our first day of tests ridden in 3 arenas which were manned completely by our own home grown and instructed Cowboy Dressage Recommended judges.  It is a testament to the hard work of World Partner Lyn Ringrose-Moe who has worked tirelessly to create shape and guide our judges program ensuring that our handshake members continue to be rewarded for the elements of Cowboy Dressage that we hold most important.  While the tests were being judged throughout the day there were also multiple educational opportunities to attract our members.  Australian Natural Horseman, Ken Faulkner paired with our own veteran of Natural Horsemanship and Cowboy Dressage supporter, Dr. Bob Miller, DVM to put on a demonstration of colt starting and roundpen skills.  Marcia Moore-Harrison and Davalee Minden of Potlatch, Idaho provided a stimulating and beautiful demonstration of the possibilities of building partnership through liberty work with an eye on someday including liberty groundwork classes at our Cowboy Dressage Gatherings.   And, while all of this was going on in separate corners of our facility, the Power Clinic sessions continued with the Cowboy Dressage World Partners in the big arena.  As if this wasn’t enough to keep any of our handshake members busy, the vendors that bring so many wonderful products to our Gathering were busy setting up for a complete shopping experience along the main thoroughfares!

Thursday and Friday September 7th and 8th were busy days of riding tests for most of our members as each horse and rider pair did their best to show how far they had come in their own personal journeys throughout the year.  As always each arena was like a mini family reunion with cooperation and support in evidence for members that may or may not be in direct competition throughout the show.  Cries of “Good Luck!” and “Nice Ride!” are common among the participants while offers of callers, buddy horses and just good old encouragement continue to be offered to friends new and old.  One of my favorite pairs to watch throughout the gathering was two of our youth riders.  Both of these young girls have been competing for several years but only get to see each other at the Final Gathering each year as one is from Washington while the other is from California.  They laughed and joked hanging out before each of their tests and were genuinely happy when one of them beat the other.  When one girl would have a tough ride the other was there to offer encouragement and uplifting words and when one would have a good ride the other would cheer louder than the rest.  We don’t have to do a thing to encourage sportsmanship among our young riders in Cowboy Dressage.  In a community built entirely on kindness it’s just what we do.   

Thursday and Friday evenings after the tests were completed it was time to focus again on education.  Both evenings featured presentations by our Cowboy Dressage Professionals on topics of their choice that were designed to help each of our members in unique ways.  Topics varied from Yoga for Horseback riders to a Saddle fit and a very informative talk on the different actions of our common pieces of headgear for our horses.  Each of the professionals put a lot of time and thought into their presentations and it is gratifying to see that just as our Recommended Judges program has grown and thrived, our Cowboy Dressage Professionals program is also bringing together the very best and brightest likeminded horsemen and women that the world has to offer.

New to the Competition this year was the Cowboy Dressage Musical Drill Freestyle Competition.  We had two large drill teams competing for the top honors and it is so much fun to watch a group of riders exhibiting soft feel work through maneuvers in unison.  I believe this will be a division that continues to grow as more and more riders discover the joy of riding together in formation.
And we can’t forget the always entertaining Left Hip Body Clip competition sponsored by Wahl clippers.  Several members participated this year and the artistic abilities of our Cowboy Dressage family are inspiring.  One of our competitive drill teams each had the same clip on their left hip which were not only beautiful but a great way to identify the drill members. 

Of course, the culmination of our year from a competitive standpoint is the Top Hand Competition.  While entries were down this year from previous years the same cannot be said for the level of horsemanship.  The elite Top Hand Competition is in its third year this year and we have seen each year a tremendous amount of growth in the skills exhibited by those riders brave enough to through their hat in the ring.  The test scores on the preliminary rides this year were 5-10 percentage points above previous years.  The competition could not have been closer and the riders were separated by mere fractions of a point as they came to the top 5. 

For the spectators (and I believe the riders as well) the real excitement in this competition stems from the switch ride as each rider draws for one of their competitor’s horses to ride a mystery test.  As in previous years it is encouraging to see that, while this is a very serious competition with big prizes on the line, each rider is thinking first and foremost of their mount and the success of their fellow rider.  After the switch you can see each rider explaining what their horse is like and helping them to avoid trouble spots during the test. 

This year we were excited to watch two of our returning Top Hand riders and mounts back in the top 5.  Jennifer Purcell and Kellie Shields both rode in the top 5 last year with their mounts, Griff and Fireman.  New to the line up this year was our first youth rider, Joy Wilcox as well as Tami Beach and Nina Burkett.  When all was said and done each rider did a very commendable job with obvious respect for their competitor’s mounts.   Rising to the Top of the Fields was Kellie Shields followed by an astounding finish by Joy Wilcox.  A big shout out goes to Jennifer Purcell’s, horse Griff who has twice now been the horse to draw in the switch successfully taking each of the riders that have drawn him to the top spot. 

Sunday the show wrapped up with the last day of tests followed by the awards ceremony.  Not even the high temps could damper the enthusiasm as the Cowboy Dressage community gathered to hand out 2 tables worth of awards to the hard-working members of our community.  Most of the awards are well spread out throughout the group but you occasionally see some of our hardworking members needing a sac to carry out all of their winnings.  The Cowboy Dressage World Partners and gracious sponsors continue to do a wonderful job of ensuring there are plenty of awards to go around. 

So, with the closing of our Final Gathering we officially bid adieu to the 2017 Cowboy Dressage season.  But don’t think the hard work is all over until next year!  Our Partners, professionals and volunteers are already hard at work organizing and planning for next year.  The Final Gathering will be later next year with new October dates which should help us avoid the high temperatures! More education, events and exciting developments are in store for your 2018 Gathering! Until then, happy trails!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Gathering your Nerve for the Gathering

Our very first Cowboy Dressage Regional Gathering is just around the corner.  I am so excited to finally introduce to friends who have been unable to travel the magic, fun and rewarding experience that is a Cowboy Dressage World Gathering.  I’m willing to bet that the Gathering environment is unlike anything they have experienced before.  The Cowboy Dressage community is unique in that it places kindness to horse and human first and foremost.  We strive, within the Cowboy Dressage family, to be inclusive and welcoming while upholding standards of horsemanship that reward try and taking it slow, and the philosophy of putting the horse first. 

You will often hear the phrase repeated by the folks of Cowboy Dressage World that Cowboy Dressage is a lifestyle and not a competition.  The end goal of your Cowboy Dressage journey and education (if such a thing even exists) should be to maximize your partnership, perfect your try, and build your horse’s balance, softness and correctness to the very best of his (and your) individual ability.  There is no type and no required way of travel for the Cowboy Dressage horse.  We welcome all shapes and sizes and all ages and levels of riders that have a commitment to soft feel and partnership.

The Gatherings exist for two reasons: 1.  To provide a venue where we as the Cowboy Dressage community can congregate and celebrate our individual journeys as well as the journey of the movement of Cowboy Dressage.  And, 2.  To provide an opportunity for education of our members through valuable judges feedback.  

Now, that is not to say that there is not some competition at the Gatherings.  Because we are horse folk, we are driven to compete.  We love to win awards, buckles and shiny things.  I refer to that as racoon syndrome and I suffer from it as much as any other horse person.  Seeing a big string of blue ribbons on my beloved horse’s stall door does my heart a world of good.  We all love to win and we take these things very seriously.  What we should remember is that in Cowboy Dressage there is no short cut for good training. Because we reward soft feel and partnership between horse and rider there are no shortcuts that will win you big rewards.  The rewards exist to celebrate the successful journey of our hard-working community members as well as commemorate milestones.  There are special awards in several categories that help to spread the shiny stuff around and hopefully take a little of the competitive pull out of the participants.   Because, let’s face it; if we are honest with ourselves, it is competition in all disciplines that leads to dishonestly, and shortcuts for which the horses suffer.  We wish, in Cowboy Dressage to avoid that pitfall to the very best of our ability.

So, how do we do that?  Well, the first way we approach that challenge is to provide for our Gatherings judges that have been trained through our own extensive judge’s boot camp. Our judges are trained to look for and reward soft feel first and foremost.  The judges are not swayed by fancy outfits, expensive horses or silver tack.  The Cowboy Dressage member in thrift store jeans and hand me down tack competes on the same level as the member with a fancy rig.  If there comes a time when it matters what color your shirt is or what style your saddle, we will truly have lost our focus.

We also continue to foster a community feeling at the Gatherings.  Because ultimately you are only competing against yourself no matter who else happens to be riding the same test at your Gathering.  We take turns calling tests for each other.  We allow buddy horses to help the horses feel comfortable in the arena and you may see the rider who just rode a test hang around to provide support for the rider who is riding next.  We celebrate the good rides of our friends as well as the good rides we experience because ultimately, it’s the horse that is winning when we all strive for soft feel.

Another great thing about the Cowboy Dressage Gatherings is that we are held accountable for walking the walk and talking the talk.  The principles of soft feel and kindness as well as the rules that govern some of our tack choices (especially those gadgets that are considered short cuts like draw reins or bitting rigs) are not allowed in the warm up pens.  Should a rider exhibit treatment of a horse that is contrary to the Cowboy Dressage principle of kindness first they are kindly asked to discontinue and the rules are explained to them.  It is assumed in most circumstances that folks are just not aware of our rules, but it is important that the principles of soft feel that we follow at home are in evidence at the shows as well be it on the court, in the shed row or in the warm up pen. 

So, what should the new Cowboy Dressage handshake member do to get ready for their first Gathering?  The only things required to participate in a Gathering are serviceable western tack, western attire (jeans, boots, long sleeve button up shirt, tie, boots, helmet or hat) and a healthy well cared for horse.  Because we are about the horse first, we do want to see horses that are fit and healthy but unlike other show venues you are not required to do a lot of primping.  Clipping is optional and hoof polish and hair polishes are not required though if you enjoy blinging out your horse go for it!  Some members even clip designs into their horse’s hair coats.  One thing you will certainly see at a Cowboy Dressage Gathering is a wide array of expression of personal style and that is encouraged and celebrated but not in any way reflected by the score on your sheet at the end of your ride.  It helps to have a helper at a Gathering but most of the time there are plenty of folks around that can lend a hand.  You will find yourself among friends and even if it’s your first Gathering you are part of the family just by being there. 

Riding up the centerline towards C for your very first time in front of a smiling Cowboy Dressage judge can be a very nerve-wracking experience.  Remember that you are there to celebrate your partnership.  You are there to get valued feedback on your ride.  You are there to be a part of this exciting new discipline that is providing a venue to showcase your soft feel and your hard work.  When the dust settles and the ribbons are collected all that matters is that you met your personal goals for you and your horse.  And if you didn’t? Well, there is always another Gathering down the road!

Jenni Grimmett, DVM, Dollie Horst and Trish Knight at the 2015 Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering