Sunday, April 2, 2017

Cowboy Dressage Musical Freestyle Division

Cowboy Dressage was inspired to become one of the fastest growing new western disciplines by the unique riding style of Eitan Beth-Halachmy who traveled the country and the world wowing crowds preforming to music with his gorgeous Morgan stallions.   I imagine, that like me, people watching those performances aspired to one day be able to ride with such grace, timing and beauty in partnership with their own horses.  To be able to dance with our horses seems to many to be the pan ultimate culmination of our time spent in the saddle.  

When Dan and I attended our first gathering I was wowed to see the musical freestyle competition.  I was moved to tears by almost every performance and wished so much for the time I could be out there riding to music with my horse as well.  While many of the rides were fancy and included maneuvers that my horse and I wouldn't be able to do smoothly for some time the rides that inspired me the most were the ones that went perfectly with the music and seemed effortless like a true dance between horse and rider.  Because in Cowboy Dressage we place more importance on partnership and harmony and soft feel the freestyle should be a showcase of those things above all others.  

When the freestyle division was conceived by the partners of Cowboy Dressage World it was imagined to be the pinnacle of the Cowboy Dressage rider's skills.  They believed it would be reserved only for those riders that really had something to show off; a place for the advanced maneuvers that are not yet showcased in our written tests.  It has evolved into something both a little less than that and in my opinion a little more.  The musical freestyle for many folks is a place for celebration of not how far you and and your horse have come but a celebration of where you are as a partnership and where you are going together into the future.  

If you sit around the a campfire long enough with a group of Cowboy Dressage enthusiasts, the conversation will eventually morph into the selection of freestyle music.  Even for those riders who have not performed a freestyle, everybody likes to play around with selection of fun or silly or moving music that they feel perfectly fits their horse or style of riding or personality.  It's our favorite road trip pastime, and I think that we rarely listen to music anymore without wondering if the song would be a good freestyle song.  

We have started using musical rides during our Introduction to Cowboy Dressage clinics.  On the last afternoon we give everybody who has an interest in riding to music a chance to play with the timing and transitions and ride while feeling the music.  After spending the weekend working so hard on teaching bend, straight lines, transitions and softness, we find that when the music comes on, that's when we are finally able to really focus on the partnership and harmony and we all get a little misty eyed watching the partnerships blossom to the music as horse and rider do their thing in the arena.  

Even if you never plan on performing a freestyle ride at a competition I feel that the use of music in your riding can be a very important tool for developing rhythm and timing.  I think that for some people the music allows them to just be with the horse in the moment.  The forethought involved in planning out a ride that includes the required movements and timing those movements to music is a useful exercise for preparation and execution of transitions.  I have play lists of different music depending on which horse I am riding and what we are working on.  

There are now 3 different class in the Freestyle division.  We have the Walk/Jog Freestyle, the Walk/Jog/Lope Freestyle and the Drill Team Musical Freestyle for 2 or more riders performing in a group.  For all of these classes the ultimate goal is the same.  Your ride should showcase soft feel, partnership and harmony at it's best.  There are required movements in the Walk/Jog and Walk/Jog/Lope Freestyles that must be choreographed into the ride providing more challenge and making the selection of the perfect song that much more challenging.  The new Drill Team Freestyle is a class that I am very excited about.  We use drill team like maneuvers in our clinics to explore the court and teach riders how to maneuver across the diagonals and straight lines of the court.  The purpose of the Drill Team in Cowboy Dressage is to showcase partnership both with the horse and with your fellow rider.  Think not so much of the fast paced drill teams that we may have watched do intricate exciting patterns in the rodeo arena but the synchronized and beautifully perfect rides of the Spanish Riding school.  

I believe that any rider that feels so moved to celebrate their partnership and journey with their horse should feel welcome to put together a Cowboy Dressage Musical Freestyle and ride at a Gathering.  I encourage riders to embrace the purpose of the class always remembering that soft feel, partnership and harmony are at the forefront and should be the most important thing in any freestyle ride.  I also encourage you to get some assistance in the choreography of the ride.   It takes some skill and timing and choreography to put together a nice freestyle and select the perfect music that will move the audience.  

Choosing the music for a freestyle whether it is a group performance or individual is so important.  The music must both move the riders and the audience and provide a sensual background for the visual beauty of the ride.  If the music distracts from the ride or if the ride doesn't match the music it is uncomfortable to watch (and though I'm not a judge, it must be hard to judge as well).  I highly encourage you to carefully and thoughtfully select your music. While mixed music (if done well) can create a beautiful freestyle I often find the freestyles performed to a single well selected song to be more moving to me as an audience member.  The song often tells a story or sets a mood for the ride and I enjoy getting to know the rider through their musical selection.  

When selecting a song it is important to find a song that has a good consistent rhythm with changes in the music that can be used for transitions between the gaits. For the Walk/Jog Freestyle especially finding that song that has the perfect change from working jog to free jog is essential for the seamless look of the ride.   The Walk/Jog Freestyle can often be the most difficult to choreograph because it has the most required elements.  Choosing the song that allows you to flow through those elements is key to finding a successful freestyle song.  

While the musical freestyle division is not a costume class, many riders feel that costumes add to the overall performance.  There are folks on both sides of that debate when it comes to costumes in the freestyles.  Many feel that it can take away from the ride turning it from a celebration to a spectacle.  Others feel that it is all in good fun and the costumed rides are often the ones that are remembered by the audience over all the others.  If you choose to wear a costume for your freestyle ride I encourage you to remember that the costume should not detract from the partnership and harmony of the ride.  Any costume that interferes with the horse's movement or sight are not allowed in the Cowboy Dressage freestyle.  Less is often more when it comes to costuming.  Just remember to place soft feel, partnership and harmony first and your ride should be a success. 

The musical freestyle division is just another piece of Cowboy Dressage that allows us to celebrate our partnership with our horses.  Like performing on stage, it isn't for everybody and you shouldn't ever feel that you must put together a freestyle in order to participate in a Gathering.  But, if you are moved to ride to music, put your heart and soul into it and make it the most important ride of the day. If we keep the focus of this division on the celebration of soft feel and partnership it will continue to evolve and become the pinnacle of the Cowboy Dressage Gatherings into the future.  

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Arena Exercises #3: Challenge court

One of the great things about Cowboy Dressage is that I've learned to make better use of my arena time.  The Cowboy Dressage Court and Cowboy Dressage Challenge Court are our playgrounds and classrooms.  This is where we help our horses learn to be better balanced and have better cadence.  This is where we learn to be better riders by riding with accuracy and using a real system of concrete markers to gauge our success in our communication and guidance of our equine partners.

While the tests will definitely school your horse, it is helpful to have exercises that include maneuvers required in the tests that we can use to "work" the court as we help our horses with whatever they need help with during that particular ride.  Exercises that allow you to concentrate on a certain aspect of timing or feel will help your horse better understand what is being asked when the action, response and reward are repeated a few times.

Obviously we do not advocate over drilling our horses in Cowboy Dressage.  Recognize when your horse has tried and reward that try by changing things up for him.  A nice free walk across the diagonal or maybe just stopping for a soak in the octagon are great rewards for a job well done.

In this third installment of the Cowboy Dressage arena exercises we will utilize the ground poles of the Cowboy Dressage Challenge Court.  The Cowboy Dressage Challenge Court is an excellent tool for you and your horse.  Besides providing a nice visual for much of the geometry that we use while riding maneuvers the Challenge Court provides the added exercise of crossing ground poles.  The ground poles are essential for helping the horse develop self carriage, cadence, length of stride and reach.  They are also excellent markers for riding straight lines.  If you can hit dead center of the ground poles you must be traveling straight!  The Challenge Court includes a 12' octogon centered in the middle of the court at 8 with 4 diaganol ground poles on the short diagonals at R-8-V and S-8-P.  On the quarter lines we find a set of 4 ground poles spaced 3 feet apart.   We will use all of these ground poles in the following exercises.
Straight Lines:  The Challenge Court is an excellent tool for practicing straight lines because of the addition of the ground poles.  As you are warming up your horse or even as a break between some of these other exercises, working the straight lines of the court at the free walk can be very useful.  Enter at A at a free walk and continue up the mid line.  At C (which we understand to mean begin your 10 m bend at G) turn right.  Continue in the free walk to R.  At R, change directions R8V.  Continue to P at P change directions P8S.  At Y (which we understand to mean at C begin your 10 m bend) turn right down the quarter line over the ground poles.  Continue to N.  At N turn right at J turn right and continue over the ground poles to Q.  At Q turn Right and stop at C.

Using the Challenge Court to practice straight lines.  

There are a few things to keep in mind while using this exercise whether it be for warm up or between other exercises.  Keep your hands wide and low in the free walk so you create a triangle with the horse's head at the top of the triangle.  Keep the horse's head pointed straight towards the middle of the ground pole and ride straight over the pole.  Look up to your next marker to keep your energy focused on moving straight.  For example, when you ride from R to V look straight over the middle of the ground poles and the octagon right at V instead of looking at each ground pole as you come to it.  This will help to keep your focus straight and keep the horse straight beneath you.  Prepare for your 10 m bends well in advance so you and your horse are not surprised.  Your horse should already be thinking about the bend at least 5 meters before it needs to happen.  Create the bend with your body and ride the bend forward.  When I am riding this particular exercise I do not transition to the working frame for the 10 m bend.  I keep my horse moving straight and forward in the free frame all the way through all the straight lines on the court.  

For horses that are really struggling with staying straight, you can try giving them an additional point of focus.  Cones spaced about 3 feet apart right in the middle of the ground poles may help to keep your horse straight beneath you and looking to the middle of the pole.  Remember that when you turn off the court onto the short diagonal you do a mini turn on the haunches.  Push the shoulder over to the new line of travel.  When you turn off the diagonal back onto the track that is a mini turn on the forehand.  Push the haunches back onto the track.  

20 meter Oval over Ground Poles:  If you have a horse that struggles with ground poles, sometimes repetition is your best recourse. For horses that are really struggling I will do this exercise as part of our groundwork at both the walk and then the jog when the horse is ready for it.  This is a 20 meter oval ridden on the quarter lines over the ground poles.  There is a 10 m bend at each end with one end traveling through the octagon adding an additional challenge to this exercise.  This exercise may be ridden at either the free walk or the working jog.  I recommend starting with the free  walk to build the horse's confidence then transitioning to the working jog.  You may even want to transition to the jog just through the 10 m bend and then back to the walk over the ground poles depending on which part of the exercise your horse is struggling with.  Begin at the walk at C and turn left down the quarter line at Q.  Remember that this is a 10 m bend to get onto the quarter line.  Ride straight over the ground poles asking the horse to place one foot between each pole.  At the intersection of the blank and the quarter line (blue dots on the diagram) begin your 10 m bend to the middle of the octagon crossing into and out of the octagon right about where the pieces are joined (yellow stars on the diagram).  Your 10 m bend is complete when you meet the blank and the quarter line on the other side.  Ride straight over the ground poles and repeat the 10 m half circle from M-Y to Q-H.  
20 meter oval over ground poles

This is one of the few times that drilling and repetition may help your horse to find his stride and become comfortable over the ground poles.  If you find your horse is getting worried or rushing the poles you can vary this exercise by stopping and resting right in the middle of the section of quarter line ground poles or in the octagon.  We want the horses to wait on us and feel comfortable with the poles and not feel like they are something that needs to just get over with.  Be sensitive to the specific challenge your horse is facing and make sure your approach to each of these exercises is helping your horse build confidence both in himself and in your partnership.  Again, if your horse is really struggling, going back to groundwork is always a good choice.  I will long line my horses over the ground poles standing at I.  That way they can navigate the poles without undue interference until they are more confident and cadenced.  

The Octagon: That little 8 sided box in the middle of the Cowboy Dressage court is one of the most useful tools on the court.  It can become an area of rest, it can help the horse to develop bend and it can help a horse that struggles with cadence and stride over ground poles.  There are so many ways that we can use the octagon.  We will often leave the octagon on the court all the time even when we remove the rest of the challenge court to practice the "flat" tests.  

Ground work and the Octagon.  We always warm up our horses with ground work by using the Octagon.  The physical presence of the poles on the ground give the horse a concrete "something" to bend around when walking in a small circle in hand.  We ask the horse to walk around us while we stand in the middle of the octagon then we will transition to using the octagon in the circle by stepping out of the octagon and having the horse travel through the middle of the octagon.  Then you step back into the octagon to have the horse travel around the outside of the octagon again.  This smooth transition into and out of the octagon during groundwork helps to build confidence over ground poles as well as help establish cadence at the walk and the jog.  Making this transition smoothly can be a bit of a challenge for the person in the beginning.  Follow the horse's tail as it passes you and step in a straight line out of the octagon allowing the horse to room to travel through the octagon.  Then follow the horse's tail back into the octagon until he is traveling around you in a fluid circle. 
Working on bend using the octagon for groundwork

In the saddle we can also use the octagon for developing bend from head to tail.  By riding first on the outside of the octagon concentrating on keeping the horse's inside legs as close to the poles as possible, we help the horse understand how to balance in the bend.  Be sure the hindquarters are not drifting by keeping your outside leg back by the flank while your inside leg provides the support for the bend.  Then lift the inside front leg with the inside rein so the horse steps into the inside of the octagon.  Again, keep the horse as close to the poles as possible by making sure his outside legs step by the poles.  If the hindquarters tend to drift the horse may fall to the inside of the small circle or step on or out of the octagon with his hind legs.  Don't do too many circles before letting the horse out of the octagon to walk in a free walk before returning to work on bend. 

Using the octagon to help create bend under saddle

Riding a full circle in the Octagon:  There is a maneuver that is part of some of the challenge tests including the new Walk/Walk challenge test that calls for a full circle in the octagon.  On the surface this sounds like a very simple task, but to ride it properly requires good control of the horse's body parts as well as good bend and timing of the cues.  From mid line enter the octagon and circle to the left.  The horse should already be bending to the left as the front feet cross the middle of the ground pole.  The horse walks one full circle keeping as close to the poles of the octagon as possible until he has completed a full circle.  Then the horse exits the octagon by performing a quarter turn on the haunches and leaves in a straight line.  The beginning and end of the circle occur where the horse's front hooves enter the circle.  The horse exits the octagon traveling on the same straight line that he entered.
Traveling from A to C circle left in the box. 

This exercise can also be ridden from the short diagonals.  This maneuver is generally ridden in a free walk.

Fan Belt Exercise:  This is an elemental exercise with maneuvers that are commonly found on both the Challenge court and the flat Cowboy Dressage court.  This exercise allows horse and rider to practice straight lines, 10 m circles, ground poles and transition between free and working frame.   In this exercise the working gait (walk or jog) is in blue and the free gait (walk or jog) is in green.  Begin this exercise with a 10 m circle left at H through the cones and ground poles in the working frame.   Continue to S.  S8P change direction free frame.  P working frame.  F 10 m circle to the right working frame continue to K.  K 10 m circle to the right working frame continue to V.  V8R change direction free frame. R working frame continue to M.  M 10 m circle to the left working frame.
Fan belt exercise. Blue working frame. Green free frame.

10 meter 20 meter nested circles:  This exercise looks very busy but is one of my go to exercises both on the flat court and on the Challenge court.  There are many benefits to doing these nested circle exercises.  One of the main benefits to the rider is you get a distinct familiarity with the flow and geometry of the court.  One of the most common nested circles that we see on the Cowboy Dressage court is the 20 meter circle at B/E and the 10m circle at B/E.  When you learn to transition smoothly through change of bend through the octagon you can see how you can transition to the other 20 m circles at A and C.   I find it useful in the beginning to place cones or a pole or both at L and I on the court to help horse and rider visualize the geometry of the 10 m circle.  
10 and 20 m nested circles

This exercise is helpful using working walk and free walk transitions as well as working jog and free jog transitions.  The added challenge of changing bend and direction within the octagon requires the rider to prepare the horse adequately for that change of bend.  If you are having trouble visualizing the flow of this exercise, this is how I might call the exercise during a lesson. 

1. Free jog 20 m circle to the left at E.
2. Working jog 10 m circle to the left at E through the box
3. E free jog on the 20 m circle to B
4. B working jog 10 m circle through the box
5. B free jog continue 20 m circle to I
6. I 10 m circle working jog to the left to 8
7. 8 free jog 20 m circle to the left. 
8. At 8 working jog, change bend, change direction 10 m circle working jog to the right
9. 8 Free jog 20 m circle to the right

There are many variations and changes of direction and bend you can do through the octagon landing you on different circles in both working jog and free jog.  This busy exercise requires the rider to plan ahead for the changes in direction and bend.

That's all for now!  Give these exercises a try the next time you find yourself on the Challenge Court.  Remember to always reward the try, ride with kindness in your heart and a song on your lips! Happy trails!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Partnership and Harmony

We throw a lot of words around in our equestrian communities and Cowboy Dressage is no different in that way than other communities that have come before.  We use words with vague and sometimes changing definitions because we are describing art and not science.  The words we use create different pictures in our minds depending on our history, environment, and recent experiences.  For example, when I say the word horse, you may immediately conjure the mental image of your favorite horse, or first horse, or the last horse you saw.  The only thing of which we can be certain is that my mental equine is likely much different than your mental equine. 

In the collective remarks portion of our scorecards in Cowboy Dressage there are a few words that are used to describe the physical performance of art in our rides.  Because we are Cowboy Dressage we weight these things more heavily than some of the other concrete elements of our tests scored as individual maneuvers and transitions above.  This is because in Cowboy Dressage we believe it is the journey and end goals that are the important part of the ride and not necessarily the perfection of each step along the way. 

Within those collective remarks is a section with a co-efficient of x2 for Harmony and Partnership.  In this blog I would like to discuss those rather vague terms and why we place so much emphasis on them in Cowboy Dressage.  Let's begin by clearing up the meaning of these words by going to the definitions provided by Webster.

Partnership:  an arrangement where parties, known as partners, agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests

Harmony: An orderly or pleasing combination of elements in a whole

Even the definitions of these words leave quite a bit of room for interpretation.  "Arrangement" and "mutual interests" can mean a wide variety of things.  "Orderly" and "pleasing" are terms that put the definition in the eye of the beholder.  How then do we understand exactly what these terms mean in relation to Cowboy Dressage?

If you look at the Cowboy Dressage Training Pyramid, partnership is at the bottom illustrating that every single thing we do with our horses begins on a foundation of partnership.  It is easy to nod your head and agree with that concept but it is important to understand the implications of this arrangement as it is a departure from much of the current rhetoric that you may encounter in other disciplines, both Western and English, that embrace complete submission and obedience as the foundation of a good training program.  While we are the leaders in the dance of our horsemanship partnership with our horses they are not our submissive.  We are not alpha, herd sire, lead mare, or boss in our partnership except where safety dictates.  Establishing a partnership means that the horse retains interest in the partnership and we work towards "mutual interests". 

It may be presumptuous of us to imply that our horses have vested interest in any of the activities in which we ask them to participate.  We are not able to "ask" their preference and indeed we may not like what they have to say about the arrangement were they able to reply to our inquiry.  But, I believe we can ascertain whether our horses are happy if we study body language, try, performance and willingness to work whenever we go out to interact with our horses.  Building partnership means that when we go out to greet our horses they meet us half way, as eager to be with us as we are with them. 

So, how, then, do we achieve partnership with our horses? Through kindness.  When we ride and handle our horses with kindness and fairness they become willing partners.  We reward them for the smallest try.  We build their trust through conscientious leadership doing everything we can to help them feel safe and secure with us.  Kindness means that we have boundaries, as any healthy relationship has, but with consistency the horse learns to understand those boundaries and respect them. 

One of the ways that you can tell that a horse is a partner and not a submissive is that they retain their personality (horse-anality,  I suppose is more politically correct!).  A horse that is a partner is not perfect all the time.  They may fidget, explore, try new things and interact with their environment as a confident individual is likely to do.  That exploring and investigating part of their personality can be our very best tool in our quest to educate our horses.  It embodies that characteristic that we call try.  If you remove that in favor of perfect obedience and submission and a "yes, ma'am" attitude you may remove that quality that makes it so much fun to interact with our equine partners. 

When partnership is functioning like it should, for the benefit of both horse and rider, Harmony is the result.  Harmony is that quality that makes the horse and rider seem to be acting as one mind and one body.  Harmony is what makes a beautiful ride so beautiful to watch.  In a truly great dance couple you don't see a leader and a follower.  Instead, you see two individuals moving as one, each with their own personal flair and showmanship.  It is the same between a harmonious horse and rider.  

I do not want to give the impression that cultivation of partnership and harmony with our horses through kindness gives our horses a license to do whatever they please.  The establishment of fair and consistent boundaries early in any relationship with our horses is an important safety measure.  I don't instantly trust every horse I meet nor do I instantly expect them to trust me.  As a veterinarian I am often asked to work with my patients under conditions where trust is certainly lacking and slow to develop on their part.  But, as a horseman, I consider it my duty to cultivate trust in every horse I handle.  Not always an easy task when the things you are doing are associated with the discomfort of veterinary procedures.  Luckily, as a horseman, I don't have to use painful procedures to interact with my horses.   

Cowboy Dressage is revolutionizing the way people interact with their horses in the western communities. It provides an outlet for folks that embrace kindness in their horsemanship and gives them a place to showcase their journey.  Cowboy Dressage is rewarding the art and beauty in our relationship with our horses and giving us a community that celebrates that beauty in the same way we do.  My horses are happy and healthy.  We are partners and we are working on that elusive quality known as harmony.   As much as I relish a test score with lots of 7's and 8's on the top section, it's the 7's and 8's on the bottom that mean the most to me.  I don't think my partner will mind me speaking for him when I say those are the things he enjoys the most too. 

Photo by Richard Horst Photography

Monday, September 19, 2016

Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering: It's a Wrap!

The dust has settled and the buckles have been distributed but it feels strange to be at the close of our Cowboy Dressage Gathering season so early in the year.  The new early date for The Cowboy Dressage finals was meant to make travel easier for some of the folks coming from the north and for those of us that braved the snowy passes last year we were grateful to have the earlier date despite temperatures higher than most of us were used to!

As always the folks of Cowboy Dressage World worked day and night to put together both a welcoming and well organized Gathering.  There were Cowboy Dressage handshake members from all over the country and from out of the country as well including Australia, Germany, Austria, Canada and I'm sure some other far flung places that I'm missing!

We kicked off the week of competitions with a day of learning as we had presentations by our Cowboy Dressage partners and other top horseman and professionals speaking on such varied topics as gaited horses to saddle fit.  The lectures were free to all the participants and well attended and thanks to the great folks over at CD learning were live streamed for all the people that couldn't attend in person this year.

The musical freestyle competition is always a crowd favorite.  The preliminary rides took place on Thursday with the top 5 in each division returning for a final go on Friday evening.  We saw everything from disco to ballet to steer roping in the freestyle competitions.  Freestyle not only allows a rider to show off where they and their horse are in their journey to soft feel and partnership, it also allows for each rider to exhibit their own personal flare.  I love freestyle because it gives me a glimpse into the personality of my fellow riders.  A truly soft freestyle that is complimented by the music is a thing of beauty and I know I'm always moved to watch the performances.  Our open winner this year was Marcia Moore Harrison who rode an inspiring free style with a patriotic theme. Our amateur winners were Rus Partee who rode a moving freestyle dedicated to his wife, Dale, and Lesla Bong who rode to Prince.

While the show itself is fun and exciting with three full days of tests occurring in 5 arenas, the big event of the Gathering is the Top Hand competition.  Competitors come from all over to compete in the same preliminary test, Cowboy Dressage Challenge W/J/L #2 which features the dreaded bow tie maneuver.  It's a tough tough test and only the best horse and rider pair will successfully navigate the entire test with softness, accuracy and partnership.  We had 17 open competitors and 7 amateur competitors throw their hats in the ring to compete for this honor.  The quality of tests preformed were awe inspiriting to watch and I was thankful I wasn't the one doing the judging!

After the first day of preliminaries the field of competitors were narrowed down to 5 top riders with fractions of percentage points separating the scores of these hands.  They were given a "mystery test" full of tricky maneuvers just a few short hours before entering the arena.  Each contestant was "auctioned" off for an exciting Calcutta and then the competition got even tougher as they took to the court to ride the new test.  Once they had each ridden, they put their names into a hat to draw for the swap for the horses.

Our top 5 riders were all women this year coming from Oregon, Texas, Idaho and California.  We had 3 Quarter Horses and 2 mules in our top 5 this year.  It was exciting to see who would draw which horse or mule for the swap and final test.  All 5 of the riders rode their mystery test with softness and accuracy making it hard for the audience to even guess who might be ahead in the scoring.  After watching the swap rides it was even more difficult, such was the difficulty of the test and skill of the competitors.  But, it is after all a competition and there must we a winner crowned.  The amateur rider that took home the top prize (amateurs were not required to switch horses) was Jill Plumb and Webber.  Our Open Top Hand winner was Oregon's Audrey Goldsmith and her mule Porter.  Audrey drew Jennifer Purcell's grey gelding Griff for her switch ride.  Second place went to Marcia Moore Harrison from Idaho and her gelding Sam.  Marcia drew Kellie Sheild's mule Fireman for her switch ride.  Third place went to Kellie and Fireman.  Kellie rode Brenda's gelding Chex for the switch.  4th place was Jennifer Purcell and Griff.  Jennifer rode Marcia's Sam for the switch.  And 5th place went to Brenda Hilgenkamp all the way from Texas and Chex.  Brenda drew Audrey's mule Porter for the switch.  I think I speak for all the folks in the audience when I say it's the switch that really is the exciting part of this competition.  Not only is it fun to watch each of the horses or mules with their new rider, it's so rewarding to see each of these fine ladies go to great pains to help their competition ride their horse to the best of their ability.  As they all walked back to the horses and mules waiting patiently with the wranglers you could see them quickly giving each other tips and hints and explaining how their mount was likely to react and where their trouble spots were.  It really is amazing to watch and it brings home exactly what the top hand competition is all about.  Our top riders are all amazing horseman, true, but they are great people as well.  They strive for honesty, integrity and fairness even in the face of fierce competition.  The horses were all treated with respect and kindness by one and all.  It's a great thing to watch.

Of course there is a ton of other fun things to do and see at Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering as well.  The left hip body clip competition on Thursday evening was a crowd favorite.  It was fun to see the neat designs that those artistic folks are able to create.  If you haven't ever tried it, it is harder than it looks!  I gave it my best this year by attempting to recreate our ranch logo on my gelding's left hip.  Thank goodness I had some talented folks to do some touch up on it before we had to show our faces, er hips, to the crowd!!!  Wahl graciously donated wonderful prized to all the participants and winners of this fun competition.

There were more vendors this year offering fun shopping excursions during the down time between tests.  Tack, boots, apparel, books, etc were all available for the discerning shopper.  For many the highlight of the entire weekend is the fun awards ceremony/talent show where we see just how talented the folks of cowboy dressage world are.  We had singing, dancing, reciting of poems and even Eitan impersonating!

With all this fun wrapped up into one weekend it's hard to believe we have to wait another full year before it comes again.  For many of us it is a trek to get down to Rancho Murieta for the Final Gathering.  As one of the folks spending 2 days on the road to get there, I can assure you it is well worth the trip.  You won't find a kinder and more welcoming environment or a better class of horse people in all the world than gather each year to celebrate another successful year of Cowboy Dressage.  So, if you weren't able to make it this year, mark your calendars for next year.   The facility is first class.  The event is wonderful.  The competition is friendly and puts the horse first always.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Cowboy Dressage Handshake

The Cowboy Dressage community is unique in many ways.  When your guiding principle is kindness and soft feel you invite a certain class of people that are anxious to not only embrace that ideal but cultivate it in others they meet.  For me personally, embracing the ideals of Cowboy Dressage has made me a kinder more accepting person.  We ask that new converts to our community join us in a “handshake” agreement as they enter our world of kindness and soft feel.

The handshake was Eitan’s idea, and it stems from the tradition of the Code of the West.  There was a time when your word was your bond; when integrity meant more than success.  There was a time when somebody looked you in the eye and shook your hand you knew they meant what they said and only a cad and villain would go back on their word.
In today’s society, things that were once simple and black and white seem to be continually shrouded in areas of grey.  This isn’t always a bad thing, as we are increasingly aware of the many differences in our fellow human beings and the different ways in which they live, love, and worship and we struggle to grow as a society in our acceptance of the many differences we encounter.  However, the grey areas have seemed to leach over into other previously black and white notions such as integrity and right and wrong leaving things much more open to interpretation.  Even something that was once as simple as lying or telling the truth is broken into calibers of lying including, “white lies, lies of omission, altered notions of truth and differences in perception”.  Now it seems it’s more the intent of the lie than the actual lie that matters.  If you didn’t mean to create harm then what’s the big deal if you tell the truth or lie?

This is the society that we live in today.  It is full of social media and quickly altered stories told with different spins and perspectives based largely on which side of the events you were standing on when they occurred.  Truth and reality are no longer so easily determined.  If you think I’m being a bit harsh, just look at the current political environment we are experiencing.  Both sides are firmly convinced the other side is not only lying but ignorant of real hard true facts as well. 
In my mind, all of this grey out there in the world makes the Cowboy Dressage Handshake that much more relevant and important in our crusade to bring soft feel the western equestrian community.  When we began the competitive venue of Cowboy Dressage, Eitan wanted there to be only one rule: Be kind to your horse and others.  As the community grew it became obvious that “kind” was one of those grey words.  It means different things to different people.  So we started creating rules of engagement for our gatherings.  It started with a small list and has since grown to include 30 some pages.  Each rule was created by an incidence that was met with grievance at a Gathering.  And so like the warning on McDonald’s coffee telling you the contents are indeed hot we started adding more and more rules to ensure our members continue to do what’s right, fair and within the handshake agreement.

As a firm believer in the handshake, I believe each and every rule that we write diminishes the strength and integrity of the handshake.  Let me tell you a story of how a well-meaning, but somewhat mischievous young boy learned to go around the rules at a very young age.   When my brother and I were young we lived near a creek with steep banks that ran right through our back yard.  We often played in the creek on hot days with minimal supervision as was much more common in those glorious days of sunshine and bell bottom pants.  One day my brother, being a fairly well behaved child came in to ask my mother if it was okay if he rode his big wheel down the bank into the creek.  My mother, appalled at the thought told him of course he couldn’t ride his big wheel down the bank into the creek?  What was he thinking, he would break his neck!  She told him to use his head and do something that was both fun and safer than that.  So twenty minutes later she was alarmed to hear blood curdling screams coming from the creek.  Sure that he has disobeyed her she ran out fuming to find he had not ridden his big wheel (after all that had been prohibited) but his scooter down the embankment.  In my brother’s mind my mother had not EXPRESSLY forbidden the scooter but told him to do something fun and safe.  He figured he was safer standing than sitting and off we went. 
This is how rules work.  God didn’t have to say, Thou shalt not kill with either stick, stone, rope or spear.  It was enough to say, Thou shalt not kill.  Period.  That covers it.  If you aren’t going to follow the spirit of the rules, you will always find a way around them and we cannot write enough rules to prevent that.
But, if you embrace the spirit of the handshake and the community of kindness and soft feel you always have something to fall back on to help you make your decisions.  It’s the handshake that makes the community at a cowboy dressage gathering feel so different and welcoming and refreshing to those that are new to the discipline.  If we lose sight of that we lose sight of who we are and where we are going into the future and ultimately we become just another horseshow group.  That absolutely cannot happen.
So, to my fellow Cowboy Dressage community members I urge you to re-read the handshake agreement from time to time; especially before coming to a Gathering.  Remind yourself as often as necessary who we are and why we are here.  If you have to go back to the rules to see if you are allowed to use a certain piece of tack, maybe ask yourself why you need it?  Is it promoting soft feel or is it so you may be able to get a few more points on the court.  Would you handle your horse that way if Eitan was sitting on the rail watching?  Make your decisions for the good of your horse, your fellow rider, and ultimately for the future of cowboy dressage.  I want Cowboy Dressage as Eitan and Deb first visualized it to live on long after we are gone.  Establishing a history of integrity early in our years, in the face of a quickly growing competitive environment is essential.  Embrace it and live it my friends.  Ride on in softness and one day we can say we were there when the whole thing started and it hasn’t changed a bit. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Cowboy Dressage Arena Exercises 2

Cowboy Dressage Arena Exercises


The Cowboy Dressage court offers so many exercises to help us work on our horse’s bend and softness.  While riding the Cowboy Dressage tests include all the of the elements to properly advance your horse, sometimes it helps to use variations of the exercises in the court to both help keep the work in the arena fresh and focus on elements that are stumbling blocks for you and your horse.  Here are a few more valuable exercises for your arena notebooks! 

Gyro Wheel

Remember that spinning toy you used to while away the hours with as a kid?  Maybe you are too young, but the Gyro Wheel was a top that spun up one side of a pair of wires, made a circle and came down the other side.  This is an exercise I like to perform on the quarter lines.  You can use any combination of gaits and transitions but I recommend beginning with the walk and free walk.  Start at C in the working walk.  Ride a ¼ circle with bend to the Q-H intersection then ride straight down the quarter line in in the free walk.  At J-K ride half of a 10 m circle in the working walk to the F-N intersection then transition to free walk down the quarter line.  
Red 10 m circle or half circle in working frame transition to free frame at h-m line and K-F line.  Straight line in free frame to opposite transition to working frame again at the H-M or K-F line. 

Some of the benefits of this exercise include working on preparation for the bend prior to the half 10 m circle.  I like to prepare my horse by beginning to collect my horse into the working frame at the P-V line or S-R line and then create the bend a stride or two before you enter your circle.  If you are a stride counter you will know that your horse will take approximately 6 strides in the working frame between the S-R or P-V line and the K-F and M-H lines before making your circle.  So at 4 strides you will start to create the bend in your horse then ride the bend around the half circle.  If the bend feels stiff then ride a full circle before moving onto the quarter line

There are multiple variations you can add to this exercise.  At the jog/free jog I like to add a full 10 m circle at A and C between the quarter lines.  You can also do this in the lope and free jog or working jog for horses that need help with straight line loping.  Jog the 10 m half circle the pick up the lope just before you reach the intersection to the quarter line.  Ride straight down the quarter line in a lope and transition to the jog and directly into the 10 m bend at the working jog.  Then, depending on what your horse needs you can either jog a full 10 m circle or do a free jog down the other quarter line.   You can also go from straight line to counter bend through the 10 m circle. 

If you are ready to work on loping a shoulder in, this is also an excellent exercise to get your horse into the proper bend then ride that bend forward down the quarter line in a shoulder in the transition either back to regular bend or to a working jog at the other end.

The variations in this exercise are endless.  The dynamic of the quarter line means you have to have your eyes up forcusing on that distant letter instead of looking down at your horse or you will never make that a straight line.  No relying on the rail to keep your horse straight!


Daisy Chain. 

This is a free walk exercise performed on a straight line, I like to use the long diagonals for this but you can also use the quarter lines.  At F transition to the free walk f8H.  Between f at P-N ride a small 5 m circle to the right off the diagonal then back the free walk at 8 ride a small circle to the left off the diagonal line then back to the free walk.  At S-Q ride another 5 m circle to the right.  Back to working walk at H.  M-8-K transition to free walk and repeat the daisy chain. 
Begin free gait at H or F.  At the blank walk a small 5 m circle. Continue in free walk to 8 then walk a 5 m circle to the other direction.  Continue free walk to the other blank and walk a 5 m circle to the other direction.  Continue free walk. 

This is not only a great warm up exercise but it’s great for the horse that tends to anticipate or maybe rush across the diagonal.  It’s also a challenge for the rider to keep to that diagonal straight line when you are throwing in a small circle.  Because you are in a free walk, that circle is going to necessarily originate from your seat, leg and weight aids and less on your rein aid.  Great for exaggerating bend in the horse and keep the horse supple.



Another quarter line exercise.  Start with working walk down the quarter line at Q.  At the Q-S intersection leg yield to E.  At E leg yield back to the quarter line meeting the quarter line a V-J intersection.  Obviously this should be perfected at the working walk before you progress to free walk or working jog and free jog. 
Working off of a 10 m bend onto the quarter line walk 5 m working walk then leg yield from V-J to E (blue line) then from E to S-Q. 5 m of working walk to half of a 10 m circle. Down the other quarter line at r-y leg yield to 8 and from 8 back to the quarter line at P-N.


At least for me and my horses the challenge in this exercise comes with attempting to keep your horse straight up underneath you.  Try to avoid leaning or pushing with your outside leg.  The horse needs to move off of that leg in time with his feet leaving the ground.  Timing is important with all maneuvers but especially with this one where you are attempting to direct the feet out as well as forward.   When your horse can master a straight leg yield to mid line or to E and B then you can attempt to go all the way from quarter line to quarter line.
Monkey Face
The monkey face exercise is useful for helping a horse that tends to fade in or out in the free jog or looses the frame in the free jog.  At E begin the free walk jog to A-P then transition to working frame, change bend and ride a 10 m circle.  At the completion of the 10 m circle change bend and transition back to the free frame to R-C.  At R-C transition down to the working jog and change bend to a 10 m circle.  Alternately you can ride the circle maintaining the same bend and use the 10 m bend in the center of the 20 m circle to change direction through the working frame. 
The 20 m circle at B/E is ridden in the free frame with paired 10 m circles at the s-r line and p-v line.  Those circles may be either ridden with a change in bend or with bend maintained.  The change of direction is made through the 10 m figure 8 in at 8. One of the nice benefits to this exercise is to become familiar with markers for your 10 m circles that you may not typically ride.  The quarter line circle at A and C can be quite challenging and the 2 10 m circles at 8 within the quarter line are equally challenging. 

Quarter line Serpentine
As you can see I've been spending a lot of time at the center of the arena rather than on the rails lately.  This is another great exercise to make you familiar with what are not always easy marks to see.  I recommend you place cones or markers on at the top of your 10 m half circles until you can envision the marks that are used in this exercise.  I use this exercise both for changes of bend as well as working on counter bend.  After a few turns through the exercise it helps the horse to go to a 20 m serpentine in a free frame.
The 10 m serpentines (yellow and red) have 3 changes of bend.  The 20 m serpentine (green and blue) only has 1 change of bend at 8

That aught to keep you busy for a while!  Get out there and ride paying attention to softness and accuracy with each maneuver that you master!  More exercises to come!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cowboy Dressage School of Horsemanship

Dan Grimmett, Marcia Moore-Harrison, Trish Knight, Hayle Moats, Jenni Grimmett, Dale Rumens-Partee and Eitan Beth Halachmy
I was lucky enough to attend two session of Cowboy Dressage School this spring at Wolf Creek Ranch.  It is always such an amazing week of learning and growing and when you come back from that week friends are anxious to ask how it was and what did you learn?

For me, it's such a hard thing to answer.  I think what my friends expect to hear when they ask you what you learned is a litany of fancy maneuvers and industry secrets for building soft feel.  What's the best way to do a lope departure or how do you get the perfect free jog? While we certainly work on all of those things and about a million other things, my take away lessons are never about that.

Jenni aboard the magnificent Santa Fe Renegade
My first session spent at Wolf Creek Ranch I was blessed to spend with the amazing Santa Fe Renegade.  Between Eitan and Santa Fe I felt I was being molded by two masters in soft feel.  For me, I would travel 2,000 miles just to bask in Santa Fe's presence.  That stallion speaks to my heart and soul like no other horse has.  Just to stand and stroke his strong neck is a gift that I will always cherish.  Riding him is out of this world.  It is rare, I think, to find not only a stallion, but a retired world champion that is such a gracious teacher.  Many might think that riding Santa Fe is easy because he knows everything and will just do it for you.  I heartily  disagree.  He will indeed do what you ask but only if you ask correctly.  Santa Fe will teach you refinement in your cues and where the holes are in your body and your balance.

Eitan and Chico having a discussion
about Soft Feel. 

Maybe I'm wrong but I think most of us spend our lives riding pretty good horses.  I think very few of us ever get the chance to really ride and experience a gifted, perfectly trained horse.  I have spent my life on good decent horses with a modicum of talent for some things, but I have never had the opportunity to ride a well trained horse that can teach me the things I really need to know to grow and excel beyond where I am in my horsemanship.  There is nothing like riding a horse that is smarter and more accomplished than you to help you find where you are going in your horsemanship.  The week I spent with Santa Fe changed me and the way I ride my own horses.  I know what I am looking for and can more readily reward my horses when they begin to give me the baby steps that build true softness and self carriage.  So, when asked what I learned from my week at Wolf Creek Ranch with the amazing Santa Fe Renegade I am compelled to hold back tears of remembrance and smile and say, "soft feel".

Dale and Buccaneer
A month later my husband and I returned to Wolf Creek Ranch with a group of northwest horsemen including fellow professionals Dale Rumens-Partee and Marcia Moore Harrison as well as our good friend Trish Knight.  For this session I brought my Morgan gelding Chico with whom I have been working hard to develop and improve his lope among other things.  I was excited to show Eitan the strides we had made to really cultivate what is for Chico a very very difficult gait.  We were also anxious to get help with our ground pole work which is quite frankly a train wreck.  So, I was well aware that I still had some holes in our work but also hopeful that Eitan would recognize the hard work we had done over the past year.

Imagine you are a brick layer and have been building brick by brick an elaborate mosaic wall specifically for the pleasure of a visiting dignitary.  You are proud of your wall.  You think it's beautiful and when you look at it you see all the hard work that went into each and every brick.  Now, imagine standing in front of that wall presenting it to the dignitary for the first time.  The dignitary smiles and congratulates you on your hard work and then puts a friendly hand on your shoulder and points to a brick way down at the bottom that is upside down and then helps you take down your beautiful wall brick by brick so that you can start all over after fixing the upside down brick.
Dan and Indy and Trish and Bo
Jenni and Chico

That's pretty much what my week with Chico at Wolf Creek Ranch was like this year.  Eitan congratulated me on my hard work and the improvements in Chico over the past year and then we spent the week working on slowing him down again and having him rate to my seat so that my body would mean more to him than my hands.  All things that I know we have to work on but I was so anxious to get to fixing his lope that I brushed over those holes in our training.  Of course, those holes show up bigger and bolder in the form of his rushing issues over the poles.

Watching Eitan work with each and every horse and rider is such a learning experience for me as a Cowboy Dressage educator.  He is so very good at seeing the small details that are fouling up the horse and rider team and addressing those issues as they come up.  While we would each work on the same exercise it was executed differently for each and every horse.  We never did the same thing two days in a row (well, Chico and I did.  We spent several days clantering (the incredibly uncoordinated gait between a lope and a canter) over the gantlet of poles) instead he would see a hole in a horse and rider, sleep on it, and come up with a different angle to address the issue the next day.

Marcia and Cruz
I can't tell you what you will learn if you decide to go to Wolf Creek Ranch and invest in a week of Cowboy Dressage School of Horsemanship.  It's different for each and every person.  The horsemanship journey to soft feel is a very personal one.  What I can tell you is that you will learn and grow in ways that you never anticipated.
Trish and Bo
You will spend a week in an idyllic setting jogging next to a gently babbling creek with a gaggle of geese cheering you on.  You will be surrounded by people who get it.  You will get to watch a master horseman teach and learn right along with you because Eitan is always always pushing himself to learn knew things as well.  You will grow.  You will blossom.  You will never want to leave.

A big thank you to Lesley Deutsch of Blue Fountain Photography for the amazing photos of our time with Eitan.