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

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.