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.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

Riding within your aids

I've lived a fairly clean life for the past 43 years.  I'm not a smoker.  I don't drink to excess.  I am not a binge eater.  I don't have what others would call an "addiction" problem.  I am horse crazy, and always have been, but that's different, right?  Unfortunately after 43 years of being clean and sober, I have to admit, finally, that I am addicted.  My name is Jenni Grimmett, and I am addicted to soft feel.

My addiction didn't start out to be that bad, as I was just beginning to learn the basics.  It's nice, after all, to have your horse do what you ask him to do without a fight or attitude or copious amounts of rein or spur.  That's neat and kind of fun.  I was sold on the whole idea of having a compliant mount. My first real "hit" of pure soft feel came the very first time that Eitan allowed me a glorious ride on Santa Fe Renegade.  Once I got over just being star struck with the gorgeous stallion and paid attention to what was happening underneath me I was thunderstruck by the depth of the lightness as well as true self carriage, which is, of course, a product of lightness.  

The next spring Dan and I traveled to our first Cowboy Dressage school and spent a week learning from Eitan.  That week I felt the first glimpses of true lightness and soft feel in my own horse.  That's when I became completely hooked.  Now, I want it so bad and am so consumed with it's pursuit that I will often wake in the middle of the night trying to recreate my past ride and relive those moments of lightness. Or, what will keep me up even longer is after those rides lacking in soft feel, rehashing where I went wrong and why things weren't working for me and the horse that day.
The more I learn about soft feel and the more hours I spend ruminating on exactly what it is, the more I am convinced that true lightness happens not when the horse responds to your aids, but when the horse responds to the air between you and your aids. In other words, the horse learns to respond to not just your cues but the intention of your cues.  When you and your horse are riding "skeleton to skeleton", your horse's body can mimic the positioning and energy of your own body.  Eitan has shared countless beautifully colored illustrations that help to drive home this point. 

 Your hips and lower legs cue the horse's hips and hind legs.  Your upper body,  including head, hands and shoulders, direct the horse's front legs, shoulders, neck and head.  The energy in your core, spine and hips drive the energy in your horse's hips which drives the energy in the gait.  The final piece of the puzzle in cuing the horse for soft feel by correct use of your body is timing.  Knowing foot falls and the timing of the gait allows you to more directly communicate with your horse's skeleton with accuracy and softness. 

You can use too much leg or spur creating a horse that is dull to that pressure, or you can ride with timing and energy in your seat instead of driving with your legs and keep the horse light and responsive and willing to go forward.  You can use too much hand and reins to the point that you create not only dullness but resistance in the horse, or you can direct the horse in bend using your upper body and lightness in the reins to keep the horse happy and soft in the head and neck.  Even when a rider has been struggling with position for years, creating confusion in the horse, the moment it is finally corrected the horse seems to say, "Oh! Well, why didn't you say so?"  There is no "re-educating" that needs to happen or rehabbing from the inadvertent misuse of your skeletal aids.  It is more like the horse is just waiting for you to do it correctly.  

On the bit, on the aid
Self carriage, riding within the aid
Many riders talk about the horse being on your aids.  Modern dressage riders talk about having the horse "on the bit".  I believe in Cowboy Dressage our goal is to have the horse completely off our aids.  When the horse is riding within the bubble created by our aids he is holding himself up without our help and building true self carriage. 

The more horses that I jump on and ride the more I come to realize almost all of them are looking for that soft feel.   We, as riders, often teach our horses not to look for soft feel by the overuse of aids.  Horses being good, quiet and compliant creatures often learn to deal with our overuse of aids by  ignoring them because we just won't stop pushing on them.  When I jump on a horse that the rider is having to thump with a pair of spurs every other stride and start driving with my seat instead of my legs they very quickly figure out to follow my lead and before you know it he is willingly moving forward in time with my seat without the need for driving with the legs.  It is my belief that horses are born addicted to soft feel too.  They just get so used to not having it there that they learn to live without it.  Once you reintroduce it to their system they are generally more than happy to follow along.  

Re-educating your skeleton to be your main aid is a very difficult thing to do for many riders.  Many of you may have physical limitations or aches and pains causing your to not have full, even use of your skeleton.  Do not despair!  With consistent riding your horse will learn to compensate for any cues you have to give a little differently due to such infirmities.  Soft feel, I promise you, is still within your reach.  

One of the most helpful things for riders, and one of my main jobs as a Cowboy Dressage educator is to help people correct those subtle imbalances or inadvertent miscommunication between their horse and their skeleton.  The two most common problems that I see in riders is 1, little to no use of the weight as an aid and 2, incorrect positioning of the legs and seat for bend. 

I wonder if in the english world the riders are maybe a bit better about their weight aids.  I think as Western riders we have a tendency to use our seat for one thing and one thing only.  Stopping.  Most folks that have been riding in some western discipline, know that if you want to stop you drop your weight down on the horse.
The folks in the reining discipline are so good at it that you can see them drop that weight down from the stands.  They'll rock back so far on their pockets that it looks like they are slumped in an easy chair.  It comes as a surprise to many riders that they can ride the horse forward with their seat.  Having an active seat and riding with your horse, stride for stride, is the first step towards building communication between your two skeletons.  When the horse understands you're not just sitting up there pushing him around with your legs and pulling him around with your hands but riding each and every stride, suddenly your seat takes on a whole new meaning.  As western riders I think we tend to sit too still in our saddles.  Those Western saddles with big cushy padded seats often stirrup fenders that limit the riders leg movement are meant to keep the rider in one steady position rather than moving along with horse.

But even in our big western saddles, the horse can and does feel your seat and can respond to changes in the way you weight your seat so that he learns to move and bend with changes in the way you position your skeleton.  Understanding how the horse's skeleton moves through a bend helps us to understand how our skeleton also needs to move through a bend.  Our shoulders mimic the horses shoulders and guide them through the bend and our hips mimics the horse's hips and helps drive them forward evenly through the bend.

One of the things I love most about the swishy armitas that I ride in is the big long fringe that moves with me when I move.  When my horse and I really get a good free walk going on there is fringe a-swishing all over the place.  It's like jingle bobs or rein chains that are helping me to exaggerate that tempo of the walk.  You need to move to really ride your horse with each stride.  Loosen your hips, relax your legs and soften your shoulders and let your body move with your horse.  If the bubble within your aids is a nice soft place to be, your horse is going to be happy to meet you there.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Muscles of Balance

The muscles of the balanced horse provide a well defined
shape from head to tail.
In the discussion of maintaining and developing ideal physical form in the horse I’ve decided to remove the dreaded “C” word that seems to set nerve endings jangling in equestrian circles.  I believe if we can agree to discuss the horse as a general athlete, able to correctly perform a number of athletic and advanced maneuvers as well as maintain sustainable form to function, we can maybe agree to use a more general term.  I would like to, therefore, discuss balance in the equine frame.

The horse evolved for one purpose on the plains of this earth.  He evolved to survive.  He became fleet of foot with a long neck that was able to get to the often sparse grasses on the plains.  The eyes were large and set wide apart to allow for greater vision while in the grazing position.  The skeletal frame was designed to effortlessly carry the horse across miles and miles of ground without tiring in the pursuit of food, water, shelter and safety.  To that end the basic equine frame is one in which the top line is level.  In grazing stance or periods of rest the center of gravity shifts forward and in movement in a level frame shifts more towards midline to even the distribution and concussion of the forelimbs.  Forelimb performance lameness as we know them in the domestic horse including, navicular, laminitis, pastern arthrosis (ringbone) and arthritis are largely unknown in the wild horse population despite the 15-20 miles the average wild horse travels in a day.

Now, we have to be careful in comparing our domestic horse to the wild horse in all but form to function because we are making demands on our horses that are completely unnatural.  Sure, a horse in the wild is capable of performing Levades, piaffe, canter pirouettes, sliding stops and lofty extended trots.  They do not however, perform them with a large weight in the middle of their spinal column, nor do they sustain those movements for long periods of time.  Most of us in decent physical health could perform a burpee.  How many of us could perform 10 of them in a row without extreme fatigue?  In my circle of friends probably only a handful.  Now do that with a young child riding on your back.  Yeah, not near so easy.  It takes conditioning and muscle strength and suppling in order to correctly perform athletic maneuvers without causing undue stress, strain and wear and tear on normal joints.

Think about what lies below your saddle as you ride
So, our goal as we ride and condition our horses in the hopes of developing a sound, athletic body is to create balance and suppleness through the entire frame.  Like any good athletic coach will tell you this starts with a good working knowledge of how the body is put together. 
Let’s begin our discussion by looking at the frame work.

The equine spinal column is composed of three arcs.  Unlike the human skeleton which is designed to carry weight in a mostly upright position on a bipedal frame, the equine skeleton obviously distributes the weight fairly evenly along the spinal column to distribute weight along all 4 feet.  As we have already discussed in a grazing position, that balance shifts to carrying the weight more on the front feet, but in times of athletic movement that weight shifts back to the business end of the horse allowing for rapid acceleration and quicker turns. 

The three arches in the equine skeleton are:
1:  The 7 cervical vertebrae running from the head to the chest.  
2. The 18 thoracic and 6 lumbar vertebrae running from the withers to the loin.
3. The 5 fused sacral and caudal vertebrae running from the loin to the tip of the tail. 

In an athletic stance we would like for all three of these arches to be evenly engaged, effectively rounding out the entire horse.  In neutral the arches form one long low arch.  It is interesting and instructive to note that the lateral mobility of the equine spine is largely limited to the first and last arch.  The lateral movement through the thoracic vertebrae is limited at best and the loin and fused sacral vertebrae allow for virtually no lateral movement at all.  The only direction the lumbar-sacral joint is able to make is vertically allowing for coiling of the pelvis and flexion of the hip.  Because the lumbosacral joint has dorsal/ventral flexion of only 6.5 degrees, the majority of the flexion in the back of the horse occurs with flexion of the hip.

Not only are we attempting to develop a frame on the horse capable of athletic movement, we also must build the muscles responsible for carrying our weight without causing injury or excessive wear and tear on the horse's frame as well.  When the horse is first mounted he will drop his back away from the weight of the saddle and the rider, as one could expect.  The horse does this by extending his spine, contracting the long muscle of topline called the longisimus dorsi.  This is also the longest muscle in the horse's body and runs from the transverse processes of the last 4 cervical vertebrae along the transverse processes of the thoracic vertebrae and inserts on the dorsal processes of the lumbar vertebrae.  This causes the reverse arch through the thoracic vertebrae under the saddle and generally flattening of the first and third arch as well.  Stiffening of this long muscle due to fatigue or pain impairs the ability of the horse to round underneath the saddle.  Obviously that’s not ideal and as riders it’s our job to help the horse learn to deal with the weight and build the muscles that will allow it to carry the weight in a balanced frame. 

There is only one way to do this correctly.  And if you examine the muscles off the horse’s body in relation to the design of the equine frame it becomes obvious how training methods can get in our way and build the wrong muscles in our horses that effectively impair balance and form to function in young horses that carries through their entire lives. 

The muscles that are responsible or initiating coiling of the loins and the beginnings of balance through the topline are the hip flexors.  They are the muscles responsible for the thrust that drives the equine body forward.  When these muscles contract the lower the croup and loin loading the hip for the thrusting phase of the movement.  This spring like action carries forward into the 2nd and 1st arch like loading a spring.   When the hindquarters are not brought into play first and you attempt to create arch through the horse’s body by compressing or flexing just the head and neck, this drives the neck down into the thorax, flattens the back and pushes the hindquarters out behind the horse.

There are several ways to help your horse begin to develop the muscles that flex the hips.  Hills, going both up and down work these muscles efficiently.  Backing your horse, as long as he is stepping correctly in a trot back also develop the muscles of the hip flexors.  Lateral movements such as shoulder in, haunches in and leg yield also cause the horse to work the muscles of the hip flexors.  Any movement that asks the horse to step deeper underneath himself while still maintaining propulsion will improve the strength and flexibility of these flexor muscles. 

The muscles that are responsible for flexing the hip and coiling the loin may not be the muscles you think of when you look at the back of your horse.  The western horse is prized for big beefy hip muscles that extend well beyond the point of the him creating that luscious J-Lo look.  Those are the semimembranosus and semitendinosus muscles and they are responsible for extension of the limb and help to propel the horse forward in the stride. These are the very muscles that helped give the American Quarter Horse his name as they are responsible for quick burst of speed that is generated by these powerful thrusting muscles.  
The muscles of flexion are deep and hard to see. 
They are not, however the muscles that coil and flex the hip.  The hip flexors live deeper and include the Psoas major and minor, tensor fascia latae, gluteus superficialis.  These muscles work in opposition to the large semi m and semi t muscles on the back of the leg.  In fact, suppleness through those muscles is as important as strength in the flexor muscles when allowing the horse to coil the loins.  Some even suggest that the long muscles of the hip are equivalent to a second top line that allows the horse to stretch forward and step underneath himself allowing the balance of the horse to shift further back towards the loin.
The second arch of the spine is the thoracic vertebrae and loin.  We wish to develop muscles that lie below the transverse processes of the vertebrae rather than above them.  So while we, as horse owners spend a lot of time talking about developing a horse’s top line, it is not building the muscles of the top line as much as making sure those muscles remain soft, supple and flexible.    While we need good muscle tone along the top of the back for strength when carrying weight, these are not the muscles that are most effective in creating arch and loading the spring of the spine.   If you have ever seen a sway backed horse that is also in good flesh you will note that the dorsal processes (bony projections at the top of the spine) are not very evident.  This is because a sway back is not due to lack of muscles along the top of the spine.  Contraction of muscles dorsal to the transverse processes causes the spine to hollow.  Horses that are worked in this hollowed frame (park horses, harness horses, and often gaited horses) will have well developed muscle tone along the upper spine and poor muscle tone below the spine.  In order to cause the spine to round up and load the arch we need to work the muscles that lie below the transverse processes.  These muscles are involved not only in elevation of the spine but in lateral movements as well.  This is why lateral movements through the rib cage help to build strength and suppling in the muscles responsible for rounding of the spine.   BEND is the key to lateral strengthening as well as balancing and rounding the mid-section of the horse through loading of the muscles below the spine.  We need all of the muscles working together to strengthen and balance the horse.

The muscle groups responsible for lifting and rounding the back are smaller than the muscle that extends the back.  Like in the 3rd arch it is important for the muscles of opposition to remain supple and loose in order for the smaller muscles flexing the spine to act.  These muscles include the rectus abdominus, iliospoas complex and longus coli scalenus.

Rectus abdominus is a large thin muscle that lies along the abdominal wall and slings the abdominal contents like a hammock.  It attaches originates at the 4th, 5th and 9th rib and inserts at the pubis by means of a large tendon.  This muscle acts to arch the back largely by flexion at the lumbosacral joint.  Therefore, when engaging the abdominal muscles, you aren’t lifting the back so much as flexing the loin that then acts on the vertebrae of the back to arch slightly. 

If you look at the horse's body as if it's a suspension bridge you can see how the 1st and 3rd arch in the spine will anchor the span of 2nd arch.  The muscles of the abdomen and back below the vertebrae help lift the back into the securing arches of the neck and loin.  If either the arch in the neck or the arch in the loin are lost, the roundness in the back will drop as well.  It takes each piece of the horse's body working together to maximize the potential in each body part.  The whole horse will be stronger if each of the body parts is doing it's job and working in harmony.  Think of the tail end of the horse as the end of the bridge that has all of the supplies for building the rest of the bridge.  First you start there, then you create a base on the other side and then you bring the two sides together.  

Now, I left the first arch in the horse’s body for last for two reasons.  First of all it’s the last part of the puzzle in creating balance.  The greatest part the head and neck play in the overall balance is in shifting the weight of the horse backwards, towards the second and third arch allowing for the center of gravity to shift more towards the hindquarters freeing the forequarters for lofty movement and lessening the concussion on the front feet and legs.  Too often people start to balance a horse by worrying about the “head set” before worrying about engaging the horse. 

Bulging at the 3rd vertebrae due to
enlarged rectus capitus muscle
In order for the horse to correctly soften and arch the neck from spine to head he must first lift the base of the neck where it meets the withers.  As these vertebrae lift you can see the engagement off the muscles just to the front of the withers and just in front of the saddle.  This sets the horse up for proper head and neck carriage.  If you attempt to create an arch through neck by only flexing the poll this compresses the vertebrae and causes bracing at the 3rd and 4th vertebrae.  

Again, the horse is bracing and breaking
at the 3rd vertebrae
A properly engaged head and neck should be larger in at the base of the neck than at the mid thoracic vertebrae.  It is easy to tell if you horse has been developing the wrong neck muscles because he will bulge behind the poll.  Think of the head and neck as lifting from the chest and extending upwards and downwards.  Some suggest it’s the action a horse makes when he is looking into a bucket.  The must first lift then stretch then give at the poll.  This makes giving at the poll the very last action in the engagement of the muscles of balance and softening of the horse from tail to head. 

So, what are the take home messages for the rider that has little interest in anatomy but lots of interest in riding her horse? Here they are.
IF your horse is using the right muscles you can see it in their entire body if you know where to look. 

Does your horse have a bulging hind end with hard muscles when viewed from behind? He may be spending a lot of time in extension or thrusting those hind legs forward from behind the stifle.  You want those muscles to remain soft and supple and LONG to encourage the horse to step underneath himself as much as his conformation will allow.

This horse's back is hollow due to over developement
 of the longisimuss dorsi
Does your horse have a taught ropey back? Again, this is another muscle that we want long and soft with even fill along the entire back.  If your horse spends a lot of time in the hollowed dropped back stance the longisimuss dorsi will pull the spine back away from the shoulders and create that deep pocket.  It’s worse in horses with long laid back shoulders that are built to carry themselves hollowed out (Morgans, arabs, Saddlebreds, etc.) When the horse learns to lift and round his back this muscle will soften and quit tensing.  You should be able to softly palpate the muscles of the back from the spine to the top of the ribs.
This horse shortens and drops his neck, causing a ewe
neck and over developement of the trapezius muscle

Does your horse have a dip right in front of the saddle? This is caused by collapsing of the cervical vertebrae and over development of the trapezius.  When the horse pulls the neck back towards the withers this muscle tightens and thickens.  A chronic head tosser will have a well developed shortened muscle here.  We want to see the horse’s neck lift up in front of the saddle when engaged not dip down.

What about the muscles at the base of the neck?  Those should also be loose and stretchy allowing for the telescoping of the neck.  Thickening or tightening of these muscles shortens the cervical spine and creates a ewe necked appearance.  The muscles at the top of the neck that are responsible for stretch and lateral flexion are the only muscles that should be enlarging in the properly worked and balanced horse.  Those muscles should be toned and even from the poll to the withers. 
If the poll is flexed or braced without proper engagement of the remainder of the neck you get thickening of the rectus capitus.  This becomes the widest part of the horse's neck, and is especially noticeable when viewed from the saddle.

The well developed and balanced horse will have even muscle development through his entire upper body with soft supple stretchy muscles along the topline.  Obviously not every horse needs to be an elite athlete, just like not every rider is an elite athlete, but knowing which muscles are the "wrong" muscles  and which are the "right" muscles for balance may help us spot trouble areas in our riding and keep our horses sound and healthy well into their later years!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering 2015: Here's what you missed.

If you weren't at the Murieta Equestrian Center, in Ranch Murieta, California last week for the Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering, I hope you at least took advantage of the live streaming, because history was made.  Cowboy Dressage has been at the forefront of a revolution in equine competitions and equestrian lifestyle and this weekend we made a giant step forward in showing the world what is possible when you focus on riding with softness, lightness and partnership with your equine companion.

As always the gathering was populated with wonderful people and horses that had traveled from all corners of the world.  There were riders representing states including, California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and probably a few others that I missed.  The Canadians were very well represented and I'm sure will have a time at the border crossing explaining all the "loot" they are taking home!  Great Britain, Poland, Germany and Australia were also represented.  It truly was a gathering of the Cowboy Dressage World.  It didn't matter where you hailed from because Cowboy Dressage looks the same no matter where you go.  It always looks soft.

All kinds of horses were represented as well.  Morgans were there in high numbers, but so were Quarter horses, Appaloosas, Paints, Arabians, Ponies, Saddlebreds, Mustangs, Fjords, Haflingers, Tennessee Walkers, Pasos, Rocky Mountain Horses, and others I'm sure I missed.

Riders of all ages were competing.  In the Silver (over 60) age group, the competition was fierce, and the youth riders were battling it out in their division as well.  Cowboy Dressage truly is for every horse and every rider interested in cultivating kindness and soft feel.

The 28 Top Hand Competitors 
The big history making event at this year's final gathering though, was the Top Hand competition.  This was the first year for this elite competition for Cowboy Dressage's top competitors to all throw their hats into the same ring.  Each rider rode the same test, W/J/L 2.  This test on the surface doesn't look terribly difficult.  It requires many of the standard maneuvers that many of our CD tests ask for.  The killer maneuver in this test is what we call the "bow tie".  This asks for the horse to lope half of a 20 m circle then change direction over the ground poles on the short diagonal with a lead change through the jog within the box (8-a-gon) then another half of a 20 m circle holding that lead through the box and then transitioning to a working jog.  It sounds easy enough until you try to ride it.  Out of the 28 horses and riders that ended up competing in the Top Hand, probably only a handful managed their two trips through the bow tie without a bauble.  That one maneuver requires such timing, softness and precision to execute perfectly that it really separates the cream from the milk.

After watching the first round of the competition most of us were trying to figure out who would make the top 10.  It was a difficult task.  Since virtually no one had been completely perfect it would come down to who had the most perfect ride and how heavily the judges penalized the different maneuvers.  It's also supposed to come down to soft feel and partnership, but I would have to say that for the most part, that element was universal as all of the riders exhibited with soft feel and partnership, even those that had come that were new to Cowboy Dressage.

Megan Gallager
When the top 10 finalists were announced, we were still in the dark trying to guess who the top five final competitors would be.  Cowboy Dressage World kept us all on the edge of our seats waiting until right before the moment they were going to have to ride onto that court to see who the top five were.  Once they were announced, then a Calcutta was offered and each rider was auctioned off to the highest bidder.  As each rider was being bid on they did their best to put on a show of their best horsemanship and the training that their horses had attained.  A couple of the riders removed bridles, did sliding stops, spins, lead changes, all in front of the screaming audience while, I'm sure, trying to go over the test they are about to ride in their heads.
Richard Winters

It was at that moment, watching the top 5 folks out in the ring that I realized how very far I still have to go.  There was not a doubt in my mind that any one of those talented riders and obedient, soft, willing horses had what it took to be the Top Hand.  All 5 of those teams were calm, cool, collected and rode like they had ice in their veins.  I was sweating and fidgeting in the stands for them as I watched my friends get ready to ride.  It was impossible to know who to root for so we rooted for them all.
Rebecca Worth 

Each of the riders had amazing rides on their horses in their next test, which was a brand new test to all of us.  This test again, had all of the elements we've all ridden before but in different order with shorter quicker transitions than we had seen before.  Those quick transitions, when riding with soft feel and lightness can be difficult to execute with precision, and it was completely gratifying to see them all do it well.  The field was pretty much wide open after the first go and then the real fun began as they drew to swap horses.

Jenni Purcell
The final 5 horses were as different as can be as a group.  There was a Paint, a Morgan, and three Quarter horses who were all different types of quarter horses.  The competitors had 2 minutes to ride their new mount, at a walk before the testing began.  Then right before their test they had another 2 minutes before their bell rang and they rode into the court.

You could have heard a pin drop in that arena.  We collectively held our breath as each rider rode in.  Then as they transitioned to the lope you could see cowboy hats bobbing in time as we all rode each stride with them.  The long test seemed to take forever and the stress was palpable, keeping us rooted to our seats watching each rider's go.

When the dust settled and it was all said and done, it came down to who had the best go on the horse that they drew.  Our Top Hand rider, Megan Gallagher had an amazing ride on both her Morgan and the beautiful Quarter Horse that belonged to Richard Winters.  Megan exhibits everything that the Top Hand rider should.  She is a kind, wonderful lady and an excellent horsewoman.  Her ride on Richard's horse was soft, quiet, and gorgeous.  She is what we are all striving to be.  Any one of those top 5 riders could have been the top hand, honestly.  The differences in scores between them all were minute, I'm sure, as were the points between all the top hand riders.
Marcia Moore Harrison

When we first dreamed up the Top Hand competition this is exactly what we were hoping for.  It was a stunning exhibition in soft feel and partnership and it brought in folks from far and wide that had never shown Cowboy Dressage before.

So, where does Cowboy Dressage World go from here?  This was our 3rd Final Gathering and we had 980 rides.  Cowboy Dressage continues to grow and bring in new members of our Cowboy Dressage Handshake family.  We now have an E-learning program in place that can reach an even larger audience for people that are struggling to build a Cowboy Dressage community in their area.  We are progressing towards establishing a regional gathering circuit as we build events in more and more areas.  New next year will also be a combined clinician and judges training course so that more and more judges are available for the growing number of events and clinicians trained to teach to the Cowboy Dressage World standards.

Cowboy Dressage is here to stay.  This isn't a fad.  This is a revolution in how people and horses in the western community communicate with each other and their horses and it is world wide.  What started with dreams of just one man and one horse has now spread to encompass the entire world.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Cowboy Dressage Arena Exercises

When I was in 3rd grade I started learning how to play the violin.  In my very first week of violin lessons we learned the basic scales.  Then for the next 5 years that I actively played the violin we started each lesson by warming up with the scales.  That elementary exercise was just as important when we were playing Ode to Joy as it was when we were playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

There are some basic elementary exercises that I use in Cowboy Dressage that are the same as that scale for the violin player.  Each time I practice with my horse I start with some combination of these basic exercises before moving onto more advanced maneuvers.  They serve to get the muscles warmed up evenly, help to establish communication between horse and rider and check the horse's balance and movement before the day's work begins.  

1. Partnership on the Ground.  For my horses, I always start with just a little bit of Partnership on the Ground.  It may be just a few driving circles where I change the bend a few times, or it may be running through the entire Partnership on the Ground Test 1.  I've found that it helps me to sync my energy to the horse's energy before I even put my foot in the stirrup.  It allows the horse to tell me before I get on if something is bothering him.  Sometimes this part of my day will take 3 minutes, sometimes it takes 20 minutes.  It varies depending on my goals for the day, my time schedule (unfortunately) and the horse.  But you should always start your day and your partnership on the ground.  It really improves the quality of partnership you will receive from your horse when you step into the saddle.  I don't do groundwork because my horses aren't "broke enough" for me to just step on.  I do groundwork because my horses are broke enough that it matters where our heads are at in the game.  When partnership and soft feel are your goal, you'd be crazy to forgo anything that would enhance that partnership when you step into the saddle.

2.  Free Walk.  I always start with at least a lap of free walk.  Again, this for me is about syncing my energy to the horse.  It allows the horse and I to establish a cadence, a feel for what the energy is between us that day and for the horse to loosen up and get settled to his environment.  With my colts, it gives them a chance to check the arena for boogie men before I start asking for more concentration and effort with more difficult maneuvers.  I tend to sing, whistle, yodel, bee-bop, anything to help my horses just settle into the day's exercises ahead of us.  Having music on in the arena is a plus!! 

3. One handed 10 m Figure 8.  If we have our challenge court set up I like to do this exercise with my 10 m circles at H and M so I can utilize the poles and cones.  If I'm on the regular court I like to do this exercise at 8 with my circles at B and E.  It doesn't matter a whit where you do it, I suppose,  as long as your goal is to soften and shorten your horse laterally one side at a time.   Establish bend on your horse by shortening just the inside rein to a 10 m bend and then dropping your hand to the withers. There should be no pressure on the outside rein for this exercise.  Create the bend with your body with your inside leg at the front cinch and your outside leg back towards the flank.  Ride the bend forward.  When you complete one circle, change hands and rein, change your hips/legs and ride the bend forward in the other 10 m circle.  For young/green horses I like to really help them through the change of bend by riding straight for 2-3 strides before shifting my aids to the other circle.  This creates more of a double D shape than a figure 8.

There are many wonderful things that happen during this exercise when you do it properly.  First of all you soften the horse laterally and warm up those muscles.  This is an excellent exercise for introducing or working on soft feel because you are working just one rein at a time.  The goal of this exercise is not to hold the horse in bend but to ask the horse to hold himself in bend within your aids.  If your horse is hanging on your hand or you feel any rein pressure at all, put some life in that rein and ask that horse to look for the soft feel.  When he comes off that rein pressure make sure your hand is quiet and not pulling on him.  That is his release.  In this exercise the rein does not establish direction, it only establishes bend.  Your seat and legs help the horse create the circle that you have started by asking for bend with the rein.  If the horse falls to the inside of the circle, get your inside leg active.  If the horse drifts out of the circle, get your outside leg active.  If the horse is following your soft feel and staying on the circle make sure your aids are soft and quiet to reward him.   The energy and cadence of the walk is established by your seat.  Resist the urge to push your horse along with your legs or bump him forward with every stride.  If you need more energy and your horse isn't listening to your seat, ask with both legs once with purpose, don't nag!  Get in and get out and return to riding quietly so the horse seeks the quiet soft spot between your aids.

4. Big Circle, Little Circle:  This is a variation of the one handed figure 8.  After the horse has established good soft quality bend in the figure 8, I like to firmly establish body control with my seat and leg aids by shrinking the circle to about 5 m.  After riding a quality 10 m circle to the right, when I come back to the center I will shrink that circle in to 5 m with my outside leg then take the horse back to the 10 m circle with my inside leg.    

5.  Long Diagonals: There are several things I work on in this exercise.  Gait quality, transitions, 10 m bend and soft feel in the working gait and rein management for the rider.  You can do this exercise at both the walk and the jog.  Let's start at K in the free walk.  Get a good quality free walk with energy, lengthening of the stride and stretching of the top line.  Before you reach M, begin to pick up just your inside rein.  At M apply inside leg and still your energy for the transition to the 10 m bend.  Outside leg helps keep the horse from drifting too deep in the corner.  Hold the bend to Y then pick up the outside rein to ask the horse to go straight to Q in the working walk.  At Q lengthen the outside rein, hold the inside rein through the 10 m bend then lengthen rein to the long frame in the free walk at H.  Repeat when you get to F.  If you struggle with rein management and lengthening and shortening your reins without snatching at them this exercise will help you to think about the lengthening and shortening in more of a step wise fashion.  It's also great for horses that are bothered when asked to hold soft feel in the working frame for a long period of time.  That short 10 m is just enough to ask them to hold it with softness before they get bothered. 

6. B/E 20m and 10 m nested circles.  This particular exercise probably has as much to do with my geldings current state of mind as all of the other exercises put together.  My horse was a terrible rusher in the free jog.  Working with nested circles is an excellent tool for those horses that tend to get up a head of steam in the free jog rather than relaxing and stretching like they are supposed to! This is also the exercise that I personally find the most useful when preparing my horse for lope transitions.  Begin with a 10 m circle at either the working walk or working jog at either B or E.  Then step directly into the 20 m circle in the free jog.  Remember to maintain bend.  Don't do too much steering and LET THE HORSE GO.  If the horse speeds up and begins to get too fast, worried, or bothered, sit, quit posting, pick up the inside rein (with soft feel, don't snatch!) and ask for a 10 m circle in a working jog.  Wait for the horse to come back to a quality working jog and then return to the free jog like nothing happened.  For the really rushy or worried horses I find doing a 10 m circle at not only B and E but I and D helps to keep the horse from getting too fast too quickly. 

To be successful at this exercise you have to learn to prepare the horse for the transitions from free jog to working jog.  If you wait until your stirrup is already at the marker you will be too late, pull the rein too hard and yank the horse into an unbalanced 10 m circle.  Instead, sit a stride or two before the marker, breathe out, shorten the inside rein while applying inside leg and at the marker apply outside leg to ask the horse to enter the bend.  

Once you are successful and the horse is transitioning with from free jog to working jog with soft feel going one direction, change direction through 8 changing bend in the working jog and repeat the exercise going the other direction.

Remember that the key to lightness and soft feel is the release.  In the words of the great Jack Brainard, "Thou shalt not dwell with either leg or rein." If you feel like you are hanging onto your horse, kicking your horse or pushing your horse into frame think about your aids.  Are you maybe doing too much?  Most riders are.  Try doing less and ask your horse to meet you in the middle.

There are many many more exercises that you can do using the Cowboy Dressage court, but these few basic exercises are part of our everyday warm up routine.  Your horse is never too broke or too advanced to forgo a visit back to the fundamentals! Don't forget your scales before your concerto!


Sunday, October 11, 2015

It's Time

Tomorrow I have to mail out my entry forms for the final Cowboy Dressage Gathering of the year.  We all tend to call it "finals" but it's really just the last show of the season.  In Cowboy Dressage you don't have to qualify to show at "finals".  It's not a gathering of only the best of us.  It's more of a family reunion.  It's the time of year that we can all get together, celebrate our triumphs for the year and share our goals in horsemanship for the year to come.

This year there is added excitement to the final Gathering as it is the first year for the much publicized and promoted "Top Hand" competition.  This is meant to be a calling to arms of sorts for the folks out there that have been walking the walk and talking the talk.  Let's put you all in the same arena, with the same test and the same judges and see how the scores shake out.  It's a time to be honoring those among us that are truly embracing and showcasing what Cowboy Dressage is all about.

Which is not competition.

You see, it's a double edged sword.  In the Cowboy Dressage community we truly are a welcoming, come one come all group of horse folk.  I know you've heard that before, but really and truly, this is the place for anybody who seeks a better relationship with their horse.  We will all tell you again and again it is not about the competition.  And it's not.  Really.

But, sometimes it takes the crucible of competition to push those that are striving for the absolute best to reach just a bit higher.  Early on in the year I decided that my horse and I just weren't quite Top Hand material.  We had made enormous strides in softness and partnership, but in my opinion, I still had so far to go, that the Top Hand competition seemed out of reach.

I told myself I would see how my summer show season went, see how we stacked up and then decide.  So, that's what I did.  I had one phenomenal show, where I felt my partnership and soft feel with my horse were better than ever and then I had one where my soft feel and partnership left the building.

It was after the second show that I decided this wasn't the year.  So I gave my horse essentially a month off while I worked my colt and thought maybe I could take him to finals in place of my older gelding who can't always keep it together in the show ring.  That way the question of should I or should I not enter Top Hand was firmly and safely out of my head; clearing the way for unobstructed and pure horsemanship, or so I thought.

Maybe it's just me, but if I don't have a specific goal I am working towards, I tend to drift a bit.  I had worked very hard in the months before my summer shows getting my gelding ready.  But when I decided to forgo both Top Hand and taking him to the Final Gathering my direction got muddled.  I didn't have the same goals with my colt, thinking I would just do Partnership on the Ground and a few easy W/J classes at the final Gathering.

Suddenly it's the end of September and the time for really choosing who and what I would be showcasing at the Final Gathering was upon us.  Time to make a decision.  I decided to just try the test for Top Hand and see where I was.  No harm there, right?  I had purposely NOT been even looking at or reading the qualifying test for Top Hand all summer thinking that it wasn't our year and would just distract us from our goals. What I found is that I wasn't as far off as I thought I was.  So, that planted the seed that maybe, just maybe, I should be working on this Top Hand thing.

So, the past few weeks I have been training and working harder than I have all summer.  I have been concentrating on soft feel and working on partnership and accuracy in an attempt to prepare my horse for the competition that I had decided that I wasn't ready for.

Here is what I have learned from that experience:

1.  Because it's Cowboy Dressage and Soft Feel and Partnership are always at the forefront, you CANNOT take short cuts.  You maybe able to ride the test, but until you can ride the test with softness, bend, cadence, accuracy AND partnership you aren't ready.

2. I am 100% goal oriented. Without a concrete goal and benchmark, I am adrift in my horsemanship.  I know this isn't true for everybody but thank goodness for the competition side of Cowboy Dressage.  If I had to just get good at 10 m bend for the sake of being good at 10 m bend without somebody somewhere saying just how good I am at 10 m bend I don't know if I would ever get as good at it as I can.  When there is no finish line, good enough becomes good enough.

3.  I am my own worse critic.  So many times I end a ride disappointed and frustrated only to have my friends say, "wow, he looked great!".  Sometimes you have to reward the good to get to the great.

4.   Most of us will never attain greatness without somebody else pushing us to get there.  Competition does this for us.

So while Cowboy Dressage is not at all about the competition, competition is how I personally will someday (I hope!) attain greatness.   I have worked harder these past few weeks than I did all summer.  It's not that I am striving for a goal or a prize so much as I am striving to be worthy of even riding along side the folks riding for that prize.  That is the magic of the competitive venue.

The unique part about Cowboy Dressage and what sets it apart from all the other forms of equine competition is that folks that have not established soft feel and partnership will not fare well in the competition.  Like any good interpersonal relationship, trust, partnership and harmony take time and patience.  It's going to be a real treat to watch the Top Hand Competition this year.  It should be a showcase of softness.  Will we be in the running?  I guess you better come and watch to find out!