Sunday, February 18, 2018

3, 2, 1 Contact.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Get your motor running . . .

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Monday, November 6, 2017

Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Gathering your Nerve for the Gathering


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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






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

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