Sunday, December 7, 2014

Fanning the Flames

There has been a spark of Cowboy Dressage smoldering in North Idaho.  Whiffs of smoke and fleeting glimpses of flames had started folks whispering in barn alleys and arenas across the northern counties.  What is this Cowboy Dressage?  How can we learn more?  How is it different from Western Dressage?  Yesterday a dedicated group of Cowboy Dressage enthusiasts met at a local barn to fan those flames and firmly establish the fire of Cowboy Dressage in North Idaho.

Through word of mouth and a heavy campaign via local and national Facebook pages local horse enthusiasts were invited to the gorgeous Running W ranch in Rathdrum, Idaho for an introduction lecture and demonstration rides on Cowboy Dressage.  We were expecting 25 people to attend.  We were hoping for 50 people to attend.  We were blessed with over 125 people in a standing room only gathering of what can only be called a mob of dedicated and enthusiastic horsemen and women and children hungering for a better way of being with their horses.

The presentation described the origin of Cowboy Dressage and it's evolution and brief association with Western Dressage.  The emphasis throughout the presentation was always soft feel as that is the driving principle of Cowboy Dressage and the hallmark that sets it apart from every other equine discipline.  The courts, tests, and rules were explained in brevity and then in more detail why each and every western horseman and western horse can benefit from time spent on the Cowboy Dressage court.

Looking out across the packed crowd of enthusiastic faces with one poor lady left to stand with just her head in the door I was struck by the enormity of the blessing and privilege that we have in spreading the word about Cowboy Dressage.  The Cowboy Dressage movement has been largely an organic one.  Eitan and Debbie Beth-Helachamy, the founders of Cowboy Dressage, have gifted this to the equine community because they believe in making better horseman and making life better for horses.  Through a campaign trail of expositions and clinics and appearances they have set small fires through the country and left the fires of enthusiasm and the spirit of Cowboy Dressage in the hands of the local horse folks to fan and build and grow Cowboy Dressage in their own communities.

Through the founding of Cowboy Dressage world they have selected leaders to help spread that word and grow the discipline for folks craving the competitive side of Cowboy Dressage.  The judges certification (boot camp) program is working hard to teach people how to judge Cowboy Dressage because the future of Cowboy Dressage as a competition lies in the hands of the folks sitting at the table at C.  Without judges who are rewarding soft feel and harmony we will lose the focus and purpose of Cowboy Dressage.  As this side of Cowboy Dressage world grows, so too will the shows available for folks across the US and Canada grow to.

But, for those of us waiting in rural parts of the country where Cowboy Dressage is still a smoldering flame and whisper of smoke on the air it is difficult to know how to get started.  Waiting for a show to come to your area so you can give it a try is backwards thinking.  That's how the other disciplines function, not so Cowboy Dressage.  While the shows and gatherings are fun and will grow, that is not the purpose.  Anybody interested in Cowboy Dressage that has access to flat ground and a tape measure can set up a Cowboy Dressage court and get started.  Invite your friends, fire up the BBQ and have a Cowboy Dressage party.  Even if you are still struggling with the concept of soft feel, if you are riding with soft feel in mind and beginning the search, it will come.  Everything that you need to get started with Cowboy Dressage is out there for the taking at and

If you will allow me to wax rhapsodic, the Cowboy Dressage court really is the field of dreams.  If you build it, like minded horseman will flock to learn more and try this new discipline.  What may start with just one or two friends playing in a field with some white buckets will grow as more and more people come to see what it's about and stay because they love how good it feels.

Spreading the word about Cowboy Dressage is up to us, my friends.  I can't tell you how good it feels to share Cowboy Dressage with a horse person who has been hungering for something to do with their horse or a community of horse folks they can ride with and feel welcome.  I've seen ladies moved to tears and exclaim with feeling, "This.  This is what I've been looking for."  Haven't we all? With a handshake membership we can all be part of the movement.

For North Idaho folks local resources include:

Marcia Moore Harrison of Potlatch, Idaho

Cowboy Dressage World of Idaho Facebook page

Running W Ranch, Rathdrum, Idaho hosting Eitan Beth-Helachamy July 24-26, 2015
(you can find them on facebook)

Michelle Binder Zolezzi, of Spokane, Washington

Jenni Grimmett, DVM of Sagle, Idaho

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Balancing Act

Brothers Bill and Tom Dorrance used to argue about the "big 3" covenants of horsemanship:  Feel, Timing, and Balance.  Which should come first?  Which is most important?  If you are serious about your horsemanship I doubt you could pick just one;  you really can't have one without the other three. One day you may strive to improve your timing, but the next you will work on your balance. The next you will be trying to tune your feel.  When you learn to use all three in concert you may begin to approach that coveted title of horseman.

But, as mind boggling as contemplating the finer points of horsemanship often is, it is easier to attempt to consider each of the big three separately.  Today I'd like to turn the spot light onto Balance and make a case for it's importance in horsemanship and especially Cowboy Dressage.

Balance is often thought of as an attribute of a good rider.  If you have good balance you can stay in the seat and stay mounted should your horse do something unexpected.  It's an athletic quality in a good rider.  My brother has amazing balance in the saddle.  He always has and can sit anything I put him on.  I can also count the times my brother has been in a saddle during his lifetime without the need to take my shoes off.  He's athletic and has good balance but he does not use his balance like a horseman.  When we talk about balance in the framework of horsemanship it is about so much more than your ability to stay mounted.  We are talking about balance being one of your aids in communication. We are talking about balance not as sport but as art.

In Cowboy Dressage where we aim to ride always with Soft Feel it  is of utmost importance that we use all of our aids, including balance, to greatest communication with our horses.  Soft Feel isn't just about the hands. Soft feel isn't just about lightness. It certainly is not just where your horse's head happens to be carried.  Soft Feel is really about maximizing soft communication with your horse so that you co-exist almost as two halves of a whole.  It is so hard to define Soft Feel. It's like trying to describe color to a blind person or melody to a deaf person.  It is a conglomerate of sensations that when working together just "feels" right.  When you really have soft feel working for you and you have established partnership and harmony with your horse, your horse can feel you breathing or changing your seat and will follow that change almost before you even complete the thought.  That is where Soft Feel can take you with your horse.

Balance is a integral part of riding with soft feel. We can use our balance to effectively communicate with our horses.  While bad balance and rider positioning can impede a horse's movement, so can good balance enhance a horse's movement.  Balance in horsemanship is a constantly shifting dynamic weight game.  The neutral position is the home position sitting directly over the horse's natural center of gravity that lies somewhere about the level of your girth.  A rider that is sitting in this position is telling the horse, yes, that's right, stay straight and right beneath me.  Any shift outside of the neutral or home position should communicate a transition of some kind to your horse.

For instance, if you would like the horse to lift his left front leg, your body needs to be in a position to not block that movement and allow the horse the freedom of movement to adjust his weight and carriage to properly lift that leg.  If you are leaning forward and looking at the leg you wish to move (which is a very common mistake) you are impeding the horse's ability to adjust his weight to carry out the cue.  This may lead to either an undesired response such as moving the wrong leg, or the horse having to execute the maneuver handicapped by your weight and therefore impeding his next maneuver or transition. However, if you transfer your weight from the neutral position to the the diagonal leg that will be carrying the weight when the left front leg is in motion, the horse can execute the maneuver to lift the left front leg by shifting his weight back under your seat.  In this dance the horse follows your lead as you adjust your body position.  This happens before you even cue the horse to move the leg.  You prepare the horse for the maneuver and help him to set his body up for the maneuver and then you cue for the response.

Balance, then, can work as a sort of  pre-cue.  Before asking your horse for a maneuver, such as yield the hindquarters to the left, you first position your body to be in balance for the execution of that maneuver.  You sit up and active in your seat.  Shift your weight slightly to left in preparation for bringing your right leg back to cue the horse to step over.  The horse moves under the motion of your shifted balance to be back underneath your seat and back into perfect balance.

When walking a 10 m circle to the left you do not want your balance to be tipped to the inside of the circle.  You want your horse to carry his bend throughout his body in a 10 m arc from head to tail.  In order to adjust your balance to create the bend you will shift your balance just to the outside of the circle and ask the horse to move his body under your balance point.  It is very important to remember that while balance is an aid, it is not a cue and so it is more dynamic in it's affect.  It is constantly shifting and changing.  You ride your horse with balance in each and every stride, coming back to neutral between each transition in balance.

Balance is also important in creating forward impulsion and stop.  You can create impulsion in your horse just by shifting your balance slightly forward into an active seat.  By shifting your balance forward of the horse's center of gravity the horse is obliged to move out reaching and lengthening the stride.  Shifting your balance back behind the center of gravity can indicate stop, or other transitions requiring elevation of the front end or shortening of stride.

Imagine, now, if your balance is poor or inconsistent.  Instead of your horse adjusting to slight changes in your body position, he must learn to ignore that because he has found those changes to be meaningless.  Instead of following your seat and balance he may even push against it to compensate for a rider that always sits heavier to the left side.  Does your horse have a lead problem or do you as a rider have a balance problem?  Is your horse really stiff to one side or do you tend to sit on that side interfering with his natural carriage and suppleness.

If you watch great horseman ride you can see how the rider's body seems to mirror what the horse is doing.  This is truly riding with balance.  The horse can feel small shifts in the rider's seat and balance point and shifts to follow that change.  So, the next time you mount up and ride, focus on your balance and what it is telling your horse.  Are you telling your horse to ignore your balance or are you helping him by leading him through the dance by your body position?  Be sure that your balance is meaningful to the horse and doesn't inadvertently become white noise to which he is desensitized.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Raccoon Syndrome

I have to admit I'm a sucker for shiny things. You wouldn't think it to look at me since I don't often get to wear jewelry or "blingyness", but just walk with me through a trade show and the shiny sparkly belt booth will draw me like a beacon.  Dan calls this my raccoon tendency and so I'm going to have to admit it, I guess.  My name is Jenni Grimmett, and I suffer from Raccoon Syndrome

I know I am not the only one that suffers from this.  I think all horse folk like shiny stuff.  We admire pretty and not just function and if we were all honest I think we would all prefer to be riding the prettiest horse in the arena.  If you aren't owning up to it, you aren't being honest.  I recently had the opportunity to ride the amazing Santa Fe Renegade and that horse is drop dead gorgeous.  He draws folks like a shiny belt, even with just little ol' me riding him.  When I finally looked up and around at my surroundings instead of just loping around grinning like a fool I noticed the side lines were packed with folks watching and I know dang good and well it wasn't ME they were looking at!

It's the prevalence of Raccoon Syndrome paired with the competitive nature of all equestrians that drives us to show our horses.  It's amazing what pains we will go to to earn a 50 cent scrap of pretty shiny ribbon.  Then add other shiny things like buckles or pretty tack and we stand there drooling in envy imagining jogging around with the sun glinting off our shiny new prize.

It's well known, if not largely admitted in competitive venues that competition can screw up horsemanship.  The more money at stake or the higher the prestige the more short cuts likely to be taken in order to stay in the running for the big prize.  It's human nature and it's hard to fight it.  Cowboy Dressage is trying very hard to keep that from affecting the competition side of this new discipline.  Doing away with competition sure isn't the answer because riding in front of a Cowboy Dressage judge is of immeasurable worth.  Here you have a knowledgeable person scrutinizing every aspect of your ride and your communication with your horse so that you can improve your ride.  How can we ever really improve without the crucible of competition?  Because Cowboy Dressage has 30 points of your score wrapped up in Soft Feel and another 20 in harmony and partnership, they are trying very hard to keep those things at the forefront even in the face of competition.

But, we can all fall victim to the raccoon syndrome.  Recently at the Cowboy Dressage World Finals show where there were many, many buckles up for grabs you could see some folks that were definitely entering classes just for the purpose of buckle chasing.   My Morgan and I entered all of our classes in a single division instead of spreading out our tests into different areas were he may have been more likely to excel because we were hoping to stay in the running for a buckle. We started out our weekend in pretty good shape placing first and second on our very first ever dressage tests.  Suddenly that gorgeous buckle for the Vaquero division seemed like it might just be within grasp.  Enter raccoon syndrome, exit responsible horsemanship.

The next day my horse was quite nervous and uptight and unwilling to settle on the court.  Because I was still chasing a buckle, I didn't want to change anything that might take me out of the running and so I kept my horse in the one handed bit.  He looks finished and pretty when carrying that bit.  The problem is that if he gets into trouble or gets tense I can't really help him out.  All I can do is put more pressure on that bit and make him more and more tense.  When he is relaxed, listening and with me it takes a mere change in my body position and very little signal with the bit.  When he's completely distracted and out to lunch he cannot "hear" my body and I end up "yelling" with my hands.  Well, you can imagine how my soft feel scores suffered.  We got through our tests all right, and survived the day and even placed but my horse was getting more and more upset.  Finally on day three he blew a test.  I couldn't get him quiet enough to even back up for a maneuver and he tried to exit the court as we free jogged past A making me grab him to keep him on the court.  Well, that day I placed 5th in one of my classes and got a 7th in another with the lowest scores of the weekend.  Now I was thoroughly and completely out of the running for any of those shiny pretty buckles.

That was probably the best thing that could have happened to me from a horsemanship standpoint.  It was like somebody walked up and dumped a cold glass of water on my head and said, "What the heck are you doing?  Can't you see your horse needs you right now?"  So I took off the big pretty bit and but him back in the hackamore where I could support his insecurity.  I lost my pretty formal flexion and finished look but in exchange I got quiet easy mind.  I got some of our bend working for us again.  I stacked the deck in his favor for our last day of tests.  I kept him as quiet and calm as possible even walking him out onto the court during a break and letting him stand at 8 eating treats with no pressure.  When it came time for him to ride his tests we lined buddies all up down both of the long sides of the court so he felt supported.  He rode beautifully.  He was quiet, responsive and happy.  Lo and behold my soft feel and partnership scores came back up.

I was berating myself a bit for getting sucked into raccoon syndrome so easily and was thinking maybe just doing away with buckles and shiny things was the way to keep this out of Cowboy Dressage right up until I watched the award presentation and watched all those folks graciously accept the shiny buckles I had coveted and they had worked so hard for.  How could I justify doing away with their prizes just because I had a moment where I lost focus?

Just like finding a chink in the foundation of your horse's training, I found a chink in my own this weekend.  Chico has a nervous active mind that needs support from me at all times.  I have a competitive drive that craves recognition and shiny things.  It's a bad combination and will be a struggle for us in our partnership, but Cowboy Dressage is the very best place for us to be.  When we get off track and my horse needs help and I need a wake up call there are folks here that are ready and able and willing to help us reach our goals.  Maybe we will win a shiny soft feel buckle someday;  maybe we won't ever even get close.  That doesn't matter.  What matters is that the two of us continue to build a partnership where we can rely on each other in times of need in all situations not just at home on our own court or out on the mountain trails we love.  If I support him and he can trust me, this partnership will grow.  I just might have to not walk by the awards table before the end of the show!

Cowboy Dressage World Finals: Here's what you missed!

It's a long, long way from North Idaho to Rancho Murieta, California.  As our temperatures dropped and our horse's haired up and our arena became a mud pit through early November Dan and I began to wonder just what the heck we were doing thinking about loading up and driving 16 hours through what might be very inhospitable road conditions to attend our very first Cowboy Dressage show.

But, I'm nothing if not stubborn and stuck to our chosen course and Dan grudgingly had the truck serviced and made sure the trailer was ready to go, secretly hoping for a snow storm that would shock some sense into me.  Luckily, our trip down was uneventful and we arrived at the gorgeous Rancho Murieta Equestrian Center on Tuesday evening.

The facility is absolutely breathtaking.  We were overwhelmed with the shear size and number of arenas on a single facility.  We have a few small private indoor arenas back home but nothing in our area that can even hold a candle to this beautiful horse Disneyland.  We were greeted by smiling faces and welcoming arms and the ever gentlemanly Garn Walker who helped us to find our stalls and get settled in.

I'm not sure that you will believe me when I try to describe the welcoming environment present at the finals.  This is the big Cowboy Dressage show that wraps up the entire year.  Hopes are high for good rides, of course, but more than anything else, people are just universally happy to see you and happy to share this dream with others who are trying to find a better way to be with their horse.  This is a community of horse people that is inclusive instead of exclusive and that is dang rare in ANY equine discipline.  They are supportive, helpful, gracious and kind.  They embody this movement in horsemanship in everything that they do.  You can't be a kind person in the barn and a jerk outside of it.  It doesn't work that way.  These people carry kindness in their hearts to their best abilities and inspire you to do the same.

The long weekend kicked off with a mini clinic presented by Eitan, Lynn and Garn with demonstration riders to help us understand what was being asked of us in some of the trickier maneuvers in the tests.  Tricks of the trade were shared and questions were encouraged.  Every single person riding this weekend was more than willing to share tips, ideas or encouragement as needed and that included our "founding fathers".  The Cowboy Dressage World Leaders (a title that makes them sound much more intimidating that they are!) were always willing to answer questions, offer advice or lend a hand.  It means so much to have them so accessible and willing to help.  Garn and Eitan especially spent some very valuable time with Dan and I just helping us to figure things out and what we could do to improve our scores a bit over the weekend.

Every evening there was either a demonstration or presentation to attend and though it did make our days seem a little long, this is a dedicated group of folks and the evening activities were well attended.  I was honored to present a talk on taking what we are learning on the Cowboy Dressage court out into all the other things we do with our horses.  The illustrious Dr. Miller gave a great presentation on equine behavior sharing some of his wonderful videos.  We were treated to the unveiling of a great and instructive new DVD on the court and the maneuvers that is hot off the press from Cowboy Dressage World.  Anybody who is new to Cowboy Dressage or those of you teaching others will want a copy of this great, easy to understand DVD.  The highlight of the evening demonstrations was a rare performance of Eitan and his Morgan stallion Santa Fe Renegade on Saturday evening.  Eitan rode with a host of mounted riders on horseback surrounding the court.  It was breathtaking to watch and I don't believe there was a dry eye in the house when the music changed to Garth Brook's  "The Dance" and Eitan directed the applause to Santa Fe and sat and stroked his beloved partner as the riders filed out of the arena.

The afternoon freestyle programs were also well attended and are, I think, everybody's favorite class to watch.  It was during the first afternoon of freestyle performances that an event occurred that really embodies the spirit of Cowboy Dressage as a competition.  If you aren't familiar with the garrocha, it's what Eitan likes to call a "big schtick".  It is a 13' pole that you carry while riding and perform maneuvers including canter and roll backs and swapping of the pole from side to side.  It's highly technical and incredibly entertaining to watch.  One of the garrocha riders dropped her "schtick" after only about a minute into her performance.  When it hit the ground the crowd collectively moaned and all looked at each other wondering what happens now.  She had been riding so beautifully and we all wanted to see more and felt the little bobble entirely forgivable.  The rider shrugged as she sat her horse looking at the pole on the ground while the music played.  Soon members of the audience were offering to run out and pick it up so she could continue.  The judge nodded that it was fine to continue and somebody jumped the rail and handed her the pole.  The music had a little trouble getting restarted and things were rough for 15-20 seconds or so but then the music and rider got in time again and to the absolute delight of the folks in the audience the ride was completed and there were cheers and applause for the horsemanship demonstrated and not another though given to a dropped pole.

There were over 800 rides in 4 arenas over 4 days at the Finals.  It was impossible to see it all.  We were privileged to watch some amazing riding and excellent horses.  There were also plenty of folks there having a little trouble.  Life with horses is not always perfect is it?  My horse was one of the ones having some trouble.  He had a lot of trouble settling on the court and was nervous and tight and not listening making it extremely difficult to keep soft feel at the forefront.  Soft feel is a partnership and a dance and my dance partner was doing the Hokey Pokey while I was trying to lead a waltz!  At a normal horse show, that's just tough luck. But, here at Cowboy Dressage the horse always comes first. We tried at first to just have his buddy stand quietly in the arena on the side lines or at one corner but it just wasn't enough and he was getting progressively tense as the days passed. So, in order to make my horse feel more comfortable and secure on the court I asked several of the waiting riders to just line the court while we rode our test.  For our final tests we had 8 helpers giving Chico moral support on the sidelines.  It worked!  We were able to quietly complete our tests and Chico was able to end on a positive note staying quiet and calm with a good experience on the court.  Hopefully that will be a good starting place for him and we can build from there.

The final evening award ceremony was also a highlight for us.  There was a pile of ribbons, buckles and tack to be given away and each person that won was so thankful and excited to be recognized.  I was so proud when Dan won the reserve "Most Improved Award" and was presented with a vintage silk wild rag.  He will wear it proudly and will never forget the time he spent at finals with his little red horse.  But the very best of all was the high point award of the weekend.  We were all waiting on the edge of our seats to see who would be awarded the big award.  I don't know about anybody else, but I sure didn't have an inkling of who might have won.  There is just so much going on all weekend it's largely a surprise to find out how the scores tallied.  The big award for the weekend went to none other than our young 12 year old Ambassador of Cowboy Dressage Avril and her Arabian mare Myla. They took home the Dale Chavez saddle, bridle and breast collar.  Again, not a dry eye in the arena as this amazing young horsewoman bounced her way to the saddle that she will have to grow into!  I cannot imagine a more fitting end to the weekend than to see this hard working girl take home the big award. Were else could something like that happen where a 12 year old and her horse come in and beat them all?  I think it means we are doing something right with Cowboy Dressage.

The 2014 Cowboy Dressage World Finals Gathering was an unbelievable success.  If you missed it I encourage you to make plans now for next year.  This show is going to continue to grow.  The 2013 Gathering had 500 rides and we had over 800 rides this year.  This is a movement that is going to continue to grow and flourish because it is being guided and guarded so carefully to be sure the mission remains in tact.  This is something you want to be a part of.  It's something you need to be a part of.  So, come along friend, and ride.  The Cowboy Dressage world is just waiting for your handshake membership. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rider induced changes to the horse

The old adage, form begets function surely applies to our horses.  While horses can perform beyond their form or breeding they excel best when used for the purpose for which they were designed.  This is why Clydesdales pull the Budweiser hitch and Arabians do the Tevis cup and not vice versa.

What shouldn't surprise us though is function also begets form.  Our horses will reflect the use that we put them to.  In veterinary medicine we see specific injuries and performance related issues associated with specific disciplines as the horses are used.  It's a natural extension of our relationship with our horses.  You cannot ride a horse to any extent without changing the way that horse's body in some way. This isn't always bad and it happens in all walks of life.  Many of our bodies reflect the work that we do unless we work hard to avoid that.  Asymmetrical development in the dominant arm of any person that preferentially uses one arm for the majority of their work is a good example of this.  Unless they consciously build muscle in the opposing arm, the arm being used most will be the strongest.  Our horses are the same.

What I'd like to talk about today is the way we can affect change in our horses for both good and bad and how we can avoid some of the pitfalls of poor muscle development, braces, and other injuries that can shorten or limit the useful life of our horses. Eventually I will write an entire book on this subject as it is one dear to my heart so paring it down to fit into a blog post has been difficult.  There are far reaching implications and a plethora of details and minutia to be debated in this topic.  Let's start with just a few.

"Saddleback" is a term that refers to the hollowing of the top line behind the shoulders and eventual sinking and swaying of the back after years of service under saddle.  Common thinking in the horse world is often that this is a phenomenon of old age and is unavoidable.  To some extent that is true.  As a horse ages and is subject to heavy loads it's back will wear and break down.  Unless the horse exercises the muscles responsible for rounding and shaping the back, gravity and work will eventually win and you will see a pronounced sway.  Conformation of the horse definitely plays a roll in this.  Horses with long backs and laid back shoulders will often carry themselves with poor self carriage.  Self carriage does not necessarily come natural to the horse and you can see "saddleback" on a horse that never carried a rider.  It's common in cart horses that push with their shoulders instead of rounding their backs to push through their entire bodies.

While "saddleback" can be a natural process of aging, poor riding habits can compound this problem. Just like good posture in people, proper self carriage in the horse must be cultivated. A horse that is allowed to carry himself in a sunken and hollowed way will advance into saddle back quicker than one that is in a conditioning program designed to keep those muscles functioning.  Just people, some horses will need more time in the "gym" toning and shaping those muscles while others will seem to be toned and shaped without added work.

I have a horse that tends toward saddle back.  He has high withers and long sloping shoulder and as he has aged this problem is getting worse.  This also happens to be the horse that I do the most back country and trail riding with.  He has a long ground covering walk that I enjoy riding but he tends to go hollow when in this gate.  If we spend too much time out on the trail and not enough time doing calisthenic exercises encouraging rounding through his top line this problem gets quickly worse to the point of effecting my saddle fit.
So how do you encourage your horse to round and lift and shorten his back to build those top line muscles?  Transitions and work on soft feel help the horse to bring his back up.  The time that we spend on the Cowboy Dressage court is incredibly valuable to toning and shaping his muscles and top line.  Transitions done with soft feel from working walk to free walk and working jog to free jog ask the horse to repeatedly shorten and then stretch those muscles.  It's like doing leg bends at the gym.  It focuses the energy of the ride up through the top line and encourages self carriage combating the dreaded "saddleback".

"Oh No Muscle".  This is a muscle that I am very familiar with in my patients.  Anytime I need to do an intravenous injection into the jugular vein and place my left hand on the horse's neck to raise the vein I can tell exactly what kind of hands the person riding the horse has.  The "Oh No Muscle" is the over development of the muscles on the bottom of the horse's neck.  They run on each side of the neck and form the jugular groove and are responsible in part for flexing the neck and moving bones in the throatlatch area.  Over development of these muscles will give a horse a "ewe" neck appearance that may be completely secondary to use and not due to conformation at all.  In general, when I put my hand on these horses to raise the jugular vein their first response is to raise the head and neck and flip the nose up.  These are your classic head tossers and they tend to ridden with both a tie down and gag type bit to discourage the behavior.  These are horses that are long accustomed to bracing against pressure.  Better than 50% of the time these horses will also have damage to bars of their mouth from long standing bit pressure.
 This habit is tough to break in a horse even with a rider that has good hands.  The deep seated bracing and flipping of the head are so ingrained as a defense mechanisms these horses will say "Oh No!" before anything is even asked of them.  They generally start flipping their head before I even touch them with a needle and many of these horses will engage in this behavior in the pasture flipping their head at flies, other horses, or any stimuli that they classify as irritating.

The best cure in this case is prevention.  This is a case of a horse learning to push against pressure as a defense mechanism.  If there is never pressure to push against the horse cannot develop this habit.  Pulling relentlessly on young horses or even older horses that are being forced to preform in a way that they are not properly prepared for will develop this habit.  There are shelves of tack devices to counter this human produced equine behavior.  Tie downs, martingales, cavesons, draw reins, gag bits, correction bits, etc are all developed by folks trying desperately to remedy this behavior pattern as well as establish "proper" headset.  There is only one way to be sure that the "Oh No muscle" doesn't raise it's ugly head on your horse.  Soft Feel.  That's the only sure fire, 100%, always going to work gadget and you can't buy it in any tack store.

Bar damage is the last thing I would like to cover in this blog and this is a tricky one to address.  As I mentioned above, I'll often see bar damage in horses with a big "Oh No" muscle but it can be much more insidious than that.  Bone spurs on the bars of the horse's mouth will often go unnoticed by the rider and have largely been undiagnosed in horses until more recently.  Research has been done recently examining the differences in jaws from horses that were ridden and those that were feral examining the changes that we see in our domestic horses.  In jaw bones collected from slaughter houses from horses that presumably spent time with a bit in their mouth we see thickening of the bars, bone spurs similar to shin splints, hair line fractures, roughening of the periostium due to continued stimulation of bit contact. Without doing extensive comparrisons of horses across disciplines and with good information on the type of riding and type of rider they were carrying all we can do is extrapolate about the damage and potential damage that we are doing to our horses with irresponsible bit use.

The advent of widespread availability of digital x-ray technology is going to allow us to better examine the jaws of horses that are experiencing signs of resistance or bracing to the bit.  Physical examination can provide good information as to the health of the horse's mouth and state of the bones of the jaw.  I assess the bars on every horse that I float and can usually tell if a horse is having trouble with the bit.  I find bone spurs, thickening and roughening of the surface of the bars through palpation of the bars.  You can generally tell if the horse is stiff to one side over the other or has a tendency to fight the bit.

Often a horse with bit wear on the teeth has been attempting to alleviate undue pressure on the bars by attempting to hold the bit in his teeth.  When I see a horse with rounded premolars they generally will have thickening along the bars as well.  In my practice I would say that in general I see the most bar damage associated with snaffle bit use, gag bit use and horses that are asked for "collection" or head set in the show ring.  These are the horses that seem to experience the most pressure on their bars.  This is in no way a scientific observation but only a personal one based on the hundreds of horses that I evaluate in my practice each year.

Every horse's mouth is a little different.  Some big boned horses naturally have very thick and rounded bars and these seem to hold up well to carrying a bit.  Other horses have very thin delicate bars and these are generally at greater risk for damage.  Young growing horses that have very active periosteums in the jaw and are experiencing the growth of adult teeth are especially susceptible to damage from excessive bit use.

Mitigating this damage relies on protecting the horse's mouth and respecting it.  Hard mouthed horses are not born, they are made.  While there will be variation between horses depending on bar conformation all horses have to potential to feel and respond to very light stimuli on the bars of the mouth.  Building responsiveness in a horse by rewarding try and soft feel will help teach a horse to be responsive and "soft mouthed" without undue damage.

Allowing young horses to mature prior to bitting is also a good practice to minimize damage to the bars.  This is one of the things I love most about the vaquero tradition that relies on the bosal saving the sensitive mouth for advanced training.  Once the horse is carrying a bit he has advanced far enough in his training to be able to respond with very slight pressure on the mouth.

But, a good horseman can definitely ride a horse in a bit without causing undue damage.  I think of a young woman in my practice with a 8 year old horse that she has been riding in the snaffle bit for 5 years.  When last I floated that horse his bars were pristine.  That is a woman with beautifully soft hands.  I don't advocate the widespread use of bitless bridles to eradicate bit damage.  I advocate the widespread education of the hands of horseman that use the bits to improve timing and feel and mitigate damage before it happens.

There are many, many more examples of how our riding choices and uses of our horses affect their bodies.  I will revisit this topic at a later date to discuss some of the other issues that we see that are affecting our horse's physical and mental well being.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Take it outside the court

This past weekend a great group of women and and even greater group of horses had the distinct opportunity to ride and train with Dale Partee in the arts of Cowboy Dressage.  We met at Canaan Guest Ranch in Tonasket Washington.  The setting was perfect for a weekend get-a-way and offered unique opportunities for us to work with our horses.

Now, I'm sure that most folks that signed up for a Cowboy Dressage clinic would be expecting to arrive at the destination and find a nice soft arena to work in.  Not these cowgirls!  Dale is so great about embracing the "cowboy" in Cowboy Dressage and instead of setting up our CD court in an arena she used a natural plateau that was a short but pleasant ride from the ranch down into a valley, over a creek and through the trees.  Not only did this provide a great way to warm our horses up each day but the terrain allowed for us to all spread out through the woods to head to the court each taking the route that best suited our horses.  No nose to tail riding for this group!

It was so peaceful and beautiful on that plateau.  We broke into 2 small groups for excellent instruction.  For half of the participants this was their first introduction to Cowboy Dressage so we had a informative session prior to mounting that explained the geometry of the court and the purpose of Cowboy Dressage and the partnership we are striving for with our horses.  Then we hit the court to begin riding our 10 and 20 m circles.  Our plateau court had a special feature at F.  It was a small tree that was just about in the middle of our circle.

After our day on the court we took what he had learned about bending, softness and impulsion out to the rest of the ranch.  There is so much training and learning that goes on just riding to and from the ranch.  Every tree was an opportunity to bend.  Every hill was an opportunity to collect the hind quarters underneath your horse.  A long slopping hill was a great area to work on your free jog.

On Saturday we headed out for a long trail ride and found a herd of cattle.  We spread out and gathered the cattle then pushed them to a small flattish area to hold as a rodear. Pushing the cattle made us ride with purpose and direction in a straight line.  We had to quickly transition to a free walk then back to a working walk then back to a free walk or free jog while rating our pace to keep the cattle moving without scattering.  Then while holding the rodear the horses had to learn to stand patiently waiting but alert and ready to move should one of the cows make a break for the hills.

Then we worked our horses individually around the rodear.The cows just happened to be a perfect center for a 20 m circle.  The draw of the cattle kept the horse's attention and all the horses were looking in and bending through the circle watching the herd.  We did a free jog and then a free lope around the cattle.  Then we stopped, shaped our horses and did a turn on the haunches moving our horse's heads toward the cattle to use the cows for the draw and help to open our shoulders to move through the turn.  Many of the horses that had struggled slightly on the court the day before with opening the shoulders did so freely when asked to do it on the rodear.

We also had a great time in the aspen grove.  Besides being a beautiful setting it was full of obstacles to bend and serpentine around and through.  We also created a cowgirl jump course that aside from being a hoot was great for asking your horse to move forward and gather himself.  These horses were not jumping horses for the most part, but any horse can learn to pick himself up and correctly jump a log in a grove.  It gave both horse and rider confidence in each other.

Gaining confidence in your self and your horse was a big theme for this group of riders.  While this was a fairly experienced group of women, there were a few greener horses and about half of the group that hadn't experienced Cowboy Dressage before.  The court and tests were a little intimidating to them at first.  Once they were able to ride the court and master the geometry and move their horses freely with soft feel on a court without rails, taking it to the trail was a small step.  When it came time to rodear the cattle and lope around them many of the girls were nervous that their horses weren't ready or they weren't ready without the security of a nice arena.  Every one of them did it without incident and did it well.

Cowboy Dressage is not just an arena exercise.  We use the court to help us train ourselves and our horses but the training shouldn't stop there.  These are Western Performance horses that we are developing.  Part of Cowboy Dressage is embracing our Cowboy heritage.  That doesn't all happen in an arena.  That happens on a hill side as a herd of loose horses gallop up to great you.  It happens walking down a trail with logs and creeks and things that help you teach your horse to pick up his feet and place them when and where you tell him too.  Riding your horse with purpose shouldn't end when you ride out the arena past A.  Carry the lessons from the court with you everywhere and suddenly the world is your court.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rhythm of the Ride

Students of horsemanship will be familiar with the three tenants of what is commonly referred to today as Natural Horsemanship.  Much like the Christian Holy Trinity, Feel, Timing and Balance are as difficult to really grasp as they are to explain and are best taken with a good deal of faith.  Those three little words that seem so simple on first glance could each be the subject of a large book themselves, with Feel being the mystery novel with shady characters all speaking in different languages.  I am a believer in these three tenants of horsemanship and believe that everything that we strive to do with horses can be improved or understood more fully in the context of either Feel, Timing or Balance and as aspects of the same circle of horsemanship 'guruness' they are difficult to separate for individual consideration.  There is considerable overlap and it is difficult to discuss one without the others.  

While it is easy to lose the forest for the trees I find that sometimes looking at the individual trees makes the forest easier to understand, so I like to break things down to ruminate and explore on a more minuscule level before taking it back to the big picture.  With that in mind, I would like to turn your attention to a piece of just one of the big three today and discuss a tool that we can use to come closer to developing and understanding Timing.

One of the trees in the forest of timing is Rhythm.  Today's blog is all about rhythm and I would like to invite you and your bongo to sit in on our drum circle and explore Rhythm and it's implication in horsemanship and advancing your horsemanship through the application of Rhythm in your riding.

Music is such a basic part of being human.  All cultures have some form of music unique to their indigenous rhythms and traditions.  Whether it's the basic drum beat rhythms of an African tribe, the overlapping beats of a Native American drum circle, the droning cross rhythms of the Aborigines or the high stepping fiddle and banjo beats of the Appalachians;  all cultures that I am aware of have music.  Dancing and moving to the rhythm happens in children sometimes before walking.  We all strive to move to that same rhythm.  While we aren't all dancers, I believe we can all feel the basic rhythms of music.  If you have ever experienced a techno Rave with the hard pounding bass beating so loud that it seems to control your own heart beat you have felt how your body can be consumed by music.

I don't believe this to be a solely human trait either.  There have been many studies on animal behavior documenting animal's responses to music.  Interestingly enough, many animals seem to have better taste than we do often preferring the classics and masters that rely on complicated musical melodies and beats rather than much of contemporary music that is more lyrically driven.  Of course animals will respond to the music itself and not the lyrics that we often respond to.

Dairy cows will produce more milk when certain soothing music is played in the parlor (that should obviously be called MOOsic).  If you would like to get the most out of your dairy cow there are playlists available on the internet.  Elephants in captivity seem to develop less bad habits when classical music is played in their environment.  Cats and dogs in shelters seem less stressed when there is music playing and you can even buy CD's designed to leave on for your pets when you aren't home.

What about horses and music? Like the dairy industry, most barns seem to feel that some music left on in the breezeway soothes the horses in their stalls.  We play music in our barn overnight and it does seems to quiet restless horses.  I don't think this is just "white noise" to the horse.  Not all music seems to have the same effect on the horse.

Riding to music is nothing new.  In many different disciplines, preforming to music is a common thing.  If you haven't tried playing music while you ride, I recommend you try it out.  I don't think head phones are the right approach as I believe the horse should be able to hear the music as well.  I think if you and the horse each reach for the same rhythm in your riding you will soon be riding towards each other's rhythm which will improve your timing in your cues and the performance of your horse.

I used to ride in a drill team.  We would practice our routine first on foot, then on horseback at a walk and trot long before ever bringing the music in.  Obviously when you have multiple horses moving towards each other at high speeds, getting the timing just right was a matter of safety.  I will always remember that feeling when after weeks of practice we first performed our drill to the accompaniment of music.  Invariably it improved our overall timing as a group.  While preforming the drill over and over again to the same music can become somewhat tiresome depending on the song choice, that very first time your movements were put to music was magical for both horse and rider.

Playing music while schooling your horse in cadence at walk, jog and lope can help you feel the foot falls of your horse.  As your body moves to the rhythm your horse will move with you and soon you are moving as one.  From that instance of joined rhythm you can move forward in perfect cadence. We speak of the movement and cadence of the horse already as if it were a musical piece.  The walk is a 4 beat gait, perfect for music in slow even 4 count rhythm.  The trot is a two beat gait perfectly ridden to an even  2 or 4 count rhythm at a faster pace.  The lope, is a 3 beat gait that is perfectly ridden to a waltz.  If you have ever had the distinct pleasure of watching a large Morgan horse show with the music being played at the center of the arena you can see how changing the rhythm of the music seems to get the horses all in time in the arena.  I love watching how the horses will each be on a slightly different rhythm when the change of gait is announced and as the music plays they are soon all moving as one.

The classical dressage folks have made it a science, of course, and there is endless information on the internet explaining how to choose music for proper timing of your freestyle and how to discover what timing your horse has.  This is cowboy dressage and we don't need to be quite that complicated!  I urge you to ride your horse to music that has a cadence.  It doesn't matter if it's Ricky Scaggs or Eminem.  If you can feel the rhythm your horse will too.  Find a song with a nice steady even cadence that fits the feel of your horse and how you want your horse to move.  Experiment with Rhythm and moving in time with your horse.

I believe that if you and your horse seek the rhythm rather than attempt to confine yourselves to it you will find more success.  Think outside of the box and try several different styles until you and your horse find the style that suits you best.  It's a great way to teach you how to match a rhythm and teach your horse to rate to your seat and energy. Seek a rhythm with your horse, then time your cues to that rhythm with the proper feel and balance and you are well on your way to dancing through that forest.

Horsemanship is art, and when you allow the art to consume you, oh what beautiful music you can make.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Building your Cowboy Dressage court

Dan and I have been busy putting together our Cowboy Dressage court for the upcoming season of Lucky Duck Ranch's CD ride nights.  We began hosting Thursday night ride nights a few years ago and they have grown into a summer Thursday evening tradition that we all look forward to.

Last summer we started playing with the Cowboy Dressage challenge court pattern.  We didn't work on any set tests but worked on different elements using the Cowboy Dressage challenge court as our play ground.  It was so much fun to have a play ground to play with. We would take turns making up different patterns to challenge each other with.  This year we will have a new and better court set up so that we can ride both regular tests as well as challenge tests.

I thought it might be helpful to talk about how we went about setting up our court so that we might save a step or two for other folks out there getting their CD court all set up.

Last year we used ground poles and cones for our court.  This year we are using  PVC pipe.  We had a little bit of trouble finding the right kind of PVC when we went to Home Depot.  For the plumbing uninitiated the pipe that you are after is the light weight drain pipe in either the 3 or 4 inch.  We decided to go with the 3 inch in order to save just a little bit of money and because the fittings that we needed in 4 inch were low in stock.

In order to put together the CD challenge court you will need 10 5' sections.  Conveniently they come in 10 foot lengths, so you will need 10 of those.  For the ground poles I recommend end caps on each end so they are more stable and don't fill with dirt and water.  12 of those 5 foot sections will be ground poles so you need 24 end caps.  To build the octagon you need 8 5 foot sections and 8 45 degree elbows as connectors.

We cut our 10 foot sections with just a chop saw.  They are easy to cut through and I imagine a hand saw would work just as easily if you are opposed to power tools.  The lengths of drain pipe have a plastic adaptor at one end.  We cut those off and then cut the lengths in half.  It ends up being slightly less than 5 feet, but that won't matter in the long run.

After cutting all our pipe sections it was time to get our letters ready to go.  We purchased the large set of Cowboy Dressage vinyl letters from Cowboy Dressage World.  We searched and searched for the most economical way to make markers.  You can purchase large cones that the markers can be added too.  What we found was that most of the markers that are made for dressage already have the letters on them.  So, we chose to use 5 gallon buckets.  They are economical and hardy and sturdy and the letters fit on them well.  We had to search a little to find the buckets that didn't have the logo of the large hardware store already on them.  Our local hardware store had plain white buckets.  We were going to buy the orange ones from home depot and paint them but were lucky to track down the plain white ones.

If you buy your letters from Cowboy Dressage and are going to be putting them on 5 gallon buckets, be sure they will fit!  I had to trim down all of our letters to make them fit on the buckets we were able to find.  It won't matter in the long run, but a few of my brands are missing the points at the top and bottom.

Next come laying out the court.  We use our arena for various other activities besides Cowboy Dressage and want to be able to quickly and accurately set up our court.  We have decided to use a marking system similiar to what the PRCA uses for placing the markers for barrel racing.  They hammer a large stake with flagging into the arena.  It is driven down below the surface so there is no risk of metal causing an injury to the horse, the flagging is the only part that rests on the surface of the arena.  You can work your arena right over the markers without trouble. We used bailing twine and horse shoes buried at the corners, middle, and mid points on all 4 sides.

Obviously there are other ways to go about setting up your CD court.  Last year we had just ground poles cleared from our property and letters stapled in the approximate areas around the arena.  Our arena was "eye-balled" and not exact.  We are excited this year to upgrade to a more dimensionally correct arena and easy to move arena pieces.  I can tell you that the tighter court is much more of a challenge! Below are the diagrams of the measurements both in feet and meters to help you set up your own court.

Lateral Movements in Cowboy Dressage

Lateral Movements
While there are many lateral movements in western riding, they are not traditionally performed to the level that you will see in the dressage arena.  Adding these basic dressage movements to the training of our western horses in Cowboy Dressage makes for a more complete and balanced equine athlete. 
You can think of lateral movements as the Pilates of equestrian training.  It teaches your horse independent control of the parts of the body creating bend and suppleness through the entire spine.  It also helps convey soft feel by gathering the horse’s legs under the body and redirecting the feet laterally one quarter at a time.  Like Pilates in people it also helps to develop elasticity and strength in the muscle groups and when performed correctly can even help a horse that is very one-sided naturally to better be able to use both sides of his body equally.  Do you have a horse that is stiff to one side, or reluctant to take up one lead?  Lateral movement exercises can help your horse to better learn how to balance and use his body for better athletic control. 
The basic lateral movements are:
1.       Shoulder in
2.       Shoulder out
3.       Haunches in
4.       Haunches out
5.       Leg Yield
6.       Half Pass

If you think of a horse walking down a dirt track, you can see two lines of tracks.  One of each side of the body.  In the simplest terms, the lateral movements change the way the front half of the horse and the back half of the horse are tracking, ultimately changing how many lines of tracks there are in the dirt.  Visualization of these maneuvers is so important when teaching your horse.  Developing the feel to understand where each foot is falling can be difficult and so having a clear picture in your mind really helps to create the proper feel for you and your horse. 

The best method for clearly visualizing these maneuvers is to pair up with a friend.  You don’t have to put the horse costume on, but imagine you are two people in a horse costume.   When you are walking united the forequarter person and the hindquarter person are each stepping in the same lateral tracks, left and right. 

In the picture below you can see Eitan and Katrina traveling as the forequarters and hindquarters of the horse.  They are traveling united and both of their feet are in the same left and right track. 

With a Shoulder in maneuver, the hindquarters stay traveling straight in the same original tracks while the forequarters step in one track.  This creates three tracks in the dirt.  The inside hind foot and outside front foot are traveling on the same track while the outside hind foot and inside front foot are on their own separate tracks.   This creates an arc through the body of the horse that begins at the nose and travels to the pelvis. 

You can see an excellent shoulder in performed by Eitan and his lovely assistant Katrina in this picture

Eitan is the forequarters.  His body is offset by one “track” from the rear quarters, which is Katrina.  The forequarters are looking in the direction of the bend creating a slight arc through the body. 

The same basic principle applies to a Haunches in and Haunches out maneuver, except the forequarters will stay on the same original track the hindquarters are asked to move over one set of tracks in the dirt.  In order to create the bend, the head and neck need to be looking in the same direction that the hindquarters are traveling. 
The leg yield is a much more common maneuver in western disciplines because it is a relatively straight maneuver.  This maneuver is often used to initiate teaching of some of the other more complex maneuvers.  Generally performed along the fence line, the leg yield asks the horse to move on three tracks in a straight frame with the head bent just slightly towards the fence.  The inside hind leg is on one track, the inside foreleg and outside hind leg is on the middle track and the outside front leg is on the other track.  The purpose of this exercise is to teach the horse to move off of the rider’s leg. 

In a half pass, all the feet are on a separate track in the dirt.  Unlike the commonly performed side pass where there is only lateral movement and no foreword movement, the half pass is diagonal movement.  Properly performed, the horse should move equally forward and sideways creating a perfect blend.  When performed correctly, the feet create 4 tracks in the dirt that could be labeled from top to bottom as outside front foot, inside front foot, outside hind foot and inside hind foot.  The direction of the slight bend in the horse’s body is towards the direction of travel so the head and neck look just slightly towards the inside front foot track. 

A good athlete should have superior control over his entire body.  A good coach helps to build that athlete’s potential through strengthening exercises.  These maneuvers are strengthening exercises for your horse.  Shoulder’s in/out creates reach and freedom through the shoulders improving your turns, rollbacks, and spins.  Haunches in/out increases your horse’s strength in the hindquarters by asking him to bear more weight on one hind leg on the other through the movement.  This aids in collection and propulsion from the hindquarters.  The half pass creates balanced movement through the entire body of the horse to decrease one-sidedness in our horses.   Lateral movements are not just fancy moves meant for the dressage arena; these are athletic maneuvers that can aid in the training and suppleness of any horse and especially the athletes that are our western performance and cowboy dressage horses! 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The two handed bit

One of the very appealing things about Cowboy Dressage for many riders is the ability to ride with two hands on the reins.  While many English riders may wonder what the big deal is, for Western riders, this is a revolutionary concept.

Traditionally in most Western disciplines, only the very green horses that are being ridden in either the snaffle or the hackamore may be ridden with two hands.  The reasons for this are many including the need for the Western rider to be one handed and able to rope or open gates or swat belligerent cattle.  For the most part, the bits that were used in the majority of western disciplines once the horse was out of the snaffle were solid mouth pieces in various configurations and the horse was expected to neck rein, moving off of light pressure on the neck with minimal pressure on the bit.

With a solid mouth piece, no matter the configuration, isolation of cues to the individual sides of the horse's mouth are minimal at best.  Add any length of shank to that solid mouth piece and isolation of cues to a single side become even less.  Solid bars with long shanks are bits designed to be used with one hand on the reins and are most effective used in that fashion.

In order to effectively ride with two hands and give independent signals to the horse's lips, bars or tongue for independent control of the head, neck and shoulders, a broken mouth piece is required.  In the past, the most common option for riding in a shanked bit with a broken independent mouth piece was the Tom Thumb snafffle.  This is basically a regular snaffle bit with long shanks allowing for some action as a leverage bit as well.  The problem with this bit is that it really works best if the hands are used completely independently.  Any dual pressure on the reins caused a nut cracker effect on the bars and lower jaw of the mouth often resulting in a resentful and uncomfortable horse that would soon brace or root against the bit.

Today we have many more effective bits to choose from.  There are several different styles of bits with western shanks and broken mouth pieces that have barrel attachments changing the nature of the bending of the center piece of the bit.  These bits are very movable and allow for isolated cues to the lips, tongue, bar, and because they are shanked leverage bits to the chin and poll as well.

With one of these bits a horseman is better able to give subtle, yet easily determined signal to the horse effecting change in the head, neck, jaw, shoulders and front legs of the horse.

Here is one example of such a bit.  This is a low port 3 piece barrel bit with cavalry cheek pieces made by Myler Bits.

Because this bit is hinged and moves in three independent places, lifting on just one rein can send a signal to the lips and bars of just one side of the horse's mouth as seen in the picture below. 

When applying pressure to both reins simultaneously the bit will function similar to a standard leverage bit without collapsing like a Tom Thumb shanked snaffle.  The three pieces and barrel in the middle of the bit prevent it from collapsing on the horse.  This bit functions quite well with both two hands and one making it an effective transition bit for a horse and allowing the rider to give precise cues for advanced maneuvers. 

Cowboy Dressage calls for both lightness and precision in communication with your horse.  Using tack that aids in that communication while remaining true to the Western traditions is important.  In order to attain higher levels of horsemanship it is necessary to move to higher functioning equipment.

While all of the maneuvers in Cowboy Dressage can and should be taught to a horse in the snaffle bit or other simple two handed piece of tack, as the horse progresses and improves in his understanding he can move into a bit that allows for more subtle cues.  

Deciding which of these bits is best for your horse takes a certain amount of trial and error.  Because these bits have much more independent moving pieces than a regular snaffle they can offer a lot of cues to a horse.  A horse unprepared for that much movement in his bit may interpret those cues as noise.   Always make transitions to new bits slowly allowing the horse some time to wear the bit without interference before offering soft cues.  If you are in the habit of always offering cues with the softest feel you will quickly feel the response in your horse before making too much movement in the bit and intimidating a horse that is new to the sensation.  

Intimate control of the body parts, including head, neck and shoulders, rib cage and back and hind quarters requires the use of all of the independent aids.  Two hands on the bit aid in isolation and signal for better control of those body parts.  The difference between a broken mouth piece and solid mouth piece is immense when isolating those signals.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Youth Partnership and Cowboy Dressage

One of the neatest things that I got to watch this past weekend at the Northwest Equine Expo in Albany, Oregon was the demonstration of the youth partnership program in Cowboy Dressage.  This is a program designed to incorporate the youth through pattern work on the ground.  It involves having a kid and a horse demonstrate their connection and communication on the ground as they maneuver through a series of patterns including circles, turns on the hind quarters and leading from both sides of the horse at the walk and jog.

On the surface it sounds like it is the same thing as any showmanship class for youth in open and 4-H shows.  I had thought the same thing until I got to watch it in person. How many of you 4-H parents and leaders have watched the long and often boring showmanship classes and wished for something better for the kids?  Watching showmanship classes is a lot like watching paint dry without all the exciting fumes to help pass the time.

For those of you that may not have had the opportunity to stand around an arena on an early Saturday morning watching an hour long showmanship class for 8-12 year olds, let me enlighten you.  It consists of a pack of kids all scrubbed up and wearing very sparkley and very expensive showmanship outfits that act as saran wrap on a hot day.  They are leading a very clean and polished and fake tail toting horse with a very expensive halter and lead shank often with a chain.  They move like robots into the arena and line up to wait their turn in front of the judge.  They then walk out of line individually in their little robot mode and present their horse to the judge.  This is where the showmanship two step occurs as the judge walks around the horse and the kid has to move smartly from side to side based on a quartering system.  The crisper, more robotic movements are considered high form.  Then the kid turns the horse and trots back into line and their 15 minutes of fame come to an end.

Except that the Cowboy Dressage youth partnership features a kid and a horse on the ground it looked nothing like your typical showmanship class.  There was no blingy expensive shirt or silver halter and chain shank.  The young girl we had the distinct pleasure of observing was turned out in clean, serviceable and appropriate clothing.  Her only “bling” was a nicely knotted silk wild rag around her neck.  She was leading her horse with a plain, clean, rope halter.  She calmly lead her horse into the dressage court in front of a crowd of at least 1,000 people and performed a series of maneuvers requiring her to follow instructions, walk, jog and stop her horse, turn on the haunches and repeat the pattern leading the horse from the right side.  It was poetry in motion between a young girl and her horse.    

I find myself having difficulty conveying what was so special about this exhibition.  It was almost like watching a first year 4-H showmanship class but without all the innocent mistakes that first year 4-Hers make.  Remember your first year in 4-H when you really didn't care what kind of ribbon you got>  You were much more interested in just being there having fun with your horse.  You may have forgot your pattern, or turned the wrong way, but as long as you and your pony entered and exited the class together without having a fracus in the middle it was a blast! 

Watching the Cowboy Dressage youth partnership class feels like watching a partnership.  Seeing those young people connect to their horses and watching a horse connect to a young rider with no need for a chain shank is a beautiful thing.  Just a kid and a horse and harmony.  It’s what every parent wants for their kid and the horse they spend all their money feeding.

What cowboy dressage has done with their partnership program is exactly what our youth programs in horses need to be reminded of.  It’s not about winning or losing or how fancy your horse and your tack are.  It’s about how you communicate with your horse. It seems to me like 4-H has moved away from what it was when I was a kid.  I see more fancy outfits and fake tails and chain shanks on leather halters in the showmanship classes than I ever saw during my years in 4-H.   Cowboy dressage has just blessed the 4-H program with a way to get back to what 4-H was supposed to be teaching our kids to begin with. 

Training our kids and building that next generation of horseman is so important for the equine industry.  We need to do it right.  It’s every bit as important to start a young kid off properly in their horsemanship journey as it is to build a foundation in a horse.  They need to start on the ground learning the basics of communication with their horse just like we do when we start a young horse’s training.  Good communication skills and learning how to build a connection start on the ground and carry through into the saddle.  This is the purpose of showmanship that somewhere became lost when it became fashionable to move around your horse like a robot. 

The Cowboy Dressage youth partnership program is a gift to 4-H and youth leaders everywhere.  This is the program that you have been looking for to build your kid’s interest in proper handling of their horses.   This is how you get them to work on ground work and not just jump right in the saddle.  It’s fun and challenging and it’s making better horsemen out of our kids.  That’s what it’s all about.  

Bit less Bridles and Cowboy Dressage

There is a growing popularity in the movement towards bit less bridles.  It is wonderful to see so many people wanting to embrace a softer, kinder method of communication with their horses.  Cowboy Dressage is all about being kind to your horse and finding a better way to communicate. I am a big fan of being kind to your horse.  Huge fan.  I want to be as kind to my horses as is possible. Being kind and going bit less may not always fall into the same category.  There are forms of bit less bridles, that can be as harsh and painful for a horse as a bit. 

Allow me help you to understand the bit less bridle movement and help you to make an informed decision about what type of head gear you may want to try on your horse and why there are only a few bit less options available in a discipline who's bi-word is being kind to your horse. Not all bit less bridles are kind and gentle.  Aside from being harsher and more abrasive than might first be expected they can also be an ineffective tool of communication.   There are times when, as a veterinarian, it is necessary to recommend a bit less option for a rider.  This may be due to damage to the mouth or as a rest period for a mouth that has undergone extensive dental work.  Bit less bridles can be good and useful tools in the right application, but like any tool have their limitations as well.  

First of all, let’s establish a definition of what a good bridle, be it bit less or bitted, really is.  The bridle is an elemental piece of communication meant to take the signal from your hands to your horse’s face and ultimately to the horse’s feet.  It is part of a whole that includes your seat, legs, balance and perhaps voice and energy.  It is neither the most important nor the most effective piece of that whole. As a matter of fact, it is the one part of the whole that is expendable and why bridleless demonstrations are so popular.   It is  the easiest piece of the puzzle to change, the most common one to blame and the one that is often used to the greatest disadvantage to the horse.  The bridle needs to be a comfortable and concise tool of communication that does not cause anxiety or pain to the horse.  It needs to have both a clear signal and a very clear release.  If any part of the bridle causes a distraction to the horse it no longer serves its purpose in communication. 

The Bosal

I’m going to begin with the bosal because it is the oldest form of bit less bridle. It is simply a braided piece of rawhide on a simple leather hanger with a rope style rein. This tool has been in use for as long as humans have been riding horses. There is archeological evidence that a form of braided bosal was used 4,000 years ago.  It is the traditional tool of the vaquero horseman and was used on the horse from the time it was started under saddle until it was introduced to the bit often years and years down the road.  It is a simple and effective piece of equipment that has a very clear signal and very clear release.  While being a simple tool, it is not the simplest for the novice to use.  Of all the bit less bridle options, the bosal requires the most application of feel and timing in my opinion.   While I believe that all horseman can improve their feel and timing by learning how to properly ride in a bosal, I don’t believe the bosal is the tool that a new rider should be using.  The reason it is not a great tool for a novice rider is that it is easy to over use a bosal without feel so that you completely erase the effectiveness of the tool.  This is one of the reasons the bosal has, over the years, developed a reputation for having “no stop”.  Many people believe that you have no control over a horse in a bosal if that horse decides to bolt.  I can tell you that a horse properly started and trained in the bosal has plenty of stop.  But, in the wrong hands, pulling on a bosal will be ineffective to stop a panicked horse.  The other complaint you hear about bosals is that they cause sores and rub marks.  This is true of poorly fitted or cheap gear.  Well fitted, well made bosals will not cause rub marks even worn for 10 hours or more on the trail.  The bosal is welcomed in Cowboy Dressage for any age of horse.  It can be ridden in one or two hands but is probably more effective as a two handed tool.  Obtaining good collection and bend in the bosal is possible but much more difficult than in the snaffle.

Loping hackamore

The loping hackamore is a type of traditional cowboy piece of equipment that has it’s root in the Texan cowboy.  While the Vaqueros of the California and Mexican areas were using rawhide hackamores, the Texan cowboys were using a rope set up to start their horses.  This was meant to be a fairly temporary piece of equipment used for the first week or so before transition into another piece of equipment, usually a bit of some kind.  This is a very simple tool, much like the rawhide bosal but softer with less chance of startling a colt with a quick pull.  Cowboy Dressage offers a soft loping hackamore as a bit less option that has the added benefit of allowing for an indirect pull due to the way the soft main hair reins are attached at the base of the braided nose piece.  Because this is a soft piece of equipment the signal and release is not as correct as in the traditional bosal.  This a good choice for a horse that is uncomfortable in a bit but understands cues well.  It is also a good choice for a rider working to develop soft hands and soft feel that has trouble doing so with a bit.  This should be a transitional tool that helps prepare for another form of bridle or serves as a “break” to a broke bridle horse.  Over time, it will hinder softness as the horse can become dull to the cues offered. 

Mechanical Hackamore
A Western style mechanical hackamore is on the left on the Palomino and an English style mechanical hackamore is on the right.

The mechanical hackamore is another popular “bit-less” choice, though it still has plenty of iron.  This  is a leather band hooked to large shanks that have a spoon attached to them with a curb chain.  This device works by creating a squeeze on the jaw of the horse.  When you pull back on the shank the entire device cranks down on the horse’s nose and jaw.  With a long enough shank you can place a lot of pressure on that horse. It is definitely a leverage piece of equipment.  I rode in a mechanical hackamore for a lot of years because  I had a horse that didn't like bits.  It didn't matter which bit I used he would never settle and relax in the bit.  When I quit showing him I started trail riding in the mechanical hackamore.  We got along splendidly in it.  I would say that the mechanical hackamore can be very comfortable for a horse with a rider with light hands.  A hard handed rider can do a lot of damage with a mechanical hackamore.  The benefit is that a hard headed horse will be hard pressed to run through a mechanical hackamore due to the amount of pressure you can apply with this device.  The signal and release with a mechanical hackamore is slightly muddled by the amount of movement in the device.  There is a lot of room for the device to swing and clatter with the natural movement of the horse masking subtler cues. Therefore higher levels of horsemanship and subtlety are lost with this tool.  This tool is best for the recreational trail rider that spends most of the time with the reins draped over the saddle horn.  I recommend it for horses with damaged mouths and riders that do not need a tool for higher levels of communication.   This is not a good tool for Cowboy Dressage because it does not allow for lift or creation of bend and it is not a particularly kind bitting choice if you are intending to ride with even light contact.  Any pull on the mechanical hackamore acts to cinch down the device on the horse’s head.  This device creates good poll flexion and has a lot of stopping power but not much finesse.  It is also not considered a traditional piece of western tack.

Side pulls

A side pull is device often used on young horses early in their training and is sometimes favored as a bit less choice for recreational riders.  It is a fairly simple device that uses a ring on either side of a cavasson type piece of tack that is interlocked with rope or leather in a crossing fashion.  Like the name implies you literally direct the horse by pulling out to the side.  This device is most effective when used with two hands spread wide apart.  It is great for establishing direction and teaching the horse to follow his nose.  It has poor release in the device itself relying on the mere cessation of pressure as the release.   This is a fairly gentle piece of equipment, not likely to damage a horse but it sure can dull one up.  Because it works just like it says it does and pulls the horse from side to side and has a poor release mechanism the horse ends up getting dragged around.  Because the horse can learn to ignore the pressure of this device it does not tend to stop very well either.  This is  not a bad choice for a broke horse on a trail ride but you will probably need to use another tool to get that horse broke enough to trust on the trail with a side pull alone.  I should also mention that with a side pull particularly you will want the horse’s teeth to be in good shape.  Because this device relies on direct pressure to the side of the horse’s face, points on the buccal surface of the upper molars will be particularly painful.   The side pull is a tool developed for starting horses and creating direction.  It is not an advanced means of communicating with your horse.  It is like trying to write a symphony with a crayon and is inappropriate for Cowboy Dressage.  This device, though kind offers a poor means of communication. 

Dr. Cook’s Bit less Bridle

Dr. Cook has probably the most popular of the bit less options.  This a system that creates pressure across the jaw on the opposite side of the pulling rein by crossing straps that go from the poll to the opposite side of the horse’s face.  It is billed to have better stopping power than either a bosal or a side pull by creating a submit response, without pain, to the entire head of the horse.  They call it a whole head hug.   Because it creates pressure on the opposite side of the horse, similar to the side pull it works similarly only directing the pressure instead of to just the side of the jaw to the entire length of the opposite jaw and poll.   It is a more effective tool of communication than the side pull without quite the same tendency to dull the horse due to the pressure along the entire length of the horse’s head.  The signal and release in this device would be similar to the side pull without great release because you are relying on those leather straps to slide through the rings as your release.  This tool would be a better choice for a bit less option for a trained horse rather than for completing a horse’s training.  Because the pressure on the rein affects the off side of the horse, movement of the shoulders through rein aids would be muddled and it is therefore not an appropriate choice for Cowboy Dressage.  For a recreational rider with a trained horse, this is probably a good choice of bit less bridle. 

I’m not even going to disgrace the topic by including halters as a bit less bridle option.  Halters are meant for leading and groundwork communication and are as inappropriate for good riding as underpants are for a board meeting.  Don’t disgrace yourself or your horse by riding around in your underwear. 

Because proper communication is part of being kind to your horse, bit less bridles are not always a very kind option. You can say very nice things to someone underwater and it won’t mean anything because they can’t hear you.  Using some of the tools above is like talking underwater to your horse. When creating a partnership with your horse it is essential to establish clear and concise communication as well as stay true to the tradition of the Cowboy lifestyle that we are honoring.  We do this by choosing equipment that helps us to do that.  Ultimately it is not the equipment that determines whether it is kind or harsh anyway,  it’s the hands of the rider.  Cowboy Dressage is here to help you develop soft feel and good communication with your horse through proper use of traditional Western tack.  While there are good and varied reasons to choose a bit less option, Cowboy Dressage will ask for more communication than is typically offered by these tack choices. Just remember,  it takes a far superior horseman to ride in a bridle than it does to ride without one.