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.