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.