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.