Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering 2015: Here's what you missed.

If you weren't at the Murieta Equestrian Center, in Ranch Murieta, California last week for the Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering, I hope you at least took advantage of the live streaming, because history was made.  Cowboy Dressage has been at the forefront of a revolution in equine competitions and equestrian lifestyle and this weekend we made a giant step forward in showing the world what is possible when you focus on riding with softness, lightness and partnership with your equine companion.

As always the gathering was populated with wonderful people and horses that had traveled from all corners of the world.  There were riders representing states including, California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and probably a few others that I missed.  The Canadians were very well represented and I'm sure will have a time at the border crossing explaining all the "loot" they are taking home!  Great Britain, Poland, Germany and Australia were also represented.  It truly was a gathering of the Cowboy Dressage World.  It didn't matter where you hailed from because Cowboy Dressage looks the same no matter where you go.  It always looks soft.

All kinds of horses were represented as well.  Morgans were there in high numbers, but so were Quarter horses, Appaloosas, Paints, Arabians, Ponies, Saddlebreds, Mustangs, Fjords, Haflingers, Tennessee Walkers, Pasos, Rocky Mountain Horses, and others I'm sure I missed.

Riders of all ages were competing.  In the Silver (over 60) age group, the competition was fierce, and the youth riders were battling it out in their division as well.  Cowboy Dressage truly is for every horse and every rider interested in cultivating kindness and soft feel.

The 28 Top Hand Competitors 
The big history making event at this year's final gathering though, was the Top Hand competition.  This was the first year for this elite competition for Cowboy Dressage's top competitors to all throw their hats into the same ring.  Each rider rode the same test, W/J/L 2.  This test on the surface doesn't look terribly difficult.  It requires many of the standard maneuvers that many of our CD tests ask for.  The killer maneuver in this test is what we call the "bow tie".  This asks for the horse to lope half of a 20 m circle then change direction over the ground poles on the short diagonal with a lead change through the jog within the box (8-a-gon) then another half of a 20 m circle holding that lead through the box and then transitioning to a working jog.  It sounds easy enough until you try to ride it.  Out of the 28 horses and riders that ended up competing in the Top Hand, probably only a handful managed their two trips through the bow tie without a bauble.  That one maneuver requires such timing, softness and precision to execute perfectly that it really separates the cream from the milk.

After watching the first round of the competition most of us were trying to figure out who would make the top 10.  It was a difficult task.  Since virtually no one had been completely perfect it would come down to who had the most perfect ride and how heavily the judges penalized the different maneuvers.  It's also supposed to come down to soft feel and partnership, but I would have to say that for the most part, that element was universal as all of the riders exhibited with soft feel and partnership, even those that had come that were new to Cowboy Dressage.

Megan Gallager
When the top 10 finalists were announced, we were still in the dark trying to guess who the top five final competitors would be.  Cowboy Dressage World kept us all on the edge of our seats waiting until right before the moment they were going to have to ride onto that court to see who the top five were.  Once they were announced, then a Calcutta was offered and each rider was auctioned off to the highest bidder.  As each rider was being bid on they did their best to put on a show of their best horsemanship and the training that their horses had attained.  A couple of the riders removed bridles, did sliding stops, spins, lead changes, all in front of the screaming audience while, I'm sure, trying to go over the test they are about to ride in their heads.
Richard Winters

It was at that moment, watching the top 5 folks out in the ring that I realized how very far I still have to go.  There was not a doubt in my mind that any one of those talented riders and obedient, soft, willing horses had what it took to be the Top Hand.  All 5 of those teams were calm, cool, collected and rode like they had ice in their veins.  I was sweating and fidgeting in the stands for them as I watched my friends get ready to ride.  It was impossible to know who to root for so we rooted for them all.
Rebecca Worth 

Each of the riders had amazing rides on their horses in their next test, which was a brand new test to all of us.  This test again, had all of the elements we've all ridden before but in different order with shorter quicker transitions than we had seen before.  Those quick transitions, when riding with soft feel and lightness can be difficult to execute with precision, and it was completely gratifying to see them all do it well.  The field was pretty much wide open after the first go and then the real fun began as they drew to swap horses.

Jenni Purcell
The final 5 horses were as different as can be as a group.  There was a Paint, a Morgan, and three Quarter horses who were all different types of quarter horses.  The competitors had 2 minutes to ride their new mount, at a walk before the testing began.  Then right before their test they had another 2 minutes before their bell rang and they rode into the court.

You could have heard a pin drop in that arena.  We collectively held our breath as each rider rode in.  Then as they transitioned to the lope you could see cowboy hats bobbing in time as we all rode each stride with them.  The long test seemed to take forever and the stress was palpable, keeping us rooted to our seats watching each rider's go.

When the dust settled and it was all said and done, it came down to who had the best go on the horse that they drew.  Our Top Hand rider, Megan Gallagher had an amazing ride on both her Morgan and the beautiful Quarter Horse that belonged to Richard Winters.  Megan exhibits everything that the Top Hand rider should.  She is a kind, wonderful lady and an excellent horsewoman.  Her ride on Richard's horse was soft, quiet, and gorgeous.  She is what we are all striving to be.  Any one of those top 5 riders could have been the top hand, honestly.  The differences in scores between them all were minute, I'm sure, as were the points between all the top hand riders.
Marcia Moore Harrison

When we first dreamed up the Top Hand competition this is exactly what we were hoping for.  It was a stunning exhibition in soft feel and partnership and it brought in folks from far and wide that had never shown Cowboy Dressage before.

So, where does Cowboy Dressage World go from here?  This was our 3rd Final Gathering and we had 980 rides.  Cowboy Dressage continues to grow and bring in new members of our Cowboy Dressage Handshake family.  We now have an E-learning program in place that can reach an even larger audience for people that are struggling to build a Cowboy Dressage community in their area.  We are progressing towards establishing a regional gathering circuit as we build events in more and more areas.  New next year will also be a combined clinician and judges training course so that more and more judges are available for the growing number of events and clinicians trained to teach to the Cowboy Dressage World standards.

Cowboy Dressage is here to stay.  This isn't a fad.  This is a revolution in how people and horses in the western community communicate with each other and their horses and it is world wide.  What started with dreams of just one man and one horse has now spread to encompass the entire world.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Cowboy Dressage Arena Exercises

When I was in 3rd grade I started learning how to play the violin.  In my very first week of violin lessons we learned the basic scales.  Then for the next 5 years that I actively played the violin we started each lesson by warming up with the scales.  That elementary exercise was just as important when we were playing Ode to Joy as it was when we were playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

There are some basic elementary exercises that I use in Cowboy Dressage that are the same as that scale for the violin player.  Each time I practice with my horse I start with some combination of these basic exercises before moving onto more advanced maneuvers.  They serve to get the muscles warmed up evenly, help to establish communication between horse and rider and check the horse's balance and movement before the day's work begins.  

1. Partnership on the Ground.  For my horses, I always start with just a little bit of Partnership on the Ground.  It may be just a few driving circles where I change the bend a few times, or it may be running through the entire Partnership on the Ground Test 1.  I've found that it helps me to sync my energy to the horse's energy before I even put my foot in the stirrup.  It allows the horse to tell me before I get on if something is bothering him.  Sometimes this part of my day will take 3 minutes, sometimes it takes 20 minutes.  It varies depending on my goals for the day, my time schedule (unfortunately) and the horse.  But you should always start your day and your partnership on the ground.  It really improves the quality of partnership you will receive from your horse when you step into the saddle.  I don't do groundwork because my horses aren't "broke enough" for me to just step on.  I do groundwork because my horses are broke enough that it matters where our heads are at in the game.  When partnership and soft feel are your goal, you'd be crazy to forgo anything that would enhance that partnership when you step into the saddle.

2.  Free Walk.  I always start with at least a lap of free walk.  Again, this for me is about syncing my energy to the horse.  It allows the horse and I to establish a cadence, a feel for what the energy is between us that day and for the horse to loosen up and get settled to his environment.  With my colts, it gives them a chance to check the arena for boogie men before I start asking for more concentration and effort with more difficult maneuvers.  I tend to sing, whistle, yodel, bee-bop, anything to help my horses just settle into the day's exercises ahead of us.  Having music on in the arena is a plus!! 

3. One handed 10 m Figure 8.  If we have our challenge court set up I like to do this exercise with my 10 m circles at H and M so I can utilize the poles and cones.  If I'm on the regular court I like to do this exercise at 8 with my circles at B and E.  It doesn't matter a whit where you do it, I suppose,  as long as your goal is to soften and shorten your horse laterally one side at a time.   Establish bend on your horse by shortening just the inside rein to a 10 m bend and then dropping your hand to the withers. There should be no pressure on the outside rein for this exercise.  Create the bend with your body with your inside leg at the front cinch and your outside leg back towards the flank.  Ride the bend forward.  When you complete one circle, change hands and rein, change your hips/legs and ride the bend forward in the other 10 m circle.  For young/green horses I like to really help them through the change of bend by riding straight for 2-3 strides before shifting my aids to the other circle.  This creates more of a double D shape than a figure 8.

There are many wonderful things that happen during this exercise when you do it properly.  First of all you soften the horse laterally and warm up those muscles.  This is an excellent exercise for introducing or working on soft feel because you are working just one rein at a time.  The goal of this exercise is not to hold the horse in bend but to ask the horse to hold himself in bend within your aids.  If your horse is hanging on your hand or you feel any rein pressure at all, put some life in that rein and ask that horse to look for the soft feel.  When he comes off that rein pressure make sure your hand is quiet and not pulling on him.  That is his release.  In this exercise the rein does not establish direction, it only establishes bend.  Your seat and legs help the horse create the circle that you have started by asking for bend with the rein.  If the horse falls to the inside of the circle, get your inside leg active.  If the horse drifts out of the circle, get your outside leg active.  If the horse is following your soft feel and staying on the circle make sure your aids are soft and quiet to reward him.   The energy and cadence of the walk is established by your seat.  Resist the urge to push your horse along with your legs or bump him forward with every stride.  If you need more energy and your horse isn't listening to your seat, ask with both legs once with purpose, don't nag!  Get in and get out and return to riding quietly so the horse seeks the quiet soft spot between your aids.

4. Big Circle, Little Circle:  This is a variation of the one handed figure 8.  After the horse has established good soft quality bend in the figure 8, I like to firmly establish body control with my seat and leg aids by shrinking the circle to about 5 m.  After riding a quality 10 m circle to the right, when I come back to the center I will shrink that circle in to 5 m with my outside leg then take the horse back to the 10 m circle with my inside leg.    

5.  Long Diagonals: There are several things I work on in this exercise.  Gait quality, transitions, 10 m bend and soft feel in the working gait and rein management for the rider.  You can do this exercise at both the walk and the jog.  Let's start at K in the free walk.  Get a good quality free walk with energy, lengthening of the stride and stretching of the top line.  Before you reach M, begin to pick up just your inside rein.  At M apply inside leg and still your energy for the transition to the 10 m bend.  Outside leg helps keep the horse from drifting too deep in the corner.  Hold the bend to Y then pick up the outside rein to ask the horse to go straight to Q in the working walk.  At Q lengthen the outside rein, hold the inside rein through the 10 m bend then lengthen rein to the long frame in the free walk at H.  Repeat when you get to F.  If you struggle with rein management and lengthening and shortening your reins without snatching at them this exercise will help you to think about the lengthening and shortening in more of a step wise fashion.  It's also great for horses that are bothered when asked to hold soft feel in the working frame for a long period of time.  That short 10 m is just enough to ask them to hold it with softness before they get bothered. 

6. B/E 20m and 10 m nested circles.  This particular exercise probably has as much to do with my geldings current state of mind as all of the other exercises put together.  My horse was a terrible rusher in the free jog.  Working with nested circles is an excellent tool for those horses that tend to get up a head of steam in the free jog rather than relaxing and stretching like they are supposed to! This is also the exercise that I personally find the most useful when preparing my horse for lope transitions.  Begin with a 10 m circle at either the working walk or working jog at either B or E.  Then step directly into the 20 m circle in the free jog.  Remember to maintain bend.  Don't do too much steering and LET THE HORSE GO.  If the horse speeds up and begins to get too fast, worried, or bothered, sit, quit posting, pick up the inside rein (with soft feel, don't snatch!) and ask for a 10 m circle in a working jog.  Wait for the horse to come back to a quality working jog and then return to the free jog like nothing happened.  For the really rushy or worried horses I find doing a 10 m circle at not only B and E but I and D helps to keep the horse from getting too fast too quickly. 

To be successful at this exercise you have to learn to prepare the horse for the transitions from free jog to working jog.  If you wait until your stirrup is already at the marker you will be too late, pull the rein too hard and yank the horse into an unbalanced 10 m circle.  Instead, sit a stride or two before the marker, breathe out, shorten the inside rein while applying inside leg and at the marker apply outside leg to ask the horse to enter the bend.  

Once you are successful and the horse is transitioning with from free jog to working jog with soft feel going one direction, change direction through 8 changing bend in the working jog and repeat the exercise going the other direction.

Remember that the key to lightness and soft feel is the release.  In the words of the great Jack Brainard, "Thou shalt not dwell with either leg or rein." If you feel like you are hanging onto your horse, kicking your horse or pushing your horse into frame think about your aids.  Are you maybe doing too much?  Most riders are.  Try doing less and ask your horse to meet you in the middle.

There are many many more exercises that you can do using the Cowboy Dressage court, but these few basic exercises are part of our everyday warm up routine.  Your horse is never too broke or too advanced to forgo a visit back to the fundamentals! Don't forget your scales before your concerto!


Sunday, October 11, 2015

It's Time

Tomorrow I have to mail out my entry forms for the final Cowboy Dressage Gathering of the year.  We all tend to call it "finals" but it's really just the last show of the season.  In Cowboy Dressage you don't have to qualify to show at "finals".  It's not a gathering of only the best of us.  It's more of a family reunion.  It's the time of year that we can all get together, celebrate our triumphs for the year and share our goals in horsemanship for the year to come.

This year there is added excitement to the final Gathering as it is the first year for the much publicized and promoted "Top Hand" competition.  This is meant to be a calling to arms of sorts for the folks out there that have been walking the walk and talking the talk.  Let's put you all in the same arena, with the same test and the same judges and see how the scores shake out.  It's a time to be honoring those among us that are truly embracing and showcasing what Cowboy Dressage is all about.

Which is not competition.

You see, it's a double edged sword.  In the Cowboy Dressage community we truly are a welcoming, come one come all group of horse folk.  I know you've heard that before, but really and truly, this is the place for anybody who seeks a better relationship with their horse.  We will all tell you again and again it is not about the competition.  And it's not.  Really.

But, sometimes it takes the crucible of competition to push those that are striving for the absolute best to reach just a bit higher.  Early on in the year I decided that my horse and I just weren't quite Top Hand material.  We had made enormous strides in softness and partnership, but in my opinion, I still had so far to go, that the Top Hand competition seemed out of reach.

I told myself I would see how my summer show season went, see how we stacked up and then decide.  So, that's what I did.  I had one phenomenal show, where I felt my partnership and soft feel with my horse were better than ever and then I had one where my soft feel and partnership left the building.

It was after the second show that I decided this wasn't the year.  So I gave my horse essentially a month off while I worked my colt and thought maybe I could take him to finals in place of my older gelding who can't always keep it together in the show ring.  That way the question of should I or should I not enter Top Hand was firmly and safely out of my head; clearing the way for unobstructed and pure horsemanship, or so I thought.

Maybe it's just me, but if I don't have a specific goal I am working towards, I tend to drift a bit.  I had worked very hard in the months before my summer shows getting my gelding ready.  But when I decided to forgo both Top Hand and taking him to the Final Gathering my direction got muddled.  I didn't have the same goals with my colt, thinking I would just do Partnership on the Ground and a few easy W/J classes at the final Gathering.

Suddenly it's the end of September and the time for really choosing who and what I would be showcasing at the Final Gathering was upon us.  Time to make a decision.  I decided to just try the test for Top Hand and see where I was.  No harm there, right?  I had purposely NOT been even looking at or reading the qualifying test for Top Hand all summer thinking that it wasn't our year and would just distract us from our goals. What I found is that I wasn't as far off as I thought I was.  So, that planted the seed that maybe, just maybe, I should be working on this Top Hand thing.

So, the past few weeks I have been training and working harder than I have all summer.  I have been concentrating on soft feel and working on partnership and accuracy in an attempt to prepare my horse for the competition that I had decided that I wasn't ready for.

Here is what I have learned from that experience:

1.  Because it's Cowboy Dressage and Soft Feel and Partnership are always at the forefront, you CANNOT take short cuts.  You maybe able to ride the test, but until you can ride the test with softness, bend, cadence, accuracy AND partnership you aren't ready.

2. I am 100% goal oriented. Without a concrete goal and benchmark, I am adrift in my horsemanship.  I know this isn't true for everybody but thank goodness for the competition side of Cowboy Dressage.  If I had to just get good at 10 m bend for the sake of being good at 10 m bend without somebody somewhere saying just how good I am at 10 m bend I don't know if I would ever get as good at it as I can.  When there is no finish line, good enough becomes good enough.

3.  I am my own worse critic.  So many times I end a ride disappointed and frustrated only to have my friends say, "wow, he looked great!".  Sometimes you have to reward the good to get to the great.

4.   Most of us will never attain greatness without somebody else pushing us to get there.  Competition does this for us.

So while Cowboy Dressage is not at all about the competition, competition is how I personally will someday (I hope!) attain greatness.   I have worked harder these past few weeks than I did all summer.  It's not that I am striving for a goal or a prize so much as I am striving to be worthy of even riding along side the folks riding for that prize.  That is the magic of the competitive venue.

The unique part about Cowboy Dressage and what sets it apart from all the other forms of equine competition is that folks that have not established soft feel and partnership will not fare well in the competition.  Like any good interpersonal relationship, trust, partnership and harmony take time and patience.  It's going to be a real treat to watch the Top Hand Competition this year.  It should be a showcase of softness.  Will we be in the running?  I guess you better come and watch to find out!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cowboy Dressage on the Beach

Northwest Saddle Sisters

Ask any horse owner what their one dream place to ride their horse is and you will likely get the same answer.  Within every single equestrian I've ever met is the dream and desire to ride your horse splashing through the ocean waves.  The ocean is romantic, mesmerizing, constant and yet ever changing.  For a group of in-landers like us it was a siren song. 

For our annual Cowboy Dressage Cowgirl retreat this year we chose an ocean side destination. Ocean Acres, in Grayland, Washington is a unique place that caters to horse people infected with the crazy desire to gallop in the waves.   Though only one of the horses in our group had seen the ocean before, many of the horses were very well seasoned trail horses that have crossed rivers, swam in lakes and have experienced all the vast changes in terrain and footing that the western mountains can provide.  Most of us were confident that our horses would have little problem adjusting to a little sand and waves.

We couldn't have been more wrong. 

The beach is at once both the most perfect place to ride and the most challenging place to ride.  Had we not had the experience and wisdom of our clinician, Dale Rumens-Partee, I am convinced I would be writing to tell you all about the group of us charging headlong across the sand towards the water on our seasoned trail mounts only to wind up being dumped quickly in the romantically crashing waves.

So, for those of you who dream of galloping through the ocean waves, but may not have the benefit of either seasoned horses or an experienced guide, let me at least forewarn you of the pitfalls of rushing out onto the beach without properly exposing your horse to the environment.
Our fearless leader, Dale Rumens-Partee and her lovely saddlebred, Buc

First of all, there is a lot of space.  That alone can really unsettle some horses, especially those horses that spend their lives in the trees and mountains like many of ours do.  While some horses won't be bothered the shear amount of horizon to keep your eye on can put some horses on their guard.  The best way to help your horse deal with all that space is to keep them focused on a small part of it.  So, our group did a lot of circles, serpentines, and figure 8's helping our horses to retain their focus on a small chunk of real estate in front of them.  I so wanted to just stop and stare at all that open space as soon as we reached the edge of the beach, and so did Chico, but I could feel him getting a little worried about it.  As soon as he had a job to focus on the worry and extra energy left his body and he was able to relax. 

Sand is a weird footing.  It is constantly shifting and moving, blowing, clumping, sucking and changing.  The dry sand is difficult for the horses to walk in and until they are used to it can be very hard on their tendons.  If they see something that worries them and feel the need to move quickly they can get bogged down in that deep sand and step all over themselves.  So, the best tactic is to again, keep them moving forward in a controlled manner.  The deep sand is excellent for working on bend and softening them laterally.  They already want to shorten their stride to deal with the deep sand, so shortening them laterally naturally bends them around your inside leg.  Far more than any other place I've ridden you really do need to ride every step of the way on the beach.  As you move closer to the water the dry sand turns into wet sand providing better footing, but it's a different feel for the horses.  Quite a few of the horses in our group were bothered by the way the sand changes colors when you step on it.  Then when you do work your way into the waves, the sand gets pulled out from under their feet. 

The waves both make noise and move, which is the magic combination to induce the flight response in horses.  Luckily, they also retreat.  As the waves are drawing out, that is the ideal time to ask your horse to follow them.  If you can get your timing right you can follow the waves out and then step into the back of the wave so your horse is walking suddenly in the shallow surf.  Beware the wave coming on the heels of the first, though.  That crashing white wall of surf looks solid to the horse and they will bolt out of it to dry land in a hurry.  If one of your buddies is standing there, it becomes a fun game of bumper horses. When riding in a group it's important to keep an open exit strategy.  The horse blowing sideways out of the wave won't be looking at the horse he's running over, he's focused on the wave trying to touch his feet. Constantly asking your horse to check back in with you is a test of any good partnership.  If you can keep your horse feeling back to you, it will strengthen your partnership and your horse's trust in you.  Of course, that's if you keep him out of trouble!  Don't jeopardize your partnership by scaring your horse into the water.  Don't expose him to more than he can handle at one time.
Me and my Morgan horse, Chico

Another challenging thing about the ocean is that it can cause motion sickness if you are standing in the waves and watching them.  It's an odd enough sensation for a person, but it happens to the horse as well.  If the horse spends too much time standing still or watching the waves he may become disoriented. For most horses that will result in him going over backwards.  Always keep forward movement when in the waves.

So, if the waves sound like too much of a challenge, and you would rather stay on the sand, there are still plenty of things to keep you on your toes.  If it's low tide, there are often puddles of water on what looks like mostly level beach.  Some of these can be deceivingly deep.  Approach these with caution.  The kelp beds at the high tide line can also be a challenge.  I don't know if it's the smell or the feel of that kelp but it bothers quite a few of the horses.  The long tentacles of seaweed can be a challenge both in the water and on the shore.  Those can whip around a horse's leg and suddenly you have a horse caught in a long dragging scary monster rope.  Then there is the detritus of old pallets with nails in them hidden under the sand, driftwood, dead birds, sharks, fish, crabs, etc. 

If you are on a section of beach that is used by other folks, not on horseback, you will find a number of other challenges.  Kites are wonderful fun for horses.  They swoop and dive and whoosh and if you get too close, can suddenly hit the ground next to your horse.  The savvy horseman watches the kites, makes a judgement on the length of that kite string and stays a reasonable distance away from them.  Loose dogs, kids, motorbikes, etc are all reasonable challenges that most horses have encountered outside of the beach but when coupled with the other challenges mentioned above add an extra dimension.
This pack of kites was right along side the area we set up our first Cowboy Dressage court. I was standing at P when I took this picture. 
If you're reaching for a white out pen to edit your Equine Bucket List, reach no further.  Being aware of the pitfalls is the first step.  Like any other challenge for your horse, you can help your horse deal with the chaos in a constructive manner.  Keeping your horse focused and engaged helps you redirect any excess energy.  That deep sand is great for getting them sucking wind in a hurry (just be careful of those tendons!).  And once you have experienced the joy of jogging and trotting figures on miles and miles of perfect beach you will realize that the real fun of riding at the beach isn't the romantic gallop through the waves, it's the abundance of perfect footing for schooling your horse and redirecting his energy back to you and therefore strengthening your partnership and harmony with each figure 8, circle, serpentine and straight line that you do. 
Establishing our center line in the sand

When you find a section of pristine beach with perfect footing it's the perfect time to make use of that area for riding with accuracy.  You can quickly sketch out a Cowboy Dressage court and it's fun to establish the track and long and short diagonals to help really visualize the court geometry, especially if you are still struggling with learning that. We packed a few lengths of string with us to set up the court.  Two 10m strings and one 5m string allowed us to quickly outline the boundary of our court. Then we rode around the track of the court in single file to get a good solid line in the sand.  We also rode the long and short diagonals and the quarter lines.  This helped us to establish some straightness and was instrumental in teaching the basic pattern of the court to those of the girls that were new to it. From there we moved to riding circles until the sand got too deep and we moved on to a clean chunk of beach.
Our first court, standing at A and looking towards C

Even if you do not set up a court, you have your tracks in the sand to hold you accountable.  Riding out on a circle and then trying to keep to that circle with bend in all that open space is a challenge for horse and rider.  All that sand is also a wonderful place to work on straight lines.  You may feel like you are riding straight but those tracks in the sand don't lie.  That one spot you thought your horse maybe looked to the right you may see your tracks take a big bobble to the left.  Keeping the horse centered beneath you is even more challenging with all the distractions the beach can provide.  And if you have been having trouble with any of the lateral movements like shoulder in, haunches in leg yields and have pass, and have been trying to visualize the "tracks" we talk about with those maneuvers, that sand makes it easy to see.  You can look back over your tracks in the sand and see right were they went from two tracks, to three tracks to four tracks.   I feel like I got more accomplished in preparing and training my horse for the Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering in November this past weekend on the beach than I did the entire month of August on our court at home.

Those of you lucky enough to live near a beach, I hope you take advantage of that amazing footing and great partnership building as often as you can.  The Northwest Saddle Sisters are already planning our next trip back.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Culture of Cowboy Dressage

One of things that continues to impress folks that are brand new to Cowboy Dressage and the Gatherings is the culture they encounter at these events. We hear over and over again, "I've never experienced anything like this!"

Every equine discipline has it’s unique feel.  A barrel race isn’t going to feel anything like a dressage show and an open horse show feels much different than a regional breed show.  Cowboy Dressage has it’s own very different feel and environment and the one thing that each person new to Cowboy Dressage will tell you after their first event is that it is universally welcoming.

There is a feeling of calmness, ease and quiet at a Cowboy Dressage Gathering.  It feels like family, even if you are brand new because everybody is so anxious to warmly welcome you into the family.  From the Gathering secretaries to the grounds men to each and every participant you find smiling helpful faces. 

Is it an act?  Horse people, especially horse show people, aren’t generally known for being overly friendly.  Are all these people just putting on a friendly face?  Not in the least.  Cowboy Dressage is built on the premise of kindness.  Kindness to horses.  Kindness to each other.  Softness and lightness and joy suffuse the environment at a Cowboy Dressage Gathering. 

Besides the happy and welcoming environment created by the people, newcomers will also be surprised that there isn’t a “look” to a Gathering.  You will find all manner of horses, people, tack, and attire.  Each person feels free to embrace whatever “Cowboy” means to them.  Never has such an eclectic bunch ever mingled in one arena! You’ll see some of the more common western show attires from folks coming from the Western Pleasure world.  You’ll see youth riders in their favorite (and probably only ;) ) button up shirt.  You’ll see wild rags, bolo ties, neckerchiefs, bow ties, or regular ties.  You’ll see reining saddles, trail saddles, show saddles, roping saddles and barrel saddles.  You’ll see snaffles, bosals, two handed western bits and spades. You'll see jeans, riding skirts, chaps, chinks and armitas.  As long as it's "cowboy" it'll fly! 

Because Cowboy Dressage welcomes one and all there is no “look” that you can point your finger to and say, that looks like a Cowboy Dressage rider or horse;  with one very distinct exception.

Each and every person looks happy, excited to be there and excitedly nervous, but not overly pressured.  This is a low key environment from the regional shows to our “Final Gathering”.  The horses are happy and quiet and obedient.  The warm up pen is a friendly gathering of friends riding together.  The judges are warm and welcoming and encouraging.  Please, thank you and you’re welcome ring out in the arena. If you make a mistake during your test, you can stop and the judge will help you find your spot so you can start over.  At the last Gathering I was complimenting a lady on her nice soft ride.  She had also lost her way during her test, had to go back and start over from the last letter missed.  She was flustered and upset about it and I told her (and so did the judge) that it just didn't matter.  She came up to me later with her 2nd place ribbon absolutely thrilled.  She couldn't believe she could mess up, restart her test and still score second in the class.  When soft feel and partnership and gaits are more important than individual maneuvers, you bet you can! 

Another distinct difference is that many of these horses that come to do Cowboy Dressage have another job that they do.  Their other job may be as show horses in another discipline, but most of them are also trail horses, lesson horses, ranch horses or pleasure horses.  It makes for happier horses overall.  You don’t see horses at Cowboy Dressage Gatherings that pull back, rear, buck, kick, or act out.  In general, the worst behavior problems we deal with in Cowboy Dressage is separating buddy horses, but because in Cowboy Dressage we are all about the horse, this simply isn’t an issue.  Every rider is allowed a horse or two if needed to accompany a nervous horse into the arena.  The environment is kept quiet and peaceful for the horses and for the people.

As a veterinarian, horse shows can be a very busy environment to be a part of.  I’ll admit to keeping my presence as quiet as possible at open shows when I am there to show my own horse.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost been late to enter my own class because somebody’s horse threw a tantrum in the trailer/stall/cross ties and needs to be sutured up so they don’t miss their class.  The end of the show was always a busy time as well as folks struggled to load unwilling horses and called on me and my drugs to help them.

Of course, horses are horses and anything can happen at any time, but the quiet, calm environment that we create for horse and rider at Cowboy Dressage Gatherings, means these incidents are exceedingly rare.   

The Cowboy Dressage culture is one of "come one, come all".  We want you to be a part of the revolution taking place in horsemanship.  There is room for everybody interested in softness, partnership, and harmony.  Even if you never plan to show, there is a group of people out there waiting for someone just like you to come and join the ride.  So, saddle up!  C'mon, we've got places to go, horses to ride, and people to meet!  

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Back in the Snaffle Again

Last year at this time I was proudly riding my Morgan straight up in the bridle.  I had worked hard, prepared him as best I could and was pleased at the results I got when I finally put that big ol' bit in his mouth and started riding him one handed.  For the most part he performed really well and I thought our days of snaffle and hackamore were behind us. Indeed at that time I was operating under the premise that once you put a horse in the bridle you never went backwards, only forwards,a common belief for those following the vaquero bridle horse tradition.  
Then we traveled down to the Cowboy Dressage final gathering to compete in our first ever Cowboy Dressage show.  I thought we were doing pretty well, but my horse was nervous and I found I had a little more horse than I had anticipated.  Because I was riding one handed in my big ol' fancy bit I found myself unable to help my horse through the show.  All I could do was increase pressure and lift on that bit causing over bridling, bracing and loss of bend and my soft feel scores suffered for it.  By the end of the show I had put my horse back in a hackamore which helped but I still couldn't get that pretty bend and extension of gait and relaxation that the judges are looking for in Cowboy Dressage. 

The next spring we went down to ride with Eitan for a week of Cowboy Dressage school.  The first thing Eitan did was suggest I might try going back to the snaffle to fix some of the holes in my horse.  As a proponent for the vaquero tradition and proud hackamore and bridle horsewoman I was crushed.  How could I hold my head up proudly and ride my bridle horse back in the snaffle??  I thought those days were far behind us. 

But what a difference it has made in my horse.  When you are trying to establish soft communication and build lightness and create bend, there is nothing better.  Don't get me wrong, I love my bosals but I am not horseman enough to get the kind of bend and softness you can create with a snaffle out of a bosal.  The bosal is also difficult to establish the concept of light contact.  It's meant as a bump and signal device. Holding constant pressure on a bosal does not create soft feel it desensitizes the horse to the bosal. 

As I travel around helping folks to discover Cowboy Dressage I hear all kinds of reasons why they cannot put their horse back into a snaffle. I used many of those same excuses myself.  The horse is pushy and heavy.  The horse runs off.  He doesn't like the snaffle and chews on it all the time.  He's too old.  My trainer doesn't like it. Et cetera; ad naseum.  I get it.  I didn't want to admit that I had missed some key things and go back into the snaffle either.  I'm telling you that going back to basics is the only way you can fix basic problems.

The snaffle is unique in that it has 3 points of contact on that rather simple bit.  At the top of the bit you make contact with the commisures of the mouth and lips.  This raises the horse's head and helps shift the weight to the hind quarters.  You can use the top of the bit to help a horse that has learned to dive down and avoid bit contact.  You can also use the top of the bit to slow a horse that is rushing.  I'm not talking about a one rein stop but a quick upward pressure on the bit to rock the horse back and shorten the stride and help the horse rate back to your seat.  The middle of the bit is used as our director and bend creator.  The bottom of the bit is used to encourage a horse to stretch down and out and open his throat latch in the free gait.

The snaffle allows for the rider to clearly and gently express to the horse exactly what is expected.  Unlike a leverage bit, it applies pressure only where you apply pressure directly.  This simplifies the process of communication and makes it easier for the horse to follow that simple pressure.

While it is true that in Cowboy Dressage we allow and encourage the use of the two handed western bit, if you are having trouble in the snaffle, moving up to a leverage bit isn't likely to fix your problems.  Leverage bits are great for creating a little more finished look to your horse, Ideally you can ride a leverage bit with less cue and movement of the reins making your horse look more refined.  In Cowboy Dressage when we are asking you to ride with light contact on the reins some horses are so light and sensitive that they will hide from that bit.  Perhaps they don't entirely trust the rider's hands or have long been ridden with a large droop in the rein.  It's difficult to get these horses to ride with light contact.  The snaffle can help the horse to learn to trust your hands again and to seek your hands in the communication. 

Soft feel is of number one importance in Cowboy Dressage.  In order for Soft Feel to be working properly it must be a two way communication between you and your horse.  Those lines of communication are established through the light feel of the reins.  When you ride with a completely loose rein with no contact the horse has to rely on the rest of your body for soft feel.  Not impossible, but not the goal of Cowboy Dressage.  We want to use our entire set of aids together softly to create the perfect partnership.  Learning how to properly establish Soft Feel through the reins is elemental in Cowboy Dressage and as important as learning where a 10 m circle goes on the court.  You can't move forward in your journey to softness without having a firm grasp on those elemental concepts. 

The changes in my horse this year have been astronomical.  We have learned to trust each other again, and he has learned to softly follow my feel.  I will eventually be able to move back into the bridle again; wearing that silver proudly is our ultimate goal, but it won't mean a thing if we can't ride together with softness, bend and precision.  Until I feel he is 100% ready, we are staying right were we are.  

Monday, June 29, 2015

Cowboy Dressage as Physical Therapy

As a veterinarian, one of the things that I love most about Cowboy Dressage is that it is the ONLY equine discipline that I can think of that I believe is actually good for the horse's body.  Nobody that rides and loves horses truly wishes them harm.  Of course the things that we ask our horses to do put unnatural stresses on our horse's bodies and minds.  The horse wasn't truly meant to naturally carry a person.  We have evolved in concert with the horse, each shaping the evolutionary and cultural path of the other species through our interaction.  John Trotwood Moore said, "Wherever man has left his foot print in the long assent from barbarism to civilization, we find the hoof print of the horse beside it".  But, the conscientious horseman wants to leave the smallest human footprint on the horse as possible.

Within equine sports medicine specialties we recognize and categorize lameness and performance related injuries as they are associated with specific disciplines.  Barrel racers have hock issues.  Reiners have fetlock, hock, back and sacro-illiac issues.  Race horses have forelimb injuries.  Dressage horses experience cervical trauma (from Rolkur, generally).  Western pleasure horses have navicular pain.  It's tough being a horse and I treat all kinds of performance related injuries even in my humble rural practice.  When you ask your horse to be an athlete, some soreness is to be expected.  But, we can mitigate that damage with proper conditioning and balanced riding.

Let me tell you about my horse, Chico.  Chico is a 13 year old Morgan gelding.  He has performed in various equine sports with back country riding being our primary source of time under saddle until the past 2 years when we started focusing on our Cowboy Dressage training.  As a 10 year old, Chico began to develop uneven hoof growth.  I noticed what I called his "homey walk", especially in the winters without shoes.  When left barefoot without the constant correction offered by my farrier Chico began to be club footed on the left front hoof.  It was most marked in the winter months reaching over a 5% deviation from the left to right foot.  I could hear it in his foot fall pattern when he walked down the barn alley.  Imagine, if you will one of the characters from Fat Albert doing his exaggerated extra cool sauntering walk and the rhythm that would create.  That's the way he would walk.  There was no lameness per se and I couldn't track down a source of pain.  Flexion and x-rays were clean.  It was also about this time that I began to notice I was having trouble with saddle fit. My saddle seemed to suddenly ride low on his withers and often off to the right so that I felt like I was constantly having to adjust it back over to the left.  Massage and chiropractics helped only minimally. Chico continued to be off 2-4 degrees from the right to the left hoof on each trim.  My farrier would get the hooves even only to come back in 8 weeks to find them uneven again.

At no time did I feel this was a performance issue.  Chico never felt "off".  He was never lame or inconsistent in his gaits.  I knew something somewhere was off but I'll be jiggered if I could figure out what.

Then last fall as I was preparing for the Cowboy Dressage final gathering in November and doing only Cowboy Dressage I noticed a marked change in my saddle fit after just one month.  Evenly and consistently working my horse's bend and lateral movements seemed to fix my saddle fit issues.  At the end of September I was struggling to find pad combinations that didn't cause whither rub and by the first of November I was having no trouble at all.

When I rode at Cowboy Dressage school in April with Eitan he noticed the "stickiness" in Chico's shoulders.  Chico has always been somewhat bracey through his shoulders.  We have struggled with it since he was two.  With Eitan's help I worked through much of that braceyness that week at CD school and have continued to exercise and work those shoulders since I have been home.  Eitan noticed Chico's stomping gait and we talked about the source of the problem but didn't really worry about it.  Like I said it's not a lameness, more of a mechanical or physical brace.

So this spring I have had little opportunity to do anything other than Cowboy Dressage with Chico.  I have been traveling and teaching and spreading the word about Cowboy Dressage since I came home.  With teaching and it being the veterinarian's busy season that has taken up all my time leaving no time for my coveted mountain riding.  My farrier was here today to reset our shoes before heading off into the mountains on our annual week long back country trip for which I feel woefully unprepared this year.

Maybe I am more prepared than I have ever been.  When my farrier checked Chico's feet, he was only off by 1 degree.  That's the first time in 3 years that he hasn't been off by as much as 4 degrees at a farrier visit.  The hollows that he has carried behind his withers for the past 3 years are gone.  He is even with excellent muscle tone through his entire body and top line like I have rarely seen him.  He is also quiet, content and happy mentally.

In researching the various associated causes of non congenital club foot in horses I have found that for Chico the most likely cause was due to voluntary pain contracture.  The horse, feeling some source of pain (rider imbalance, saddle fit, injury) moves away from the source of pain, carrying more weight on the opposite side and under weighting the affected "clubby" side.  This is a condition that becomes chronic and is exacerbated by muscle memory until it becomes the horse's normal way of travel.

I don't know for sure what caused Chico's voluntary pain contracture.  Perhaps saddle fit or poor rider balance (hey, I'm not infallible!) but the exercises and bending and stretching that I am asking him to do in Cowboy Dressage is without a doubt fixing it.  I have not had a change in saddle, rider or anything else other than discipline of choice that has created these changes in my horse.

Cowboy Dressage is like yoga for horses.  We ask our horses to softly and properly come into various body positions beginning with bend and the soft feel that we ask for in the working gaits followed by the downward stretching of the free gaits.  With properly training your horse's body and your hands and soft feel we can help our horses to rehabilitate after damage that was done in a different venue.  Veterinarians will likely never publish articles about the injuries associated with Cowboy Dressage horses.  We aren't going to make a lot of money keeping these horses sound.  Cowboy Dressage is going to do more for keeping Western performance horses sound than phenylbutazone has ever done.

I am passionate about Cowboy Dressage because I am passionate about the horse.  Keeping horses happy, healthy and mentally and physically sound may put this veterinarian out of business, but I'm okay with that.  That just gives me more time to ride my horse!!

Monday, May 25, 2015

What I learned in school: 1 Week With Eitan Beth-Helachmy

Dan and I were lucky enough to get to spend a week with Eitan and Debbie Beth-Helachmy at their beautiful Wolf Creek Ranch in Grass Valley, California in April.  There were five of us in this week of Cowboy Dressage school, Dale Rumens-Partee and her lovely assitant, Mackenzie Teal and the wonderful and always entertaining Susan from Australia. Of course since we got home everyone has been asking us to share what we learned.  Like most personal journeys on individual quests it's very hard to put into words, but I'm going to attemp to summarize the highlights, at least for me, from this amazing week of horsemanship, fellowship, and friendship.
Whisper and the geese under the tree

Wolf Creek Ranch is in a gorgeous setting;  nestled in a quiet valley between the hills with a creek running through it.  At least at this time of the year in early spring it is so vibrant and green it almost hurts the eyes.  It is carefully tended and so clean you hate to drop even a stem of hay.  We were greated as we pulled in by the stately presense of Santa Fe Renegade and his donkey Whisper romping in the big pasture with the Canadian geese.

E is for Easter Sunday! 
We arrived a day early to let the horses settle in and enjoyed Easter Sunday with a nice trail ride up the hill across from the ranch.  Eitan doesn't just plug down a flat trail, we climbed and climbed then descended through the oak trees down a leaf strewn slope.  It was excellent for getting the horse's hind quarters up and underneath them.  Not for the faint of heart or loose of cinch!  Mackenzie on big ol' Joe was riding holding onto his ears by the time we reached the bottom of the hill.  Quick time for saddle adjustment and then we were off again.
Eitan, Dale and Dan. Makenzie was fixing her saddle! 

Day 1 of school we rode in the outdoor arena which is lined by trees and creek.  The challenge court was set up and we used several of those obstacles for helping our horses establish bend.  We also worked on the short walk and short jog to improve our upward transistions and really soften our horses from head to tail.  If I had to pick a running theme for my time with Eitan it would be bend.

 Bend is so important and is the key to all of the other things that we ask our horses to do.  The Cowboy Dressage court has been designed to help us teach and build bend in our horses.  I was under the impression when I arrived at Wolf Creek Ranch that I understood bend, used bend, and had decent bend working for me and my horse.  I had barely touched the topic.  Bend is a full body exercise for horse and rider.  Working on bend is like taking a pilates and yoga course.  It is mentally and physically exhausting for both horse and rider to master the elements of bend and lateral movements.
We kept our sessions on our horses relatively short by standard clinic schedules.  We rode from 9-noon and often 1:30 or 2:00-4:00 in the afternoons.  I couldn't have taken much more than that, and I don't think my horse could either.  After our daily sessions in the arena, Eitan would call it quits and tell us to head out for a quick trail ride to jump some logs, ride through the creek or gallop in the field.  Recess to refuel our minds and loosen our horses.  Repetitive drilling gets to be counter productive for both horse and rider.

Me and Chico jumping the big log

Dan and Salsa galloping through the field

Dale and Buc chillin in the creek

We were blessed with good weather on either end of our week with Eitan and Debbie but the middle of the week we saw, hail, snow, sleet and rain, rain, rain.  It was hard to complain when we knew the local areas were desperate for the moisture.  We moved into the covered round pen for one on one sessions.  Each horse and rider got an hour or so with Eitan in the round pen.  These sessions were invaluable.  There is magic that happens in that roundpen and having Eitan help you mold and shape your horse and refine nuances of your body position and communication was immensely helpful.  I was moved almost to tears several times watching the changes happen in both horse and rider.  For me personally the roundpen sessions were a chance for me to work on lowering my energy and helping my horse respond to the energy in my body.  It was great to work on changing my posting to help the free jog and lengthen and shorten my horse's stride by the energy in my posting.  We also worked on bend and lateral movements while in the round pen.  Did I mention that we worked on bend?  Well, we did.  Then we worked on bend a little after that.

Watching the other riders with their horses was so helpful.  Everybody always wants to be the one on the horse, but I learned just as much about teaching and gait quality from watching Eitan interact with each of us in our group.  We had 5 very different horses in our group.  I have a 12 year old very forward thinking Morgan.  Dale's young saddlebred gelding was most similar in that he was very forward as well, but he carries himself so differently from my Chico that it was really fun to watch Dale and Buc figure out the long and low.  Dan's horse, Salsa is a cute little cutting bred Quarter Horse mare.  She is soft and kind but hasn't had a lot of bending or softening.  She made huge changes during her round pen sessions.  Dan was challenged just with the terminology of shoulder in, shoulder out, haunches in, haunches out, but they both figured it out together and the improvement in the quality of her movement was emense.  Mackenzie was on Dale's good quarter horse gelding, Joe.  Joe is a big stout ranchy horse with a long stride and a ton of heart.  Watching that horse get soft and round then go long and low was a treat.  Joe has been doing Cowboy Dressage longer than the rest of the horses and was farther along.  It was a so helpful to watch the refinement in his movements.  Our australian friend was on Bonnie, a gorgeous palomino Morgan mare that has also had extensive training.  Bonnie is a character and she and Susan have a great understanding going on.  Watching the two of them banter back and forth with Susan chatting her up in Aussie accent was so much fun.
Makenzie and Joe working on bend in the 8-a-gone.

By day 3 and 4 of Cowboy Dressage school there is some neat stuff happening between horse and rider.  Finally the teaching that has been going on in the past few days is starting to click and there are momemts of absolute softness and brilliance.  This is where you learn to let go.  When the perfect bend or haunches in that you have been struggling with for the past three days finally happens it feels so amazing that all you want to do is get it back and hold onto it.  That's when Eitan makes you stop and get off.  Another one of the big lessons for this cowgirl was learning when to stop pushing and take what the horse has offered and reward that try by moving on to something else or even just getting off and calling it a day.

It's hard to describe the intense mental exercise that is accompanied by this type of riding.  When you are intensely mentally aware of every step your horse is taking and the communication that is happening between horse and rider through all the aids and concentrating on waiting for that one perfect step of bend, softness and controlled energy it becomes addictive.  Both Dan and I were having trouble sleeping by nights 3 and 4 and would go to bed mentally searching for that soft feel, that bend, or that perfect soft short jog.

On Day 4 we also had the opportunity to spend an evening with Lyn Ringrose-Moe, of Cowboy Dressage World.  Lyn is heading up the instruction of our judges through her judges boot camp program.  We went to Lyn's to get some insight into to gait quality and what the judges are looking for and how much you can improve a horse's gait through simple changes on the rider's part.

Jon and Lyn rolled out the red carpet for us.  We had 4 very different horses to watch in the arena that evening. We had a champion western pleasure mule, a reined cow horse a heeler horse and a cowboy dressage trained warm blood.  All of these horses moved so differently.  The working walk and working jog were all across the board in speed, head carriage and foot fall.  3 of the riders were brand new to Cowboy Dressage and their horses had little to no experience and training outside of their chosen discipline.  Lyn helped us to see the faults in the movements of the horses, which were pretty easy to spot as she had the riders just ride on a free rein around the arena.  I will admit to having extreme doubts about the ability of the little heeler horse to soften and round at all.  That horse was built down hill and evaded the bit through over flexion.  Consequently he carried his hind end out behind him like he was pulling a hindquarters cart.  When Lyn had the rider lift her hands, but give rein and move that horse forward his gait changed from a 4 or 5 in quality to an 8 or better in just a few steps.  All of the horses looked much different from each other but when when you looked at each horse as an individual, (which is what we do in Cowboy Dressage) you could see the quality improve in all 4 of the horses.  The amazing BBQ that Jon put together while we were watching horses move was the icing on that cake that evening.
Chico and I on day 5
  All too soon it was time for our last day on the court with Eitan.  The day dawned bright and sunny and perfect as we gathered for the last time.  Though all the horses had made huge improvements over the past 5 days it was easy to see that they (and us) were mentally spent.  We kept our last session brief, working on finalizing and refining a few key points before Eitan called us together and praised us for a week well spent and told us to put our horses away.
Dale and Buc on Day 5
Like the climb up the mountain to see the guru in his robe at the summit, each rider and horse probably has a different list of "a-ha" moments from their week at Cowboy Dressage school.  I gathered enough tidbits of knowledge that I know it'll take me the entire year just to work on those before I'm ready for a new list and new journey next year.  I want to thank Eitan and Debbie and Miguel for the wonderful hospitality and Debbie for the great hot lunches. Thanks to Santa Fe for just being amazing out in your pasture and for stopping everybody in their tracks when you just walked out for your morning romp.  I also want to thank Dale, Mackenzie and Susan for being our schoolmates.  What a great group to ride and learn with.  We've already got our spots reserved for next year.  

Dan and Salsa on Day 5

Until Next Year!!!!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Cowboy Dressage Gaits

One of the things that uniquely defines the cowboy dressage horse is the quality of the gaits.  Being first and foremost a western discipline, dedicated to the production of superior western
 horses, we ask for movements and gaits that showcase the ability and strengths of the western horse.  Looking back at the heritage of the cowboy and western lifestyle, we strive to capture
 the very best of what the cowboy was and is supposed to be and recreate that in our modern equine partners.  How do we define the the western horse's gaits?  Do we use the benchmarks established by classical dressage?  Do we use the traditional western descriptions and terms?  Is there truly a difference in the western jog and the english trot or is it just nomenclature? This article will attempt to lay to rest those debates and help define the terms and vision of the movement of the
Cowboy Dressage horse.

Cowboy Dressage showcases three gaits; the walk, the jog and the lope.  In the creation and development of those gaits we also ask for lengthening of each off those gaits and mark the distinction between the shortened gait and lengthened gait by using the terms working and free.  A working gait is one preformed on a softened frame with the horse working off of soft contact on the bit.  A free gait is one where the horse is showing lengthening of the stride and working off a long rein with light contact. For example, the working walk is defined as follows:

       Working Walk : Four beat gait with forward reaching steps.  The head and neck should swing naturally as a result of a relaxed back and free shoulders. The horse maintains a light
contact with the bit with his nose slightly in front of vertical.

Because one of the goals of Cowboy Dressage is to create a soft and willing partner, relaxation and willingness through all of the gaits is important.  If you consider the tradition of the 
working ranch horse, having a calm and willing partner that possessed an easy to ride gait was of considerable value.  It is the same in Cowboy Dressage.

The confusion and debate in the discussion of the Cowboy Dressage horse and his gaits generally doesn't start with the walk.  As luck would have it, almost all disciplines expect the same
basic qualities in the walk and agree without dissent that it is a 4 beat gait.  Discussion of the jog and lope can be fraught with a little more obscurity and confusion which unfortunately arises
from the "dressage" in  Cowboy Dressage.

In creating Cowboy Dressage, we attempted to select some of the basic principles that are to be valued most in dressage to apply to our western horses:  an emphasis on slowness of
training and a step-wise training program, the benefits of markers and a court for establishing accountability in training and visual benchmarks for horse and rider, a tried and true scoring
system that is easily adaptable and useful for our Cowboy Dressage shows.  What we didn't adopt in Cowboy Dressage were the gaits required and desired by the competitive modern
dressage rider and this goes beyond just nomenclature.

Let's consider the difference between the jog and the trot.  A jog is a distinctly western gait.  Unlike the difference between a couch and a divan, it is not just a regional language variant.  The jog is a two beat gait that is meant to be smooth, quiet and comfortable.  In it's purest form it is relaxed and easily on both horse and rider.  It is the quiet confident gait used by the western horse when moving between pens, or between groups of cattle with low enough energy to not spook the rodear up and over the next hill.  It originated on the ranch and was meant to be an all day energy saving gait.  Back in the dawning of Western Pleasure classes it was also one of the defining gaits of a horse that was supposed to be first and foremost a pleasure to ride.  Cowboy Dressage defines the working jog as follows:

    Working Jog:  Two beat gait and forward with even and elastic steps. The back is relaxed and the shoulder is free.  The hind legs should step forward and under the horse. The horse maintains light contact with the bit and his nose is slightly in front of the vertical.  The rider must sit the working jog.

Here are some photos showing the foot fall patterns in the working jog:

Here you can see all four feet on the ground briefly as the horse changes diagonals.  There is no moment of suspension at the jog.

Here again the change from right diagonal to left diagonal.  The left diagonal pair has already hit the ground before the right diagonal finishes their flight pattern. 

The Cowboy Dressage working jog should look much different than does today's Western Pleasure jog. While the two gaits have the same origin, much of the Western Pleasure horses have lost the forward and elastic steps that we are striving for in Cowboy Dressage.  Having a free and relaxed shoulder gives the horse a quality of gait while maintaining elasticity and comfort of movement for both horse and rider.  This is not a jarring gait but a soft two beat gait. Proper propulsion in the gait is evident, even in the softer frame, by the horse reaching forward and under himself. Propulsion in the gait is the force that moves the horse forward.  Without proper propulsion the gait dies and ceases to be a forward movement.  The Western pleasure horse jogging in painfully slow increments around the ring is lacking in propulsion.  Impulsion is the upward force in the gait and it is the beginnings of creating suspension in a modern dressage horse.

Cowboy Dressage defines the lengthened or free jog as follows:

Free Jog: Two beat gait with forward movement allowing lengthening of even and elastic steps.  The horse is relaxed and allowed by the lengthening of reins to lower his head and neck and to stretch
forward.  The horse maintains light contact with the bit with his nose slightly in front of the vertical.
Posting is an option.

Here is a sequence of the free jog demonstrating foot fall patterns, again without suspension.
Right diagonal pair weight bearing

 Here is the moment of shift from the right diagonal pair to the left diagonal pair without a moment of suspension. 
Left diagonal pair weight bearing. 

When you compare the Cowboy Dressage Jog with required gaits in other disciplines the difference and value of this gait becomes even more clear.  If you consider the lofty trot favored by
dressage the horse is asked to display a moment of suspension in the gait and there are those that believe that without that suspension the gait is both incorrect and somehow exhibits
different (and therefore incorrect) footfalls.  The moment of suspension does not create the beat of the gait.  The beat of the gait is created by the rhythm of the feet striking the ground.  The moment of suspension only serves to increase the concussion of the feet as they strike the ground.  The dressage horse creates suspension by increasing impulsion not propulsion in gait.

It is also true that suspension in gaits is often an illusion of sorts.  Many believe that a true trot only occurs when there is a moment in time, however brief, when all four feet are off the ground.
While a large and lofty trot will exhibit suspension when accompanied by increased impulsion, most horses do not exhibit suspension characterized by levitation and instead will just shift weight from the diagonal pair before the other pair leaves the ground.  It's true that you can have a trot with suspension, but it is false that only a "true trot" will have suspension.  Instead there is a moment between diagonal pairs when the weight shifts from one pair to the other without accompanied impulsion or complete suspension.  The horse can and does correctly perform a trot at liberty without a rider both with and without suspension but will most commonly choose to trot without suspension and exhibit a gait with flat propulsion.

The reason for this should be obvious.  While increased life and adrenalin can create increased impulsion in a horse, it is not the most efficient or comfortable form of movement.  The
increased concussion and elevation does not make the the horse cover more ground.  It only serves to increase the concussion on the joints and muscles as it lands.

You can also create suspension by increasing the speed of the gait.  This is the case when you view the difference between the lope and the gallop.  The lope is a three beat gait that is relaxed and soft.  It is characterized by the footfall pattern of the leading leg, diagonal pairs and then the off hind leg.  A four beat lope is created when the footfalls of the diagonal pair are split and hit the ground not together but separately so that you have the beats of four feet hitting the ground.  Notice that in none of the descriptions we have mentioned for footfalls in gaits is there a beat accounted for in suspension phase.  The three beat lope in the Cowboy Dressage horse does not have a moment of suspension.  Instead the off hind follows so closely to the leading foreleg that it touches the ground before that leg leaves the ground and removes the suspension in the gait.  There is no change in beats of the gait because you still have 3 sets of feet hitting the ground independently.  The off hind, diagonal pairs, then leading foreleg.  The footfall of the off hind following so closely on the leading foreleg still creates a footfall beat the same as if you stood in place and marched one foot at a time. The beat of the gait is exhibited by footfalls, not suspension. By increasing both impulsion and propulsion from the lope to the gallop you create life and speed and introduce a moment when all four feet are off the ground in true suspension. As the stride length changes and the weight of the horse is carried forward with speed and impulsion into the gallop it ceases to become a 3 beat gait and becomes a four beat gait with the front leg of the diagonal pair hitting the ground first.

Here are the foot fall patterns in the lope.
In a right lead the left hind leg initiates the stride. Beat 1.

The diagonal pair of the inside hind (RH) and outside fore (LF) strike the ground together. Beat 2

Then the inside foreleg (RF in the right lead) strikes the ground and carries the stride forward. Beat 3. 

This shows the left hind leg striking the ground before the right foreleg has finished it's stride.  This eliminates the suspension in the gait but doesn't change the beats.  

Lengthening of the strides is accomplished primarily through the use of propulsion.  We ask the horse to stretch the limbs forward and out and not up in elevation or in speed.  Because there in no increase in impulsion in the free (lengthened) gaits called for in Cowboy Dressage, these gaits also do not include suspension and should be as comfortable to ride sitting as they are posting, and having a soft, willing partner that is a joy to ride should be a primary goal of every Cowboy Dressage participant.

While the discussion of the nuances and differences between gaits can be confusing and overwhelming the take home message for the Cowboy Dressage enthusiast is simple.  Cowboy Dressage asks for your horse to have an easy rhythmic gait that is correct and soft for both you and your horse.  That end goal will look different from one horse to the next but the softness exhibited should be easy for even the casual observer to see.  We aren't going to tell you how your horse should look.  We are only trying to help you understand how your horse should feel.