Photo Credits to Mrs. Chris Holloway, Post Falls, Idaho
It takes a lot of grit to come out for a clinic in the middle of a North Idaho winter. Grit is something that comes easily to a dedicated group of North Idaho horsemen. The temps hovered around a frigid 15 degrees or so the first day and a balmy 20 degrees on the second day. There was snow on the ground and still they came ready to learn and ride and grow in Cowboy Dressage.
The clinic was sponsored by the Northwest Saddle Sisters and featured the charismatic clinician, Dale Rumens Partee from Snohomish, Washington. We had two sessions, one on New Years Eve and one on the 3rd of January that was open to riders and spectators alike. Though we had new snow fall that limited the ability of some folks to haul in we were still able to have 8 riders for our final date on the 3rd. For those of you that were stymied by weather, here is what you missed!
Dale starts her clinics with ground work, which is incredibly important both for good horsemanship and good partnership. Teaching some basic horsemanship exercises helps us to improve our feel and timing and establish communication before we ever climb in the saddle. If you can't control the feet properly from the ground, why would you ever climb aboard? Cowboy Dressage World strongly believes in the benefits of a solid ground work program and has included the partnership on the ground classes not only for youth and amateurs
but for all folks that are learning Cowboy Dressage or teaching a young or new horse partnership and softness. I think a lot of the clinic attendees were surprised to find some holes lurking in their groundwork. I know that almost every person had some difficulty leading their horse properly from the right side. Because Cowboy Dressage emphases balance in the horse, the partnership on the ground splits the pattern between leading the horse on the right and leading the horse on the left. It sounds easy until you try to do it with bend, softness, and accuracy! Dale was able to help us find our holes and fix them so that we could lead and position our horses as easily from the left as the right.
The other wonderful part of a ground work is that it gives you a way to go back and fix maneuvers that aren't working for you under saddle. For instance, I have a problem with my horse executing a proper turn on the haunches. In Cowboy Dressage this is a forward movement. To be executed properly the horse must almost walk a small circle forward with bend but moving only his forehand while the hindquarters stay in place. They pivot on the inside hind leg. Some programs, especially cow horse programs, teach that the turn on the haunches is a backing maneuver and it is often taught to back the horse a few steps to shift that weight onto the hindquarters and then open the hands for
the forequarters to come through.
When taught this way the horse sucks back and places it's weight on the outside hind leg. Because I have used this technique to teach my horses performing one with forward movement that still results in the hindquarters staying in place has been a challenge. Through ground work exercises I was able to identify at least a part of my horse's problem in that he generally begins to execute that turn not with the inside forefoot stepping and reaching into the turn but instead with the outside forefoot stepping over. The only way he can create the room for that foot to move is by stepping under himself. His weight is therefore on the outside hind leg and the resulting turn on the haunches is messy with shifting pivot legs as I try to redirect the energy of the turn forward. Teaching my horse to step first with that inside front leg and to prepare by shifting is weight to the inside hind leg helped to clean up the turn on the haunches for us. Obviously that can be fixed from the saddle as well, but for me, it's easier to correct when I can watch what is happening with the feet from the ground.
When performing groundwork exercises it is important to be particular. By not being particular in how my horse was stepping I had allowed him to develop the habit of not initiating that turn with the correct leg. When you are particular about which foot should move first, suddenly your groundwork takes on new meaning to the horse. It's not just drilling or mindless lunging, it's a dance and that's when you start to have partnership and feel and without that you won't be able to properly execute a partnership on the ground test.
Most of us had skipped learning how to do the partnership on the ground when we started cowboy dressage. We were anxious to get onto the riding tests and like most folks we really wanted to get to the loping tests! Imagine our dismay when we found out we couldn't even do partnership on the ground properly. This clinic really emphasized for the participants how important it is to get that groundwork solid if you hope to go on to have success under saddle.
As we moved onto the riding portion we again worked on some basic horsemanship exercises before moving onto riding Cowboy Dressage tests. This allowed us to again clean up some holes in our horses and our partnership. I think the thing that surprises folks that are new to Cowboy Dressage the most is how difficult it is to ride with accuracy. When you read a Cowboy Dressage test, say Walk/Jog 1 it sounds elementary. It's just some circles and some straight lines. No fancy roll backs, spins, obstacles or even loping are required.
Sounds simple and perhaps even boring! That is until you try to do it with accuracy, hitting all your marks, with proper bend, cadence, softness and accurate transitions. Even the most experienced horseman can find things to work on. One of the things I love most about riding with Dale is that good enough isn't good enough. Obviously you can't attain perfection in a day and we all have to start somewhere but if she feels you are capable of executing the maneuver with more perfection, she won't let you quit until you do. It's this kind of thinking that makes better horses and better riders.
There are so many great things to learn when it comes to Cowboy Dressage. Softness. Accuracy. Cadence. Bend. Straightness. All great things for horse and rider. But the most important thing and the beautiful thing to watch as you work on these things through Cowboy Dressage is to watch the development of partnership and harmony through soft feel. When you learn how to communicate with your horse softly and accurately the partnership grows and it's so rewarding to watch some one that was struggling with their horse being with them at the beginning of the clinic suddenly make that final turn on to the center line for the last test of the day and have it be soft, accurate and lovely in every way. Cowboy Dressage builds better horses and better riders but ultimately it builds better partnership and therein lies the beauty.