Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cowboy Dressage In a Nutshell

My husband Dan and I were recently asked to describe Cowboy Dressage "in a nutshell".  I am sure the person inquiring was more interested in getting the short version from a pair of enthusiasts than he was in really hearing the answer but it made me realize that describing Cowboy Dressage in a few words accurately is highly difficult.  It's a struggle to try and describe something that is so near and dear to your heart in a way that doesn't tend to border on mystical when you are as passionate as we are! But, it is a conversation that needs to happen more and more as folks look at this growing discipline and wonder if maybe it is for them.  So, maybe you have been asked as well and are looking for some way to provide answers to your inquiring friends.  If so, I have provided the internet's favorite approach to frequent queries in the form of the beloved FAQ.  I will endeavor to remain completely non-mystical in my descriptions!

1. What is Cowboy Dressage?

Cowboy Dressage is a new discipline in western riding that takes some of the best principles of classical dressage training and applies them to the traditional training of the western horse.  It is a method of training and being with your horses that encompasses much more than riding.  It is a lifestyle and a commitment to kindness and partnership with your horse.

2.  Isn't Cowboy Dressage and Western Dressage the same thing?

No, no, and double no.  I get this question at least once a day and often more than that.  They are definitely not the same thing.  Cowboy Dressage has actually been around much longer than Western Dressage.  Cowboy Dressage began with the unique style of a single horseman, Eitan Beth Helachmy.  Eitan and his winning Morgan Western Pleasure champion Holiday Compadre introduced what became branded as Cowboy Dressage at the Morgan Grand National show in 1993 during a very entertaining victory lap.  Eitan showed that his stallion could as easily go from a western pleasure jog to an extended trot to a reining spin and sliding stop and then a canter pirouette all with soft feel, lightness and partnership.  They shattered the rules about what a Western horse was supposed to do and look like and a new style was born.  Western Dressage was the first concerted effort to turn Eitan's Cowboy Dressage into a new discipline.  Western Dressage was very early on adopted by the USEF and during that process the goals and "look" changed from what Eitan's Cowboy Dressage is meant to be.  Western Dressage and Cowboy Dressage are now two separate entities;  similar in taking principles of dressage and applying them to western horses but different in their approach, goals, and overall look.

3. Do I have to show to do Cowboy Dressage?

Definitely not.  The whole purpose of Cowboy Dressage is to make Western horses better at their jobs.  Learning and embracing the principles of Cowboy Dressage and using the court to train your horse will make your horse better at his job whether he is a ranch horse, trail horse, cutting horse, gaming horse or western pleasure horse.

4. Isn't Cowboy Dressage just Dressage in western tack?

Nope.  I do think that Western Dressage more closely resembles Dressage in western tack than Cowboy Dressage does.  In Cowboy Dressage we strive for self carriage and for the horse to get off the bit, not reach for it.  You will hear the term Soft Feel talked about almost continuously in Cowboy Dressage.  While that concept is a mystical journey all unto itself, it basically means full body soft communication with your horse.  A Cowboy Dressage horse, properly engaged will feel almost weightless in your hands and soft and willing between your legs and seat.  The gaits  we are striving to achieve in Cowboy Dressage also make it unique.  The Cowboy Dressage jog and lope are shortened versions of the trot and canter and have no suspension.  Western Dressage specifically defines their desired gaits with suspension.

5. Can I participate in both Cowboy Dressage and Western Dressage?

Absolutely!  Depending on which area you live in you may find more opportunities to participate in one discipline over the other.  A Cowboy Dressage horse will show well at a Western Dressage show and often vice versa.  The tests are different between the two disciplines as are the goals and scoring sheets.  Remember that in Cowboy Dressage it is all about Soft Feel and partnership so much so that your Soft Feel and partnership scores are multiplied by 3.  Riding with too much contact, a horse behind the vertical or a horse with suspension may not score as well at a Cowboy Dressage show.

6.  Do I have to join an association to participate?

Not with Cowboy Dressage!  Cowboy Dressage features membership with a handshake at  All you have to do is agree to embrace the principles of kindness and softness and confirm your membership with an electronic "handshake" to join the movement.  The growth of Cowboy Dressage has been completely organic and is spread by horse folk just like you giving it a try and bringing their friends.  There are no dues and few rules and we welcome all breeds, ages, and western disciplines.

7.  Do I need special tack?

Nope.  Cowboy Dressage has a few rules about tack but by and large all forms of traditional Western tack are accepted.  Mechanical hackamores, side pulls and bitless bridles are not currently allowed, but bosals or loping hackamores are.  Any western saddle is welcomed and at a show you are only required to be in western attire.  There are no points awarded for silver or fancy outfits.  It's all about you and your horse.

8.  What if my horse isn't good at arena stuff?

Well, that's kind of the whole point of participating is to get your horse good at this arena stuff.  You don't need an arena to practice the principles of bend, transitions, straight lines and softness.  Much of that can be accomplished on the trail.  You can also set up the Cowboy Dressage court in a field, meadow or pasture.  Helping your horse to understand these simple principles will make it better at whatever job it is you do with your horse.

9.  How do I get started?

The best way to get started is to visit and join with your handshake.  The tests, principles, rules and goals are all outlined there.  You should also check out, which is Eitan and Debbie Beth Helachmy's webpage.  There are DVD's, video clips and books that will help you learn what this is all about.  All it takes is a piece of flat ground and a measuring tape and you can set up your own court and get to riding!

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