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.