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!!!!

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