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.