Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cowboy Dressage on the Beach

Northwest Saddle Sisters

Ask any horse owner what their one dream place to ride their horse is and you will likely get the same answer.  Within every single equestrian I've ever met is the dream and desire to ride your horse splashing through the ocean waves.  The ocean is romantic, mesmerizing, constant and yet ever changing.  For a group of in-landers like us it was a siren song. 

For our annual Cowboy Dressage Cowgirl retreat this year we chose an ocean side destination. Ocean Acres, in Grayland, Washington is a unique place that caters to horse people infected with the crazy desire to gallop in the waves.   Though only one of the horses in our group had seen the ocean before, many of the horses were very well seasoned trail horses that have crossed rivers, swam in lakes and have experienced all the vast changes in terrain and footing that the western mountains can provide.  Most of us were confident that our horses would have little problem adjusting to a little sand and waves.

We couldn't have been more wrong. 

The beach is at once both the most perfect place to ride and the most challenging place to ride.  Had we not had the experience and wisdom of our clinician, Dale Rumens-Partee, I am convinced I would be writing to tell you all about the group of us charging headlong across the sand towards the water on our seasoned trail mounts only to wind up being dumped quickly in the romantically crashing waves.

So, for those of you who dream of galloping through the ocean waves, but may not have the benefit of either seasoned horses or an experienced guide, let me at least forewarn you of the pitfalls of rushing out onto the beach without properly exposing your horse to the environment.
Our fearless leader, Dale Rumens-Partee and her lovely saddlebred, Buc

First of all, there is a lot of space.  That alone can really unsettle some horses, especially those horses that spend their lives in the trees and mountains like many of ours do.  While some horses won't be bothered the shear amount of horizon to keep your eye on can put some horses on their guard.  The best way to help your horse deal with all that space is to keep them focused on a small part of it.  So, our group did a lot of circles, serpentines, and figure 8's helping our horses to retain their focus on a small chunk of real estate in front of them.  I so wanted to just stop and stare at all that open space as soon as we reached the edge of the beach, and so did Chico, but I could feel him getting a little worried about it.  As soon as he had a job to focus on the worry and extra energy left his body and he was able to relax. 

Sand is a weird footing.  It is constantly shifting and moving, blowing, clumping, sucking and changing.  The dry sand is difficult for the horses to walk in and until they are used to it can be very hard on their tendons.  If they see something that worries them and feel the need to move quickly they can get bogged down in that deep sand and step all over themselves.  So, the best tactic is to again, keep them moving forward in a controlled manner.  The deep sand is excellent for working on bend and softening them laterally.  They already want to shorten their stride to deal with the deep sand, so shortening them laterally naturally bends them around your inside leg.  Far more than any other place I've ridden you really do need to ride every step of the way on the beach.  As you move closer to the water the dry sand turns into wet sand providing better footing, but it's a different feel for the horses.  Quite a few of the horses in our group were bothered by the way the sand changes colors when you step on it.  Then when you do work your way into the waves, the sand gets pulled out from under their feet. 

The waves both make noise and move, which is the magic combination to induce the flight response in horses.  Luckily, they also retreat.  As the waves are drawing out, that is the ideal time to ask your horse to follow them.  If you can get your timing right you can follow the waves out and then step into the back of the wave so your horse is walking suddenly in the shallow surf.  Beware the wave coming on the heels of the first, though.  That crashing white wall of surf looks solid to the horse and they will bolt out of it to dry land in a hurry.  If one of your buddies is standing there, it becomes a fun game of bumper horses. When riding in a group it's important to keep an open exit strategy.  The horse blowing sideways out of the wave won't be looking at the horse he's running over, he's focused on the wave trying to touch his feet. Constantly asking your horse to check back in with you is a test of any good partnership.  If you can keep your horse feeling back to you, it will strengthen your partnership and your horse's trust in you.  Of course, that's if you keep him out of trouble!  Don't jeopardize your partnership by scaring your horse into the water.  Don't expose him to more than he can handle at one time.
Me and my Morgan horse, Chico

Another challenging thing about the ocean is that it can cause motion sickness if you are standing in the waves and watching them.  It's an odd enough sensation for a person, but it happens to the horse as well.  If the horse spends too much time standing still or watching the waves he may become disoriented. For most horses that will result in him going over backwards.  Always keep forward movement when in the waves.

So, if the waves sound like too much of a challenge, and you would rather stay on the sand, there are still plenty of things to keep you on your toes.  If it's low tide, there are often puddles of water on what looks like mostly level beach.  Some of these can be deceivingly deep.  Approach these with caution.  The kelp beds at the high tide line can also be a challenge.  I don't know if it's the smell or the feel of that kelp but it bothers quite a few of the horses.  The long tentacles of seaweed can be a challenge both in the water and on the shore.  Those can whip around a horse's leg and suddenly you have a horse caught in a long dragging scary monster rope.  Then there is the detritus of old pallets with nails in them hidden under the sand, driftwood, dead birds, sharks, fish, crabs, etc. 

If you are on a section of beach that is used by other folks, not on horseback, you will find a number of other challenges.  Kites are wonderful fun for horses.  They swoop and dive and whoosh and if you get too close, can suddenly hit the ground next to your horse.  The savvy horseman watches the kites, makes a judgement on the length of that kite string and stays a reasonable distance away from them.  Loose dogs, kids, motorbikes, etc are all reasonable challenges that most horses have encountered outside of the beach but when coupled with the other challenges mentioned above add an extra dimension.
This pack of kites was right along side the area we set up our first Cowboy Dressage court. I was standing at P when I took this picture. 
If you're reaching for a white out pen to edit your Equine Bucket List, reach no further.  Being aware of the pitfalls is the first step.  Like any other challenge for your horse, you can help your horse deal with the chaos in a constructive manner.  Keeping your horse focused and engaged helps you redirect any excess energy.  That deep sand is great for getting them sucking wind in a hurry (just be careful of those tendons!).  And once you have experienced the joy of jogging and trotting figures on miles and miles of perfect beach you will realize that the real fun of riding at the beach isn't the romantic gallop through the waves, it's the abundance of perfect footing for schooling your horse and redirecting his energy back to you and therefore strengthening your partnership and harmony with each figure 8, circle, serpentine and straight line that you do. 
Establishing our center line in the sand

When you find a section of pristine beach with perfect footing it's the perfect time to make use of that area for riding with accuracy.  You can quickly sketch out a Cowboy Dressage court and it's fun to establish the track and long and short diagonals to help really visualize the court geometry, especially if you are still struggling with learning that. We packed a few lengths of string with us to set up the court.  Two 10m strings and one 5m string allowed us to quickly outline the boundary of our court. Then we rode around the track of the court in single file to get a good solid line in the sand.  We also rode the long and short diagonals and the quarter lines.  This helped us to establish some straightness and was instrumental in teaching the basic pattern of the court to those of the girls that were new to it. From there we moved to riding circles until the sand got too deep and we moved on to a clean chunk of beach.
Our first court, standing at A and looking towards C

Even if you do not set up a court, you have your tracks in the sand to hold you accountable.  Riding out on a circle and then trying to keep to that circle with bend in all that open space is a challenge for horse and rider.  All that sand is also a wonderful place to work on straight lines.  You may feel like you are riding straight but those tracks in the sand don't lie.  That one spot you thought your horse maybe looked to the right you may see your tracks take a big bobble to the left.  Keeping the horse centered beneath you is even more challenging with all the distractions the beach can provide.  And if you have been having trouble with any of the lateral movements like shoulder in, haunches in leg yields and have pass, and have been trying to visualize the "tracks" we talk about with those maneuvers, that sand makes it easy to see.  You can look back over your tracks in the sand and see right were they went from two tracks, to three tracks to four tracks.   I feel like I got more accomplished in preparing and training my horse for the Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering in November this past weekend on the beach than I did the entire month of August on our court at home.

Those of you lucky enough to live near a beach, I hope you take advantage of that amazing footing and great partnership building as often as you can.  The Northwest Saddle Sisters are already planning our next trip back.


  1. This is a great article. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is a great article. Thanks for sharing.