Tomorrow I have to mail out my entry forms for the final Cowboy Dressage Gathering of the year. We all tend to call it "finals" but it's really just the last show of the season. In Cowboy Dressage you don't have to qualify to show at "finals". It's not a gathering of only the best of us. It's more of a family reunion. It's the time of year that we can all get together, celebrate our triumphs for the year and share our goals in horsemanship for the year to come.
This year there is added excitement to the final Gathering as it is the first year for the much publicized and promoted "Top Hand" competition. This is meant to be a calling to arms of sorts for the folks out there that have been walking the walk and talking the talk. Let's put you all in the same arena, with the same test and the same judges and see how the scores shake out. It's a time to be honoring those among us that are truly embracing and showcasing what Cowboy Dressage is all about.
Which is not competition.
You see, it's a double edged sword. In the Cowboy Dressage community we truly are a welcoming, come one come all group of horse folk. I know you've heard that before, but really and truly, this is the place for anybody who seeks a better relationship with their horse. We will all tell you again and again it is not about the competition. And it's not. Really.
But, sometimes it takes the crucible of competition to push those that are striving for the absolute best to reach just a bit higher. Early on in the year I decided that my horse and I just weren't quite Top Hand material. We had made enormous strides in softness and partnership, but in my opinion, I still had so far to go, that the Top Hand competition seemed out of reach.
I told myself I would see how my summer show season went, see how we stacked up and then decide. So, that's what I did. I had one phenomenal show, where I felt my partnership and soft feel with my horse were better than ever and then I had one where my soft feel and partnership left the building.
It was after the second show that I decided this wasn't the year. So I gave my horse essentially a month off while I worked my colt and thought maybe I could take him to finals in place of my older gelding who can't always keep it together in the show ring. That way the question of should I or should I not enter Top Hand was firmly and safely out of my head; clearing the way for unobstructed and pure horsemanship, or so I thought.
Maybe it's just me, but if I don't have a specific goal I am working towards, I tend to drift a bit. I had worked very hard in the months before my summer shows getting my gelding ready. But when I decided to forgo both Top Hand and taking him to the Final Gathering my direction got muddled. I didn't have the same goals with my colt, thinking I would just do Partnership on the Ground and a few easy W/J classes at the final Gathering.
Suddenly it's the end of September and the time for really choosing who and what I would be showcasing at the Final Gathering was upon us. Time to make a decision. I decided to just try the test for Top Hand and see where I was. No harm there, right? I had purposely NOT been even looking at or reading the qualifying test for Top Hand all summer thinking that it wasn't our year and would just distract us from our goals. What I found is that I wasn't as far off as I thought I was. So, that planted the seed that maybe, just maybe, I should be working on this Top Hand thing.
So, the past few weeks I have been training and working harder than I have all summer. I have been concentrating on soft feel and working on partnership and accuracy in an attempt to prepare my horse for the competition that I had decided that I wasn't ready for.
Here is what I have learned from that experience:
1. Because it's Cowboy Dressage and Soft Feel and Partnership are always at the forefront, you CANNOT take short cuts. You maybe able to ride the test, but until you can ride the test with softness, bend, cadence, accuracy AND partnership you aren't ready.
2. I am 100% goal oriented. Without a concrete goal and benchmark, I am adrift in my horsemanship. I know this isn't true for everybody but thank goodness for the competition side of Cowboy Dressage. If I had to just get good at 10 m bend for the sake of being good at 10 m bend without somebody somewhere saying just how good I am at 10 m bend I don't know if I would ever get as good at it as I can. When there is no finish line, good enough becomes good enough.
3. I am my own worse critic. So many times I end a ride disappointed and frustrated only to have my friends say, "wow, he looked great!". Sometimes you have to reward the good to get to the great.
4. Most of us will never attain greatness without somebody else pushing us to get there. Competition does this for us.
So while Cowboy Dressage is not at all about the competition, competition is how I personally will someday (I hope!) attain greatness. I have worked harder these past few weeks than I did all summer. It's not that I am striving for a goal or a prize so much as I am striving to be worthy of even riding along side the folks riding for that prize. That is the magic of the competitive venue.
The unique part about Cowboy Dressage and what sets it apart from all the other forms of equine competition is that folks that have not established soft feel and partnership will not fare well in the competition. Like any good interpersonal relationship, trust, partnership and harmony take time and patience. It's going to be a real treat to watch the Top Hand Competition this year. It should be a showcase of softness. Will we be in the running? I guess you better come and watch to find out!