Monday, September 19, 2016

Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering: It's a Wrap!

The dust has settled and the buckles have been distributed but it feels strange to be at the close of our Cowboy Dressage Gathering season so early in the year.  The new early date for The Cowboy Dressage finals was meant to make travel easier for some of the folks coming from the north and for those of us that braved the snowy passes last year we were grateful to have the earlier date despite temperatures higher than most of us were used to!

As always the folks of Cowboy Dressage World worked day and night to put together both a welcoming and well organized Gathering.  There were Cowboy Dressage handshake members from all over the country and from out of the country as well including Australia, Germany, Austria, Canada and I'm sure some other far flung places that I'm missing!

We kicked off the week of competitions with a day of learning as we had presentations by our Cowboy Dressage partners and other top horseman and professionals speaking on such varied topics as gaited horses to saddle fit.  The lectures were free to all the participants and well attended and thanks to the great folks over at CD learning were live streamed for all the people that couldn't attend in person this year.

The musical freestyle competition is always a crowd favorite.  The preliminary rides took place on Thursday with the top 5 in each division returning for a final go on Friday evening.  We saw everything from disco to ballet to steer roping in the freestyle competitions.  Freestyle not only allows a rider to show off where they and their horse are in their journey to soft feel and partnership, it also allows for each rider to exhibit their own personal flare.  I love freestyle because it gives me a glimpse into the personality of my fellow riders.  A truly soft freestyle that is complimented by the music is a thing of beauty and I know I'm always moved to watch the performances.  Our open winner this year was Marcia Moore Harrison who rode an inspiring free style with a patriotic theme. Our amateur winners were Rus Partee who rode a moving freestyle dedicated to his wife, Dale, and Lesla Bong who rode to Prince.

While the show itself is fun and exciting with three full days of tests occurring in 5 arenas, the big event of the Gathering is the Top Hand competition.  Competitors come from all over to compete in the same preliminary test, Cowboy Dressage Challenge W/J/L #2 which features the dreaded bow tie maneuver.  It's a tough tough test and only the best horse and rider pair will successfully navigate the entire test with softness, accuracy and partnership.  We had 17 open competitors and 7 amateur competitors throw their hats in the ring to compete for this honor.  The quality of tests preformed were awe inspiriting to watch and I was thankful I wasn't the one doing the judging!

After the first day of preliminaries the field of competitors were narrowed down to 5 top riders with fractions of percentage points separating the scores of these hands.  They were given a "mystery test" full of tricky maneuvers just a few short hours before entering the arena.  Each contestant was "auctioned" off for an exciting Calcutta and then the competition got even tougher as they took to the court to ride the new test.  Once they had each ridden, they put their names into a hat to draw for the swap for the horses.

Our top 5 riders were all women this year coming from Oregon, Texas, Idaho and California.  We had 3 Quarter Horses and 2 mules in our top 5 this year.  It was exciting to see who would draw which horse or mule for the swap and final test.  All 5 of the riders rode their mystery test with softness and accuracy making it hard for the audience to even guess who might be ahead in the scoring.  After watching the swap rides it was even more difficult, such was the difficulty of the test and skill of the competitors.  But, it is after all a competition and there must we a winner crowned.  The amateur rider that took home the top prize (amateurs were not required to switch horses) was Jill Plumb and Webber.  Our Open Top Hand winner was Oregon's Audrey Goldsmith and her mule Porter.  Audrey drew Jennifer Purcell's grey gelding Griff for her switch ride.  Second place went to Marcia Moore Harrison from Idaho and her gelding Sam.  Marcia drew Kellie Sheild's mule Fireman for her switch ride.  Third place went to Kellie and Fireman.  Kellie rode Brenda's gelding Chex for the switch.  4th place was Jennifer Purcell and Griff.  Jennifer rode Marcia's Sam for the switch.  And 5th place went to Brenda Hilgenkamp all the way from Texas and Chex.  Brenda drew Audrey's mule Porter for the switch.  I think I speak for all the folks in the audience when I say it's the switch that really is the exciting part of this competition.  Not only is it fun to watch each of the horses or mules with their new rider, it's so rewarding to see each of these fine ladies go to great pains to help their competition ride their horse to the best of their ability.  As they all walked back to the horses and mules waiting patiently with the wranglers you could see them quickly giving each other tips and hints and explaining how their mount was likely to react and where their trouble spots were.  It really is amazing to watch and it brings home exactly what the top hand competition is all about.  Our top riders are all amazing horseman, true, but they are great people as well.  They strive for honesty, integrity and fairness even in the face of fierce competition.  The horses were all treated with respect and kindness by one and all.  It's a great thing to watch.

Of course there is a ton of other fun things to do and see at Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering as well.  The left hip body clip competition on Thursday evening was a crowd favorite.  It was fun to see the neat designs that those artistic folks are able to create.  If you haven't ever tried it, it is harder than it looks!  I gave it my best this year by attempting to recreate our ranch logo on my gelding's left hip.  Thank goodness I had some talented folks to do some touch up on it before we had to show our faces, er hips, to the crowd!!!  Wahl graciously donated wonderful prized to all the participants and winners of this fun competition.

There were more vendors this year offering fun shopping excursions during the down time between tests.  Tack, boots, apparel, books, etc were all available for the discerning shopper.  For many the highlight of the entire weekend is the fun awards ceremony/talent show where we see just how talented the folks of cowboy dressage world are.  We had singing, dancing, reciting of poems and even Eitan impersonating!

With all this fun wrapped up into one weekend it's hard to believe we have to wait another full year before it comes again.  For many of us it is a trek to get down to Rancho Murieta for the Final Gathering.  As one of the folks spending 2 days on the road to get there, I can assure you it is well worth the trip.  You won't find a kinder and more welcoming environment or a better class of horse people in all the world than gather each year to celebrate another successful year of Cowboy Dressage.  So, if you weren't able to make it this year, mark your calendars for next year.   The facility is first class.  The event is wonderful.  The competition is friendly and puts the horse first always.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Cowboy Dressage Handshake

The Cowboy Dressage community is unique in many ways.  When your guiding principle is kindness and soft feel you invite a certain class of people that are anxious to not only embrace that ideal but cultivate it in others they meet.  For me personally, embracing the ideals of Cowboy Dressage has made me a kinder more accepting person.  We ask that new converts to our community join us in a “handshake” agreement as they enter our world of kindness and soft feel.

The handshake was Eitan’s idea, and it stems from the tradition of the Code of the West.  There was a time when your word was your bond; when integrity meant more than success.  There was a time when somebody looked you in the eye and shook your hand you knew they meant what they said and only a cad and villain would go back on their word.
In today’s society, things that were once simple and black and white seem to be continually shrouded in areas of grey.  This isn’t always a bad thing, as we are increasingly aware of the many differences in our fellow human beings and the different ways in which they live, love, and worship and we struggle to grow as a society in our acceptance of the many differences we encounter.  However, the grey areas have seemed to leach over into other previously black and white notions such as integrity and right and wrong leaving things much more open to interpretation.  Even something that was once as simple as lying or telling the truth is broken into calibers of lying including, “white lies, lies of omission, altered notions of truth and differences in perception”.  Now it seems it’s more the intent of the lie than the actual lie that matters.  If you didn’t mean to create harm then what’s the big deal if you tell the truth or lie?

This is the society that we live in today.  It is full of social media and quickly altered stories told with different spins and perspectives based largely on which side of the events you were standing on when they occurred.  Truth and reality are no longer so easily determined.  If you think I’m being a bit harsh, just look at the current political environment we are experiencing.  Both sides are firmly convinced the other side is not only lying but ignorant of real hard true facts as well. 
In my mind, all of this grey out there in the world makes the Cowboy Dressage Handshake that much more relevant and important in our crusade to bring soft feel the western equestrian community.  When we began the competitive venue of Cowboy Dressage, Eitan wanted there to be only one rule: Be kind to your horse and others.  As the community grew it became obvious that “kind” was one of those grey words.  It means different things to different people.  So we started creating rules of engagement for our gatherings.  It started with a small list and has since grown to include 30 some pages.  Each rule was created by an incidence that was met with grievance at a Gathering.  And so like the warning on McDonald’s coffee telling you the contents are indeed hot we started adding more and more rules to ensure our members continue to do what’s right, fair and within the handshake agreement.

As a firm believer in the handshake, I believe each and every rule that we write diminishes the strength and integrity of the handshake.  Let me tell you a story of how a well-meaning, but somewhat mischievous young boy learned to go around the rules at a very young age.   When my brother and I were young we lived near a creek with steep banks that ran right through our back yard.  We often played in the creek on hot days with minimal supervision as was much more common in those glorious days of sunshine and bell bottom pants.  One day my brother, being a fairly well behaved child came in to ask my mother if it was okay if he rode his big wheel down the bank into the creek.  My mother, appalled at the thought told him of course he couldn’t ride his big wheel down the bank into the creek?  What was he thinking, he would break his neck!  She told him to use his head and do something that was both fun and safer than that.  So twenty minutes later she was alarmed to hear blood curdling screams coming from the creek.  Sure that he has disobeyed her she ran out fuming to find he had not ridden his big wheel (after all that had been prohibited) but his scooter down the embankment.  In my brother’s mind my mother had not EXPRESSLY forbidden the scooter but told him to do something fun and safe.  He figured he was safer standing than sitting and off we went. 
This is how rules work.  God didn’t have to say, Thou shalt not kill with either stick, stone, rope or spear.  It was enough to say, Thou shalt not kill.  Period.  That covers it.  If you aren’t going to follow the spirit of the rules, you will always find a way around them and we cannot write enough rules to prevent that.
But, if you embrace the spirit of the handshake and the community of kindness and soft feel you always have something to fall back on to help you make your decisions.  It’s the handshake that makes the community at a cowboy dressage gathering feel so different and welcoming and refreshing to those that are new to the discipline.  If we lose sight of that we lose sight of who we are and where we are going into the future and ultimately we become just another horseshow group.  That absolutely cannot happen.
So, to my fellow Cowboy Dressage community members I urge you to re-read the handshake agreement from time to time; especially before coming to a Gathering.  Remind yourself as often as necessary who we are and why we are here.  If you have to go back to the rules to see if you are allowed to use a certain piece of tack, maybe ask yourself why you need it?  Is it promoting soft feel or is it so you may be able to get a few more points on the court.  Would you handle your horse that way if Eitan was sitting on the rail watching?  Make your decisions for the good of your horse, your fellow rider, and ultimately for the future of cowboy dressage.  I want Cowboy Dressage as Eitan and Deb first visualized it to live on long after we are gone.  Establishing a history of integrity early in our years, in the face of a quickly growing competitive environment is essential.  Embrace it and live it my friends.  Ride on in softness and one day we can say we were there when the whole thing started and it hasn’t changed a bit. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Cowboy Dressage Arena Exercises 2

Cowboy Dressage Arena Exercises


The Cowboy Dressage court offers so many exercises to help us work on our horse’s bend and softness.  While riding the Cowboy Dressage tests include all the of the elements to properly advance your horse, sometimes it helps to use variations of the exercises in the court to both help keep the work in the arena fresh and focus on elements that are stumbling blocks for you and your horse.  Here are a few more valuable exercises for your arena notebooks! 

Gyro Wheel

Remember that spinning toy you used to while away the hours with as a kid?  Maybe you are too young, but the Gyro Wheel was a top that spun up one side of a pair of wires, made a circle and came down the other side.  This is an exercise I like to perform on the quarter lines.  You can use any combination of gaits and transitions but I recommend beginning with the walk and free walk.  Start at C in the working walk.  Ride a ¼ circle with bend to the Q-H intersection then ride straight down the quarter line in in the free walk.  At J-K ride half of a 10 m circle in the working walk to the F-N intersection then transition to free walk down the quarter line.  
Red 10 m circle or half circle in working frame transition to free frame at h-m line and K-F line.  Straight line in free frame to opposite transition to working frame again at the H-M or K-F line. 

Some of the benefits of this exercise include working on preparation for the bend prior to the half 10 m circle.  I like to prepare my horse by beginning to collect my horse into the working frame at the P-V line or S-R line and then create the bend a stride or two before you enter your circle.  If you are a stride counter you will know that your horse will take approximately 6 strides in the working frame between the S-R or P-V line and the K-F and M-H lines before making your circle.  So at 4 strides you will start to create the bend in your horse then ride the bend around the half circle.  If the bend feels stiff then ride a full circle before moving onto the quarter line

There are multiple variations you can add to this exercise.  At the jog/free jog I like to add a full 10 m circle at A and C between the quarter lines.  You can also do this in the lope and free jog or working jog for horses that need help with straight line loping.  Jog the 10 m half circle the pick up the lope just before you reach the intersection to the quarter line.  Ride straight down the quarter line in a lope and transition to the jog and directly into the 10 m bend at the working jog.  Then, depending on what your horse needs you can either jog a full 10 m circle or do a free jog down the other quarter line.   You can also go from straight line to counter bend through the 10 m circle. 

If you are ready to work on loping a shoulder in, this is also an excellent exercise to get your horse into the proper bend then ride that bend forward down the quarter line in a shoulder in the transition either back to regular bend or to a working jog at the other end.

The variations in this exercise are endless.  The dynamic of the quarter line means you have to have your eyes up forcusing on that distant letter instead of looking down at your horse or you will never make that a straight line.  No relying on the rail to keep your horse straight!


Daisy Chain. 

This is a free walk exercise performed on a straight line, I like to use the long diagonals for this but you can also use the quarter lines.  At F transition to the free walk f8H.  Between f at P-N ride a small 5 m circle to the right off the diagonal then back the free walk at 8 ride a small circle to the left off the diagonal line then back to the free walk.  At S-Q ride another 5 m circle to the right.  Back to working walk at H.  M-8-K transition to free walk and repeat the daisy chain. 
Begin free gait at H or F.  At the blank walk a small 5 m circle. Continue in free walk to 8 then walk a 5 m circle to the other direction.  Continue free walk to the other blank and walk a 5 m circle to the other direction.  Continue free walk. 

This is not only a great warm up exercise but it’s great for the horse that tends to anticipate or maybe rush across the diagonal.  It’s also a challenge for the rider to keep to that diagonal straight line when you are throwing in a small circle.  Because you are in a free walk, that circle is going to necessarily originate from your seat, leg and weight aids and less on your rein aid.  Great for exaggerating bend in the horse and keep the horse supple.



Another quarter line exercise.  Start with working walk down the quarter line at Q.  At the Q-S intersection leg yield to E.  At E leg yield back to the quarter line meeting the quarter line a V-J intersection.  Obviously this should be perfected at the working walk before you progress to free walk or working jog and free jog. 
Working off of a 10 m bend onto the quarter line walk 5 m working walk then leg yield from V-J to E (blue line) then from E to S-Q. 5 m of working walk to half of a 10 m circle. Down the other quarter line at r-y leg yield to 8 and from 8 back to the quarter line at P-N.


At least for me and my horses the challenge in this exercise comes with attempting to keep your horse straight up underneath you.  Try to avoid leaning or pushing with your outside leg.  The horse needs to move off of that leg in time with his feet leaving the ground.  Timing is important with all maneuvers but especially with this one where you are attempting to direct the feet out as well as forward.   When your horse can master a straight leg yield to mid line or to E and B then you can attempt to go all the way from quarter line to quarter line.
Monkey Face
The monkey face exercise is useful for helping a horse that tends to fade in or out in the free jog or looses the frame in the free jog.  At E begin the free walk jog to A-P then transition to working frame, change bend and ride a 10 m circle.  At the completion of the 10 m circle change bend and transition back to the free frame to R-C.  At R-C transition down to the working jog and change bend to a 10 m circle.  Alternately you can ride the circle maintaining the same bend and use the 10 m bend in the center of the 20 m circle to change direction through the working frame. 
The 20 m circle at B/E is ridden in the free frame with paired 10 m circles at the s-r line and p-v line.  Those circles may be either ridden with a change in bend or with bend maintained.  The change of direction is made through the 10 m figure 8 in at 8. One of the nice benefits to this exercise is to become familiar with markers for your 10 m circles that you may not typically ride.  The quarter line circle at A and C can be quite challenging and the 2 10 m circles at 8 within the quarter line are equally challenging. 

Quarter line Serpentine
As you can see I've been spending a lot of time at the center of the arena rather than on the rails lately.  This is another great exercise to make you familiar with what are not always easy marks to see.  I recommend you place cones or markers on at the top of your 10 m half circles until you can envision the marks that are used in this exercise.  I use this exercise both for changes of bend as well as working on counter bend.  After a few turns through the exercise it helps the horse to go to a 20 m serpentine in a free frame.
The 10 m serpentines (yellow and red) have 3 changes of bend.  The 20 m serpentine (green and blue) only has 1 change of bend at 8

That aught to keep you busy for a while!  Get out there and ride paying attention to softness and accuracy with each maneuver that you master!  More exercises to come!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cowboy Dressage School of Horsemanship

Dan Grimmett, Marcia Moore-Harrison, Trish Knight, Hayle Moats, Jenni Grimmett, Dale Rumens-Partee and Eitan Beth Halachmy
I was lucky enough to attend two session of Cowboy Dressage School this spring at Wolf Creek Ranch.  It is always such an amazing week of learning and growing and when you come back from that week friends are anxious to ask how it was and what did you learn?

For me, it's such a hard thing to answer.  I think what my friends expect to hear when they ask you what you learned is a litany of fancy maneuvers and industry secrets for building soft feel.  What's the best way to do a lope departure or how do you get the perfect free jog? While we certainly work on all of those things and about a million other things, my take away lessons are never about that.

Jenni aboard the magnificent Santa Fe Renegade
My first session spent at Wolf Creek Ranch I was blessed to spend with the amazing Santa Fe Renegade.  Between Eitan and Santa Fe I felt I was being molded by two masters in soft feel.  For me, I would travel 2,000 miles just to bask in Santa Fe's presence.  That stallion speaks to my heart and soul like no other horse has.  Just to stand and stroke his strong neck is a gift that I will always cherish.  Riding him is out of this world.  It is rare, I think, to find not only a stallion, but a retired world champion that is such a gracious teacher.  Many might think that riding Santa Fe is easy because he knows everything and will just do it for you.  I heartily  disagree.  He will indeed do what you ask but only if you ask correctly.  Santa Fe will teach you refinement in your cues and where the holes are in your body and your balance.

Eitan and Chico having a discussion
about Soft Feel. 

Maybe I'm wrong but I think most of us spend our lives riding pretty good horses.  I think very few of us ever get the chance to really ride and experience a gifted, perfectly trained horse.  I have spent my life on good decent horses with a modicum of talent for some things, but I have never had the opportunity to ride a well trained horse that can teach me the things I really need to know to grow and excel beyond where I am in my horsemanship.  There is nothing like riding a horse that is smarter and more accomplished than you to help you find where you are going in your horsemanship.  The week I spent with Santa Fe changed me and the way I ride my own horses.  I know what I am looking for and can more readily reward my horses when they begin to give me the baby steps that build true softness and self carriage.  So, when asked what I learned from my week at Wolf Creek Ranch with the amazing Santa Fe Renegade I am compelled to hold back tears of remembrance and smile and say, "soft feel".

Dale and Buccaneer
A month later my husband and I returned to Wolf Creek Ranch with a group of northwest horsemen including fellow professionals Dale Rumens-Partee and Marcia Moore Harrison as well as our good friend Trish Knight.  For this session I brought my Morgan gelding Chico with whom I have been working hard to develop and improve his lope among other things.  I was excited to show Eitan the strides we had made to really cultivate what is for Chico a very very difficult gait.  We were also anxious to get help with our ground pole work which is quite frankly a train wreck.  So, I was well aware that I still had some holes in our work but also hopeful that Eitan would recognize the hard work we had done over the past year.

Imagine you are a brick layer and have been building brick by brick an elaborate mosaic wall specifically for the pleasure of a visiting dignitary.  You are proud of your wall.  You think it's beautiful and when you look at it you see all the hard work that went into each and every brick.  Now, imagine standing in front of that wall presenting it to the dignitary for the first time.  The dignitary smiles and congratulates you on your hard work and then puts a friendly hand on your shoulder and points to a brick way down at the bottom that is upside down and then helps you take down your beautiful wall brick by brick so that you can start all over after fixing the upside down brick.
Dan and Indy and Trish and Bo
Jenni and Chico

That's pretty much what my week with Chico at Wolf Creek Ranch was like this year.  Eitan congratulated me on my hard work and the improvements in Chico over the past year and then we spent the week working on slowing him down again and having him rate to my seat so that my body would mean more to him than my hands.  All things that I know we have to work on but I was so anxious to get to fixing his lope that I brushed over those holes in our training.  Of course, those holes show up bigger and bolder in the form of his rushing issues over the poles.

Watching Eitan work with each and every horse and rider is such a learning experience for me as a Cowboy Dressage educator.  He is so very good at seeing the small details that are fouling up the horse and rider team and addressing those issues as they come up.  While we would each work on the same exercise it was executed differently for each and every horse.  We never did the same thing two days in a row (well, Chico and I did.  We spent several days clantering (the incredibly uncoordinated gait between a lope and a canter) over the gantlet of poles) instead he would see a hole in a horse and rider, sleep on it, and come up with a different angle to address the issue the next day.

Marcia and Cruz
I can't tell you what you will learn if you decide to go to Wolf Creek Ranch and invest in a week of Cowboy Dressage School of Horsemanship.  It's different for each and every person.  The horsemanship journey to soft feel is a very personal one.  What I can tell you is that you will learn and grow in ways that you never anticipated.
Trish and Bo
You will spend a week in an idyllic setting jogging next to a gently babbling creek with a gaggle of geese cheering you on.  You will be surrounded by people who get it.  You will get to watch a master horseman teach and learn right along with you because Eitan is always always pushing himself to learn knew things as well.  You will grow.  You will blossom.  You will never want to leave.

A big thank you to Lesley Deutsch of Blue Fountain Photography for the amazing photos of our time with Eitan.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

Riding within your aids

I've lived a fairly clean life for the past 43 years.  I'm not a smoker.  I don't drink to excess.  I am not a binge eater.  I don't have what others would call an "addiction" problem.  I am horse crazy, and always have been, but that's different, right?  Unfortunately after 43 years of being clean and sober, I have to admit, finally, that I am addicted.  My name is Jenni Grimmett, and I am addicted to soft feel.

My addiction didn't start out to be that bad, as I was just beginning to learn the basics.  It's nice, after all, to have your horse do what you ask him to do without a fight or attitude or copious amounts of rein or spur.  That's neat and kind of fun.  I was sold on the whole idea of having a compliant mount. My first real "hit" of pure soft feel came the very first time that Eitan allowed me a glorious ride on Santa Fe Renegade.  Once I got over just being star struck with the gorgeous stallion and paid attention to what was happening underneath me I was thunderstruck by the depth of the lightness as well as true self carriage, which is, of course, a product of lightness.  

The next spring Dan and I traveled to our first Cowboy Dressage school and spent a week learning from Eitan.  That week I felt the first glimpses of true lightness and soft feel in my own horse.  That's when I became completely hooked.  Now, I want it so bad and am so consumed with it's pursuit that I will often wake in the middle of the night trying to recreate my past ride and relive those moments of lightness. Or, what will keep me up even longer is after those rides lacking in soft feel, rehashing where I went wrong and why things weren't working for me and the horse that day.
The more I learn about soft feel and the more hours I spend ruminating on exactly what it is, the more I am convinced that true lightness happens not when the horse responds to your aids, but when the horse responds to the air between you and your aids. In other words, the horse learns to respond to not just your cues but the intention of your cues.  When you and your horse are riding "skeleton to skeleton", your horse's body can mimic the positioning and energy of your own body.  Eitan has shared countless beautifully colored illustrations that help to drive home this point. 

 Your hips and lower legs cue the horse's hips and hind legs.  Your upper body,  including head, hands and shoulders, direct the horse's front legs, shoulders, neck and head.  The energy in your core, spine and hips drive the energy in your horse's hips which drives the energy in the gait.  The final piece of the puzzle in cuing the horse for soft feel by correct use of your body is timing.  Knowing foot falls and the timing of the gait allows you to more directly communicate with your horse's skeleton with accuracy and softness. 

You can use too much leg or spur creating a horse that is dull to that pressure, or you can ride with timing and energy in your seat instead of driving with your legs and keep the horse light and responsive and willing to go forward.  You can use too much hand and reins to the point that you create not only dullness but resistance in the horse, or you can direct the horse in bend using your upper body and lightness in the reins to keep the horse happy and soft in the head and neck.  Even when a rider has been struggling with position for years, creating confusion in the horse, the moment it is finally corrected the horse seems to say, "Oh! Well, why didn't you say so?"  There is no "re-educating" that needs to happen or rehabbing from the inadvertent misuse of your skeletal aids.  It is more like the horse is just waiting for you to do it correctly.  

On the bit, on the aid
Self carriage, riding within the aid
Many riders talk about the horse being on your aids.  Modern dressage riders talk about having the horse "on the bit".  I believe in Cowboy Dressage our goal is to have the horse completely off our aids.  When the horse is riding within the bubble created by our aids he is holding himself up without our help and building true self carriage. 

The more horses that I jump on and ride the more I come to realize almost all of them are looking for that soft feel.   We, as riders, often teach our horses not to look for soft feel by the overuse of aids.  Horses being good, quiet and compliant creatures often learn to deal with our overuse of aids by  ignoring them because we just won't stop pushing on them.  When I jump on a horse that the rider is having to thump with a pair of spurs every other stride and start driving with my seat instead of my legs they very quickly figure out to follow my lead and before you know it he is willingly moving forward in time with my seat without the need for driving with the legs.  It is my belief that horses are born addicted to soft feel too.  They just get so used to not having it there that they learn to live without it.  Once you reintroduce it to their system they are generally more than happy to follow along.  

Re-educating your skeleton to be your main aid is a very difficult thing to do for many riders.  Many of you may have physical limitations or aches and pains causing your to not have full, even use of your skeleton.  Do not despair!  With consistent riding your horse will learn to compensate for any cues you have to give a little differently due to such infirmities.  Soft feel, I promise you, is still within your reach.  

One of the most helpful things for riders, and one of my main jobs as a Cowboy Dressage educator is to help people correct those subtle imbalances or inadvertent miscommunication between their horse and their skeleton.  The two most common problems that I see in riders is 1, little to no use of the weight as an aid and 2, incorrect positioning of the legs and seat for bend. 

I wonder if in the english world the riders are maybe a bit better about their weight aids.  I think as Western riders we have a tendency to use our seat for one thing and one thing only.  Stopping.  Most folks that have been riding in some western discipline, know that if you want to stop you drop your weight down on the horse.
The folks in the reining discipline are so good at it that you can see them drop that weight down from the stands.  They'll rock back so far on their pockets that it looks like they are slumped in an easy chair.  It comes as a surprise to many riders that they can ride the horse forward with their seat.  Having an active seat and riding with your horse, stride for stride, is the first step towards building communication between your two skeletons.  When the horse understands you're not just sitting up there pushing him around with your legs and pulling him around with your hands but riding each and every stride, suddenly your seat takes on a whole new meaning.  As western riders I think we tend to sit too still in our saddles.  Those Western saddles with big cushy padded seats often stirrup fenders that limit the riders leg movement are meant to keep the rider in one steady position rather than moving along with horse.

But even in our big western saddles, the horse can and does feel your seat and can respond to changes in the way you weight your seat so that he learns to move and bend with changes in the way you position your skeleton.  Understanding how the horse's skeleton moves through a bend helps us to understand how our skeleton also needs to move through a bend.  Our shoulders mimic the horses shoulders and guide them through the bend and our hips mimics the horse's hips and helps drive them forward evenly through the bend.

One of the things I love most about the swishy armitas that I ride in is the big long fringe that moves with me when I move.  When my horse and I really get a good free walk going on there is fringe a-swishing all over the place.  It's like jingle bobs or rein chains that are helping me to exaggerate that tempo of the walk.  You need to move to really ride your horse with each stride.  Loosen your hips, relax your legs and soften your shoulders and let your body move with your horse.  If the bubble within your aids is a nice soft place to be, your horse is going to be happy to meet you there.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Muscles of Balance

The muscles of the balanced horse provide a well defined
shape from head to tail.
In the discussion of maintaining and developing ideal physical form in the horse I’ve decided to remove the dreaded “C” word that seems to set nerve endings jangling in equestrian circles.  I believe if we can agree to discuss the horse as a general athlete, able to correctly perform a number of athletic and advanced maneuvers as well as maintain sustainable form to function, we can maybe agree to use a more general term.  I would like to, therefore, discuss balance in the equine frame.

The horse evolved for one purpose on the plains of this earth.  He evolved to survive.  He became fleet of foot with a long neck that was able to get to the often sparse grasses on the plains.  The eyes were large and set wide apart to allow for greater vision while in the grazing position.  The skeletal frame was designed to effortlessly carry the horse across miles and miles of ground without tiring in the pursuit of food, water, shelter and safety.  To that end the basic equine frame is one in which the top line is level.  In grazing stance or periods of rest the center of gravity shifts forward and in movement in a level frame shifts more towards midline to even the distribution and concussion of the forelimbs.  Forelimb performance lameness as we know them in the domestic horse including, navicular, laminitis, pastern arthrosis (ringbone) and arthritis are largely unknown in the wild horse population despite the 15-20 miles the average wild horse travels in a day.

Now, we have to be careful in comparing our domestic horse to the wild horse in all but form to function because we are making demands on our horses that are completely unnatural.  Sure, a horse in the wild is capable of performing Levades, piaffe, canter pirouettes, sliding stops and lofty extended trots.  They do not however, perform them with a large weight in the middle of their spinal column, nor do they sustain those movements for long periods of time.  Most of us in decent physical health could perform a burpee.  How many of us could perform 10 of them in a row without extreme fatigue?  In my circle of friends probably only a handful.  Now do that with a young child riding on your back.  Yeah, not near so easy.  It takes conditioning and muscle strength and suppling in order to correctly perform athletic maneuvers without causing undue stress, strain and wear and tear on normal joints.

Think about what lies below your saddle as you ride
So, our goal as we ride and condition our horses in the hopes of developing a sound, athletic body is to create balance and suppleness through the entire frame.  Like any good athletic coach will tell you this starts with a good working knowledge of how the body is put together. 
Let’s begin our discussion by looking at the frame work.

The equine spinal column is composed of three arcs.  Unlike the human skeleton which is designed to carry weight in a mostly upright position on a bipedal frame, the equine skeleton obviously distributes the weight fairly evenly along the spinal column to distribute weight along all 4 feet.  As we have already discussed in a grazing position, that balance shifts to carrying the weight more on the front feet, but in times of athletic movement that weight shifts back to the business end of the horse allowing for rapid acceleration and quicker turns. 

The three arches in the equine skeleton are:
1:  The 7 cervical vertebrae running from the head to the chest.  
2. The 18 thoracic and 6 lumbar vertebrae running from the withers to the loin.
3. The 5 fused sacral and caudal vertebrae running from the loin to the tip of the tail. 

In an athletic stance we would like for all three of these arches to be evenly engaged, effectively rounding out the entire horse.  In neutral the arches form one long low arch.  It is interesting and instructive to note that the lateral mobility of the equine spine is largely limited to the first and last arch.  The lateral movement through the thoracic vertebrae is limited at best and the loin and fused sacral vertebrae allow for virtually no lateral movement at all.  The only direction the lumbar-sacral joint is able to make is vertically allowing for coiling of the pelvis and flexion of the hip.  Because the lumbosacral joint has dorsal/ventral flexion of only 6.5 degrees, the majority of the flexion in the back of the horse occurs with flexion of the hip.

Not only are we attempting to develop a frame on the horse capable of athletic movement, we also must build the muscles responsible for carrying our weight without causing injury or excessive wear and tear on the horse's frame as well.  When the horse is first mounted he will drop his back away from the weight of the saddle and the rider, as one could expect.  The horse does this by extending his spine, contracting the long muscle of topline called the longisimus dorsi.  This is also the longest muscle in the horse's body and runs from the transverse processes of the last 4 cervical vertebrae along the transverse processes of the thoracic vertebrae and inserts on the dorsal processes of the lumbar vertebrae.  This causes the reverse arch through the thoracic vertebrae under the saddle and generally flattening of the first and third arch as well.  Stiffening of this long muscle due to fatigue or pain impairs the ability of the horse to round underneath the saddle.  Obviously that’s not ideal and as riders it’s our job to help the horse learn to deal with the weight and build the muscles that will allow it to carry the weight in a balanced frame. 

There is only one way to do this correctly.  And if you examine the muscles off the horse’s body in relation to the design of the equine frame it becomes obvious how training methods can get in our way and build the wrong muscles in our horses that effectively impair balance and form to function in young horses that carries through their entire lives. 

The muscles that are responsible or initiating coiling of the loins and the beginnings of balance through the topline are the hip flexors.  They are the muscles responsible for the thrust that drives the equine body forward.  When these muscles contract the lower the croup and loin loading the hip for the thrusting phase of the movement.  This spring like action carries forward into the 2nd and 1st arch like loading a spring.   When the hindquarters are not brought into play first and you attempt to create arch through the horse’s body by compressing or flexing just the head and neck, this drives the neck down into the thorax, flattens the back and pushes the hindquarters out behind the horse.

There are several ways to help your horse begin to develop the muscles that flex the hips.  Hills, going both up and down work these muscles efficiently.  Backing your horse, as long as he is stepping correctly in a trot back also develop the muscles of the hip flexors.  Lateral movements such as shoulder in, haunches in and leg yield also cause the horse to work the muscles of the hip flexors.  Any movement that asks the horse to step deeper underneath himself while still maintaining propulsion will improve the strength and flexibility of these flexor muscles. 

The muscles that are responsible for flexing the hip and coiling the loin may not be the muscles you think of when you look at the back of your horse.  The western horse is prized for big beefy hip muscles that extend well beyond the point of the him creating that luscious J-Lo look.  Those are the semimembranosus and semitendinosus muscles and they are responsible for extension of the limb and help to propel the horse forward in the stride. These are the very muscles that helped give the American Quarter Horse his name as they are responsible for quick burst of speed that is generated by these powerful thrusting muscles.  
The muscles of flexion are deep and hard to see. 
They are not, however the muscles that coil and flex the hip.  The hip flexors live deeper and include the Psoas major and minor, tensor fascia latae, gluteus superficialis.  These muscles work in opposition to the large semi m and semi t muscles on the back of the leg.  In fact, suppleness through those muscles is as important as strength in the flexor muscles when allowing the horse to coil the loins.  Some even suggest that the long muscles of the hip are equivalent to a second top line that allows the horse to stretch forward and step underneath himself allowing the balance of the horse to shift further back towards the loin.
The second arch of the spine is the thoracic vertebrae and loin.  We wish to develop muscles that lie below the transverse processes of the vertebrae rather than above them.  So while we, as horse owners spend a lot of time talking about developing a horse’s top line, it is not building the muscles of the top line as much as making sure those muscles remain soft, supple and flexible.    While we need good muscle tone along the top of the back for strength when carrying weight, these are not the muscles that are most effective in creating arch and loading the spring of the spine.   If you have ever seen a sway backed horse that is also in good flesh you will note that the dorsal processes (bony projections at the top of the spine) are not very evident.  This is because a sway back is not due to lack of muscles along the top of the spine.  Contraction of muscles dorsal to the transverse processes causes the spine to hollow.  Horses that are worked in this hollowed frame (park horses, harness horses, and often gaited horses) will have well developed muscle tone along the upper spine and poor muscle tone below the spine.  In order to cause the spine to round up and load the arch we need to work the muscles that lie below the transverse processes.  These muscles are involved not only in elevation of the spine but in lateral movements as well.  This is why lateral movements through the rib cage help to build strength and suppling in the muscles responsible for rounding of the spine.   BEND is the key to lateral strengthening as well as balancing and rounding the mid-section of the horse through loading of the muscles below the spine.  We need all of the muscles working together to strengthen and balance the horse.

The muscle groups responsible for lifting and rounding the back are smaller than the muscle that extends the back.  Like in the 3rd arch it is important for the muscles of opposition to remain supple and loose in order for the smaller muscles flexing the spine to act.  These muscles include the rectus abdominus, iliospoas complex and longus coli scalenus.

Rectus abdominus is a large thin muscle that lies along the abdominal wall and slings the abdominal contents like a hammock.  It attaches originates at the 4th, 5th and 9th rib and inserts at the pubis by means of a large tendon.  This muscle acts to arch the back largely by flexion at the lumbosacral joint.  Therefore, when engaging the abdominal muscles, you aren’t lifting the back so much as flexing the loin that then acts on the vertebrae of the back to arch slightly. 

If you look at the horse's body as if it's a suspension bridge you can see how the 1st and 3rd arch in the spine will anchor the span of 2nd arch.  The muscles of the abdomen and back below the vertebrae help lift the back into the securing arches of the neck and loin.  If either the arch in the neck or the arch in the loin are lost, the roundness in the back will drop as well.  It takes each piece of the horse's body working together to maximize the potential in each body part.  The whole horse will be stronger if each of the body parts is doing it's job and working in harmony.  Think of the tail end of the horse as the end of the bridge that has all of the supplies for building the rest of the bridge.  First you start there, then you create a base on the other side and then you bring the two sides together.  

Now, I left the first arch in the horse’s body for last for two reasons.  First of all it’s the last part of the puzzle in creating balance.  The greatest part the head and neck play in the overall balance is in shifting the weight of the horse backwards, towards the second and third arch allowing for the center of gravity to shift more towards the hindquarters freeing the forequarters for lofty movement and lessening the concussion on the front feet and legs.  Too often people start to balance a horse by worrying about the “head set” before worrying about engaging the horse. 

Bulging at the 3rd vertebrae due to
enlarged rectus capitus muscle
In order for the horse to correctly soften and arch the neck from spine to head he must first lift the base of the neck where it meets the withers.  As these vertebrae lift you can see the engagement off the muscles just to the front of the withers and just in front of the saddle.  This sets the horse up for proper head and neck carriage.  If you attempt to create an arch through neck by only flexing the poll this compresses the vertebrae and causes bracing at the 3rd and 4th vertebrae.  

Again, the horse is bracing and breaking
at the 3rd vertebrae
A properly engaged head and neck should be larger in at the base of the neck than at the mid thoracic vertebrae.  It is easy to tell if you horse has been developing the wrong neck muscles because he will bulge behind the poll.  Think of the head and neck as lifting from the chest and extending upwards and downwards.  Some suggest it’s the action a horse makes when he is looking into a bucket.  The must first lift then stretch then give at the poll.  This makes giving at the poll the very last action in the engagement of the muscles of balance and softening of the horse from tail to head. 

So, what are the take home messages for the rider that has little interest in anatomy but lots of interest in riding her horse? Here they are.
IF your horse is using the right muscles you can see it in their entire body if you know where to look. 

Does your horse have a bulging hind end with hard muscles when viewed from behind? He may be spending a lot of time in extension or thrusting those hind legs forward from behind the stifle.  You want those muscles to remain soft and supple and LONG to encourage the horse to step underneath himself as much as his conformation will allow.

This horse's back is hollow due to over developement
 of the longisimuss dorsi
Does your horse have a taught ropey back? Again, this is another muscle that we want long and soft with even fill along the entire back.  If your horse spends a lot of time in the hollowed dropped back stance the longisimuss dorsi will pull the spine back away from the shoulders and create that deep pocket.  It’s worse in horses with long laid back shoulders that are built to carry themselves hollowed out (Morgans, arabs, Saddlebreds, etc.) When the horse learns to lift and round his back this muscle will soften and quit tensing.  You should be able to softly palpate the muscles of the back from the spine to the top of the ribs.
This horse shortens and drops his neck, causing a ewe
neck and over developement of the trapezius muscle

Does your horse have a dip right in front of the saddle? This is caused by collapsing of the cervical vertebrae and over development of the trapezius.  When the horse pulls the neck back towards the withers this muscle tightens and thickens.  A chronic head tosser will have a well developed shortened muscle here.  We want to see the horse’s neck lift up in front of the saddle when engaged not dip down.

What about the muscles at the base of the neck?  Those should also be loose and stretchy allowing for the telescoping of the neck.  Thickening or tightening of these muscles shortens the cervical spine and creates a ewe necked appearance.  The muscles at the top of the neck that are responsible for stretch and lateral flexion are the only muscles that should be enlarging in the properly worked and balanced horse.  Those muscles should be toned and even from the poll to the withers. 
If the poll is flexed or braced without proper engagement of the remainder of the neck you get thickening of the rectus capitus.  This becomes the widest part of the horse's neck, and is especially noticeable when viewed from the saddle.

The well developed and balanced horse will have even muscle development through his entire upper body with soft supple stretchy muscles along the topline.  Obviously not every horse needs to be an elite athlete, just like not every rider is an elite athlete, but knowing which muscles are the "wrong" muscles  and which are the "right" muscles for balance may help us spot trouble areas in our riding and keep our horses sound and healthy well into their later years!