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.