Sunday, June 18, 2017

Gathering your Nerve for the Gathering

Our very first Cowboy Dressage Regional Gathering is just around the corner.  I am so excited to finally introduce to friends who have been unable to travel the magic, fun and rewarding experience that is a Cowboy Dressage World Gathering.  I’m willing to bet that the Gathering environment is unlike anything they have experienced before.  The Cowboy Dressage community is unique in that it places kindness to horse and human first and foremost.  We strive, within the Cowboy Dressage family, to be inclusive and welcoming while upholding standards of horsemanship that reward try and taking it slow, and the philosophy of putting the horse first. 

You will often hear the phrase repeated by the folks of Cowboy Dressage World that Cowboy Dressage is a lifestyle and not a competition.  The end goal of your Cowboy Dressage journey and education (if such a thing even exists) should be to maximize your partnership, perfect your try, and build your horse’s balance, softness and correctness to the very best of his (and your) individual ability.  There is no type and no required way of travel for the Cowboy Dressage horse.  We welcome all shapes and sizes and all ages and levels of riders that have a commitment to soft feel and partnership.

The Gatherings exist for two reasons: 1.  To provide a venue where we as the Cowboy Dressage community can congregate and celebrate our individual journeys as well as the journey of the movement of Cowboy Dressage.  And, 2.  To provide an opportunity for education of our members through valuable judges feedback.  

Now, that is not to say that there is not some competition at the Gatherings.  Because we are horse folk, we are driven to compete.  We love to win awards, buckles and shiny things.  I refer to that as racoon syndrome and I suffer from it as much as any other horse person.  Seeing a big string of blue ribbons on my beloved horse’s stall door does my heart a world of good.  We all love to win and we take these things very seriously.  What we should remember is that in Cowboy Dressage there is no short cut for good training. Because we reward soft feel and partnership between horse and rider there are no shortcuts that will win you big rewards.  The rewards exist to celebrate the successful journey of our hard-working community members as well as commemorate milestones.  There are special awards in several categories that help to spread the shiny stuff around and hopefully take a little of the competitive pull out of the participants.   Because, let’s face it; if we are honest with ourselves, it is competition in all disciplines that leads to dishonestly, and shortcuts for which the horses suffer.  We wish, in Cowboy Dressage to avoid that pitfall to the very best of our ability.

So, how do we do that?  Well, the first way we approach that challenge is to provide for our Gatherings judges that have been trained through our own extensive judge’s boot camp. Our judges are trained to look for and reward soft feel first and foremost.  The judges are not swayed by fancy outfits, expensive horses or silver tack.  The Cowboy Dressage member in thrift store jeans and hand me down tack competes on the same level as the member with a fancy rig.  If there comes a time when it matters what color your shirt is or what style your saddle, we will truly have lost our focus.

We also continue to foster a community feeling at the Gatherings.  Because ultimately you are only competing against yourself no matter who else happens to be riding the same test at your Gathering.  We take turns calling tests for each other.  We allow buddy horses to help the horses feel comfortable in the arena and you may see the rider who just rode a test hang around to provide support for the rider who is riding next.  We celebrate the good rides of our friends as well as the good rides we experience because ultimately, it’s the horse that is winning when we all strive for soft feel.

Another great thing about the Cowboy Dressage Gatherings is that we are held accountable for walking the walk and talking the talk.  The principles of soft feel and kindness as well as the rules that govern some of our tack choices (especially those gadgets that are considered short cuts like draw reins or bitting rigs) are not allowed in the warm up pens.  Should a rider exhibit treatment of a horse that is contrary to the Cowboy Dressage principle of kindness first they are kindly asked to discontinue and the rules are explained to them.  It is assumed in most circumstances that folks are just not aware of our rules, but it is important that the principles of soft feel that we follow at home are in evidence at the shows as well be it on the court, in the shed row or in the warm up pen. 

So, what should the new Cowboy Dressage handshake member do to get ready for their first Gathering?  The only things required to participate in a Gathering are serviceable western tack, western attire (jeans, boots, long sleeve button up shirt, tie, boots, helmet or hat) and a healthy well cared for horse.  Because we are about the horse first, we do want to see horses that are fit and healthy but unlike other show venues you are not required to do a lot of primping.  Clipping is optional and hoof polish and hair polishes are not required though if you enjoy blinging out your horse go for it!  Some members even clip designs into their horse’s hair coats.  One thing you will certainly see at a Cowboy Dressage Gathering is a wide array of expression of personal style and that is encouraged and celebrated but not in any way reflected by the score on your sheet at the end of your ride.  It helps to have a helper at a Gathering but most of the time there are plenty of folks around that can lend a hand.  You will find yourself among friends and even if it’s your first Gathering you are part of the family just by being there. 

Riding up the centerline towards C for your very first time in front of a smiling Cowboy Dressage judge can be a very nerve-wracking experience.  Remember that you are there to celebrate your partnership.  You are there to get valued feedback on your ride.  You are there to be a part of this exciting new discipline that is providing a venue to showcase your soft feel and your hard work.  When the dust settles and the ribbons are collected all that matters is that you met your personal goals for you and your horse.  And if you didn’t? Well, there is always another Gathering down the road!

Jenni Grimmett, DVM, Dollie Horst and Trish Knight at the 2015 Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering


  1. Beautifully explained and states exactly why I am drawn to ccowboy Dressage.