Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Finally Finals!!!

The Cowboy Dressage World Prtners kick off the Final Gathering 2018

What a busy year it has been!  I suppose they all are pretty busy, though, aren't they? Here it is fall already and the Cowboy Dressage World Final Gathering is happening in a couple of weeks and I feel like I've barely got a start on my training for the year.

There have been some very exciting things happening in the Cowboy Dressage Community this year.  We have a new division that launched this year and will be featured at the Final Gathering for the first time.  We have a new twist on what was formerly called the Top Hand competition that is going to be exciting to watch and we continue to see Cowboy Dressage grow and spread across not only the country but the world!

For me personally his has been an exciting year as I begin the Cowboy Dressage journey all over again with my young Morgan gelding, Ernie.  While I miss riding the upper division tests it is going to be really fun for me to take a horse from the groundwork divisions to the riding divisions focusing on on the Cowboy Dressage principles of soft feel and partnership.  Hopefully I will avoid the mistakes I made with my other horses and Ernie and I will be able to get even farther in our journey than I have been previously.

Part of our journey this year is focusing on the Partnership and new Liberty Divisions in Cowboy Dressage.  I have previously used the Partnership division as a means of introducing my horses to the court and exploring partnership.  I have always focused much more on the riding tests than the ground tests when I have attended a Gathering so I am new to receiving scores based on my groundwork.  Looking at the partnership tests from the judges viewpoint has really allowed me to focus on the little things that really add up in the long run.  Energy and forward movement in the leading position is a tough thing to maintain and all of that gets even tougher as you move into the liberty division.

The Liberty Division is brand new to Cowboy Dressage gatherings this year but the concept is not new.  There has been discussion about adding Liberty to Cowboy Dressage for a number of years and it took a lot of work by the Partners, Judges and Professionals for this division to get up and running.  This has really changed how I approach my groundwork sessions where I am now looking forward into the liberty division tests and figuring out how  I am going to create the maneuvers without a lead and still maintaining frame, activity and partnership in my horse.  Some days I get it and everything clicks, other days I push too hard and it all falls apart.  It's been a great way for me to explore partnership and what it means to me personally in my relationship with my horse.  It's challenging in so many ways and really provides amazing feedback directly from the horse when you are doing too much or not enough.  So much more so than even riding with Soft Feel does in my humble opinion.  The only thing keeping the horse there with you is his desire to be there and work with you.  As soon as he doesn't want to be with you anymore the whole thing collapses and you are just left standing there with a dressage whip in your hand trying to will your horse back to your side.  It's a whole new kind of humbling in horsemanship.  I'm looking forward to both participating in and watching the liberty division at the Finals this year.  Since it is completely new we are all anxiously awaiting the judges feedback on our progress so we know how to proceed going forward.

Also new to the Final Gathering this year is the Ride for the Brand Competition.  This is replacing Top Hand this year and will showcase not only the difficult Challenge WJL #2 test but each horse and rider pair must also participate in a Partnership on the Ground test and a Musical Freestyle.  I am so excited to watch how this unfolds this year because I believe more so than the past competition this really is who we are and where we want to be going in Cowboy Dressage.  Watching the switch ride in the Top Hand Competition was always amazing and certainly allowed versatile and adaptable horsemen and women to rise to the top.  But, it also asked an awful lot of those horses that have given so much of their try and commitment to their partner to then adjust to a new rider and still perform at their best.  With the new format we are recognizing the elements of the Cowboy Dressage Culture that we hold most dear.  From the very beginning, establishing partnership on the ground and into a difficult and challenging riding test and finally to the ultimate expression of partnership, harmony and celebration of the journey with the musical freestyle.  I can't wait to watch and cheer on the competitors.

But that is far from all the excitement we are expecting at Rancho Murieta in October.  The partners have invited experts in their field to speak to the handshake members on Tuesday evening before the show kicks off.  Dr. Sharon Spier, DVM will be presenting on Lameness and Gait Evaluation in Performance Horses, something each and every member will want to hear about.  Brad Tarp, the eminent rawhide braider will be speaking on how to use and fit a traditional bosal.  The Grand Entry featuring the Cowboy Dressage World Partners will be Wednesday evening after the first day of classes. Back this year after a hilarious first year is the golf cart decoration and test competition on Thursday evening.  You won't want to miss out on the creative genius in our member teams.  Friday night is concert night featuring Western recording artist and horseman in his own right, Dave Stamey.  We'll be dining in the dirt with Dave and entertained by the talented trick roper Rudy Lara Jr before the concert.  Then Saturday is the championship round of the Ride for the Brand competition.  Finally we meet to celebrate all of our accomplishments as a Cowboy Dressage family on Sunday morning as we dole out the piles of prizes to all the hard working members.

All in all it's an event that anyone in the Cowboy Dressage family won't want to miss a moment off.  If you aren't planning to attend the Final Gathering in Rancho Murieta October 9-13th you need to make plans to be there.  Fly, run, bike or ride, but get your butt to Northern California this October.  We'll see you there!

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Partnership Principle

I’ve been spending a lot of time this winter contemplating the meaning of Partnership when we are talking about our relationships with our horses.  I think it is every little horsey girl’s dream (and maybe every horsey boy’s as well) to have that one horse that loves you back as deeply as you love him.  That horse that comes running when you call and carries you bravely through adventures as well as performing with just a thought in the arena for whatever discipline you decide to pursue.  That’s my definition of partnership and perhaps it’s a standard that is beyond what is reasonable to expect out of any horse. 

I blame that expectation on too many Disney movies as well as the the rose-colored glasses of time.  My first Morgan, Triton King Cory, was an amazing horse.  Talented and athletic, game for any and all adventures, fast, beautiful and the love of my equine life.  He was with me through most of the big moments of my life right up through starting my own mobile veterinary service.  As a matter of fact, I named my business after him.   But, if I’m honest with myself and remove the rose-colored glasses, even that partnership wasn’t perfect.  Cory was hard to catch until the day he died.  He was a bully with other horses.  He hated clippers, hoses, and anything that meant he may have to go to a show.   But, in my memory of him he is and always will be perfect.  They say you only get one horse of a lifetime and when I lost Cory I was convinced that every horse I had for the rest of my life would pale in comparison.   I don’t believe that anymore.  I think it’s up to us to attempt to find that magical partnership with every horse we meet.  I don’t think we will always be successful but I think it’s up to us to learn not only how to cultivate partnership in our horses but within us as well.  

Triton King Cory 1991

I have 4 Morgan boys in my string right now.  Chico, my 17 yr old gelding has been with me for the longest.  He’s the only one that was here to meet Cory and sometimes I think he and Cory must have had long discussions about what I would need from him once Cory was gone.  I tried not to expect too much from Chico after losing Cory, knowing it would be hard for him to live up to that “once in a lifetime” title I had already assigned to Cory.  Since Chico was 4 or so I could trust him with my life out in the mountains.  He has always been steady and trustworthy, and we spent many hours out in the mountains by ourselves exploring and me burning off pent up frustrations from the struggles of becoming an adult and a business owner and a part of the local professional community.   Once we came down from the mountains and attempted to compete in the arena, I realized that it wasn’t Chico that was letting our partnership down, it was me.  I needed more education to help Chico become everything that he had the potential to become.  Chico has allowed me to grow and learn as a horseman and is the reason that I am part of the Cowboy Dressage community.  My faith and trust in Chico was well established long before his training level meant that we could do anything at all in the arena.  It took much longer for that side of our partnership to develop fully. Chico taught me that being a worthy partner goes both ways, and that I could have that deep connection with another horse after Cory.  You do get more than one horse of a lifetime if you allow it.   
With Chico at the Cowboy Dressage Gathering in 2016

Kit, my 8 year old gelding has been harder to cultivate a partnership with and I think that’s been my fault.  Kit and I have been together since he was a weanling.  What a character he has been since the day I brought him home.  There has never been any doubt in my mind that Kit loves me and enjoys spending time with me.  Where we have struggled is in who should be the leader of our partnership of two.  We had several unfortunate mishaps during our early years that meant we both lost confidence in the other.  Consequently, I got it into my head that he was difficult.  Kit got it into his head that I thought he was difficult and he couldn’t trust me to trust him.  My relationship with Kit reminds me of that saying from Ray Hunt about training horses. “First you go with him, then he goes with you, then you go together”.  Kit and I are finally going together.  I can't really pin point what was the turning point in our relationship, maybe it was just time.  But, somewhere this past year I realized I could trust him and it's been only progress since that day.   Kit taught me that partnerships are built on trust, first and foremost.  Without that trust, the training may develop but the partnership never will.  
Kit early in our partnership

My 5 year old, Ernie is more like a dog than a horse.  He is the friendliest and most gregarious horse I have ever known.  He is more than happy to just hang out like one of my Irish Setters.  He will come running whenever I go out to the pasture and will walk away from his hay to come and see what I’m up to.  You would think that this would make him the ideal partner and I was very hopeful that our relationship once under saddle would be that fairy tale, “They lived happily ever after, winning top scores and buckles and ribbons for ever more”.  Unfortunately Ernie is plagued by an attitude that abhors work.  Trail riding and chasing cows  and doing fun stuff he is 100% on board for but work makes him rather grumpy.  He reminds me of a teenager rolling his eyes and stomping his foot when you ask him to clean his room.  So, right now our partnership is very heavily into the category of parent and child because every time I try to be his friend he starts acting like one of the scouts in my dad’s Boy Scout troop.  Ernie has taught me that good Partnerships are about more than just mutual love.  There is no doubt that Ernie loves me and I sure as heck love Ernie.  Discipline and clear expectations are very important in creating a partnership.  Without discipline there is just fun and games and no growth.  
Ernie and I in Montana

Finally we come to Santa Fe Renegade; undoubtably the most highly trained horse I have ever had the privilege of riding.  15 minutes atop this stallion is like a shot of a highly addictive drug.  He really does just perform with a mere thought as we move from jog, to lope to pirouette to flying lead change and back to leg yield.  You can paint any picture you would like in the arena from the back of this amazing horse.  While having Santa Fe Renegade here in my barn is like a dream come true for me, nobody asked Santa Fe how he was going to feel about the change of address.  There are some things that I think he loves about living here in Idaho.  I do think he enjoys his time outside hanging with his soul mate, Bonnie.  The footing seems to agree with him as he is able to go barefoot for the first time in his life.  However, none of us are 8.  Santa Fe and Eitan had one of those perfect partnerships and while the move here to Idaho was made for his benefit, I’m not sure that Santa Fe was on board with the change.  I’m having to work hard to develop a partnership with Santa Fe.  I feel a little bit like I did when I was in high school.  I had this deep, all encompassing crush on a boy in the year ahead of me all through high school.  I spent a good deal of my time stalking him, mooning over him and trying to find some way to make him like me.   I hope I will eventually have more luck winning Santa Fe over than I did with the blue eyed boy in high school.  Santa Fe has taught me more than any other horse that partnership isn’t all about obedience and perfect training.  That’s only one small piece of the puzzle.  
With Santa Fe Renegade at Wolf Creek Ranch

Education and an Open Heart.  Trust and Time.  Discipline and Boundaries.  Mutual love and respect.  All of these things (and I bet you could add some of your own words) are important in the development of perfect partnership.  As I enter into the middle age of my horsemanship career, I hope to have many more partnerships with once in a lifetime horses ahead of me.  Most horseman will spend 70-80 years or more in the saddle.  One amazing horse during all that time?  Seems like such a waste, doesn’t it? 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

La Garrocha: The magic schtick!

I can still remember the very first time I saw a performance with a Garrocha pole in person.  Rebecca Wirth, one of our Cowboy Dressage professionals, was performing as part of a Cowboy Dressage exposition in Albany, OR, not too long after I started my own Cowboy Dressage journey.  I was immediately impressed with her control of the great big long pole and the way she and her horse danced around it.  Now, this was a form of pole dancing I could completely get behind!  I set my sights, right then and there on being able to ride with the magical "schtick" as Eitan referred to it.

The Garrocha pole is a spanish tradition of the Doma Vaqueros.  The long pole was used to both tend cattle and then to perform in the bull fights.  The handy vaquero horses had to be able to turn and spin around that pole while the rider intimidated the bull into fighting by poking it with the long stick.  The speed and collection demonstrated by the Doma Vaqueros is impressive and awe inspiring and a beauty to watch.  In gatherings and expositions of skill the vaquero may perform around a lovely lady who danced while the Vaquero danced around with prancing pony and long pole.  Those particularly proficient in performing with the Garrocha pole are called  “Garrachista”, a term of respect and honor for the Doma Vaquero. 

Today the Garrocha pole is a tool that can be used to help give meaning and purpose to the suppling and lateral maneuvers that we often use in Cowboy Dressage.  The dexterity required in handling the pole requires that the rider guide the horse with all the aids and not just the reins.  The presence of the pole gives the horse something to focus on in the maneuvers adding bend and suppleness.  It’s an excellent cross training tool that you can add to your workouts.  And best of all, it’s fun!
There is something magical that happens when you ride with the Garrocha.  It's almost as if there is something hardwired into the horse to move around and with the long pole.  It adds focus, bend, and purpose for the horse as you carry on with maneuvers such as turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches (pirouette), leg yield, roll backs and perfect bend.  It removes from the rider the ability to micromanage the horse as your hands are literally quite full and your attention is split between guiding the horse and not beaning either of you with the pole!

It's easy to get started with the Garrocha pole and I recommend it for adding focus to your training program.  The Garrocha pole is generally about 13 feet long.  A rider that is taller or mounted on a tall horse (over 16 hands, say) may need a bit longer pole at 13 1/2 feet.  A shorter rider or one mounted on a short horse (less than 14 hands) may prefer a little shorter pole at 12 1/2 feet.  The pole should be relatively rigid.  A long PVC pipe has so much bounce that it is difficult to control.  A long wooden closet dowel, or even an aluminum pool cleaning pole makes a good lightweight tool for practicing.  While a heavier pole is difficult to get used to at first, I prefer the added weight for the stability at faster gaits.  My Garrocha pole is a hardwood three piece that screws together like a pool cue.  It makes it quite easy to store and travel with but less easy to hoist around when you are first learning!

I introduce the Garrocha pole to my horse on the ground.  While I have found that all my horses respond  well to the pole, I have also seen a few horses quite troubled in the beginning.  I begin the introduction by leading the horse while dragging the pole with the pole in my left hand and the horse in my right.  I then switch sides so the horse can see the pole dragging next to him out of both eyes.  Once that is accomplished. I begin to have the horse change eyes on the pole by sending him back and forth under the pole.  Once he is quietly walking and turning under the pole I will change to yielding his hindquarters under the pole.  I will be careful at first to allow the horse to become accustomed to the pole before I become a little less careful of whether the pole is touching the horse or not.  As the horse gets used to the pole I will become careless and have the pole touch the hindquarters and forequarters as it is likely to do as you, the rider are trying to master changing the position of the pole from the saddle.  

My final exercise from the ground is to send the horse around me with the pole in the position that it will be when being carried by the rider.  I do this at the walk, jog and lope finally progressing to resting the pole across the saddle.  This ground work session may take several days and it may take 15 minutes.  It depends entirely on the horse and rider pair and their experience and agility with introducing the pole to the horse.  My best advice is to not rush it and to be sure that the horse is 100% accepting of the pole prior to getting into the saddle.  

For your first session with the pole in the saddle it is useful to have a helper to hand you the pole and to take the pole should the horse display some wariness.  If you have down your groundwork thoroughly this should result only in your helper handing you the pole.  If the horse is nervous with you holding the pole from the saddle I may choose to go back to more groundwork before proceeding with saddle work.  But, with a good helper you can go through the same exercises that I described in the groundwork with the helper introducing the pole while you steady and reassure the horse.

Under saddle I begin by dragging the pole behind the horse in a slight leg yield so the horse’s attention and line of sight includes the pole.  After dragging for a bit I will change directions under the pole with a turn on the haunches with forward movement then repeat the forward dragging of the pole on the other eye with a slight leg yield. 

Now you are ready to start using the Garrocha to create magic between you and your horse.  The simplest of the maneuvers with the Garrocha pole and one of the most universally beneficial is to walk a perfect circle holding the pole steady.  Just as the Cowboy Dressage markers on the court help you to ride point to point and hold your circle the Garrocha allows you to practice this concept with each stride.  Since your hands are preoccupied by holding the pole the job of holding the circle and the bend as well as the cadence become the job of your other aids.  The Garrocha pole can truly help you learn to seek the place where your horse is completely within your aids.  Most horses will look towards the pole which helps to initiate the lateral flexion in the head and neck.  Your seat and legs create the bend through the body.  The rider’s balance shifts with each stride helps to balance the horse on the circle and correct for missteps on the circle. 

You can make the circle larger or smaller in several ways but the simplest of which is to simply change your balance from the inside to the outside of the horse without changing the horse’s bend.  Don’t shove the horse to the inside or outside of the circle but ride the horse to the inside and outside of the circle by using  your center of gravity. 

Because you necessarily must ride one handed when handling the pole it is important to remember that your reins are connected to the front feet through the horse’s shoulders.  Use the outside rein at the junction of the neck and the shoulder to help create bend and initiate the maneuvers of Turn on the Haunches, shoulder in and rollbacks.  If you attempt to create these maneuvers with your legs, you will interfere with the bend that the pole has helped you to create.

The Turn on the Forehand can be performed by moving the haunches under the pole or away from the pole.  A Turn on the forehand of 180 degrees will result in a change of bend when performed either direction. 

You can also change direction and the side of the horse on which the pole is carried by moving the pole behind the horse’s hindquarters when moving forward.  This change of bend is a little subtler and encourages forward movement through the change of bend.  By using this maneuver, you can either perform figures of  8 or a serpentine series. 

Really the maneuvers and ways in which the Garrocha pole can be used is limited only by your imagination.  I’ve seen some amazing performances with the Garrocha and each is as unique as the horse and rider performing.  Once you and your horse are comfortable with the pole and you can swap from side to side you can begin to add the faster gaits and more intricate turns.  Just remember that as always your goal is soft feel and partnership.  Build through the maneuvers slowly not pushing too hard in order to prevent the loss of soft feel.  I’ve begun to add the Garrocha pole into our lessons for my younger horses as well and they certainly excel at it. 

So, head to your local hardware store for a 13 foot dowel and begin your introduction to the Garrocha pole.  It’s a great way to celebrate our vaquero roots, ride to some great music and work towards the kind of finesse and partnership we are all after!

All photos by Trish Knight

Sunday, October 21, 2018

CDW 2018 Final Gathering

We are home and the horses are settled into their own beds again after a 10 day trip to Northern California and back for the 2018 Cowboy Dressage World Final Gathering.  This was our 5th Final Gathering and they just get better each year.  So many amazing things happened at the Ranch Murieta Equestrian Center this year.  I’ll try to put into words the magic that goes on each year when we bring together like minded horsemen from across the globe to celebrate soft feel, but if you weren’t there to experience it yourself, there is always a little something loss in the translation.  It’s like the difference between being in the audience to watch an amazing freestyle performance and seeing the video of it later.  You kind of have to be there to experience the magic. 

We arrived on Monday to begin set up and decoration for our barn isle and to allow the horses a day to recover from the 2 day trailer ride.  Greeting old friends and meeting new ones as you settle into camp always sets a welcoming tone.  I was pleased by how our horses settled right into the calm and relaxed environment.  Chico is now a seasoned traveler and campaigner, but Dan’s mare Mia hasn’t been to many shows with us.  Because the rest of the horses are happy and settled and quiet, it’s easy for the new horses to settle right in.  I know of two young horses that arrived at finals for the very first time this year during one of our busy show days and they walked onto the grounds like there was nothing to worry about.  I think it speaks volumes for the calm and relaxing atmosphere that we work so hard to cultivate. 

The Cowboy Dressage World Partners work so hard to make this Gathering an event to remember each year.  This year we were treated not only to a special lectures on disaster preparedness by partner Wyatt Paxton and equine behavior by Dr. Robert Miller, DVM.  Then after some amazing cupcakes provided by the cupcake wars we were all entertained by 7 time WMA Cowboy Entertainer of the year, Dave Stamey.  Dan and I have long been Dave Stamey fans and the opportunity to see him in this intimate private concert setting was so wonderful.  Dave is an amazing songwriter capturing the essence of the western spirit with a healthy dose of horseman in there as well.  We were thrilled to listen to 2 full sets of Dave and his amazing guitar playing while we all sang along.  I could have listened to Dave for hours and it sounds like plans are already in the works to bring him back to see us again next year.

Wednesday kicked off our first day of classes.  The office staff, volunteers and gate folks made the running of the show seamless this year.  Keeping 5 arenas flowing with tests and happy riders is a feat itself.  We had two large warm up arenas in two convenient locations and of course, the atmosphere at each arena remained welcoming and quiet for the horses participating in the show.  We had riders in our group in 3 of the 5 arenas keeping us hopping and logging lots of “steps” as we campassed the grounds.  No problem there, though as it gave us ample time to mingle and nod and say hello to our friends as we traveled from one end of the grounds to the other. 

Wednesday evening was the opening ceremony with all 5 of the Cowboy Dressage Partners welcoming the participants.  Aside from having all 5 of the partners mounted to ride into the court, we also featured our fellow Idahoan and veteran Marcia Moore Harrison carrying the American flag for the anthem.  Then demo riders showed any newcomers what a test ride might look like in each of the divisions including partnership on the ground. 

Thursday evening after a full day of tests we were all entertained by the golf cart competition.  I was amazed by the level of participation and the effort that went into the 11 entries.  The decorations and enthusiasm displayed by the groups was awesome to see.  What I originally thought was going to just be a parade of golf carts turned out to be a driving competition with fun directives such as “Stop at 8 and do the hokey pokey” or “10 m circle working drive”.  Many of the entries had folks on foot that followed the cart along.  The MM Connection entry featured “Bad” Betty Nagle driving while they blasted “Bad to the Bone” on the boom box.  Watching 84 yr young Betty get out and do the hokey pokey while getting tangled in the fake cobwebs decorating the cart had me in tears of laughter.  The judges agreed and awarded this cart the award for the evening.   Jessica Hutchings entry with the Peter Pan theme was also a crowd favorite.  They had all the characters of Peter Pan including Capt. Hook and Wendy with Tinkerbell riding along.  The best were the inflatable costumes for the parrot and the crocodile that ran along behind the cart during the test.  We were all cracking up watching them try to hoof it behind the cart through the test.   The last entry was Australian entry featuring Phil Monaghan at the wheel and Dink riding shotgun.  Phil decided to drive the course riding backwards straddling the steering wheel.  One minor little wreck and they survived the drive with Dink holding on screaming for her life!  It was a great event and I’m sure we will see a repeat of this one with the level of participation and the crowd getting into the act as well.  Be planning your golf cart entry for next year!

Friday evening was the final night of musical freestyle performance and for that evening they moved the freestyles from arena 4 to the big arena 1.  The acoustics and seating are so much better for the freestyle performances in that arena.  There were several excellent freestyles this year that were a pleasure to watch.  The quality of the rides continues to improve and this event definitely continues to be a crowd favorite.  We had 2 hours of freestyle performances on Friday.  It was fun to watch all the performances.

Saturday wrapped up the regular tests and concluded the show as we prepared to watch our Top Riders gun it out in the Top Hand Competition.  11 riders threw their hats in the ring this year allowing all of the preliminary qualifying rides to be showcased during a catered dinner in arena 1.  The rides were great and the food was fabulous as we gathered to watch each rider give their best.  This test (Challenge WJL Test #2) continues to be a great one to separate the men from the boys and none of the rides were perfect, each rider having a bobble or two on this difficult test.  The highlight of the evening for everybody that was in attendance was a moment that I won’t soon forget as it is best example of our Cowboy Dressage Culture and putting the horse first.  Phil Monaghan who travels each year from Australia to ride on a borrowed horse with partner Tanja Kraus has been competing in Top Hand since the 2015.  Each year Tanja and Phil hop on these horses that they only see once a year to come and compete at the highest level at finals.  The horses are used as therapy horses for the rest of the year and have to really step up their game to come and compete not only in Top Hand but in the other upper level tests as well.  Phil and his horse, Smoke had had a very good week with some beautiful tests.  But as they rode into the court on Saturday it was obvious that Smoke was not as interested in the Top Hand ride as Phil was.  Phil attempted to get him back in partnership but after a few maneuvers pulled up and tipped his hat to the judges explaining that his horse wasn’t with him tonight and he was pulling him from the competition.  The crowd gave him a standing ovation.  The Top Hand Competition is not undertaken lightly.  Its expensive to enter and the rides up to that point had not been perfect either.  Phil likely could have muscled through and completed the test with no more serious bobbles than some of the other riders had.  But, he knew Smoke was tired and had given his all the previous days of the test.  He pulled up, took himself out and earned the respect of everybody else there. 

When the tests were tallied and scored that night we were left with our Top 5 riders.  Jessica Hutchings, Tanja Kraus, Rudy Lara, Heath Parsons and Abigail Miller.  As always the switch rides on the mystery test the following day allowed the cream of the crop to rise to the top and after a great ride on both her own mare and the switch horse, Sparkles, owned by Heath, Tanya Kraus of Australia was crowned the victor and Sparkles was awarded the top horse. 

After the conclusion of the Top Hand rides the remaining high point and soft feel buckles along with some special awards were given out.  I love how the awards in Cowboy Dressage tend to spread out and there were many different faces coming up to receive special recognition for their hard work and achievements.  Having the final awards presented on Sunday afternoon allowed for a seamless awards presentation as all of the point tallies were calculated the previous day.  This year, the big prize and trophy saddle went to Cherie Cross.  After riding right along side of her all week, I can’t think of a more deserving rider.  What a beautiful example of soft feel and kindness! 

And just like that we are all wrapped up for the year.  Rumor has it that CDW has some exciting things in the works already for 2019.  As this discipline and family grow each and every year we are so gratified to see that the original vision of a horse community based on kindness and soft feel continues to be strong and protected not only by the Partners guiding this dream but by each of the participants as well.  We truly are a family of like-minded horsemen and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Riding With CDW Partner Lyn Ringrose Moe

We were excited to bring Lyn Ringrose Moe, Cowboy Dressage World Partner, to Lucky Duck Ranch this September and knew that we would be receiving quality instruction.  But, I don’t think any of us were ready for the magic that was created in our arena and the positive changes that occurred in every single horse and rider over the 3 magical days. 

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect nor the setting more peaceful for these horses and riders to fully focus on their education and refinement.  Lyn began the clinic with a group session on the ground using multiple exercises that helped to convey to all the riders exactly how important it is to be a conscientious rider and the value of preparation in your cues.  The ground exercises before we even got on our horses opened our hearts and minds to conscientious and courteous riding.  I know, I personally was thinking of every time I had failed to properly prepare my horse and making a promise and a pledge to do better in the future. 

We next moved to evaluating each of the horses as individuals on the ground through looking at their conformation and muscle development.  It was easy to see where each of the horses were likely to struggle once under saddle just by looking at where they were lacking strength in their bodies.  Then, by moving the horses around we could see how they traveled and what side they may need to have a little more support on from the rider when under saddle.  Again, this exercise helped us to be better prepared and informed and more conscientious under saddle to allow our horses become the very best athletes they can become. 

Once mounted both the groups were challenged with finding our balance, center of gravity and all our aids to fully communicate with our mounts.  The old adage of “ride every stride” took on heightened meaning as we were carefully maintaining balance, cadence and softness through the working walk without relying so heavily just on our rein aids.  Lyn asked us to be aware of all our aids equally as we lengthened and shortened our horse’s frames in the walk.  Then she tossed us all in the deep end as we moved directly into lateral work.  Every horse and rider struggled with the work at first doing to much with our bodies to create the maneuvers.  Through careful coaching Lyn helped each of us realize that our horses were there with us, willing and ready to respond to just the subtlest of changes in our body position and weight distribution.  The reoccurring theme for all the participants throughout the entire clinic was “do less to get more”. 

We continued to build our understanding of the subtle nuances of our lateral work through ground exercises in pairs without the horses.   On the second day we again spent some time exploring the phenomenon of dragging or pushing our horses around rather than riding and guiding in harmony.  Each pair took turns being the rider and the horse so you gained an understanding (or an approximation at least) of what the horses may be feeling when we are attempting to create these maneuvers.  Once mounted we again explored how little it takes in a change in our weight, balance and cues to create the aids necessary for the maneuver.  For the turn on the forehand exercise Lyn took away our ability to micromanage and make up for poor riding through our seat and legs by having us ride with one hand behind our backs.  The change in our body awareness and positioning was completely evident in the improvement in the quality of the turns created one handed.  The balance improved, the accuracy improved and the horse’s engagement certainly improved.

In working with the horses in the jog work we used our new understanding of lateral movements to carry our engagement of the hind end through our upward and downward transitions.  Lyn helped us to understand the importance of riding back to front and maintaining a soft connection that allows the horse to feel supported without over-fixing the head and neck.  For many of us that over-ride our horses heads we were surprised to find how forgetting the head and riding the body allows the horse to find the most natural place for the head.  We didn’t work on poll flexion or lateral flexion through the neck at all, instead often riding our horses much straighter at times to improve the balance but by the third day all the horses had found a better carriage for the head and neck then they had on Friday. 
We spent some time on our final day with Lyn after lunch again in pairs without horses exploring the nuances of soft hands by pairing up and having one person with the reins and the other with the bit.  It’s amazing how much you can feel in the bit with your hands and the horse’s mouth is so much more sensitive than our hands are.  Simple things like holding your breath, opening and closing your fingers, jumping your reins and riding with uneven reins can make a big difference to the horse.  While always seeking to ride with the softest touch possible, I was unaware of the little inconveniences that I am asking my horse to ignore daily.  We cannot be too careful or too respectful with the hands when riding.  Bit choice, rein choice and the different attachments all feel quite different to the horse. 

In our final session with Lyn she challenged us to ride through a series of maneuvers requiring accuracy and subtilty through our bodies that none of us would have been able to accomplish on Friday.  The stair step exercise included shoulder fore, half pass and leg yield in one exercise with a change every 5 meters.  All the horse and rider pairs were successful at both the walk and the jog creating a sense of true accomplishment for everyone.  All the horses improved their self-carriage.  All the riders improved their feel and timing. 

Riding with a masterful rider is always inspiring and educational.  Riding with a masterful rider that is also a first rate teacher is like a gift.  Opening that gift with your friends in a beautiful peaceful setting creates the magic that we all got to experience this past weekend.  Lyn, we can’t wait to ride with you again. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

3, 2, 1 Contact.

One of the challenging concepts that riders new to Cowboy Dressage struggle with is the idea of soft contact and soft feel.  For many of the Western disciplines, the long draped rein is the norm and riding with a soft connection with the horse can feel like too much or that you are hanging or "plow reining" the horse.  So, with that in mind, let's explore this idea of soft contact and soft feel and see how the two work together.
Developing soft but effective rein aids can take time and dedication but the results are worth it to both horse and rider. Photo credit, H. Moats

The reins and our hands are just one of our many aids.  The seat, legs, weight and energy that we ride with are just as important as our hands.  All of our aids are necessary and should be used in equal measure when we are having a complete conversation with our horses.  Soft Feel means that we are working with our horses as one being.  We are moving in harmony as a unit.  For this to occur, we need to be on the same page, mentally and physically with our horses.  That connection happens through our aids.  When we rely on one aid to the exclusion of the others it can make the entire message we are sending to our horses much more difficult to understand.  For instance, if we ride only with our legs and not with our seat we may only be saying "GO!" and when we could be saying "Move forward in a nice soft jog and prepare to bend".  If we hold onto our horses with too much contact we may only be saying "STOP" and not, "Softly bend around this corner and then prepare for the lead departure from a nice shoulder fore."  What's more, like any self respecting teenager (which properly describes all of my personal mounts) they will soon block out and ignore any command given in all caps.   They become dull due to overuse or oversimplification of a single aid and learn to just tune it out.  So, it behooves us to ride conscientiously with all of our aids, and soft contact is one of those important aids.
Soft contact through the reins is an important and elemental aid. Photo credit L. Duetsch 

So, what does contact mean, in the context of Cowboy Dressage?  What does it feel like?  To me, it feels like holding hands.  There is enough connection so that my horse can feel the subtlest change in my hands through weight or energy in the rein.  There is enough connection so that my horse can communicate back to me through the reins when he is struggling with balance or carriage.  There is enough contact that I can make a change in direction, bend or frame without first gathering up a handful of new rein.  There is enough connection that I don't have to move my hand back behind my body or up to my chest in order to make a connection or significant change in my horse.   Soft connection is not soft feel but it helps to build soft feel.  Soft connection is just the hand hold between two ballroom dancers.  It allows those dancers to move together in rhythm and tempo through multiple changes in direction or complicated maneuvers.  For me, personally, the goal of soft contact is to have a slight float in the rein.  That soft float says that my horse has recognized the connection, accepted it and is ready to carry on.  This builds not only soft feel but self carriage.
Soft contact occurs irrespective of rein length.  There should be just a hint of a float even in the short frame. Photo credit MM Harrison.

Soft contact is also instrumental in establishing frame in the horse.  A shorter rein indicates to the horse a shorter frame while a long rein should indicate to the horse a long frame.  There are other changes that must be made through the other aids to completely help the horse through the frames, but rein length is important in helping the horse establish those frames.  It is very important to understand that soft contact has little to do with rein length.  You can maintain soft contact on both a long and a short rein and the goal should be to establish a soft float in the rein no matter the rein length. 
Soft contact in different rein lengths and different frames. The rein length helps determine the frame of the horse but the soft contact doesn't change.  Photo credit L. Duetsch 

Like soft feel and partnership, soft contact is a goal that we work towards with our horses.  We can always be forgiving and light with our hands and reward our horses for their try.  In the real world, this doesn't mean that we don't ever have to pull on our horses.   But, it's the way in which we pull when we have to that is so important.  First of all it is important to not be a post on which your horse can lean.  It is easy for some horses to get into the habit of always leaning on the rider's hands and for some riders to get used to the feel of the weight of those reins in their hands.  Teach your hands to crave that lightness and then fix it up so that you are looking for that lightness in your hands.  When you feel like you hanging on or pulling on your horse it is up to you, as the rider, to change the situation to change the message and find the softness that you can reward.  Perhaps that means going to bend so that you can soften one side of the horse at a time.  Perhaps that means sending some alternating energy down the reins so that you aren't a steady post to the horse.  Only you can determine which is the right answer in each situation and it takes some trial and error to figure it out. Every time a student says to me (as I have said to my mentors in the past), "I feel like I'm just hanging on the rein." I reply to them, "then stop."  That was the advice I was given as well and I know it can be frustrating, but if this was easy, anybody could do it!  It takes commitment, time and an ability to "feel" for that softness so that you can reward it in the horse. 
Soft contact on a long rein helps encourage the horse to reach down and forward extending the frame and the gait. Photo credit M. Fabion.

Secondly, it is important to never grab the reins without properly preparing the horse for the contact. Respect is a two way street and nothing will diminish the horse's respect for the rider as the loss of that respect from the rider.  When you reach for your horse, with any of your aids, reach softly.  Snatching, grabbing or yanking on the rein is not well received by the horse and he will learn to brace for that unexpected pressure.  Always ask first with the maximum of softness and allow your horse the opportunity to respond to that first. 
Soft contact during the free frame walk. Photo credit L. Duetsch 

There is absolutely a time and a place for that long draped rein.  I use that draped rein with no soft contact in a number of different ways.  Sometimes I want the horse to ONLY listen to my seat.  Leaving that rein draped so that my hands are not tempted to assist the horse in finding the answer that my seat is trying to convey.  Sometimes I want the long draped rein to weigh on the bit and encourage the horse to relax down with that weight of the rein.  But, when we are riding a test and I am asking for every once of communication and response from my horse, soft contact is the necessary tool that allows us to ride in harmony, partnership and with soft feel. 

Soft contact is a very important concept for Cowboy Dressage riders.  I encourage all of you to play with the feel of soft contact and allow your horse a chance to adjust to it.  When the horse understands and accepts the soft connection through the reins you may find your communication become much more refined and advanced. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Get your motor running . . .

Ah, a brand shiny new year.  While I am not a fan of this time of year in North Idaho due to all the snow on the ground and the lack of saddle time, I am a fan of the concept of the new year.  There is something so refreshing about the thought of a whole new year of possibilities laid out before us.  Resolutions, goals, plans, and dreams all figure big into this cold and snowy month.

So, if you are like many horsemen and women across the country you may be dreaming about finally getting involved in this new community of Cowboy Dressage.  Perhaps you have been watching from the wings these past 5 years, waiting to see if it would amount to anything;  perhaps you have been waiting for a gathering or clinic to come into your neck of the woods.  Well, let me be the first to encourage you to stand on the side lines no more!

While the organic growth of Cowboy Dressage means that it has been slow to reach some areas of the country, it is not because the community isn't growing.  Cowboy Dressage is unique in that the growth and opportunities are completely instigated by curious horsemen and women just like yourself that take steps to bring Cowboy Dressage into their local community.  Many start just like Dan and I did so many years ago by putting up a court, printing some tests and inviting some friends over.  Others start by hosting a clinic or a play day.  It doesn't take much, and most people are hooked on their first try.  If you are still wondering how to go about bringing Cowboy Dressage to your neck of the woods, here are some of the tools available to you.

1.  Gather information.  One of the very wonderful things about Cowboy Dressage is that everything you need to know is available for free on line.  You are welcomed to join the movement and the community through an old fashioned cowboy handshake agreement (though this is a high tech digital handshake, it's the thought that counts!).  Then you are welcome to explore the many diagrams, tests, rule book and videos of example tests that are available at www.cowboydressage.com and www.cowboydressageworld.com.  Cowboydressage.com is the home web page for founders and Cowboy Dressage World Partners, Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy.  There you can also find several of Eitan's excellent videos and DVD's.  Cowboydressageworld.com is the source for all things Cowboy Dressage across the world, including upcoming events, lists of resources, updates and changes that are in the works, newsletters and blogs.  Everything you need to set up your own court and start practicing are right there at your fingertips for the taking.
With your good ol' fashioned handshake you are a welcome addition to the movement of Cowboy Dressage

2.  Contact a Cowboy Dressage Professional.  One of the things that Cowboy Dressage World has worked very hard to do is to bring into the community qualified and passionate horsemen that believe in and want to spread the word of Cowboy Dressage and Kindness and Soft Feel with the very same message that Eitan and Debbie first envisioned with they founded Cowboy Dressage.  These professionals have all ridden with one or more of the Cowboy Dressage World Partners.  They have proven their skills on the Cowboy Dressage court and have been recognized by the Cowboy Dressage Partners as folks that they entrust to carry on the message of Cowboy Dressage.  These professionals love nothing more than traveling to far flung areas and helping to introduce Cowboy Dressage.  If hosting a clinic sounds like it is too much hassle, I encourage you to reach out to a professional and explore the options.  All of the Cowboy Dressage Professionals will go above and beyond to help you and to make sure it is an enjoyable and welcoming experience for everyone.  The list of Recommended Cowboy Dressage Professionals can be found on the Cowboy Dressage World Web page.  They are organized by area, but don't be afraid to contact any of them for information.  Most of us travel quite a distance throughout the year bringing Cowboy Dressage to new areas.
Cowboy Dressage World Professional Association members Jenni Grimmett, DVM and Martina Bone.

3.  Organize a Playday.  Perhaps you and your friends have had a professional come into the area recently.  Now, how do you keep the ball rolling?  In our area we hosted weekly ride nights for several years to help expose people to Cowboy Dressage as well as to give people a place to practice.  On Thursday evenings throughout the summer we opened our court and welcomed like minded budding Cowboy Dressage riders as we took turns calling tests and practicing on the court.  Cowboy Dressage is about so much more than just the work on the court.  The community it engenders is as much a part of the movement as anything else.  Our ride nights are a wonderful evening of laughs and fun followed by a BBQ all summer long.  You don't have to have a fancy arena.  Any 20m x 40m chunk of flat ground will do.  If you want to take it one step further and provide a judge for your play day to give it more of a light competitive feel, the Cowboy Dressage Judges program has learner judges always looking to get their judging experience.  Inviting a learner judge is a great way for everybody to get the feel of a real Gathering while keeping it loose and informal.
Lucky Duck Ranch Thursday Ride Nites open Cowboy Dressage Court and BBQ.

3.  Organize a Schooling Show.  While we will all tell you that Cowboy Dressage is about so much more than the competition we also recognize that it is the Gatherings and the opportunity to have a goal to work towards that seems to keep Cowboy Dressage growing and healthy once it has been introduced into an area.  There are many resources available and guidelines for hosting a schooling show if this is something you would like to do in your area.  Within the Cowboy Dressage Professionals Association there is a category for Ambassadors.  These are folks that are committed to promoting and building Cowboy Dressage in their area through hosting clinics, schooling shows, and playdays.  Your Ambassador membership allows you access to resources and support by other professionals and allows you to keep your thumb on the pulse of all the latest events and opportunities that are being developed by Cowboy Dressage World.  If you would like to see Cowboy Dressage grow and thrive in your area and are interested in hosting a schooling show, I encourage you to check out www.cdwpa.com to learn more about becoming an Ambassador for Cowboy Dressage.
Any flat piece of ground can become a Cowboy Dressage Court

4.  Travel.  Now, I understand that traveling with your horse can be intimidating and an expensive undertaking.  When Dan and I first became involved with Cowboy Dressage and realized we would have to travel not only out of state, but across several states I was concerned that we would never be able to manage it with our busy schedule and career.  That first 2 day trip on the road with the horses was nerve wracking!  But, there are plenty of folks that travel with their horses full time.  Once you and your horse both figure out the ins and outs of travel, I promise, both of you will be better for it.  My first summer as a Cowboy Dressage professional I hauled my horse more than I had in the past 10 years combined.  We stayed in several different barns, traveled both with friends and without, and learned where the best places were to stop and eat and rest along the way.  Before that summer my horse was a very nervous traveler.  After one summer of clinics he was a seasoned road warrior!  So, when I hear other folks dismissing events that are more than a few hours drive, I get it.  I do.  But, you never know what adventures lay in wait for you out there!  A half day of traveling is more than worth it to discover a whole population of friends you didn't know you had.
Find your tribe!  Friends are waiting to welcome you.  Photo credit R. Horst. 

5.  Volunteer.  Now if the above suggestion of traveling with your horse is just too daunting, then travel solo!  There are multiple opportunities for volunteers at any Gathering and most clinics welcome auditors as well.  For the summer Gatherings you can help in the office and learn how the tests are tallied or run test papers back and forth from the court to the office allowing you a front row seat to all the action.  Or you can get to know the riders and folks in the community by helping keep the show running smoothly at the gate.  There is no shortage of opportunities for the person longing to be a part of this growing group of horse people.
A few of the Cowboy Dressage World Finals volunteers and their thank you awards.  

So, now is the time.  This is the year.  Don't just wait for Cowboy Dressage to come to you.  Bring Cowboy Dressage to your community!  Or head out on the open road and find your tribe out there.  Eventually, I know Cowboy Dressage will be found in every corner of the globe. Until that time we are going to need a little help from our friends.