Nervous Horse — Nervous Rider

Nervous Horse--Relaxed Rider

Have you ever wondered why some riders can get on a nervous horse and within minutes the horse is calm or why other riders get on a calm horse and within minutes the horse is tense and worried?

As riders we all know how our emotions can be transmitted to the horse. The examples above clearly demonstrates this. If you are tuned in to your emotions and your realize you are distracted or upset about something that happened prior to your ride, you may decide to just do groundwork or an easy trail ride instead of working on your tests in the arena.
But what if you are feeling perfectly relaxed and still you don’t seem to be able to get on the same page with your horse? What are some of the things you can do? First of all, make sure there are no pain issues or ill fitting tack that could be causing your horse to act up.

Then pay close attention to your horse as you get ready:
1. How is the horse behaving while being tied and groomed
2. Is the horse tuned in to me on the ground
3. How is the horse reacting once I’m in the saddle

I will first address the nervous horse and then the nervous or fearful rider!
If your horse is already distracted and not standing still while tied, you might take some extra time with the grooming or increase the groundwork. A nervous horse can create nervous energy in the rider and of course that can turn into a vicious cycle. I never rush anything when I’m working with a nervous horse. I move slow and calm and try to convey my confidence to the horse. Usually I can see the results before I get in the saddle. If things have not improved during ground work or have escalated, you might choose not to get in the saddle that day. Safety comes first and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s to trust my gut.

Now what if you are at a show or on a trail-ride and your horse turns into a bowl of jello?
Again, safety has to come first, even if that means scratching your test or cutting short the trail ride. But the point of this blog is to hopefully give you some tools to deal with fear issues in either yourself or your horse safely!

The first thing you have to keep in mind when riding a horse, is that riding effectively is often counterintuitive to normal human reaction!
What is the first thing most riders want to do when their horse acts up? They lean forward, pull on the reins and clamp with their legs.
So the rider’s body is telling the horse to go forward while the hands are preventing forward movement. This will cause confusion and tension in the horse and probably manifest in more bad behavior like jigging, head tossing or even rearing as the horse feels up is the only direction he has left to go.
What the rider should do when the horse is nervous, is exactly the opposite of what human nature tells us, namely release the reins, sit up tall and straight, relax the legs and talk in a quiet, soothing voice. In the beginning you will have to remind yourself, but with enough training and reinforcement this will become second nature and you will do it automatically. So, let’s assume you are relaxed and your horse is still acting like the boogie man is after him. Just like a child throwing a tantrum, you don’t want to reward him by getting off and stopping the ride, as this will reinforce the bad behavior. Try to distract him and get his attention back to you by moving his feet and making him work. If it is a scary spot he doesn’t want to pass, turn his head the other direction so he isn’t looking at the object and leg yield him past it. I like using lateral work because it takes more strength and concentration on the horse’s part. Once he is focused on you, whatever scares him will drop into the background. You should be able to calm your nervous horse and instill your confidence in him. If you are in a high stress situation and things are not going to improve, try to get even a short moment of your horse’s attention on you, doing what you ask, then praise him and safely quit the ride. Once the horse looks at you as the leader you have accomplished a huge step in making him a fearless partner!
Obviously a nervous horse coupled with a nervous rider will make progress more difficult, but with the right help this too can be accomplished.

So let’s address the nervous rider!
Like I mentioned above, you first have to be aware of what you need to change, but just knowing what you have to do will not automatically result in you doing it. When you are afraid, instinct takes over and you may fall back into your old habits. Again, the only way to change it, is through reinforcement, so that the new habits become automatic.
The best way to practice this is when you are not actually in a fearful situation. When you are riding a calm horse, visualize your horse being nervous and afraid, then physically go through the motions that you want to reinforce: sit up, release the reins, relax your legs, talk quietly to your horse!
You have to commit to this practice and do it over and over again, because just a couple of times will not store it to muscle memory.
When this becomes instinctive, you can now take it a step further by not only visualizing the scary situation, but setting it up in a controlled environment on your calm horse. This time, lean forward, put tension on the reins and clamp carefully with your legs. Chances are your horse will react by tensing up. Immediately release the tension, sit up straight and talk calmly to your horse. Hopefully the horse will relax again and therefore reinforce the good habits in both of you. Keep practicing until it becomes second nature!

Happy, safe trails :)

The Big T: Transitions

Well timed transitions are the foundation of all your work under saddle and they go hand in hand with Soft Feel, Harmony, Partnership and of course proper balance.

In order for you to execute a smooth, prompt and willing transition you have to know your horse’s footfalls in all gaits. For time reasons and because I have prior blogs on the different gaits, I will not go into details on the footfalls here. Just go to my blogs on the walk, jog and lope for more info on each gait.

Since the horse’s hind-end is the engine, I teach my students to recognize by feel which hind leg to influence and when. In the beginning it is sometimes easier to look at the corresponding front leg but eventually you should be able to tell me which hind leg is being used without looking! An example of this is when you learn to post. If you are jogging around the arena to the left you would post when the inside hind leg comes forward. If you do not feel this yet you can look at your horse’s outside shoulder and post as the outside front moves forward.

One of the new Cowboy Dressage Tests for this year has you do a shoulder-in (feel free to review my blog on lateral work) at the walk on the long side of the court, followed by a transition to the lope and then a flying change at 8 across the diagonal. If this sounds like fun, keep reading! :)

Let’s look closely at the transition from walk to lope. Refer to the picture above to visualize the footfalls. In order to get a straight lope transition and prevent the haunches from falling in, it helps to put your horse in a shoulder-in position. The test I mentioned above is designed for this, so do not straighten you horse before you ask for the lope. Again, timing is crucial for a prompt transition, so let’s talk about when in the walk sequence to  ask for the lope:

 When asking for the right lead, the outside hind or left hind initiates the lope. This is your first beat of the lope, so in order for your horse to push off into a timely and willing up transition you have to cue when the right hind leg is on the ground in the walk. This allows your horse to mentally switch to the lope while the outside hind is in the air. You will help him to re-balance to the back and he can then set down that left hind leg for lift-off into the lope. If done correctly this should be smooth and effortless and you should feel the horse rise beneath you and begin the rolling sequence of the lope. Once you can go from the walk to the lope and back to the walk with ease and you can influence how many walk steps the horse takes between the transitions you are ready to start working on the flying changes which I will talk about in my next blog.
Until then,
Happy Trails! :)

Let’s get Engaged!

When you hear the word engagement, you’re probably thinking marriage not horse-back riding. ;)

Engagement as it applies to riding has nothing to do with giving somebody a ring, but the deeper meaning applies:
Engagement as in working together or connecting. Following this, then disengagement would mean loosening or disconnecting!

You have probably heard trainers refer to “disengaging the hindquarters” or maybe you use this technique yourself. Basically what you are doing is taking the power away from the haunches, the engine of the horse.

For Cowboy Dressage we want to do the opposite, we want to engage our horses hind legs for better balance and increased power behind. Engagement refers to the weight bearing or stance phase. Carrying power not pushing power. In order for this to happen we have to shift the horse’s center of gravity towards his back end. Remember in nature horses carry about 60% of their weight in the front. The heavier the horse is on the front, the more disengaged the hind legs are. When the horse is taught to carry himself and his rider in a biomechanically correct way, there is less stress on his bones and therefore less soundness issues. Imagine you have to lift a 50 pound bags of grain by just bending at the waist. Chances are you will feel this in your back and if you do it repeatedly your back will suffer.  Now if you lift the bags correctly by bending your legs, not only is it not putting strain on your back but your muscles will build up and after a while, lifting 50lbs will feel like 10. The same thing happens to your horse when you ride him correctly and pretty soon exercises that seemled difficult or even impossible, will begin to feel fluid and effortless. Your horse has to build the muscles for this through correct work and that doesn’t happen over night. Well timed transitions within and between the gaits and correctly ridden movements like smaller circles and shoulder-in (see my blog on lateral movements) will all help rebalance your horse and shift his weight to the back. This will cause him to engage his hind legs, carry more weight behind and lighten the front. The effect is like a coiling of a spring or the crouching of a tiger. Power ready to be unleashed!

Picture above is of a movement called the Levade. The movement of highest engagement!





The Lateral Movements

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a shoulder-in and a leg yield or a side-pass? Do you incorporate these movements in your training? Lateral means sideways, but all lateral movements are not created equal.

Let’s start with the side-pass. This is the sideways movement you use for example to open and close gates. The horse moves off the leg strictly to the side and is usually bend away from the direction of travel. It is a useful exercise that every horse should learn, whether you’re riding on the trail, in the arena or working cows. The rider’s aids for this are pretty straight forward: one leg is applied slightly behind the girth and the rein on the same side applies gentle pressure to the neck causing the horse to step sideways.

The leg-yield is similar to the side-pass in that it is a partnership exercise. The horse moves away from the applied pressure of the rider’s leg. This time though, instead of going just sideways, the horse now travels an equal amount forward and sideways, therefore moving on the diagonal! The horse’s body is straight with just a little flexion in the poll away from the direction of travel. The leg-yield is a valuable exercise to teach your horse to stay straight between your aids while actively moving forward and sideways on 4 tracks. The horse’s legs cross, but there is no increased engagement behind and therefore very little increased suppling/strengthening effect as we will see later in the shoulder-in. The aids for the rider are similar to the side pass, only this time the horse is kept straight through the body and driven forward as well as sideways. Common challenges here are the shoulder bulging out in the direction of travel or the haunches lagging. The first problem is likely due to not enough rein connection to contain the shoulder and the second problem is one that is often seen in all the lateral movements: a loss of energy! Moving lateral takes more work than simply going straight, so if you require your horse to now move sideways as well as forward you have to build his strength and power. Which leads us to the shoulder-in!

The shoulder-in, haunches-in and half-pass are all sideways movements that are ridden with bend into the direction of travel. These are what in dressage is referred to as the true lateral movements. What distinguishes them from the other sideways movements is the bend, which creates increased engagement of the haunches and therefore is a true strengthening, suppling and straightening exercise for the horse. The bend is similar to the bend on a 10m circle. This bend causes the inside hind-leg to work harder. It has to compress, step forward and under the belly, therefore taking up more weight. So, if you can ride a balanced 10m circle you can start working on riding a few steps of shoulder-in down the long side. Notice I say a few steps. My students can probably hear me say in their heads now: “a few good steps are better than a lot of incorrect steps”! ;) Remember you train your horse every time you ride. That is as true for correct work as it is for incorrect work. When you first start riding shoulder-in, chances are your horse does not have the strength to do more than a couple of correct steps. So praise him profusely, straighten him, go forward and then maybe do another circle and another 3 steps of shoulder-in. When you go to the shoulder-in, the horse’s hind legs follow the track while the front legs stay slightly off the track. Your hips and shoulders should mimic your horse’s hips and shoulders, which means there is a slight straightening of the hips when you go from the circle to the shoulder-in. When watching from behind you will see 3 tracks with the inside hind-leg stepping into the prints of the outside front leg.

The way I teach the shoulder-in, is by starting with a 10m circle at one end of the long side of the arena, for example at F and then go to the shoulder-in down the long side. Remember, the bend and therefore your aids are similar to the 10m circle. I tell my students when the circle is completed to take one more step off the rail, like you want to go on another circle but instead you are now putting more pressure with your inside leg to push the horse down the rail while maintaining the bend and about a 30 degree angle from the rail. Timing is crucial here. If you wait too long, the horse will have done more than one step off the rail causing the angle to be too large and straightening through the body, so now you are already set-up incorrectly. When this happens, just circle again and start over. Always start fresh, don’t try to fix a movement that has already gone bad, when you or your horse are first learning something new. Make everything clear and easy to understand! Cowboy Dressage is riding with soft feel and in partnership with your horse, that should always be apparent, even when things go wrong, or especially then! ;)

I use the same method when first introducing the haunches-in. Do your 10m circle at the beginning of the long side, but this time instead of going one more step off the track with the front of the horse, you will put your outside leg further back and apply pressure to keep the haunches from straightening out onto the track. Again, a few good steps and praise. It is very common here to lose the bend, this is usually due to the rider’s weight aids starting to shift to the outside which straightens the horse. Be mindful to continue to sit centered on your horse with the inside leg maintaining bend and the outside leg controlling the haunches. While the horse’s haunches will still be to the inside, if you have lost the bend you are now leg-yielding. When looking from behind, the haunches-in has 4 tracks like a leg-yield, but again the bend is the discriminating factor here!

The half-pass is developed from the shoulder-in and haunches-in, but instead of moving up the rail, you are now traversing the arena at a diagonal, like you did with the leg-yield, but this time the horse is bend into the direction of travel!

Click on the diagram above to enlarge it for reference and as always I encourage everyone’s input and questions,

Happy Trails! :)

You Need Rhythm to Dance!

Most of my blogs are inspired by my students and this one is no exception. This morning’s inspiration was a question about rhythm. Rhythm is defined as “a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound”, but to understand rhythm we also have to define tempo and beat. Tempo is defined as “the rate or speed of motion or activity; pace”. Beat is defined as “a main accent or rhythmic unit in music”. If your eyes are rolling up into the back of your head already, don’t despair. In short: rhythm tells you the speed of the beat.  A good dancer or rider can feel these things without ever knowing the definition! ;)

Those of you who have taken lessons or clinics with me or have read the comments on my judge’s sheets are probably familiar with me saying things like: “horse needs steady rhythm or rhythm varies or irregular rhythm”. These comments usually make a lot of sense to the rider for they can feel the unsteadiness of the horse, but how do you achieve a steady rhythm with your horse, why is it important and what does it tell you about the horse?

In Cowboy Dressage our goal is always a harmonious partnership with our horse through soft feel, whether it is on the trail or in the show arena and rhythm (tempo and beat) is a very important part of this. Think of a horse that speeds up or slows down every couple of steps, short steps, quick rushed steps or maybe even irregular, uneven steps. What do you see? Probably a tense horse, one that is unbalanced or even unsound. A lack of balance can be due to the rider being unbalanced and giving conflicting aids or because the horse hasn’t developed the muscles yet for a steady rhythm with a rider. Now think of a beautiful harmonious ride that you have observed and think how the horse was moving. Steady, rhythmic, soft and without tension should come to mind!

Each gait has it’s own beat, 4 in the walk, 2 in the jog and 3 in the lope. The 2 beat jog is the easiest gait to start establishing a steady rhythm. Think of a metronome or an old grandfather’s clock. Tick-tock, tick-tock. That’s how your horse’s legs should move. Count in your head 1-2, 1-2 or tick-tock, tick-tock, if that works better ;)  in rhythm with the horse’s stride and see how long it takes until you have to say it quicker and quicker (or maybe slower and slower) and then of course work back towards that steady 1-2  tick-tock, that you are trying to achieve. Steady rhythm is particularly important if you are riding a gaited horse, because there are additional gaits, the difference between the gaits is more gliding and the gaited horse can easily shift from one into the other and the slightest loss of balance or tension may result in a change of rhythm within the gait.

Steady rhythm is also integrally linked to relaxation. If there is tension or even fear, your horse will not be steady. So when you start working with your horse on creating a steady rhythm, you must first work on relaxation. Start out on a long rein at the walk and let your horse find his natural balance and swing. Then go to the jog, also on a longer rein and posting helps as well. Once your horse has a relaxed and steady 1-2 beat you can start picking up the reins gradually and sitting the jog, being very careful that the rhythm doesn’t change. If it does, just go back to posting or to your relaxed walk until your horse is able to keep the rhythm whether you are on a straight line or on a circle. If you are riding a gaited horse, also start at the walk on the long rein, make sure the walk is a clear 4 beat, not pacey and you are sitting balanced. Then start gaiting, if things start falling apart, go back to the relaxed walk on the long rein and start over. Since riding circles presents additional challenges to most gaited horses, I would suggest practicing this first on the trail or in a very large arena on straight lines. Start practicing keeping the rhythm on a large circle only after it is easy to keep on a straight line. You should be able to slowly increase the amount of time your horse can stay in a steady rhythm, don’t expect too much in the beginning but be consistent in what you are asking. That is the only way your horse will learn. Don’t let him careen around out of balance if you don’t want him to think that is ok! ;)

In closing, watching a horse move, can tell you a lot about his mental state, his level of training, his soundness and how co-operative he is working together with his rider. Since we are looking for a soft, willing, harmonious ride, you can now appreciate why a steady rhythm is so important in your horse’s training. Every time you get on your horse, or on a new horse, one of the first things to check is the horse’s rhythm. Is it irregular? This could be indicative of a soundness issue which of course needs to be addressed right away. Is the rider unbalanced in his seat and throwing the horse of balance or is the horse simply young and not muscled up enough yet? These questions need to be answered at every ride so you can address them correctly and try to fix them. Your Cowboy Dressage trainer or instructor will be able to help you resolve any problems.

As always I welcome comments and questions. Happy Trails! :)

Cowboy Dressage What is it?

Yes, this should have probably been my first blog, but I am so immersed in this wonderful discipline I just took certain things for granted. In a few short weeks I will be going to Germany to teach Cowboy Dressage and this made me realize people over there might not really know what all the excitement is about. Shoot, there may be people over here that are wondering too! ;)

Cowboy Dressage is the life work of Eitan Beth-Halachmy and in a few short years as a discipline has already made a huge impact on riders and horses alike. While retaining and drawing from some of the classical dressage principles, Cowboy Dressage is not Dressage in western tack. Any breed of horse, including gaited breeds and large Warmbloods, can participate and benefit from Cowboy Dressage, but it is specifically designed for the needs and gaits of the western horse. Eitan modified the court from the classical European dressage court to reflect this. The Cowboy Dressage court is different than the classical European dressage court. The 5m spacing between markers and the tests are designed to build on the maneuverability and quickness that will benefit a working western horse. A challenge court with ground poles was also added and has been hugely popular with horses and riders alike. The poles on the ground, while guiding and introducing new comers to 10 and 20m circles and corresponding bend, also gives tense horses something to focus on. Some of the most challenging tests are in this court and if you haven’t tried it, come out and ride it. I guarantee you will be amazed and smiling from ear to ear!

Soft feel, the willing and unforced communication between horse and rider, are the guiding principle for Cowboy Dressage, whether training at home or performing at a show. Unlike most other disciplines, showing your horse at a Cowboy Dressage show is more like a family gathering. People and horses are more relaxed and enjoy themselves. There is camaraderie between the riders, instead of jealousy, and of course lots of smiles. Yes, there is competition, it is a show after all and when there’s horses involved there can be tense moments. But, overall the atmosphere is warm and welcoming and like a breath of fresh air compared to the high tension and unfriendliness felt at most other shows! Riders stick around to help and congratulate each other, there are hugs and laughter. If you haven’t been to a Cowboy Dressage show, come and see for yourself. Whether as a rider or spectator, I promise you will be hooked!

Cowboy Dressage as a discipline is like no other and seems to fill a void in so many rider’s lives, including mine. People are tired of the harsh treatment horses receive in most other disciplines and riders are ready for a change. They want to have fun with their horses, but not only that, they want to treat their horses well and be among others that do. Yes, Cowboy Dressage is the life work of Eitan Beth-Halachmy and while some people might try to find fault with a discipline being a business, without Eitan and Debbie and their generosity it could not have gotten to where it is today. They are true leaders and teachers and give so much of themselves. I am very lucky to live close to Wolf Creek Ranch and working regularly with Eitan and Debbie and their wonderful horses has been a life changing experience! Not just in my riding, but also in how I live my life and how I treat the people around me. I honestly don’t think there is another discipline out there that can do this. Cowboy Dressage; it is so much more than a discipline. It is a life-style!

Happy trails

Hier ist meine etwas rostige Uebersetzung ins Deutsche:

Cowboy Dressage Was ist das?

Ja, dies hätte eigentlich mein erster Blog sein sollen, aber ich bin so in dieser wundervollen Reitweise eingetaucht das ich manches einfach als selbstverständlich gesehen habe. In ein paar kurzen Wochen gehe ich nach Deutschland um Cowboy Dressage zu unterrichten und da wurde mir bewusst das viele Leute dort vielleicht noch nicht wissen wovon die ganze Aufregung eigentlich handelt. Wer weiss, es gibt wahrscheinlich sogar Leute hier die sich wundern worum sich das Ganze eigentlich dreht!

Cowboy Dressage ist das Lebenswerk von Eitan Beth-Halachmy und in ein paar kurzen Jahren als Reitweise hat es schon einen grossen Eindruck, bei Reitern und Pferden zugleich, hinterlassen. Während es von der klassischen Dressur schöpft und auch Sachen beibehält, ist es doch auf keinen Fall Dressur im Westernsattel. Alle Rassen, auch Gangpferde und Warmblüter, können bei Cowboy Dressage mit machen und gefördert werden, aber es wurde speziell für Westerpferde und ihre Gänge entworfen. Eitan hat den Reitplatz dementprechend von dem klassischen Dressurplatz abgeleitet. Die 5m Abstände zwischen den Buchstaben und die Aufgaben sind dafür gemacht, die Wendigkeit und Schnelligkeit des Westernpferdes zu fördern. Ein Challenge Court mit Bodenstangen wurde auch hinzugefügt und ist hoch populär. Während die Bodenstangen neuen Reitern helfen die Biegung und Grösse von Zirkeln einzuhalten, hilft es auch gleichzeitig mit der Konzentration von nervösen Pferden. Einige der schwierigsten Aufgaben sind im Challenge Court und wenn Du es noch nicht ausprobiert hast, komm’ vorbei und reite. Ich garantiere Dir, Du wirst begeistert sein und von einem Ohr zum Anderen grinsen!

Soft Feel, die sanfte und ungezwungene Kommunikation zwischen Pferd und Reiter, sind das leitende Ziel der Cowboy Dressage, ob zu Hause oder auf dem Turnierplatz. Im Unterschied zu anderen Diziplinen, sind die Cowboy Dressage Turniere mehr wie Familientreffen. Menschen und Pferde sind mehr entspannt und haben Spass. Es gibt Zusammenarbeit zwischen den Reitern, anstatt Neid, und natürlich viel Lachen. Selbstverständlich gibt es auch wetteifern, es ist ja schliesslich ein Turnier, und wo Pferde sind gibt es auch immer wieder mal nervöse Momente, aber im Grossen und Ganzen ist die Atmosphäre warm und empfangend. Wie eine frische Brise verglichen mit der Hochspannung und Unfreundlichkeit von den meisten anderen Turnieren! Reiter bleiben und helfen sich, gratulieren sich gegenseitig und es gibt Umarmungen und Gelächter. Wenn Du noch nicht bei einem Cowboy Dressage Turnier warst, komm’ und überzeug’ Dich selbst. Ob als Reiter oder als Zuschauer, ich verspreche, Du wirst gefangen sein!

Cowboy Dressage ist eine Reitweise wie keine Andere und scheint eine Leere in so vielen Reitern zu füllen, wie in mir auch! Die Leute haben genug von der ungerechten Behandlung der Pferde in den meisten anderen Diziplinen und sind bereit fuer eine Veränderung. Sie wollen Spass haben mit ihren Pferden, aber nicht nur dass, sie wollen ihre Pferde richtig behandeln und ihre Zeit mit Gleichgesinnten verbringen. Ja, Cowboy Dressage ist das Lebenswerk von Eitan Beth-Halachmy und manche Leute versuchen etwas Schlechtes zu finden in einer Diziplin die auch Geld einbringt, aber dies alles wäre nicht möglich ohne die Selbstlosigkeit von Eitan und Debbie. Sie sind wahre Leiter und Lehrer und geben so viel. Ich habe das Glück nicht weit weg von Wolf Creek Ranch zu wohnen und die stetige Arbeit mit Eitan, Debbie und ihren wundervollen Pferden hat mein Leben für immer geändert! Nicht nur meine Reiterei, sondern auch wie ich lebe und mit anderen Menschen umgehe. Ich bin überzeugt keine andere Diziplin kann das von sich sagen. Cowboy Dressage; so viel mehr als eine Reitweise, es ist eine Lebensart!

Happy Trails




The Journey to Soft Feel!

Soft feel is the philosophy Cowboy Dressage is based on and so of course it is mentioned and talked about a lot, but it is not always clear or understood. What is “soft feel”? Well, as the word says it is a feeling and therefore not easy to define. It is not like explaining to someone how to tell when a horse is on the right or left lead in the lope. There you can tell them the footfall sequence, how to see it when on the ground and how to recognize it when in the saddle. It is concrete and it is clear. Soft feel is more visceral, more emotional, more like art and less like science! To me, soft feel is where horse and rider cease being individuals and start working as one. There is harmony, there is partnership and there is beauty. The rider doesn’t demand, or MAKE the horse do anything. She communicates her wishes and the horse willingly receives and executes them. The rider feels and is in tune with every movement of the horse and adjusts her seat and aids to help the horse’s balance or reassure him when he hesitates or is unsure. A casual observer might not even be able to see the aids given by the rider to the horse. There is no abruptness or sharpness. Horse and rider move in unison. The rider is in balance with the horse’s movements. There is no bouncing or flopping arms and legs. The horse’s back is rounded and his neck slightly arched. While there can be floppy lips or playing with the bit, there should be no tension in the jaw, no teeth grinding or obsessive chomping on the bit. No pinned ears or overly swishy tail. All these are signs of tension and any tension in either horse or rider will make attaining soft feel much harder.

What does this mean for the show arena? Soft feel is part of every movement in your test and it has it’s own score in the collective remarks at the end of the test. Because most tests will not be perfect, your soft feel score will likely vary throughout the test and the stand alone score at the end of the test will be an average of that. It would be very unusual for you to receive a high score on your test but a low score on soft feel. A low score on soft feel means there was tension; harsh corrections, disobedience etc. and none of those should correlate with a high score. That doesn’t mean if your horse spooks in a corner but you have an otherwise well ridden test, you can’t still end up with a high overall score. The movement that was affected by the spook will have a low score, but if everything else scores high you can still end up with a good score. Let’s say your test averages out in the 70’s. Your score for soft feel should be in the 6-7 range, depending on how you handled the spook. An 8 for soft feel in this situation would be generous and less than 6 would be quite harsh.

Now let’s look at another situation: You have practiced hard at home and you and your horse know the test well, but the moment you arrive at the show grounds your horse turns into a snorting, bug- eyed alien. When it is test time, you ride your test accurately and without going off course, but your horse is hollow and tense throughout. You’re relieved there was no buck or spook and think to yourself “that wasn’t too bad”. Then you get your test back and it is in the high 50’s to low 60’s! Now you’re devastated and wonder what the judge was thinking. Well, that soft feel score that goes into every movement is what brought your percentage down. Yes, your transitions might have been right at the letter and your circles might have been placed correctly, BUT if your horse was tense and hollow, with his head in the air and you clutching at the reins for dear life, your scores are going to be in the 5 range for the most part. A little more or a little less, depending on how prevalent the tension was, but a ride like this cannot score in the 70’s or 80’s and your soft feel score will likely be below a 6 as well.  

Soft feel is something you strive to attain every ride and every minute of every ride. The moments where you are totally in sync with your horse will be rare and most likely of short duration, you are after all both living beings influenced by the world around you, with all its distractions and aggravations. Once you have experienced true soft feel, even for a moment, it will change the way you ride and attaining the fleeting moments of perfection will become the destination of your horseback-riding journey!














How to improve your horse’s lope!

In Cowboy Dressage the goal is to ride our horses in balance, with correct cadence and rhythm. That means the lope has to have 3 clear beats to the footfalls. Only if we understand the sequence of footfalls can we effectively influence and rebalance the horse. Many horses start out with a correct rhythm and then lose it because the rider’s aids are timed wrong. For better understanding, let’s break apart each beat: If you are on the left lead, the first beat will be the horse’s right hind leg pushing off into the lope. All other legs are in the air. Next the left hind and right front (diagonal pair) will strike the ground simultaneously and last the left front (leading leg) will hit the ground. The canter has a moment of suspension where all 4 legs are in the air. The more we collect the canter into a lope the more the airtime is reduced. A correct lope still has a 3 beat rhythm but without the suspension of the canter. A horse that is not correctly rebalanced onto the haunches but instead just held back and slowed down by pulling on the reins will lose the correct cadence, fall on the forehand and have a flattened out 4-beat rhythm, sometimes so extreme that the horse is actually jogging with his hind-legs.

So how can we correctly influence our horse to keep the correct 3 beat rhythm? One of my favorite sayings is: “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken!” In other words, don’t interfere with the way your horse is moving, move with him not against him! Seems like an obvious statement but it is often easier said than done. Many riders tense through their back and legs which then causes the horse to tense and stiffen, or they inadvertently pull back on the reins when the horse’s head goes down in the normal motion of the lope. This will halt the forward movement, the horse will stiffen and instead of stepping under correctly with the hind legs, it will cause the lope to flatten out and the hind legs to trail behind. The lope has a rolling motion, think of it like a wave in the ocean with it’s steady rise and fall. To improve your horse’s balance in the lope you need to use your body to lift the wave up higher, not flatten it out! For this you will first need to be able to ride the lope in balance with your horse: roll with the wave. It is a wonderful feeling to be able to move in harmony with your horse and you should definitely give yourself a pat on the shoulder once you accomplish this. But wait. There’s more! :D

This post wasn’t just about correctly riding the lope, but actually improving it! Rolling with the wave and being in balance with your horse is fine if your horse’s lope is correct. But what if your horse has a flattened out, 4 beat rhythm? Going with that motion might not make the lope worse, but it is not enough to make it better either. Now we need to figure out how to lift the wave up higher while we are riding it! This requires correctly timed aids and actively riding each stride. No more rolling with the wave, now you have to control it and influence it’s roll and fall. It is essential to know where your horse’s feet are at all times in order to time your aids correctly. This is the part that is hard to explain since it needs a certain amount of feel, but I’ve been told I’m good at explaining, so here it goes: In order to improve the lope we need to rebalance the horse towards his hind-end (lifting the wave up higher). You can not influence the rise of the wave if you ask on the downward roll. So the correct time to apply your aids is when the footfall sequence has finished and starts all over again. As you feel the rise of the wave, you use your core in a uplifting motion while at the same time applying your left leg (when on the left lead). Every other stride you precede this by a momentary tightening of the core (half halt) to get the horse’s butt under you and remind him to engage his hind-end. Then lift the wave up again. It probably won’t happen immediately, especially if your horse is used to traveling on the forehand but it will happen. Practice, practice, refer to the picture above and don’t hesitate to ask questions if something doesn’t make sense!

Happy Trails! :)

Turn on Forehand, Turn on Haunches, made easy!

Have you been asked to do a turn on the forehand or a turn on the haunches and instead of getting right to it, you have to sit there and figure out what it is you’re supposed to do? There seems to be quite a bit of confusion out there on how to do the turns and most of the confusion is not the technical part of how to execute them, but the language itself. Which way to go and which part of the horse moves! Here is a break down of the process that will hopefully clear it all up!

Let’s address the language first, because it doesn’t matter how nice your turn is, if you go the wrong way or move the wrong part of the horse! The first thing I tell my students when working on the turns: “They are named according to which part of the horse stays in place. Not which part of the horse moves!” So, on a turn on the forehand TOF, the haunches move and on a turn on the haunches TOH, the forehand moves. You might say “Duh” but it’s easy to focus on which part you are actually moving and associate this with the name of the movement. This is straight memorization. I tell my students to say it out loud each time they do a TOF/TOH until the name and the movement are synchronized. This is the easy part. Where to go, left or right, is actually more discombobulating to a lot of people and I’m not just talking about getting right and left mixed up, but again different interpretation to the language used. On a TOF left you are pushing with your right leg to move the haunches left, so some people think that this is a TOF right. But this time you have to think about which part is moving and in which direction. So, on a TOF left, the forehand stays in place and the haunches move to the left! On a TOH left, the haunches stay in place and the forehand moves left. So, to summarize:

The turns are named after which part of the horse stays in place and the direction (left or right) is decided by which way the moving part goes!

Now that this is clear as mud, we can move on to performing the actual movement.

Turn on the forehand TOF:

This is the easier of the two movements. You are simply asking your horse to move away from the pressure applied, something most horse learn long before you ever get on (again, right leg pressure means haunches move left and you are doing a TOF left). Let’s stay with the TOF left. You come to a square stop, then ask for a little bit of flexion at the poll to the right (horse looks right), then apply right leg while keeping your hands closed to keep forehand in place and move the haunches to the left! There should be no bend in either the horse’s body or the neck and the turn should be fluid and resistance free with the front feet staying basically in the same spot.

Turn on the haunches TOH:

This is the harder turn of the two, as it needs at least a certain degree of engagement of the haunches. You have to be able to rebalance your horse towards his hind end in order to perform this movement correctly. For more information on rebalancing your horse you can read my previous blog on “Collection”. A horse that is on the forehand will likely have to swing his haunches out for balance or turn on the middle instead of on the haunches. Let’s do TOH left: after having rebalanced your horse with more weight on the haunches, ask for flexion left (this time your horse looks into the direction he is moving) and apply leg to move the forehand left. Use your inside (left) leg for bend and use your outside (right) leg to keep the haunches from swinging out. Your right rein guides the horse’s shoulders. Again the horse should move fluid and resistance free, but this time there should be a slight bend in body and neck and you have about the size of a dinner plate to do your turn on! Any straightening or hollowing of your horse’s body will result in loss of fluidity and balance.

One more hint for showing the half TOF to full TOH. This should be one fluid movement. Both the moving parts start out towards the rail and the momentum continues in the same direction. Don’t get confused because it says TOF left to TOH right. If you were to do a TOF left and then a TOH left the momentum changes direction and it would not feel fluid. If you pause too long after the TOF you might not notice this. Try it at home and you’ll see, one just doesn’t feel right! ;)









Collection. What is it and do we need it?

Here is one of the words in the equestrian world that has been thoroughly muddled over the years and seems to mean something completely different depending on who you talk to. This blog will explain the differences, what it means to Cowboy Dressage and the implications for your every day riding, no matter the decipline!

To most western riders collection means a gathering of the reins to achieve a certain headset and a rounding of the top-line.
For dressage it is the engagement of the hindquarters. Imagine the coiling of a spring. This allows the horse to create greater thrust/power to push forward and up.

You might wonder, “do I even need collection for Cowboy Dressage?”
For the current tests none or very little collection is needed, but as the tests continue to increase in difficulty, some movements will be harder and harder to perform accurately without collection or some degree of rebalancing the horse on his hind-quarters.

One of the movements in the current tests that needs at least a degree of collection to be performed well, is movement 4 and 16 in WJL Challenge Test 1. Here you are backing your horse up around the corner and then pick up the lope. If performed correctly the horse will engage his hindquarters during the backing and is then able to accurately and immediately go into the lope. Horses that have not adequately engaged their hind-end have to go through the walk or even jog first in order to create momentum and be able to lope. Whereas the horse that is engaged behind, remember the coiled spring, has enough power stored up to jump right into the lope.

Even if you are not interested in ever showing your horse, there are real world benefits to collection. The horse naturally carries about 60% of his weight on the front end. Now if all he does is graze and run around the pasture, this would be perfectly fine, but once we add a rider the balance changes again. If we allow our horse to travel on the forehand continuously or actually encourage this way of going, there can be wide reaching and detrimental implications throughout the horse’s body. The most obvious is more wear and tear on the front limbs, but it can also involve the spine, the hind-end and the horse’s overall way of going, evidenced in short, choppy strides. Without teaching the horse to balance himself adequatly underneath the rider, the hind-end cannot be correctly engaged and this often causes a hollowing of the spine and incorrect musculature throughout the body. Over long periods of time the incorrect pulling on the musculature will end up affecting the bones and once that has happened it is much harder to correct.

All this doesn’t mean we need to train our horses like high level dressage horses, but rebalancing the horse correctly to carry the rider can have amazing health benefits and could potentially add many more years of riding for you and your equine partner. Riding and developing a healthy, happy horse is what Cowboy Dressage is all about!

As always, Happy Trails