By Jenni Grimmett DVM
If you weren’t at the Murieta Equestrian Center, in Ranch Murieta, California last week for the Cowboy Dressage Final Gathering, I hope you at least took advantage of the live streaming, because history was made. Cowboy Dressage has been at the forefront of a revolution in equine competitions and equestrian lifestyle and this weekend we made a giant step forward in showing the world what is possible when you focus on riding with softness, lightness and partnership with your equine companion.
As always the gathering was populated with wonderful people and horses that had traveled from all corners of the world. There were riders representing states including, California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and probably a few others that I missed. The Canadians were very well represented and I’m sure will have a time at the border crossing explaining all the “loot” they are taking home! Great Britain, Poland, Germany and Australia were also represented. It truly was a gathering of the Cowboy Dressage World. It didn’t matter where you hailed from because Cowboy Dressage looks the same no matter where you go. It always looks soft.
All kinds of horses were represented as well. Morgans were there in high numbers, but so were Quarter horses, Appaloosas, Paints, Arabians, Ponies, Saddlebreds, Mustangs, Fjords, Haflingers, Tennessee Walkers, Pasos, Rocky Mountain Horses, and others I’m sure I missed.
Riders of all ages were competing. In the Silver (over 60) age group, the competition was fierce, and the youth riders were battling it out in their division as well. Cowboy Dressage truly is for every horse and every rider interested in cultivating kindness and soft feel.
The big history making event at this year’s final gathering though, was the Top Hand competition. This was the first year for this elite competition for Cowboy Dressage’s top competitors to all throw their hats into the same ring. Each rider rode the same test, W/J/L 2. This test on the surface doesn’t look terribly difficult. It requires many of the standard maneuvers that many of our CD tests ask for. The killer maneuver in this test is what we call the “bow tie”. This asks for the horse to lope half of a 20 m circle then change direction over the ground poles on the short diagonal with a lead change through the jog within the box (8-a-gon) then another half of a 20 m circle holding that lead through the box and then transitioning to a working jog. It sounds easy enough until you try to ride it. Out of the 28 horses and riders that ended up competing in the Top Hand, probably only a handful managed their two trips through the bow tie without a bauble. That one maneuver requires such timing, softness and precision to execute perfectly that it really separates the cream from the milk.
After watching the first round of the competition most of us were trying to figure out who would make the top 10. It was a difficult task. Since virtually no one had been completely perfect it would come down to who had the most perfect ride and how heavily the judges penalized the different maneuvers. It’s also supposed to come down to soft feel and partnership, but I would have to say that for the most part, that element was universal as all of the riders exhibited with soft feel and partnership, even those that had come that were new to Cowboy Dressage.
When the top 10 finalists were announced, we were still in the dark trying to guess who the top five final competitors would be. Cowboy Dressage World kept us all on the edge of our seats waiting until right before the moment they were going to have to ride onto that court to see who the top five were. Once they were announced, then a Calcutta was offered and each rider was auctioned off to the highest bidder. As each rider was being bid on they did their best to put on a show of their best horsemanship and the training that their horses had attained. A couple of the riders removed bridles, did sliding stops, spins, lead changes, all in front of the screaming audience while, I’m sure, trying to go over the test they are about to ride in their heads.
It was at that moment, watching the top 5 folks out in the ring that I realized how very far I still have to go. There was not a doubt in my mind that any one of those talented riders and obedient, soft, willing horses had what it took to be the Top Hand. All 5 of those teams were calm, cool, collected and rode like they had ice in their veins. I was sweating and fidgeting in the stands for them as I watched my friends get ready to ride. It was impossible to know who to root for so we rooted for them all.
Each of the riders had amazing rides on their horses in their next test, which was a brand new test to all of us. This test again, had all of the elements we’ve all ridden before but in different order with shorter quicker transitions than we had seen before. Those quick transitions, when riding with soft feel and lightness can be difficult to execute with precision, and it was completely gratifying to see them all do it well. The field was pretty much wide open after the first go and then the real fun began as they drew to swap horses.
The final 5 horses were as different as can be as a group. There was a Paint, a Morgan, and three Quarter horses who were all different types of quarter horses. The competitors had 2 minutes to ride their new mount, at a walk before the testing began. Then right before their test they had another 2 minutes before their bell rang and they rode into the court.
You could have heard a pin drop in that arena. We collectively held our breath as each rider rode in. Then as they transitioned to the lope you could see cowboy hats bobbing in time as we all rode each stride with them. The long test seemed to take forever and the stress was palpable, keeping us rooted to our seats watching each rider’s go.
When the dust settled and it was all said and done, it came down to who had the best go on the horse that they drew. Our Top Hand rider, Megan Gallagher had an amazing ride on both her Morgan and the beautiful Quarter Horse that belonged to Richard Winters. Megan exhibits everything that the Top Hand rider should. She is a kind, wonderful lady and an excellent horsewoman. Her ride on Richard’s horse was soft, quiet, and gorgeous. She is what we are all striving to be. Any one of those top 5 riders could have been the top hand, honestly. The differences in scores between them all were minute, I’m sure, as were the points between all the top hand riders.
When we first dreamed up the Top Hand competition this is exactly what we were hoping for. It was a stunning exhibition in soft feel and partnership and it brought in folks from far and wide that had never shown Cowboy Dressage before.
So, where does Cowboy Dressage World go from here? This was our 3rd Final Gathering and we had 980 rides. Cowboy Dressage continues to grow and bring in new members of our Cowboy Dressage Handshake family. We now have an E-learning program in place that can reach an even larger audience for people that are struggling to build a Cowboy Dressage community in their area. We are progressing towards establishing a regional gathering circuit as we build events in more and more areas. New next year will also be a combined clinician and judges training course so that more and more judges are available for the growing number of events and clinicians trained to teach to the Cowboy Dressage World standards.
Cowboy Dressage is here to stay. This isn’t a fad. This is a revolution in how people and horses in the western community communicate with each other and their horses and it is world wide. What started with dreams of just one man and one horse has now spread to encompass the entire world.
Erin Gilmore is an equestrian photojournalist and reporter based in San Francisco, Calif. and Wellington, Fla. After several years training professionally and working as an assistant hunter/jumper trainer in the United States and Europe, Erin focused on equestrian media full time. She now follows the international CSI5* show jumping circuit for much of the year as an equestrian photojournalist.