What Exactly Is Cowboy Dressage All About?

Blue Fountain Photography

So a cowboy walks into a bar, takes a seat on a stool, and scans the drink choices before him. The bartender pays him no heed. After waiting patiently for a few minutes, the cowboy shifts in his seat, clears his dry throat, and tips his hat back. The bartender still doesn’t come over. After a few minutes more, the cowboy drums his fingers on the bar and taps the toe of his boot on the foot of his stool. Still nothing from the bartender. Finally, the cowboy stands up, waves his arms over his head, and calls down the bar, “Hey buddy, I sure could use a drink!”

The bartender ambles over, asks what the cowboy wants, and serves him, pleasant as can be.

“Mister, why’d it take you so long to serve me a drink?” the cowboy asks, taking his seat once again, nodding his head in thanks, and sliding a tip across the bar.

“We only serve real cowboys in here,” replies the bartender, “so I wanted to see if you knew how to ride a horse.”

In their book Cowboy Dressage, Jessica Black and Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy explain how a good rider communicates with the horse with both cues and aids. For the most part, these are simply points of contact between rider and horse, and while many horse people distinguish between cues and aids, in truth the line tends to become blurry.

©Blue Fountain Photography

©Blue Fountain Photography

Cues have no necessary physical or logical connection to the desired behavior: the horse has learned to associate cue and response through repeated conditioning. (So in the case of our cowboy, think of his sitting down at the bar, clearing his throat, tipping his hat back, drumming his fingers and tapping his toe—all cues.)

Aids usually have some physical point of contact or logical connection to the desired behavior: legs, hands, seat, and sometimes voice are generally considered aids (although they can also be used as cues). Aids take advantage of the horse’s natural reaction to stimuli. A horse can feel a fly on his skin, and will shake or twitch to remove it; the rider’s leg can apply pressure that will naturally encourage the horse to move away from it. The rider’s seat, possibly the most important aid, directly affects the horse’s balance and movement. The hands also act directly (particularly when the bit is a snaffle) on the horse to slow, lift, or bend. Together the aids can encourage the horse to take the shape and movement the rider wishes. (When our cowboy stood up, waved his arms, and called out that he wanted a drink, the bartender reacted.)

Intelligent use of the aids, combined with knowledge of the horse’s instincts, is a necessary part of all riding, and integral to the pursuit of Cowboy Dressage—a discipline combining Western traditions with classical dressage concepts that is exploding in popularity. In this equestrian discipline, kindness is prescribed as the goal and guiding principle. Kindness means working with the horse, not against him. The rider uses the aids to make it easier for the horse to do the right thing, and offers a reward when the horse gets it right.

Debbie Beth-Halachmy and Indie demonstrate an elegant lope departure. Leg and seat aids are used to lift the horse into the correct lead by supporting with the outside leg, pushing from the inside, and driving forward with the seat. When the horse is comfortable with the transition, the rider can add a specific cue that the horse will learn to associate with left lead departure. Eventually, all that is needed is a subtle cue and the horse will take the desired lead.

Debbie Beth-Halachmy and Indie demonstrate an elegant lope departure. Leg and seat aids are used to lift the horse into the correct lead by supporting with the outside leg, pushing from the inside, and driving forward with the seat. When the horse is comfortable with the transition, the rider can add a specific cue that the horse will learn to associate with left lead departure. Eventually, all that is needed is a subtle cue and the horse will take the desired lead. Photo: Lesley Deutsch

The first reward should always be the relief from pressure; if you ask the horse to move away from your leg by applying pressure, you must instantly release the pressure as soon as he moves. Eitan Beth-Halachmy prefers touch and release to steady pressure, which can make the horse insensitive to cues and aids; anyone who has ridden a lesson horse knows how difficult it is to deal with deadened sides!

Always think light: Hands, legs, and voice should be as light as possible. Even the seat should be used lightly—the horse can feel the slightest shift of the hips. Imagine how it would feel to go for a run with one-tenth of your own weight perched on your back, and then imagine that weight lurching about.

So… how did the bartender know the cowboy was legit? The cowboy used a series of subtle cues indicating his desire, allowing several moments in between each for the bartender to notice and react. It was only after his softer “asking” went unheeded that the cowboy resorted to more obvious aids, including his legs, hands, and voice. When the bartender reacted with the desired action, the cowboy ceased asking, and rewarded him for getting it right.

Whether a cold drink or a lope departure, it’s all the same progression, ultimately ending with a “Thank you.”

tsb-cowboy-dressage
Portions of this article are excerpted from Cowboy Dressage by Jessica Black with Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy, and reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.

Article taken from Horse Collaborative

About the Author

trafalgarsquare-books

Trafalgar Square Books is the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs.

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