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Cowboy Dressage

Riding, training and competing with kindness leads to a popular movement

From Horsetrader staff reports - July 21st, 2016 - Cover Story

H900402-1607B_COVERWhen pressed to provide a moment that spawned Cowboy Dressage, Debbie Beth-Halachmy had one memory for Jessica Black, author of the exquisite book, Cowboy Dressage (2015, Trafalgar Square Books). It was her husband Eitan’s victory pass aboard Holiday Compadre at the 1993 American Morgan Horse Association World Championships.

“They wouldn’t let him leave the ring,” she said, recalling the standing ovation as the new Morgan Western Pleasure World Champion “jogged, trotted, cantered in zigzags with flying lead changes, galloped and stopped on a dime.”

That day in Oklahoma sparked a passion to share her husband’s approach, an approach as unique as Eitan’s five decades of experience before that victory pass.

Today, Cowboy Dressage is more than Eitan’s approach to training a horse. It touches the periphery around the horse experience, and its message is resonating. Since 2012, when Cowboy Dressage held steady its own course while another growing discipline, Western Dressage, took a slightly alternate route to align with the USEF, membership has swelled to 5,000. Debbie expects this year’s Cowboy Dressage World Finals Show and Gathering, scheduled Sept. 7-11 in Rancho Murieta, to have 1,200 rides — a 20 percent increase from last year.

While Eitan’s gentle, patient philosophy of willing partners attracts participants, so do Cowboy Dressage innovations for developing better horse-human relationships. The association’s shows have an educational component, best exemplified by what will occur at this year’s Finals — an entire day, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., will be devoted to clinics and presentations.

“The free clinics are a way to let people be part of the growth we are seeing,” Eitan says. “We keep adding more tests, more ways of getting yourself better, and so education is very important.”

Another innovation at the Finals is the Cowboy Dressage Top Hand test, which will return after rave reviews in its inaugural run last September. Just as colt-starting events like Road To The Horse test a hand’s ability with young horses, the Cowboy Dressage Top Hand tests a hand’s ability to connect and perform, but with older horses — and with attention to the manner of communication.

“Eitan judged Road to the Horse, and we respect everything they are doing,” said Debbie. “But we thought,`what about the master horseman? What about the guys who can show a 12-year-old that is still sound and can do some stuff. Where is theirĀ  Road to the Horse, a chance to show their A-game?’ ”

It’s now at the Cowboy Dressage World Show Finals. Last year, 33 riders participated, ranging from unknowns to well-knowns like Richard Winters, Road to the Horse wild card Trevor Carter and five-star Parelli instructor Dave Ellis.

After a qualifying test on Thursday, scores are tabulated and the top 10 return Saturday night, unaware of their placings. The final five advance to a “mystery test” that riders receive just two hours beforehand. They draw for the tops slots, and when finished, they draw again — and switch horses.

“They do not get to practice,” Debbie says. “They get on that horse and they have to do a test. You can hear a pin drop.”

The level of horsemanship is elevated, she adds, requiring absolute control of the feet. And when the top five ride the others’ horses, these top hands truly reveal their skill.

“They rode those other horses better and kinder than they rode their own,” she says. “It proves exactly what we were trying to say.You can read that horse, figure him out, be kind to him, and get an incredible performance out of him.

“Every one of these rider was really gifted,” she adds. “It was amazing. And people loved it. It’s not high adrenalin, but it’s still edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting excitement. Yes, you can push a horse to do that kind of stuff, but can you be soft?”

Such an acute level of detail inspires participants, too. Even the dimensions of the court itself have been modified to accommodate the horse in its effort to perform.

“We changed the measurements to suit the size of the circles that we are riding,” says Eitan. “Dressage has space in-between markers that do not fit the full reference point of a circle, so you kind of guess where you are going rather than riding it. We changed it and made it very suitable, more user-friendly — a short-stride, more compact, to do the things that you do on a ranch.”

Eitan, Debbie and partners including Lyn Ringrose and Wyatt Paxton are excited about plans in 2017 to add a new walk-walk division.

“There will be no jog, and there will be no lope,” says Eitan. You simply go in there and you walk. The foundation is the walk, but the industry never really put emphasis on something so important. We’re looking forward to seeing a good response.”

Debbie adds that the division wil lead to improved horsemanship.

“In our commitment to educate, if you don’t have a walk, you don’t have a lope,” she says. “In the show industry it’s a transition gait, not judged. People will learn to walk, and they are going to be better lopers.”

Eitan offers additional detail.

“In classicial dressage, a walk used to be called the Queen of Gaits,” he says. “Something happened to the queen. She kind of didnt make it.

“In the horse show industry, the walk is the gait betwen the gaits — they take two steps on a walk and they pick up the jog. They take two steps and they go back to the lope. But you never see theĀ  horse really being educated to have a good walk.”

Attention to little things gets big results, he adds.

“In the walk — those are the things that sometimes you skip, you dont look into,” he says. “But when you adopt a new way of looking at horses with a different perspective, you can see what we have missed in the last 50 years. It’s the simple things, not the complicated. Everyone wants to come in and changed leads, but can they walk first?”

Eitan’s insight and innovations, Debbie’s drive to enact them, and a dedicated village behind them, have fueled the Cowboy Dressage movement.

MORE ONLINE: Http://bit.ly/607b_cdress

One comment has been made on “Cowboy Dressage”

  1. Debbie Watkins Says:

    Exactly! With reference to the”walk”, you hit the nail on the head!! I am riding a mare that was trained originally for reining, and Martina can testify to the fact that she had no walk. In fact, in reining training there was no walking, warm up done at an extended trot and then loping. At 19 years old, we are re-training this mare and finally getting the walk down. Teaching an “older” horse new tricks! Cowboy Dressage was my choice for this mare, because of her age and I wanted to extend her life, but still keep the reining maneuvers in place. It’s working. The two of us are starting at ground zero and re-building. :)

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