Thursday, July 28, 2011

Temper or Pain?

Sometimes we have to keep learning the same lesson over and over. Two horses in the past month have knocked me on the head and said listen up. No, make that three.

The first was Gambler, the mustang. He had reached a plateau in his training. No matter what tactics were used, under saddle he bolted, bucked and was unpredictable. I gave up any idea of ever being able to ride him, and Trent cut his work back to two times a week- sorta we're gonna ride you but we aren't expecting change. I began long lining him and he made rapid progress, was calm, receptive and seemed to enjoy the attention. Then on one of my twice a week visits to the barn I went into the stall to give him a little attention, and looked at his back. Maybe the light was different. Maybe he had lost a few more pounds. Whatever, his roach back dropping into deep shoulder pockets jumped out at me. I wondered how any saddle could fit such a conformation.  Maybe no saddle would. I went home and ordered an expensive bridge pad, and the next time I came out I asked if Trent had one. Sure enough, Scott came up with one. I got Trent to check out the saddle they were using and how it would work with the pad. Some experimentation later and Gambler declared his approval. The next ride there was no bucking and bolting. It may not all be over, but now we're listening. So we tried the pad on another horse that had been grumpy lately. Again a change in attitude.

Then there is Remi, the Appaloosa mare I'm working. I'd already changed saddles with her because of her broad round back, but she was still a little tight and sometimes took a long warmup. I used that saddle at Trent's and it didn't get back to my barn, so I dug out an ancient  saddle we bought for a walking couch of a horse. Remi declared her preference for this immediately. Either it really fits her better, or she knows that its old super flat close contact design is bruising for the rider and it's payback time. Actually I didn't notice the stirrup bars digging into my leg on her, so maybe we'll both be happy!

Saddle fit is not a new thing for me. I've had my english saddles reflocked to fit specific horses, checked every students tack, helped clients find new saddles when problems were found. The  lesson here is ALWAYS look for physical problems with a horse that behaves normally on the ground and with its herd mates. The problem may be with the rider or with the training techniques, but start with tack that fits and is comfortable for the horse!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Hard to believe it's been over a month since my last blog post. It's time to check in with the group that started this whole venture. There have been some changes. Trent is no longer riding Penny in the lessons. He bought a foundation bred filly, Hannah, and she is now his project. So here are some pictures and a bit of commentary.

The first picture is from a very early lesson with Penny. The tension in this mare is evident not only from her facial expression, but also in the muscles of the neck. Notice how the bottom muscles appear heavy and the top muscles undefined. There is no clear definition of the throat. Though not visable, this tension is held all the way through this mare's back, preventing her from engaging her hind legs. The result is that this mare is "cold backed" and if this tension is not addressed early in the ride she requires an hour or more of work before she let's go and begins to swing through her back.  Trying to force a soft poll does nothing to help that tension. We'll have some more pictures of her in another blog about warming up the horse.

The second picture is of Hannah, Trent's new 3 yr old filly. Here Trent is starting with a fresh slate. This horse has no history to overcome. She is comfortable with the bit, accepting light contact without  tension. Note the muscling of the neck, the clear definition of the throat latch. If you track the footfall you can tell that unlike Penny, the hind foot is going to step into the hoof print of the forefoot when it hits the ground. BTW, note Trent's leg position. He's riding without stirrups here. Like the horse, he is relaxed. Check the position of the upper arm, relaxed and hanging by his side, then compare the upper arm on Penny, where he is trying to be soft and instead is creating tension in his shoulders by hold the arms in front of his body.  With less than 30 rides, this mare is already well on her way to a good basic education.

Friday, May 27, 2011

California Dreamin'

I just spent a week in Lake County, CA with an old friend who is very interested in participating in Western Dressage. We spent our first day watching Jack Brainard teach a WD clinic. This was disappointing because it was so cold that we couldn't really get where we could hear everything Jack was saying, and the format of the clinic was sort of watch me, now you  give it a try, but not a lot of detail. Of course we missed the first day, and it rained Sunday. My friend had separated ribs and would have been miserable in cold and rain, so we didn't get back, so I can't say much about what was taught at the clinic except that Lynne and I kept remarking that Jack really needed to take some time to help the rider of an Arabian that was trapped behind such short contact that it was bucking every time it was asked to go forward. The rider had a good seat and didn't seem disturbed by the giant kicking out, but he also didn't give the horse an inch more rein. Much to our delight after lunch Jack sent the pair into the round pen and made the young man ride the horse without touching the reins. In short order the horse, free at last to use it's head and neck, gave up the displays and began to work through all the transitions with no resistance.

I did have a chance to talk with Jack after the clinic was over. He was very gracious, but also very firm that this organization was for western riders and western horses. I got the impression that he was worried that it would be taken over by people who put dressage first, western second, with no real training in any of the western disciplines or the vaquero traditions.  I can understand his concern.  Personally I have great interest in biomechanics, what was California Reining when I started my professional career, and how dressage can be used to make more athletic horse, but I haven't trained a reiner or a western cow horse, so even though I've been asked by western trainers to help them with their horses and teach them how to apply dressage, I don't quite fit.

This left a big question. How many western trainers have the depth of understanding of  the biomechanics of how dressage works to teach "western dressage?"  How many dressage instructors have western backgrounds?  Understanding the biomechanics is important, because work done wrong can cause serious damage to the joints of the horse. Understanding western work is crucial because of the goal to work on the curb alone.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Contact VS Lightness in the mouth - it is really one or the other?

I've sort of gotten off track on the terminology thread. Let's address one of the big differences between western and dressage interpretations. Contact. This one is so difficult if one hasn't ridden a fully trained western horse or a fully trained dressage horse. The first thing I hear from dressage people is that it isn't possible to get a horse to collect or more accurately, work through the topline, without contact. When you ask the average western trainer about contact, they talk about how dressage horses lean on the reins.

So what is contact? How does it affect the way the horse performs, and what happens if the horse never is trained to accept it?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Preconceptions Make Translation Even More Difficult.

This week has been one in which I've had to step back and acknowledge that my own preconceptions are part of the problem in the dialog between dressage and western terminology.  I've had a hard time translating the focus of both the reining trainer and the "foundation" trainer on the shoulders of the horse, and as a result have had some preconceived ideas about what they were doing that were just  - well, wrong.

In all work we do with horses there are two factors involved in any signal we send to a horse - how strong, and how long.  This can vary widely depending on the horse and the desired result.  Demonstrations in the hundreds of training videos often exaggerate actions to make a point to the viewer without ever showing the "real" thing because it might be invisible or completely unnecessary at the moment the demonstrator wants to show it. So that is what I was seeing when I was told the horse had to lower the neck and get an arc in it's back or allow the rider to bring it's head around to perform a one rein stop. Exaggerations multiplied by hundreds of examples of poor copies. 
So here's a picture of Trent on Gambler.  Yes he did occasionally ask for more bend than this - but it was momentary.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Put into practice

In my introduction I mention that this is a journey and the kick off was when I decided to trade dressage lessons for starting a mustang under saddle.  So from here on out I plan to alternate the discussion from western and dressage and the WDAA with post on the progress of my "cowboys" and the horse in training.

So here's the cast of characters.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Blow by Blow Comparison

It's been a busy  week. I've been in correspondence with Rod Miller and we've had some great conversations. Like me he is trying to build a reference tool that can help riders bridge the language gap between the western terms and dressage speak.

Several clinicians are giving clinics on cues and aids for Western Dressage. Now remember, the competitions are going to be judged by Dressage judges. So I think it will be a good exercise to go through some of the things said in these clinics and compare them with how that dressage judge is trained to judge. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Will western dressage speak the same language? Part 1

I mentioned in my first post that I was giving dressage lessons to a western trainer. I knew going in, and so did he, that one problem we were going to have was language. Dressage has centuries of written and verbal tradition.  Western riding has about 100 years, enough to develop it's own terms, and even more difficult, enough time to borrow words and assign different meanings to them. The biggest problem with both is that they are attempts to describe sensations.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Western Dressage - What's Old, What's New

Having now spent way too many hours searching Google, I'm going to fall back on my faulty memory.

What's Old:  dressage and western riding sprang from the same roots and then occasionally held hands. The Spanish system of training went to the Southwest with the missionaries and continued in what is now known as the Vaquero tradition. The same horses and systems went to Europe - records in Vienna refer to a Spanish Riding School in 1572. The Spanish rode light, agile horses that could move fast on the battlefield and heavy horses were becoming obsolete. Later artillery would make the highly trained Spanish horses useless and their flashier moves would become only for the parade grounds and for exhibitions, but the horses of the Moors were battle horses. Today dressage still looks to the Spanish Riding School of Vienna as the caretaker of classical dressage. In the Western Hemisphere the vaqueros continued to pass on the system and apply it to ranch work. In Europe the same thing happened in Spain and Portugal. The ranch horses trained in these traditions look very similar, but not at all like the western horse in breed shows today.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The "Next Big Thing"

For years I've had the line under my signature "dressage for the performance horse" hoping to pick up the occasional western rider who took to heart Lynn Palm and others who talked about the need for basics. It didn't work. Then I was looking for someone with more glue and less age than I had to restart my mustang, who had a bit too long vacation after his first 30 days. My choice was a trainer nearby who is known for doing lots of preliminary groundwork because this is where I felt the holes were in the horse's preparation and I didn't have a pen to work him in. To my surprise the trainer was looking for someone to give him dressage lessons. It seems he had been to an expo, seen the demos by Etian, and met Dr. Robert Miller. He liked what he saw, but he was even more impressed when Dr. Miller told him if he wanted to know what the next BIG THING in the horse world was going to be it was "Western Dressage."

So the lessons have begun. More about that later. First I had to find out what "Western Dressage" was. It isn't just a movement to do dressage moves on a horse with western tack.  Dr. Miller, Etian and Jack Brainard want a competition with an organization behind it like the USDF or the NRHA. The first step was to get rules, tests and judges, which they mostly borrowed from the USEF.  Then they got the classes recognized for Morgans by the USEF. Now they are starting a publicity campaign to encourage people to  use the tests at dressage shows, breed shows, wherever a USEF dressage judge might already be on the grounds. This is all a bit different from what I had envisioned.

If you do a search on YouTube there are several good and not so good videos. There is a thread on the Chronicle of the Horse Dressage Forum that has several interesting points of view. However for better or for worse, I think this will take off. The romance of the cowboy life will blend with the classical ideal of the willing dance partner into a dream of the best of both worlds.

 Like most innovations, it's so old it's new again.

Next: What's old, what's new, and where do we begin.

For more information about Western Dressage go to