A visit to Wolf Creek Ranch, home of Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy and the birthplace—if one place can be named—of cowboy dressage involves a slow, winding drive through the beautiful scenery of Grass Valley in California. No matter which way you go, you get the curves that are pretty but numerous enough to make you glad not to miss their road. The ranch itself is hard to miss: The entry sports the familiar name. The driveway drops down past the covered round pen to the barn. Deb and Eitan live in a small two-room apartment above the stalls.
The quickest way to the staircase is along the east side of the barn. I prefer to walk through the aisle way, however, with its smell of horses, shavings and leather. If they aren’t out in the pasture, I greet the horses as I go by; I look enviously at the gorgeous saddles, maybe stick my head in the tack room to take a deep breath of leather. Perhaps there will be a horse cross-tied, waiting patiently to be groomed and worked or turned out to play.
Once you make it through the barn and up the stairs at the far end, you will be greeted first by three Dachshunds, and the shy cat Punkin may slink out as you go in to meet Deb and Eitan. You may notice the neat kitchen and comfortable living area. You will definitely notice horses: bridles, hackamores, photographs, paintings, sculptures, models. A headshot of Holiday Compadre; a drawing of Santa Fe Renegade. The back room has more drawings and photographs, headstalls, bits and a beautiful saddle. It is a horse lover’s paradise, a place of work and dreams.
ACCESSIBLE TO ALL
When I asked Deb why they had originally gone beyond training individual horses to start on the long road that would lead to cowboy dressage, she paused, thought a bit, and then said, “We wanted to generate an outlet. There were all these people who saw what Eitan was doing with his horses, particularly Compadre,” she told me, “and they wanted to do similar things, but there was no guidance, no path for them to follow.”
Deb and Eitan realized that it was time to start giving back to the community that had given them so much, and they wanted to include as many people as possible. It was difficult at first because Eitan had never envisioned himself as a teacher, but he felt the imperative to share his knowledge, and with Debbie’s insistence and help, he took the plunge. “I got smarter,” Eitan says; he was learning, but he did his best to form a new community that was open to everyone.
You can do cowboy dressage with any horse, anywhere. What Debbie and Eitan wanted was not just to show what could be done with a horse, but to give other people the means to do it. Perhaps they could not do everything Eitan was doing with his horses, but with his guidance, they could work together toward cementing the kind of relationship with their horses that Eitan had with his.
Not everyone has enough room for a traditional dressage ring. Many horse owners cannot afford to travel across the country to show, and they may not be members of the pertinent organizations. Others do not have the time to ride their horses every day. Some may not even have horses they can ride, but groundwork is an important aspect of cowboy dressage that can be done with Miniature Horses or larger breeds that for some reason cannot be ridden. Eitan and Deb, and all of the people who have advocated some form of cowboy dressage over the years, provide a blueprint for progressing toward the goal of a better relationship, anywhere, and at the speed that suits both horse and rider.
Because cowboy dressage is open to all breeds and all levels of riders, there is no set frame for overall look, head carriage or action. Each horse is assessed with reference to his type and conformation: A perfect working jog for an Arabian is not going to look the same as a perfect working jog for a Quarter Horse, and neither is going to look much like the Saddlebred’s perfect jog.
When building your own cowboy dressage horse, you will want to con-sider the horse’s potential and ask of him only what he is capable of giving at that time. This emphasis on the needs of the horse can be seen at all levels of cowboy dressage, from trail rides to the show ring. At all times, what the horse does (for example, a transition from walk to jog versus a flying lead change) is never as important as how the horse does it. The goal of cowboy dressage is the harmonious, subtle, and relaxed flow of information between horse and rider.
ACHIEVING A SOFT FEEL
This harmonious flow of information is best explained with reference to soft feel, an approach to communication between horse and rider that is evocative of the soft feel taught by the great horsemen Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. Cowboy dressage soft feel has four steps: preparation, execution, release and relaxation.
• Preparation: This refers to the rider’s subtle use of aids and cues to signal to the horse a request, such as a change of gait or direction. This should be evident to the observer only in small shifts of weight or changes in rein, if at all. An important aspect of this essential first part of soft feel is “fresh” rein. This means the slight adjustment of the reins with the rider’s hand(s) that informs the horse that a change is expected. If there is no change of position, there can be no subsequent release or reward.• Execution: This refers to the horse’s completion of the requested maneuver—for example, a transition into a lope or a turn on the haunches.• Release: The execution must be immediately followed by release, the third step. The release of pressure from the rider’s leg, seat or rein is the horse’s reward for having performed the desired behavior.• Relaxation: Finally, after the maneuver has been completed, the horse and rider must show the relaxation that comes from complete understanding and harmony between partners.
The distinguishing feature of soft feel is its two-way nature: Any rider can send a message to a horse, but the true cowboy dressage partnership can only happen when the rider feels the horse send a message back.
Soft feel is important not only to building the cowboy dressage horse at home, but also for its central role in the fast-growing world of cowboy dressage competitions. Soft feel is the guiding principle for competitors and judges.
When a clinician or judge looks at an entry or participant, he or she assesses the communication between horse and rider, with specific reference to the aspects of soft feel mentioned here. If followed, these ensure that it is not just about completing the pattern; it is about completing it smoothly, willingly and kindly.
EMPHASIS ON KINDNESS
Cowboy dressage does not yet have a complete rulebook because it has grown naturally out of Eitan’s knowledge and the effort to base everything on the guiding principle of kindness. In order to meet the needs of an increasingly large community that demands more cowboy dressage divisions and tests every day, guidelines and rules for shows and judging are being developed, always maintaining kindness as a primary goal.
The rules and guidelines tend to be flexible. They are centered on the gradual progression toward a better relationship between horse and rider rather than on details of equipment. The most stringent rule is that you have to use a Western saddle. Most Western-style bits are acceptable as long as you use them kindly, although there are expectations regarding the level of training needed for a horse to be shown in an advanced bit.
Again, the focus is on the relationship between rider and mount. Cowboy dressage competitions reward kindness, and not only because riders who treat their horses with kindness and respect will get more cooperation from them. The results of treating the horse fairly on a daily basis will indeed be evident in his performance, but what the cowboy dressage judge is looking for is the calm demeanor and attentive attitude that are the immediate response to active kindness.
As the new discipline of cowboy dressage becomes bigger with additional members, horse breeds and styles, all competition tests and standards will be developed with reference to the central tenet of cowboy dressage: Be kind to your horse.
COWBOY DRESSAGE OR WESTERN DRESSAGE?
In 2010, the Western Dressage Association of America was created to organize some aspects of the budding new discipline inspired by Eitan Beth-Halachmy and his work with horses such as Holiday Compadre and Santa Fe Renegade. At the time, people were using the terms “cowboy dressage” and “Western dressage” interchangeably. Some people still do, and this can lead to confusion, although in many ways cowboy dressage and Western dressage are similar.
Both trace their roots back to the inspiration of Eitan Beth-Halachmy, and the sacrifices he and Debbie made in order to share the vision with a wider audience. Cowboy dressage and Western dressage can appear very similar, perhaps due to that shared origin—Eitan on Holiday Compadre will forever be the founding image for both, the spark that lit the fire. However, they are evolving to fit the needs of different groups of people, and as time goes by the differences become more apparent.
Some groups try to minimize the difference: In Oregon, the Cowboy/Western Dressage Alliance caters to those who want to do one or the other, or both. In fact, many people who are active in the cowboy dressage community also compete in Western dressage. Cowboy dressage clubs keep up with the events in Western dressage, and vice versa. Riders who want to do both have many opportunities to do so and are often successful in both arenas.
It can still be difficult for anyone but the connoisseur to say what dif-ferentiates the two. Both emphasize the relationship between horse and rider. Both seek to combine the best of the Western cowboy tradition and traditional dressage; both focus on training that takes into consideration the horse’s nature.
The differences? Cowboy dressage puts more emphasis on lifestyle and the diversity of its community. Western dressage is familiar to those already on the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) show circuit. Western dressage relies a little more on the traditional dressage aspect; cowboy dressage, in accordance with its name, leans more toward the cowboy or Western-style horse.
Cowboy dressage emphasizes its unique style that caters to the specific way of going of a Western horse, whereas Western dressage focuses on a horse who can multitask, accommodating the bigger gaits and specific movements of traditional dressage to Western tack.
As the two disciplines have forged their own paths, growing apart in some ways along the line, the differences are becoming apparent mainly in competition rules and venues—you will find Western dressage divisions at major USEF horse shows; cowboy dressage organizes its own events. Accordingly, Western dressage has its section in the USEF rulebook, which largely applies the rules of traditional dressage to horses shown in Western tack.
In contrast, cowboy dressage is in the process of creating and expanding its own rules, adding to them as more and more people ask for more divisions and more tests. Over the past few years, the increasing demands of an expanding community have led to the development of guidelines for shows and judges, using classical dressage techniques and testing methods to build a better Western horse.
The biggest differences between cowboy dressage and Western dressage are seen in the tests. Western dressage has opted for an arena and tests that are very similar to traditional dressage competition. Cowboy dressage took the traditional dressage arena and turned it into a classroom for the Western horse, resulting in a unique court with patterns scaled to the movements and goals of Western horses.
For the most part, what one notices about cowboy and Western dressage is that, although their rules and competitions are becoming increasingly different as both carve out their own special niche in the horse world, people from either tend to support the other. Importantly, both grew out of the vision of Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy, with the enthusiastic collaboration of many, in order to offer new possibilities for training and showing, always emphasizing, above all, the relationship between horse and rider.
Adapted by permission from Cowboy Dressage: Riding, Training and Competing with Kindness as the Goal and Guiding Principle, published in 2015 by Trafalgar Square Books. Available from HorseBooksEtc.com; 800-423-4525.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #460, January 2016.