Imagine if a piano player was restricted once achieving a certain level of training to only playing with one hand. Sure you can make beautiful music with just one hand but why limit yourself in such a way? While many of you may not be aware of it, a great heated debate is waging right before you in the horsemanship world that is just as silly as limiting a piano player to just one hand. There are folks quite passionate about riding a western horse in just one hand to the point of accusing those riding in two hands as being ignorant and even abusive!
I know it sounds kind of silly to be making such a big deal about this. Folks in the english world are likely scratching their heads at these cowboys wondering what in the world is the big debate. Well, to understand the source of the debate you have to understand that all things horsemanship are seated in deep traditions and those traditions are harder to change than the color of the sky.
Look at what side of the horse we mount on, for example. It's considered poor form to mount from the right because knights mounted from the left so their sword wouldn't get in the way and we are STILL mounting from the left. I Can't remember the last time I had to fight with my sword while mounting, but I can tell you it feels weird when I mount from the right.
But we aren't talking about swords today, we are talking about hands and how we should be using them. Let's start at the beginning. In starting all horses in all traditions, be it english, western, vaquero; the horse is started using two hands to make things simpler for the horse to understand. Folks riding english have a marvelously simple bit called the snaffle that is used with two hands so that direct simple rein pressure commands can be communicated to the horse. That same simple bit was adopted by the folks in the western traditions for it's simplicity and ease in communicating with the horse. While many of the traditional vaquero folks shun the snaffle bit as non-traditional, they do ride with two hands with the horse in the hackamore to ease in communication until good rein signal is established.
Riding with two hands makes perfect sense when riding with a bit that works off of direct pressure as almost all bits will to a certain extent. You can use light, soft hands with give and feel to help shape the horse into a correct form. If your entire goal with your horse is to head off down the trail in a straight line, one hand is quite sufficient regardless of the bit because creating shape and form in your horse is entirely unnecessary. But, if you are riding for correctness of form then two hands and two legs is very useful, nae, necessary, in order to help your horse reach it's full potential. Anybody who has watched a John Wayne movie has seen how one hand on the reins in a western bit can be quite harsh. If any of those cowboys had reached down and softly bent the nose in the direction they were going before turning and galloping away rather than reefing the horse's head almost upside down as they cranked across the neck with one hand it would have made the whole picture much more pleasing. But, that's just not how cowboys ride!
So why would it become a tradition in western disciplines to ride our horses with one hand? Is it because of the big bits that we use that somehow become damaging with two hands on the reins? Definitely not. Look at all the metal an upper level classical dressage horse has in his mouth with two very tight hands on the reins. Look at a park horse parading around with the ring with a double bit and two hands on the reins.
Look at the gaited horse community that show with large shanked bits and two hands on the reins. The sole reason that western riders ride with one hand on the reins is because the other hand is supposed to be engaged in something else. That is the entire reason. Cowboys rope. So if you are working cattle and roping it is incredibly important that you are able to control your horse adequately with one hand on the rein.
I'm going to bring the vaquero tradition into the conversation for just a moment because this is one area where this debate is most heated, and for good reason. The vaquero tradition is all about building elite cow horses. These are horses that are meant to work off of the lightest signal of the rein for lightning fast reflexes. They take years and years of concentrated and specialized training and the mark of their achievement is to be "straight up" in the bridle operating with precision and grace off the mere lift of a single hand perfectly positioning their rider to work a cow or rope a calf. For these folks the tradition is everything. They stick to tradition in dress, gear and training of their horses. It is considered poor form to touch the bridle reins with the other hand not because you are afraid of the spade bit the horse is wearing but because of tradition. You would no more touch the reins with your free hand than you would wear a bowler hat or ride in a cordura saddle. Tradition. Plain and simple.
But, aside from the strict traditions of the vaqueros the rest of the western disciplines have had to adopt this method of riding with one hand as well. Even if these horses will NEVER see a cow in their lifetimes or those riders have no business swinging a rope!
If we look at the western pleasure discipline you see riders in long draped reins with no ability to communicate effectively with their horse riding around the ring with one eye on the judge waiting for their opportunity to reach down with one hand and correct their horse or lift the reins over their head to bump that head down. A good showman learns that you sneak a little inside rein with one finger when you are going around a corner to help round your horse. What do you see in the warm up pen? A bunch of folks riding around with two hands on the rein schooling their horses getting them ready for the show ring so that they can ride with one hand.
It's utter poppycock. If your horse preforms more correctly with two hands on the reins then by all means ride with two hands on the reins. This is one of the beauties of Cowboy Dressage and one of the things that so many people find so attractive about it. There aren't rules about how many hands you can use with what type of bit. If we are schooling our horses in correctness and lightness you should be able to help your horse in anyway that you can not only in the warm up pen but in the show pen as well.
While is true that a well trained western pleasure horse can ride a pretty pattern with a draped rein and one hand, he can't do that pattern with a completely collected and rounded frame, arching in the circle and maintaining that arc then coming straight and collected through the half pass. That takes aids, and help and two hands on all but the most advanced horses.
But what about the bits? Aren't shanked western bits too harsh to use two hands on? Poppycock. Sit around a western pleasure ring sometime and watch the way those riders bang on those horses with those great big bits. That's harsh. Cowboy dressage is all about light hands. Any bit in poor hands can be harsh, just like any bit in good hands can be soft. It's not he device but that hands wielding them that make the difference. When you are learning to work with your horse with softness and feel it doesn't matter what kind of bit you are using. Even the traditional spade bit of the vaqueros can be used softly with two hands without endangering the horse. Cowboy Dressage encourages the use of hinged western bits that allow for independent movement throughout the mouthpiece. Those bits are designed to be used most effectively with two hands working in lightness and correctness to create bend and suppleness throughout the entire body. Those bits offer distinct advantages to the cowboy dressage rider over traditional spade bits or hooded half breed that are used in the western pleasure ring.
What about the new trend of all the bridleless riding? Should that be the end goal of any great horseman? I don't believe so. As a follower of the vaquero tradition, I believe the end goal of any great horseman should be to ride with softness and feel in the bit. To be able to properly train your horse to be completely responsive and correct in the spade bit takes real horsemanship. Not to make light of the great training that goes into making a horse listen to your body cues independent of a bit but it isn't as difficult as some might believe. Horses are great at responding to changes in our body and leg position. Good riders, I believe, make changes in our body while we are riding without even thinking about it and a horse learns to interpret these changes even when the signal with the bit isn't given. Anybody can learn to ride without a bit, but it takes a real horseman to learn to properly ride with one.
So what is my take on the great debate, especially since I am a follower of the vaquero tradition of bridle horses yet also a believer in Cowboy Dressage where two hands on the reins are not only allowed but encouraged? I believe it's all in the ability of the rider to ride with soft hands and feel. I want correctness and softness in my horses above and beyond everything else that I do with them. While I am working towards having my horse straight up in the bridle eventually, we will be working towards that goal with two hands softly directing and correcting until my horse can carry himself with collection and softness. I love tradition. It's fun to learn about how things have always been done and honoring our ancestors by upholding tradition is great. But if you fly in the face of progress and reality for the pure sake of maintaining traditions that don't apply to you, that's ridiculous. I believe that you should know how to mount your horse from both sides and how to properly ride your horse with two hands on the reins with lightness and feel no matter what type of gear you choose to ride in or what traditions you choose to follow.
I believe there is a place for the vaquero tradition in Cowboy Dressage. I believe there is a place for every type of western rider in Cowboy Dressage. The pursuit of correctness and softness and light hands can benefit every single western rider out there. I think it's time for a new tradition in the western disciplines. It's time for lightness to become the tradition that surpasses all others.