I promised myself when I started this blog that it would only truly be a useful and accurate reflection of my horsemanship journey if I shared both my good and bad experiences, especially as it relates to my growth and education in the Vaquero Tradition of horsemanship. I've been avoiding writing this particular blog entry because I know how it will look to the folks that are the true die hard, 3 B visalia ridin', hand braided rawhide reata twirling, mustache knot tying honest to God Vaquero horseman out there. But, I've put it off long enough and until I get this blog post done and off my chest I won't be able to go on and share my experiences in other areas of this tradition in horsemanship.
Let me start off by saying that I adore the traditions that go along with this style of riding. I have a flair for the eccentric and the thought that this isn't something that just anybody out there is doing appeals to me greatly. I love the tradition of quality hand made gear that would be passed through generations. There is a certain pageantry in the way a Vaquero horseman outfits both himself and his horse. Pride in self and mount are paramount throughout the tradition and I love that about it. It really does do something for your horsemanship when you put pride in your gear and turn out.
Like any long standing tradition there is great wisdom in the way things are done that speaks to well thought out observations in both rider and horse. But, also like many deep seated traditions, there is blind loyalty to a way of doing things that is routed in the thought process "this is how it has always been done there is no reason to change". Many of the older traditions that were once part of the standard tool bag for a Vaquero have fallen out of favor in the light of modern knowledge. One of those is the dia de sangre. One of the ways that some of the old Vaqueros used to instill that "trigger fire neck rein action" where a horse will jump into his turn around when the rein touches the neck was to repeatedly quirt the horse's neck until it was extra sensitive (read painful) so that he would flinch away from that pain when the rein was applied. It was a nasty day for horse and rider and it wasn't something that needed to be repeated, generally, but it did happen.
So, the modern horseman that chooses to learn, study and apply the traditions of the Vaquero will necessarily choose which traditions to follow. Do you start in a snaffle like many of the horseman of the great basin or do you stick to the more traditional jaquima? Do you forego any bit but the traditional spade and skip over some of the smaller transition type bits? Do you ride with parachute cord mecates instead of mane hair? Do you double your horse in the hackamore? Even among staunch traditionalists there is considerable argument. Do you follow Rojas or Connel? Which one was right? From the standpoint of historical argument and research there is an unlimited amount of minutia to debate. It is all fascinating stuff.
I believe the reason that we are seeing a resurgence of this style of riding is because it has been romanticized to a certain degree by the hand of time. We look back on the talented horseman with their prancing bridle horses and want to believe that they were always soft, and kind and looking for a better way of building that ultimate partnership with their horse. The trigger fire horse that responds in an instant to just a jingle of the rein chains is a beautiful thing. They carried themselves with panache and style and grace with a formal flexion in their spade bits that you just don't see anymore. The relatively foreign idea of not starting a horse until it was 4 or sometimes even 6 so that they were mature and grown even has a romantic quality to it. While we like to believe that this was because these older horseman were being careful and respectful of young growing joints, according to Ernie Morris, once those horses were under saddle and put out to work they were asked to put in a full day's work and anything younger would break down too fast. So, there was knowledge that a younger horse couldn't stand up to the work but they were also working their horses harder and longer than most of us do today. There are two sides to every story and looking back on history tends to place a rosy glow.
So, in my drive to really try to learn and study and preserve the traditions of the vaqueros I have embraced the gear, methods, and training programs to the best of my ability. One of the things that I love about my involvement of Cowboy Dressage is that they embrace and encourage folks to ride within this tradition as well. I was very excited to be able to attend and show at the recent Final Gathering. After looking over the entry classes available I decided that in order to show support of the Vaquero classes and hopefully build this division as well as interest in this tradition that I love I would ride only in the Vaquero classes and only bring my traditional gear along with me.
Some of you who have followed my blog posts know that I don't currently have a horse that has been brought along solely through the vaquero tradition. As my journey has been a learning experience I have experimented with all sorts of training modalities and disciplines in an attempt to learn and grow and find out what works best for me and my horses. There is of course, nothing wrong with trying different things but if you truly believe in the tradition of training a horse that responds to signal rather than cue to create the ultimate bridle horse you know that you can reform a horse but not ever make a good solid bridle horse if they aren't started the right way.
So my 12 year old gelding is a product of many years of muddled training techniques. It's a wonder he doesn't have more baggage than he does. He does really pretty well for me in the bridle (he's currently in a hooded mona lisa) but if things get hot for him I lose him mentally and the bridle horse tradition only really works and looks good if you don't have to touch that bit very much. Ideally Chico would probably stay forever at the two rein stage where I had the ability to two hand him and support him in his times of mental meltdown. Unfortunately this particular set up doesn't fit in such a manner as to allow for an underbridle. So, at the Cowboy Dressage finals my horse decided he was unable to listen to the signal from the bit as well as my aids. When showcasing your horse in a forum that places an emphasis on lightness and softness having a horse refuse to listen to a one handed bridle bit doesn't look very soft. Also when you ride "straight up in the bridle" you rely on the horse bending through his body through the use of your other aids (there is considerable debate within the tradition about whether a bridlehorse SHOULD even bend through his body around your legs, but I believe they should) so when you are unable to back up your legs through communication with your hands to create bend you find yourself in a position from which you are unable to help your horse.
I did put him back into the bosal so that I could work him two handed but since he IS NOT a traditional bridle horse this was of limited help as well. What I really needed in order to help my horse focus and understand even in times of stress was a bit that I could create bend with. Because I was trying so hard to stay true to tradition I didn't have that option for him.
Now, just for my friends that are struggling like I am to properly follow the Vaquero tradition let's outline the things I did wrong for my horse in this situation. First of all this wasn't a horse brought along in the bridle horse tradition from day one so I can't expect him to respond reliably all the time with a muddled foundation. Second I went from the bosal to the bridle without the two rein stage. Shouldn't be a big deal on this particular horse because he's had lots and lots of time in a bit but it's true that we skipped that stage due to constraints with gear.
So here is my "Oh Gee" take home message from this stage in my horsemaship journey. Tradition is wonderful and beautiful and poetic and often seated in wisdom handed down from many generations. I will continue to study and learn and try to do my best working through training my horses in this tradition. What I hope to never do again, though, is compromise my horsemanship and my ability to effectively communicate with my horse for the sake of tradition. I'm not saying I condone using whatever means necessary to get the right behavior out of your horse, I'm saying EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION. It doesn't matter what language you are speaking if your horse is completely unable to listen at all. I hobbled my horsemanship by only bringing traditional gear that limited my ability to effectively communicate with this particular horse. It resulted in poor use of my aids and frustration for a horse that was already upset. I was saying, "Calmete caballo" when what he probably needed was "there there old chap" since that was his original language. My horse needed me to be there for him and support him and help him through his time of need. If I can't do that for him within the constraints of this tradition I will seek whatever tool I can to help him out. I may get some funny looks when I pull out my french link snaffle and pull off the bosal when he's having a bad day, but if it helps me to help him, you can point fingers all you want.