Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bending it to keep it straight

It's really quite remarkable how much my riding and my horses have improved since I started learning cowboy dressage.  I can almost look back on my horsemanship journey and see concrete benchmarks marking my steps forward like footprints in unchartered territory.  Each little hard won victory or experience carrying me forward to the next epiphany for me and my horses.  Having difficult to ride horses as well as the opportunity to ride school masters has been instrumental in both my struggle and my growth. 

When I began my horsemanship journey by embracing the traditions and the teachings of the Californio vaquero style with the emphasis on light communication and building your horse slowly I learned patience and the importance of the nuances in try.  My horses were soon much better for it.  I could see them seeking me, hunting the try and getting softer and more responsive each and every time we were together.  With Cowboy Dressage creating a place to showcase the traditional tack, riding, and horsemanship (albeit without cows which to staunch traditionalists means it's NOT traditional at all!) I thought I had found the perfect blend.  I could create and train my traditional bridle horse via the old tradition of jaquima a freno and embrace this new community of softness, lightness, and kindness.  What a perfect world!

Then we got the opportunity to compete at the final gathering last year.  We eagerly signed up to participate in the vaquero division, excited to be with like minded horsemen on the court.  Our test scores, for our first competition, were quite good in partnership, harmony and straightness.  All things we had been working towards through our training in the bosal.  I was riding my Morgan straight up and was pleased with his carriage and finished look.  Reality hit in the form of our scores for bend. 

Both Dan and I had very little bend in our horses.  We could mostly hit our marks on the court, have good transitions, but no bend through the corners, on our circles and our quality of the travel down the long tracks was often counterbent just a hair with our horses often looking to the outside.  Not bad, and not something you would watch from the sidelines and gasp at, but enough that it got us both seeking to improve that in our horses. 

The traditional bridle horse is a very straight horse.  He has lightning fast reflexes and responses to cues and soft from nose to hip but not known for his ability to round laterally.  There are pages and pages of discussions in the social media vaquero groups discussing whether leg cues are even used in creating traditional horses or whether it was all rein cues.  But most of them will agree that you want the horse straight beneath you. 

Let me tell you the story of our Morgan mare Mercy.  We started her as a 3 year old and decided to stick to tradition and training in the bosal with her.  If you've ridden Morgans at all you know they can be a little bendy and squirrely as youngsters.  Dan, thinking this is the very thing he dislikes about Morgans the most decided that with this one he wasn't going to do much lateral flexion.  He was going to keep her pretty straight in the bosal and see if we couldn't keep her from being so squirrely and bendy. 

So, 4 years and lots of miles later we have a great trail horse.  She pretty much goes where you point her.  She is quiet in the bosal and easy to ride.  In a straight line.  Creating bend or softness or any kind of lateral movement other than the leg yield is difficult for her.  Now, for many folks that will never be an issue.  She can head down the trail and do whatever you ask of her, but if you want a little more and want to create softness and eventually move her into the bridle, that's going to be very difficult for her.

So, what we learned from that little experience is that you can't skip the bend.  Creating bend in the bosal is much more difficult in a green horse than it is in a bit.  It's not impossible at all, but takes more time and more feel and it's more difficult to get it working properly.  That's why the Dorrances, and Ray Hunt and other folks that were traditionalists started incorporating the snaffle.  It's the best tool out there for creating the bend and lateral flexion in a young horse. Once you've established lateral flexion it's easier to carry that lesson over to the bosal and work off the previously established muscle memory in the bosal.  If we weren't doing Cowboy Dressage it probably wouldn't be a very big deal.

When we share our passion for Cowboy Dressage with folks they are often under the impression that it is easy.  Straight lines and circles? Pah, anybody can do that.  What's the big deal?  Right? The most frequently asked question is, "Do you have to start with just the walk/jog tests? Aren't the walk/jog tests for beginners and kids?"

Not so much.  While it's true you can and should be able to take any fairly broke horse and ride Walk/Jog 1 and hit most of your marks and stop mostly straight and have good transitions, I doubt most folks can hit the bend the judge at C is looking for.  Most western riders, especially vaquero horseman just don't train that bend, and without it, you won't hit your circles dead on.  Nor will you hit most of the other marks on the court.  The Cowboy Dressage court is based on the 10 m circle.  The transitions from mid-line to the track on the wall all happen on a 10 m bend.  That bend is the only way you can be straight when you hit that mid-line. 

Every time I'm teaching a group of riders and explain that they won't be straight until they bend they look at me like I'm crazy.  It doesn't even make sense that you have to bend to be straight.  But it's the truth.  In order for a horse to be truly straight beneath you, you must have the bend working well on both sides of the horse's body.  Mercy, our straight mare, drifts on her straight lines.  The only thing I can attribute it to is that both sides of the horse are not developed and working evenly. 

Bending is like horse yoga.  It builds muscles and strengthens the body on the lateral sides by shortening the muscles of the inside of the body and lengthening the muscles on the outside of the body on a bend.  Repeatedly changing your bend by altering your 10 m circles is like spending some time in the gym doing crunches and toe touches.  It strengthens the core and allows for muscle development that helps keep the horse straight and even underneath you. 

Bend also helps the horse to develop self carriage, which we are all about in the vaquero tradition.  Vaqueros want a bridle horse with presence that proudly carries that bit straight up.  I hate to say it out loud, but when looking at the pictures of the traditional bridle horses, I abhor their necks.  Most old time vaquero bridle horses had long necked horses that were overdeveloped at the poll due to holding that bridle horse formal self carriage position.  They have large muscles from poll to C2/C3 without concurrent development of the neck at the base. 

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about.
Circa 1900's, a little harder to see but there is more muscle at the dorsal poll than along the more distal vertebrae.

Straight up bridle horse, circa 1800. Easy to see the over developed neck at the poll and first few cervical vertebrae
Here is a more modern working bridle horse.  Beautifully turned out and straight up.  You can see the muscle development at the proximal aspect of his neck without concurrent muscle development more deep in the cervical vertebrae. 
My own horse was beginning to have this look as well.  I rode him proudly straight up in the bridle for most of last year.  I was very pleased with his finished look and formal flexion and willingness.  My heart sang to hear him work that cricket.  But, when I would see pictures of him, I wasn't as thrilled.  I kept thinking it was just a bad moment or that it was a bad angle.  His body had changed so that my saddle wasn't fitting how it should.  His self carriage had developed into something that was hollow through the back even though it was flexed beautifully at the poll. 
Working Straight up in the bridle.  Notice the heavy muscle that ends about about C3.  I can tell by my shoulders that he was jarring me in this jog around the rodear.  To the casual observer he looks round and soft but it's false flexion with no engagement behind.

This picture was the one that really got me thinking.  He looks like somebody else's horse in the this photo.  Really showcases the loss of muscle development at the base of the neck.  This was after 9 months in the bridle.  Here he is wearing his Mylar bit at a CD clinic when I realized I had NO bend in the traditional bridle.

Eitan and Sante Fe showing could muscle development along the entire neck and proper self carriage in traditional gear.
Showing how bend and shortening of the inside of the body on the circle create even full body muscle development.
As a veterinarian, correct muscle development and body use is not just a goal, it's a must.  The very last thing I wish to create while riding and enjoying my horse are changes to his body that are detrimental to his health and longevity.  A very big part of my journey to lightness and soft feel is an attempt to avoid many of the pitfalls and rider induced changes to the horse that we see in so many of the equine disciplines.  Full body health and mental soundness first and foremost. 

So, typical of my journey, I had again missed some steps along the way and poor Chico was paying for it.  God love that horse. He has taught me so much.  Every mistake I have made in training or horsemanship has been made and corrected and made and corrected again with that poor boy.  For those of you that are saying to yourself, "I'm afraid I'm going to make a mistake and ruin my horse", let Chico be your guide.  They are amazingly forgiving animals and as long as you keep the try alive they will keep seeking what you are offering even if you keep changing it up.

So, after CD finals when I realized that sticking just to tradition was not furthering our goals specifically with bend and softness on the CD court I did some soul searching to see where I was going from here.  My journey is not about points, scores or blue ribbons, but the beauty of competition is that it gives you a benchmark and feedback from a bystander (that is not your husband or your cowgirl friends) to help you see if you are meeting your goals.  Obviously I was missing something. 

When we went down to ride with Eitan this April, he put Chico back in a snaffle (EEEK!  My bridle horse!!) but he did it because I had some holes to fix before I could move forward.  When fixing holes in your foundation, you use foundational tools.  If I was better, or my horse not the product of such muddled training I might have been able to go back to the bosal to fix it, but I don't know.  Good full body bend is such a hard thing to find in a bosal. 

I'm proud to say that we are now bending like champions.   We have the bend.  We can create the bend and ride it forward and can change the bend easily from one side to the other.  My horse looks like he's been at the gym.  I have much much better development through the neck, shoulders, and whithers.  And, surprise, surprise, he is also moving straighter through his free gaits. 
Working on counter bend to develop the muscles at the base of the neck and shoulders

Demonstrating 10 m bend and riding the bend forward to complete a circle.  Once the bend is established, you don't even have to look at your markers.  The horse completes the circle by staying on the bend.

I hope that through continuing our callisthenic exercises this summer Chico will be able to go straight up in the bridle eventually.  His path to the bridle horse has been anything but traditional, but I hope that once we both get there we will have all the pieces and parts working in conjunction.  The difference in softness with my horse and body development and quality of movement is all because of developing bend.  We will be straight up in the bridle someday, but we getting there through the bend. 
So, if you ride with me this summer, expect to hear a lot about the bend.  I'm willing to guarantee you don't have it working for you as well as you think you do.  You think you have a good broke bridle horse that can stop a cow and turn on a dime?  Well, I bet you can't ride a 10 m circle at a walk with bend.  Different strokes, for different folks, but I want the horse that can do both! 

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