Sunday, January 17, 2016

To Spur or Not to Spur.

Folks that know enough about me to know I’m a big proponent for light riding and softness are often surprised to learn that I wear spurs when I ride.  Some have even gone so far as to jokingly say, “I’m wearing spurs, don’t tell Jenni!”  Like many of your tack choices, the decision of whether or not to wear spurs is a personal one.  We know that any piece of tack can be mis-used and abused, but let me explain a little about why you’ll generally find a pair of spurs residing on my boots.

When deciding whether or not to use an item of tack it is important to understand the purpose and historical uses of that piece of tack.  Using an item just because, say, Trevor Brazil, for example,  does it that way isn't the way to make choices for your horse.  No matter how badly Cactus and Cinch are hoping that's all that drives your purchases!

early roman prick spurs

One of the earliest evidence of spurs used in riding were found in graves unearthed in England and were worn by the romans under Julius Caesar.  The spur was originally devised as a way to aid in directing the horse other than by rein or whip so that the hands would remain free during battle.  The original spur was a sharp pointy projection called a prick that would look somewhat brutal by today’s standards.  We can see variations on this theme all through the early centuries following the death of Christ.  There are examples from the 11th and 12th centuries in the British museum.  The Mongolians wore prick style spurs  as early as the 13th century.
prick spurs used by the knights

The rowel spur as we know it today originated in France in the early 13th century and gained in popularity and distribution for the next 100 years.  During the reign of the knights, the spur became a mark of status and rank.  “Earning your spurs” meant that you had proved yourself chivalrous and worthy of the precious metals and adornment.  

As plaited armor for horses began to be used in combat, a longer spur was necessary to reach the horse’s side for communication.  The long shank, sometimes up to a foot long was common in the 16th century until the armor requiring that length began to fall from fashion.
Long shanked spurs meant to reach around the horse's armor
Because the spur was not only a practical tool but also something to which adornment could be tastefully added, the spurs began to be more and more elaborate in design.  The Spaniards probably took that adornment to the next level. 

Spanish spurs, 18th century
The ornate and largely roweled spurs that we see in our western heritage came to the new country with the Spanish conquistadors.  Worn as status symbols by the brave men chosen for these expeditions they were soon copied by the Mexicans and are still seen in Mexico and South America today.

The US Calvary initially favored a more English style spur with a short shank and small rowel.  By 1882 those spurs were solid brass and were used in that style until World War II.
  Spurs were a part of the officers uniform and there was even an official "dance spur" that officers could wear to formal social engagements.
US Calvary spur, Civil War era


Modern Spur

Today’s spurs are generally more understated than the large ornate spurs that we saw with the early Californians.  Ranging from blunt tipped to rowels of all shapes and sizes the spur is as individual as it’s rider.   My favorite pair of spurs is small with a clover leaf rowel.  It is blunt and is used not only as an extension of my leg but as a tool for refinement.
Some modern variation in spur design

I like to compare the use of the spur to typing.  My horses, once they get advanced enough have many buttons on their sides, just like a key board.  One button by my the cinch may move the rib cage over, while a button just a few inches back from that may move the whole horse sideways.  Then an inch behind that, the hip only will move.  When I am trying to make correct movements with precise control I don’t want to push on the buttons with my whole calf, or with my heel.  I like to lightly touch the button I need just like I was typing.  Lightness with my legs and spur is just as important as lightness with my hands. 

“Thou Shalt Not Dwell with Either Rein or Spur” - Jack Brainard

You wouldn’t want to have to type a dissertation with your fists.  Being precise and understood would be quite difficult.  My horses are light and responsive enough that a muffled conversation interferes with the quality of the response that I get.  It's not that my horses can't respond to my cues unless I wear spurs but with spurs I can whisper in full sentences.  Without them it's more like shouting and grunting. 
That's probably oversimplifying the use of spurs a bit as a really well trained horse should be able to respond to the lightest shifts in just my body and seat.  But, like the well trained horse that is quite capable of riding bridle less, he is that much more amazing in the bridle. 
One of the other things I really enjoy about spurs is the noise.  Indeed this is a feature that has long been realized for its usefulness to the end that many horseman in history attempted to make the noise of their spurs even more rhythmic through the addition of heel chains or jingle bobs.
Heel chains
Heel chains are worn on the bottom of the boot and if they were tighter might look like their purpose was to help hold the spur in place, but in reality the bouncing rhythm of the chain on the riders heel helps the horse to find and stay in a steady cadence, especially when on a long free jog covering ground.
Jingle bobs
The jingle bobs are small little bits of metal resembling charms on a bracelet that hang from the rowel and have the same purpose as the heel chains.  They make a rhythmic noise as the horse and rider move together. 
So, do I broadly recommend spurs for every rider?  Definitely not. There are a few reasons why you may not choose to wear spurs with your horse.  If you are a green or inexperienced rider still finding good balance and learning how to have an independent seat, spurs may just get you into trouble.  While we generally use the spur to whisper, when used with force or in the wrong place they sure can yell to the horse.  I typically don't even wear spurs on my really green or nervous horses until I can be sure (or as sure as one can be) that they aren't going to pull a move that may have me gripping a little tighter than anticipated with my spurs.  I typically wait until after the first 15 rides or so. 
I also don't like to see spurs used on a horse that is reluctant to move forward.  Spurs used in such a fashion to get forward on a horse will dull the horse in my opinion.  If you need spurs to make your horse move forward you need to find another tool to communicate because your seat isn't working and I would suggest a crop or dressage whip.  The spur used in the rib cage is for movement of the body laterally.  This is why you don't see jockeys riding with their legs in a spurring position.  Forward is established through the hindquarters and the spurs are not terribly efficacious for moving those hindquarters anywhere but laterally.  Sure, a pair of spurs applied liberally to a stubborn horse can and will get them moving forward but in time you will always have to use those spurs to move them forward and eventually you will have to use those spurs for every stride.  Then you may as well be riding a bicycle for all the peddling you'll have to do.  This is why the spur stop used by Western Pleasure horses works.  If spurs were good at moving a horse forward, training it to stop by driving a spur into it would never work.
So, if you are ready to attempt to refine the cues you are using with your horse, or would like to improve the quality of the response you are getting from your horse I highly recommend the competent and judicial use of spurs.  You'll have to experiment a bit to find the spur that's right for you and your horse, but, don't be afraid to use the spur because it's "mean" or "brutal".  It's no more mean or brutal than the rider. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Seeking Partnership

Seeking Partnership


I’ve been remiss in my blog entries lately which is a function of my high level of frustration.  When I’m feeling inspired and focused and making progress I find clarity in sharing my experiences.  Lately I feel like I’m banging my head against a wall and it’s a bit harder to share!  But, sometimes stepping aside to look at your horse, your horsemanship and your progress can help in times of frustration, so here goes.

I’ve written about my gelding Kit before.  He has been more challenging to me in my horsemanship than any horse I have had in a very long time.  For every step forward I feel I take two steps backwards.  He was the horse that bucked with the saddle every time for the first 12 times he was saddled.  Not just crow hop around but honk and buck himself into a standstill.  He was also the horse the pitched me, hard.  He is the horse that I gave in and called for help in starting and sent out for 30 days of professional training with one of the best colt starters that I know.  

 That was fall 2014.  This year I worked hard on trying to get him softer, more reliable, less likely to dump me at the slightest provocation.  He is smart, sensitive, powerful and athletic.  A volatile combination at times.  He is also incredibly busy minded.  Standing still is a ton of work for this horse.  He has had countless hours on the highline and will eventually stand still but prefers to chew on the rope, the tree, his feet, my saddle, whatever is in reach.

I did make some progress with him this year.  I got him out on a couple of trail rides this summer; one in which he got into a mess of bees.  I was sure that would spell instant death with this horse but he manned up and took me out of there without a hitch.  I was never so proud of him.  We have spent hours and hours on groundwork attempting to get him soft and responsive as he tends to have a bit of an opinion about things, well, all things actually.

The one thing that I feel I am always struggling to maintain and cultivate in this horse is partnership.  Join-up.  Being hooked on.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s lacking in our relationship.  Don’t get me wrong, I think he enjoys our sessions and I love the heck out of him.  But, I feel like he is always looking for the next big thing.  The new horse in the arena to check out.  The new person to go meet.  The tree, over there, that looks way more interesting that the tree over here where there is actually a trail.  With groundwork it is always the same.  I am constantly saying, either through voice, rein, or flag : “Hey, attention here, please.  No, seriously, here.  Right here.  HEY!” 

So, now I have him in winter training.  He is boarded at a local indoor arena owned by a good friend of ours.  It’s a lovely facility and we are lucky to have our horses there. With the weather this year I wouldn’t have the opportunity to ride and train without it.  We have had a ton of snow this year and unfortunately a big metal building covered in 2 feet of snow causes a lot of roof slide off.  If you are not familiar with what it sounds like when several hundred pounds of snow comes crashing off a metal roof, Kit would like to explain that sound in his own words:

“The sky is falling, the sky is falling RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!!!!!” 

Now, you would think that eventually it would become obvious that the sky is indeed NOT falling and it’s just snow.  Again.  But Kit either isn’t that smart or he knows something the rest of us don’t know because he is thoroughly convinced that death is immanent when he hears the slightest sound indicating possible snow movement.  I can’t help but feel if I had better partnership established with this horse he may do a little more looking to me for comfort and guidance rather than leaving the country without glancing back to see if I was even coming.

To say it’s made his already short attention span even shorter is an understatement.  He’s a basket case and to be quite honest with you I’m struggling to figure out how to help him.  Just when he gets relaxed and thinking a chunk of snow breaks loose and BOOM there goes his heart rate.  Keeping him busy and moving and thinking is working to a certain extent but because he wants to keep one eye on the opening by the doors just in case he might need to make a sudden break for safety I’m having to do a lot of redirection, and repeated requests for softness, partnership and focus.

 Of course I could just work him to the point of being so tired he didn’t care anymore if the roof fell in on his head, but he is a Morgan.  I simply don’t have 12 hours to spend on that endeavor and I’m convinced it would not have lasting effects.

So, I have come to really pity the elementary teachers asked to try and get ANY teaching done the day before Christmas break or on any other holiday.  Teaching when your student is absolutely incapable of sitting still and paying attention is an exercise in futility.  This horse is ALWAYS the ADHD student.  Now he’s the ADHD student on sugar, caffeine and suffering from watching horror movies late into the night.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to give up.  I’m not that kind of person.  It’s possible that I SHOULD give up, but it’s not going to happen.  I’m going to continue to explore with both soft feel, suppling, driving and other exercises both on the ground and in the saddle and hope we don’t ever part company when a big chunk of snow gives way.   Maybe somewhere in the middle of all this kerfuffle I’ll discover partnership and Kit will look to me as his savior, leader, alpha, beta or whatever terminology you would like to assign to that lovely equine Zen that occurs when you and your horse are one.

I would love to tell you about all of the great exercises we are working on this winter to build soft feel and create bend and improve gait quality.  I would love to share how you can feel the muscles of softness and beginnings of collection start to build over your horse’s top line.  I would love to start building towards soft lope departures and the short jog.  Instead, I’m a 3rd grade teacher on the last day of school trying hard to engage the students in Simon says and hoping that something is getting through while they bounce off the walls.   Heck, I can’t even get him near the wall!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Year in Review

Chico and I doing "groundwork" Jan 1 2015 Photo Credit: C. Holloway
Riding with Dale Rumens-Partee Jan 1 2015 Photo credit: C. Holloway

2015 was quite a year.  It began on New Year's Day with a Cowboy Dressage clinic in the frigid temps and that set the tone for what would be the busiest year I've had in a life of busy years. Learning, teaching and competing in Cowboy Dressage was the theme of 2015 for sure.

I never set out to be a teacher.  My goal has always been to be the best horseman I could be, whether by serving the horse through veterinary medicine, or more recently by improving my personal horsemanship skills to better my ability to handle and talk to my horses and my patients.  It was reluctantly that I took up the mantle of Cowboy Dressage Professional.

Teaching in Stevensville, MT
Firstly I felt vastly under qualified.  While I had been involved in Cowboy Dressage since it was called Western Dressage, I didn't feel my skills were up to snuff.  Being a full time veterinarian leaves precious little time for being a full time horseman.  But, because Cowboy Dressage was growing so quickly, devotees were needed who understood the principles and purpose of Cowboy Dressage and were able to spread the word.  If this discipline and revolution in horsemanship were going to grow we needed people to step forward and spread the word.

So, with the urging of Eitan and Debbie I hesitantly booked my first clinic in May of last year.  I had a vague notion of what I would teach for the two full days and hoped that I could pull it off and at least present Cowboy Dressage in a good light so that the folks involved would be inspired to continue on.  Of course, that first clinic was smack in the middle of breeding season so I worked like a dog to get done with work to make it out there then had to drive home after the first day of the clinic to breed a mare and then return first thing in the morning to continue the clinic.

Teaching in Colville, WA
As I was driving home late that night I began to wonder what the heck I was doing.  Surely I was busy enough and didn't need this added stress.  Instead of taking my weekend off call and working on my own horse at home I was spending the weekend teaching other folks the basics of Cowboy Dressage.  It wasn't until the next day that I began to see the appeal in teaching.  When the group of horses and riders rode into the arena on day two showing significant improvement over the first day that's when I was hooked.  It floored me that the horses and riders could change that much in a short period of time.  I began to wonder if they had just been holding out on me the day before.  Surely I couldn't be responsible for that!

After my first clinic I wasn't sure if anybody else would be interested in learning from me but the calls just kept coming in.  With each group of horses and riders that I taught I realized how much I was learning as well.  Teaching is a wonderful way to improve your own skills and discover new ways to look at a problem in a horse or rider to help them find the solution.  I found I really enjoyed getting on other folk;s horses to see how the horse was responding so I could better help them communicate.

There is no greater reward for me as a teacher than seeing not only the rider get it, but for the horse that may have been defensive, resistant or fearful finally relax as suddenly the communication from the rider makes sense.

I used to spend my weekends off trail riding and exploring the hills and mountains of North Idaho.  I didn't do more than one or two local trail rides this year.  Instead I spent my weekends off traveling the Northwest spreading the word about soft feel, harmony and partnership and Cowboy Dressage.  I don't know if I've ever worked harder in a year or enjoyed it more.

We also dove head first into the competitive side of Cowboy Dressage this year participating in as many of the gatherings in the region as we could attend as well as participating in the Final Gathering and the Top Hand competition.

There is nothing like the crucible of competition to really push you to work hard and meet your goals.  Both Dan and I worked hard to improve our scores from one gathering to the next.  For me, personally I have never trained so hard for a single event as I did for the Top Hand competition this year.  I learned how much progress you can make when you really and truly dedicate yourself to a goal.  It was also reinforced on me how important your foundation is in Cowboy Dressage.  It doesn't matter how well trained your horse is if your partnership with your horse isn't solid.  Participating in the Top Hand was exciting, stressful and it pushed me past my limits in horsemanship and showmanship.  It's definitely something that I will participate in again.
Dan winning reserve high point rider. Nov. 2015

Dan worked so hard this year that he went from most improved last year to second place overall at this year's Final Gathering.  A testimony to the beautiful partnership he shares with his little red mare, Salsa and the time and effort that they put into preparing for the big Gathering.  

As I look back on 2015 I am reminded of all the new friends I have made.  I'm reminded of the wonderful horses that I have met.  I'm reminded of how far I personally have come in my horsemanship goals.

My goals for 2016 read much the same as my goals for 2015.  I want to improve.  Always.  I am lucky to be a passionate participant in a life sport that provides infinite opportunities for personal growth and learning.  I learn something every single time I touch a horse.  It's the number one reason why this sport is so addictive to me.  Finding a niche, like Cowboy Dressage that includes soft feel and partnership as the cornerstones just makes me more passionate.  I can reach my goals through methods and means that encourage and foster the relationship I have with my horse.  I suspect, looking at my calendar for the coming year that this year may be even busier than last.  Squeezing as much life and riding out of the year as possible.  Every year my I see my friends make resolutions to ride more in the coming year.  I am lucky to say I don't think that is possible for me without retiring! Every moment I'm not working as a veterinarian will find me mounted and working on one of my horses.

Chico and I at Finals in Nov 2015,  Photo credit: R. Horst. 
I plan to spend today much as I spent the first day of 2015.  We'll be on the Cowboy Dressage court working on improving our soft feel and developing harmony with our horses.  I'm excited for 2016 and the new things that Cowboy Dressage World has to offer.  I'm proud to be a part of the Cowboy Dressage family and hope that I can continue to spread the word to horse folk ready to learn how to improve their horsemanship and just enjoy their horses.