Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Western Dressage

A couple of years ago, one of my friends went to a clinic on western dressage.  She was kind of excited about it because she liked the idea of working on dressage with her horse, but she rode in a western saddle and had no intention of switching over to a dressage saddle simply to do some basic dressage work with her horse.  At the time, I admit to thinking that western dressage was probably some kind of new way for quarter horses to gimp along in a pathetic, nose-to-the-ground, barely sound manner.  I'd shown in western pleasure and related classes at horse shows when I was a teenager and again when I was in my mid-twenties, and I eventually stopped because I couldn't stand the way the horses moved as well as some of the methods trainers used to get the horses to move that way.  So I didn't give the concept of western dressage another thought until recently.

I got this idea in my head that I wanted to do another local schooling show with Nimo.  Apparently the horror that was our last show had escaped my heat-fried brain, and I was under the impression that it would be fun.  (Why, oh why does my brain forget such important things!)  I've been feeling a bit ho hum about our dressage schooling and nothing perks me up and motivates me to practice like the fear of public humiliation, so I decided to enter a class in a little show that is part of a series held at the barn where I board.  But, in addition to being completely opposed to western showing, I've also become horrified by traditional dressage competitions over the past few years.  Of course, not everyone who competes ties her horse's mouth shut with a snug noseband or employs rollkur (i.e. hyperflexion aka low, deep, and round, which is now completely legal for the warm-up ring) or spurs her horse to the point of leaving blood, but the fact that so many top riders seem to do at least one of those things leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  And then there is my even more recently developed concern about the extended gaits (particularly the trot) not being that great for a horse's continued soundness.  Anyway, I've kind of sworn off the traditional dressage stuff and along with that, I've made the decision to sell my dressage saddle.  (That is probably worth a separate post, but the short version is that I like the saddle.  It fits Nimo and it fits me.  What I don't like is dressage and I have started to feel guilty whenever I use the dressage saddle.  Also, I can use the money I get from the saddle to buy a cart for Nimo...)

And that is when the idea of competing in western dressage occurred to me.  I did a little research and watched some YouTube videos and became reasonably assured that western dressage is actually a legitimate discipline that has so far escaped the long-reaching arm of the FEI and whose founders seem bound and determined to recognize the difference between a western horse expected to do a little work around the ranch or at least haul its rider around a few trails and a traditional dressage horse, whose movements should astound and amaze, but whose skills need not (and maybe even should not) surpass the way it looks in the arena.

If you happen to be interested in western dressage, there are a couple of books that you can get.  Well, actually, there are three, but I only got two of them because I was pretty sure the third was going to be superfluous, given that I already own about a million dressage books.  Anyway, the two I read are:

101 Western Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider by Jec Aristotle Ballou.  I have two other books by this author (101 Dressage Exercises and Equine Fitness) and I adore them both, so when I saw she had a book related to western dressage, I snapped it up.  This book doesn't have much information on competitions, but it does have a lot of good exercises if you're looking to spice up your schooling routine.

Cowboy Dressage: Riding, Training, and Competing with Kindness as the Goal and Guiding Principle by Jessica Black.  This book gives a bit of the history behind the western dressage movement, which was apparently initiated by a gentleman named Eitan Beth-Halachmy.  It is also a big shot across the bow of traditional dressage and its associated competitions.  You can see by the title that western dressage started in part as a rebound away from the cruelty that is becoming so apparent at the highest levels of competitive dressage. 

However, much like with "natural horsemanship," I think there is a real risk that simply doing things differently (different saddle, different patterns, different thought process for developing patterns) can lead people to believe it is better, when over time, it becomes just as corrupt or abusive as the system it was trying to get away from.  I think there is a danger any time there is a competition associated with the activity because the competition becomes the reason for doing the activity, rather than being a place to showcase a particular horse's skill that has been developed as a way to improve its own athleticism in a specific job.

But, for now, it appears that the concept of western dressage is to utilize gymnastic exercises to strengthen a horse's working ability while riding in a western saddle.  I will point out that there are different ways to compete in western dressage.  The discipline formally called "Western Dressage" is sanctioned by the United States Equestrian Federation as well as several breed associations, so for those who must compete for not only ribbons, but also points and year-end awards, Western Dressage works well.  Cowboy Dressage is considered a different discipline.  It has different tests and competitions (which are non-existent here in Virginia) and does not have a sanctioning organization (which is actually kind of cool).  Then, there is the North American Western Dressage organization, whose main purpose appears to be to coordinate virtual showing and coaching, although it also has its own set of dressage tests as well groundwork tests and ranch horse tests.  I really like the idea of virtual shows because for $25-30, you can set up (or use someone else's) a dressage arena (using low-budget items like cones and buckets with letters on them), film yourself at your leisure (during a specified time frame), and submit your test for actual scoring and placing (with real ribbons) in a show.  It takes a lot of the stress out of the process and really reduces the cost.  You don't have to be a member of NAWD or USEF or any breed association or western dressage association to compete and you get scored by a real, licensed judge, with comments and maybe even a ribbon.  (And for those who still want to do traditional dressage, NAWD has an arm called Dressage on a Dime that also hosts virtual shows and coaching.)

I ended up going the Western Dressage (WD) route because the schooling shows in my area allow the USEF western dressage tests and do not appear to allow Cowboy Dressage or NAWD tests.  One thing I discovered is that WD tests are structured a bit differently than traditional dressage tests.  For one thing, there are 4 tests in each level (as opposed to the 3 tests at each level for traditional dressage).  The Intro level is only walk/jog (trot) unlike traditional dressage, which has incorporated canter into its third test in the Intro category.  The WD tests are a bit more fluid in terms of requirements as you go through the levels.  For example, there is a huge difference between traditional dressage's First Level, Test 3 and Second Level, Test 1.  It is a jump that is difficult to make because no collection is required in First Level, but you go straight into collected trot and shoulder-in for Second Level.  WD tests, on the other hand, seem to focus on helping horse and rider move up the levels by incorporating smaller-level changes as the tests progress, although the levels are not too far from traditional dressage in terms of requirements.

Of course, you're probably wondering about tack and clothing.  As it turns out, many endurance saddles (and even Australian stock saddles) are completely appropriate for WD competitions (but not necessarily for Cowboy Dressage, which takes a much stricter approach to tack).  Your saddle does not need a horn or any fancy silver - it just needs western-style fenders.  For example, my Specialized Eurolight is built on a western-style tree, so the addition of western fenders (as distinct from the 1 1/2" leathers that I normally ride in) makes it fit the definition of a western saddle for the purposes of competing.  I probably pushed the envelope a bit farther, but I ended up choosing to add the western fenders to my baroque, treeless saddle.  (I recently acquired a Barefoot Madrid, and I love it so much that I never want to sit in a treed saddle again!  I keep meaning to post about it, but haven't gotten around to it yet.)

The other great thing is that bitless bridles (with the exception of mechanical hackamores) are OK for competition, so I could continue using what I already ride in.  Most bits are legal too, although there are limits on the height of the port and length of the shanks for curb bits, and any bit that is traditionally considered an English bit is not allowed (think Kimberwick and Pelham), but the mouthpiece styles that are allowed are quite broad (much more broad than traditional dressage), which is great for people who ride horses with specific issues or sensitivities.

In terms of clothing, you need pants (doesn't matter what kind), boots (doesn't matter what kind), and a long-sleeved shirt (doesn't matter what kind).  You can wear a helmet (doesn't have to be western in style) or you can wear a traditional western hat.  Things like chaps, gloves, ties, jewelry are allowed, but considered optional.

I mean, seriously, I've never seen so few restrictions.  I felt like a whole new world opened up.  I really believe that dressage can be done in pretty much any tack or clothing that is comfortable for the horse and rider and fits well, and I think WD gets about as close to that concept as is possible, given our insistence on identifying tack with a particular discipline.

So, with all these positive things, I signed up to ride a WD Basic Level (similar to Training Level in traditional dressage), Test 1.  I choose this test for three reasons.  First, I felt like entering a new discipline means I should start near the beginning, even though Nimo and I have competed in First Level traditional dressage before.  Second, given Nimo's propensity to completely avoid the section of the arena near the judge (which creates a few problems when trying to do things like steer or perform a circle), I wanted a test that had as much activity away from C as possible.  The Basic Level, Test 1 has all of the circles at the opposite end of the arena and very little happens near the judge.  Third, Nimo has been demonstrating some stiffness for awhile that I haven't been able to overcome.  I'll talk about it a little more later, but I wanted to choose something below our normal working level to make the test less stressful and easier for him.

The day of the show dawned bright and sunny (dear Mother Nature, why can't you send clouds if the temperature is going to be 90 degrees???).  An added bonus was that there was going to be a hot air balloon show nearby, which meant the possibility of dozens of hot air balloons hovering over the arena.  Apparently, a couple of years ago, the organizers had to stop the show and spend an hour shouting at hot air balloonists that they could not all congregate their balloons right over the arena and hover while watching the competition because it was upsetting the horses.  I had a run in with a hot air balloon the night before, when the lady piloting the balloon decided to hover over the arena while I was trying to work Nimo and then land nearby.  (I'm told that the balloons are difficult to land accurately, but I have no sympathy for the idiot who wandered over the arena while blasting the gas on and off.  Had my horse been of a different mindset, I could have been thrown due to her stupidity.  Luckily Nimo remained alert and distracted but not panicked during the whole ordeal, but nothing that anyone can say will convince me that this woman was not a horrifying human being who lacked basic consideration for other members of her species.)

Because my ride time was at 2:35, I got to spend many of my waking hours fretting about the heat and the balloons and wondering if I should just give it up and enjoy the air conditioning like normal people.  But a friend of mine had agreed to come to the show to take pictures of us and she put together a great snack/beverage bag for me (who knew I could get crew for a dressage show!), so I reluctantly dragged myself out to the barn and got my horse ready.

As luck would have it, I think it was too hot for the balloons, so none were in sight as I started my warm-up.  And it was a few degrees cooler than it had been for most of the summer (I guess 90 is really better than 95).  Plus, I'd opted to wear my Kerrits Hybrid Riding Shirt instead of a long-sleeved western-style shirt, so I felt a bit cooler (at least mentally) in short sleeves.  I did wear full chaps (the Hobby Horse Ultra Suede ones are super lightweight and I wore them over my favorite riding tights instead of jeans for comfort).  The chaps combined with the riding tights felt more comfortable to me than jeans in the heat and humidity and the chaps camouflaged my Ariat Terrain boots and half chaps (yes, I wore half chaps under my chaps, but I can't imagine riding without half chaps - I love the support of the Terrains for my foot and ankle combined with the support for my leg from the chaps).  It turned out that I didn't need to worry about my clothing because one lady showed in her white dressage breeches (I think she was competing another horse in regular dressage) and some people wore tank tops.  The judge didn't seem to be concerned in the slightest bit.

Heading to the warm-up area (photo by Leanne Edwards)
 As I warmed up, I asked my friend (who has an idiot-savant like gift for spotting lameness in horses - I've never seen anything like it, not even in vets) to watch Nimo for any gait asymmetry.  I first noticed a stiffness when we circled to the left in the arena (not so much out on the trails, though) back in January of this year.  I initially wrote it off as something that happens as you school your horse, because the stiffness usually doesn't last long and moves around as the horse learns different evasions to different techniques/movements.  Except that it didn't move around.  It stayed the same.  For months and months and months.  It didn't really seem to get any worse, except that I started noticing Nimo was having more trouble cantering, particularly on the left lead.  My dressage instructor didn't seem that concerned about it, but it has really been bothering me.  And during our warm-up, I couldn't deny the problem any longer.  Nimo was not only having trouble bending to the left, but he also had trouble bending to the right.  It was almost impossible for him to even pick up the canter on either lead, and I had to resort to using my whip a couple of times just to get a few strides of canter, which I really don't like to do.

I asked my friend what she saw and she said his stride looked even at all gaits, but he was holding his tail slightly to the right.  She thought I might be over-reacting to the situation when I said I thought I should scratch him from the competition and suggested that I do the test and if Nimo had trouble bending or cantering to just let it happen and decide what to do after the test.

I admit that I do have a tendency to overthink things and create a bit more drama than necessary, but I was worried about Nimo.  I did decide to compete, but I vowed I would not use the whip to get him to canter or hold his canter because I was pretty sure that he had something physical going on.  As the previous competitor exited the ring, I started walking Nimo around the outside of the dressage ring to see if there was anything that was going to bother him visually.  He did surprisingly well with the judge's stand and a circuit around the outside yielded no significant concerns for Nimo (that might be a first).  We turned around and headed back the other direction, when the whistle sounded, indicating that we had 45 seconds to get to the entrance of the arena and start our test.  It was kind of an awkward place to be, but I asked Nimo to trot, which he did, and he even trotted right by the judge's stand with a bit of snorting.  To make our 45 second window, I had to really push him out at the trot, and as we turned to enter, I pulled him back a bit, so we didn't blast into the arena.

And the second his head crossed into the arena, he got race brain.  I don't know how else to describe it.  He shifted gears and powered up his trot and went down the center line as if we were just starting a 25-mile endurance ride.  That was a bit problematic because we were supposed to halt at X, which is halfway down the arena for those who are lucky enough to have never tortured themselves with dressage work.  The problem was that we had significant velocity, and I was sure only a parachute shooting out behind us would be able to slow us down.  As we flew past X at the speed of sound, I was desperately trying to convince Nimo that we needed to do a halt and salute.  He didn't believe me at first, but eventually consented to slow down and halt somewhere significantly past X.  All I can say is that the judge must not have realized what happened and thought we did what we did on purpose, because we got our first 9 (out of 10 points for that movement).  Her vantage point may not have allowed her to see that we missed X by many, many feet (my friend watching from the opposite side said it wasn't as obvious as I thought it was).

I barely had time to salute and pick up the reins before Nimo was off again (although thankfully no longer at Warp 10 speed).  We trotted to C and turned left to trot down the long-side of the arena.  This WD test had an interesting way of changing direction.  We trotted to B (in the middle of the long side), crossed the width of the arena and turned right at E.

Trotting across the arena from B to E (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We continued to trot down the long side of the arena toward A, where our first two circles would start.  This test has a nice way of handling the trot and canter circles.  You trot a 20 meter circle at A and then repeat the same circle in a canter, so the rider and horse have a chance to set the circle while trotting and then they just have to hold the bend for the canter circle.  It's an easier way to accomplish the canter circle.

Coming down the long side toward A (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Our first canter circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Maybe because the set up for the canter is so nice in this test, Nimo actually picked up the canter without a problem, and held it for the entire 20-ish meter circle.  He was definitely leaning to the inside, though, and he absolutely made the circle a bit smaller than 20 meters.

But we survived.  The next part of the test was to cross the long diagonal of the arena while trotting.  In traditional dressage, First Level, long diagonals are for trot lengthenings, so as we turned to cross the arena, I could feel Nimo gear up for a lengthening (we haven't shown in almost 2 years and the horse still remembers!).  I spent the entire diagonal arguing with him about whether we were going to do a lengthening, so I was thankful to get to M, where we could walk.

Crossing the diagonal (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Because we were also approaching the judge's stand, Nimo took the opportunity to putz around at the walk and try to avoid going past it.  I was able to keep him on the rail, but it took some effort and the judge absolutely noticed the struggle (curse you, white gloves!) and took some points off, but I was actually pretty happy with the improvement.  At the last show, Nimo would not go anywhere near the rail in that section of the arena, so I figured we were doing pretty good.

After making it past the judge's stand, our next task was to do a free walk to X and then back to the same long side of the arena (basically a zig zag).  The judge thought we could have had more movement, but I was glad for the calm horse and the chance to breath for a minute before our next canter circle.

Free walk (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We started with a trot circle at A.

Trot circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Then, we did our canter circle.  Again, Nimo picked up the canter just fine and did a little better job on maintaining an actual 20 meter size.

Canter circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Sigh of relief!  Then, we trotted halfway down the arena, crossed the arena, kept trotting around past the judge (Nimo did OK!) and then crossed the diagonal again, where I once again had to convince Nimo that we were not doing a lengthening.

I have no idea what part of the test this is, but its a pretty good picture (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We finished up the test by heading up the center line (at a more moderate pace this time!), halting for approximately half a second and saluting before Nimo took off again.  In the picture below, my friend was off the center line, so we look at bit more crooked than we actually were, but you should be able to see that Nimo's tail is held slightly to the right.

Final halt and salute (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Our overall score was a 63.870, which is a decent score, and earned us a second place finish in our division.  But we should have been able to do this test in our sleep.  The judge's comments centered around needing more bend and a more consistent pace (that was probably due to our repeated discussions about lengthenings, so doesn't bother me too much), which are appropriate comments.  A few months ago, we probably would have score in the mid- to high-70s on this test.  And while scores, points, and ribbons don't matter that much to me (I did the show as a motivational tool rather than to get a ribbon), my horse's physical condition does. 

I know if you look at the pictures, Nimo probably looks like he's doing OK, but he isn't.  Something is really bothering him, and I'm not quite sure what it is yet.  I'm glad I did the show, because it helped confirm that there really is something going on, and I'm also glad that whatever it is isn't enough to affect the evenness of his gait...yet.  (Although if you blow up the trot picture just above the halt picture just above, you can see that his right hind leg is going to land just before his left foreleg - maybe not a big deal, but worth noting.)  But I'm sure it will if I don't address it.

I do have a plan, and it's one that I've been working on for awhile (because the stiffness I felt has been bothering me for awhile).  I started taking the In-Hand Therapy Course offered by Science of Motion several months ago.  You can read quite a bit about the SOM theories on the website (which is very unusual for something like this - usually you have to buy the class to learn much), and the class delves into those theories quite a bit more deeply.  Essentially, the course focuses on the biomechanics of horses, as determined by scientific research as well as on-the-ground work by Jean Luc Cornille.  It is not a course for the undetermined or easily frustrated, but I am learning a lot.  One of the things I've learned is that Nimo likely carries himself asymmetrically through his spine (although you don't necessarily need this course to figure that out - most horses are asymmetrical to some degree or other - the benefit of the course is that you learn how to correct the asymmetry and better understand why certain commonly applied theories don't make a lot of sense). 

To begin addressing that asymmetry, I recently began working with an instructor who understands and knows how to apply the SOM theories to riding (and in-hand work).  I intend to suspend regular dressage lessons and any intensive conditioning work for the time being as we work through the issue(s).  I am hopeful that through changing my position and the way Nimo moves, I will be able to correct the stiffness that I'm feeling in Nimo. 

I'm also planning to get Nimo's chiropractor out for a visit to see if he can identify a specific adjustment that is needed.  I know chiropractic care for horses is controversial, but this is someone that I trust and have used before.  I also believe that one adjustment is probably only a temporary fix.  A more permanent solution can only be obtained through correcting the cause of the misalignment, which is often easier said than done.

I will still be keeping our 5-6 days a week riding schedule, and I will still be out on the trails each weekend unless I discover a medical reason not to do those things.  I think too often, we think a horse needs rest to address a physical problem, when a different kind of motion may actually work better.  Time will tell if my plan helps, and I will, of course, post my discoveries on the blog.

6 comments:

  1. I'm sorry he's feeling a bit off. You guys look great in the pictures.

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  2. Love this post! So compressive and informative. I've never shown mine or any horse, but I was looking at WD as well as a possibility. I don't like a bit in my horses mouth and WD doesn't require it as you noted. Thank you for the great information!!

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    1. Thanks, Kara! Glad to know the info was helpful:)

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  3. As always, hanging on every word and reading with baited breath. Regardless of how you guys did in placing, etc, you looked FABULOUS! Loved your insightful comments about WD. I have long been interested in pursuing it for the same reasons one (should) pursue dressage- as one of the ways one can create and improve physical abilities and suppleness in horse and rider- but didn't really want to get involved in regular dressage for all the reasons you mention. So jealous about the breadth of instruction and cool programs you have out there. As always, learn so much from reading your posts and love to follow the links you provide to learn more. Just love reading your blog! :-)

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    1. Thanks, Jo. Even if you never show, the dressage tests do give some great ideas for patterns that you can do as schooling exercises. I absolutely understand why a person would not want to compete, though. I possibly have some sort of compulsion to torture myself periodically:)

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