Cowboys, Dressage Queens, and Respect.

I got badmouthed by a cowboy recently. He dressed the part way too seriously.

It’s okay, in dressage we think of ourselves as eternal students. There isn’t a day that goes by that horses don’t teach me something. I expect the same from people. I would have liked to have a friendly conversation with this cowboy, but he talked behind my back, so I didn’t get the chance.

Like every other riding discipline, there are some lowlife that wear the western outfit, down to chinks and neckerchief, but don’t reflect the highest in the breed standard, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes the term cowboy has a bad connotation–to cowboy a horse around usually means rough handling. We’ve all seen enough shank bit jerking, tie-down bracing, spur gouging, and general training profanity to last a life time.

But there are some dressage riders I wouldn’t want to lay claim to either. Our breed standard runs the gamut, as well. Intelligent horse people should never judge an entire group by the worst example. I’m reminding myself of that right now.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, a suggestion: when you see a woman with well-earned gray hair and an accent like mine, it’s a safe bet that she probably didn’t grow up in British riding yards where English saddles are the norm, or the Spanish Riding School, learning elite equestrian principles while wearing full seat breeches and tall boots. More likely, I grew up like you; I rode whatever horse I could catch on the farm. I didn’t have to choose between English and western tack, because we had none of either. Yes, I’m suggesting we may be more similar than different.

I appreciate cowboys. Some of the kindest, most courteous people I know wear that Hat. Mutual respect has always been part of that code toward both horses and other humans. And some percentage of cowboys have always trained horses using compassion and kindness, since cowboy-ing began.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, suggesting that the young horse I’m working can be intimidated into work faster is certainly one method. Or maybe if you watch a moment, you’ll hear this horse tell you that violent approach was tried already and that’s when his problem got bigger.

“The horse is a mirror. It goes deep into the body. When I see your horse I see you too. It shows me everything you are, everything about the horse. I try to face life for what it is. There’s heartache, but it’s a good thing. I’m trying to save the horse’s life and your life too. The human is so good at war. He knows how to fight. But making peace, boy, that’s the hardest thing for a human. But once you start giving, you won’t believe how much you get back.” Ray Hunt

There was a time that I was happy in a western saddle, slowly building from a lope to a gallop, leaving 11’s in my wake. If you haven’t heard the term, 11’s refers to the marks on the ground left after a reining horse does a sliding stop. Yes, I’m a post-cowgirl who peeked through a door to a different kind of riding, one that intrigued me. The training process was slow but the results seemed ethereal. I decided to take my reining horses and give it a try.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, cowboys didn’t actually invent horse training and not every horse will be improved by ranch work. And hard as it is to believe, there is a whole horse world out there, past the cows. It isn’t that it’s better or worse. It’s that there is always more to learn and having an open mind is the best training aid that ever existed.

I knew a lifelong cowboy who was invited to a dressage barn to ride upper level horses for a month. He took the dare and when he returned, he sought me out for some gleeful dressage chat. His eyes were bright; he was filled with awe to have experienced a totally different dimension of horses.

“It’s amazing what you can learn after you’ve learned all that you think there is to learn.” Ray Hunt.

At the same time this week, I continued an ongoing conversation with a couple of other cowboys who are questioning the way they have always done things, wondering if there’s a better way to work with horses. Conversations like this one can be so affirming on both sides. Every time people manage to evolve a bit, horses benefit.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, yes, I found a home in dressage, but I still share your heritage. America has a proud history of good horsemanship. We aren’t gangsters, we are communicators. Suggesting that a horse will benefit from speed and fear demeans good trainers of any discipline.

“My belief in life is that we can all get along together if we try to understand one another… You’ll meet a lot of people and have a lot of acquaintances, but as far as having friends—they are very rare and very precious. But every horse you ride can be your friend because you ask this of them. This is real important to me. You can ask the horse to do your thing, but you ask him; you offer it to him in a good way. You fix it up and let him find it. You do not make anything happen, no more than you can make a friendship begin.” Ray Hunt

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, kindly don’t assume that because I have gray hair, I’m not the horse’s professional trainer. Kindly don’t assume, because I work quietly and slowly, that I am unskilled. And because I still carry that cowboy heritage in my dressage saddle, I wish you didn’t reflect so badly on good horsemen and horsewomen who wear the Hat.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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