“Cowboy Dressage is really starting to take hold,” says Reining Hall of Fame Inductee Jack Brainard, and this, according to Brainard and renowned author and father of imprint training Dr. Robert Miller, is a good thing—for people and horses. Care for the horse’s welfare is part of what’s making Cowboy Dressage a success: “[People] are here for skill and compassionate horsemanship,” emphasizes Dr. Miller.
Jack Brainard and Dr. Robert Miller are just two of the respected horsemen featured in COWBOY DRESSAGE: RIDING, TRAINING, AND COMPETING WITH KINDNESS AS THE GOAL AND GUIDING PRINCIPLE, the new book by Jessica Black and Cowboy Dressage founders Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy. We caught up with Black and asked her a little about her history with the Beth-Halachmys and Morgan Horses, as well as her new book and current studies at the University of Oklahoma.
TSB: Your new book COWBOY DRESSAGE was written in conjunction with Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy, the founders of this new riding discipline and equestrian community. You were a teenager when you first met Debbie. Your mother was breeding and raising Morgan horses, as Debbie still does today, and the result of their friendship was Holiday Compadre—the famous Western Pleasure Champion Morgan. What do you remember of the Morgan show scene in those days? How do you think it differs from today?
JB: I was a lot more involved then than I am now: I started showing in Morgan shows when I was 10 and did so until I was 20 or so. I never had my horse with a trainer (though I did take lessons), so I was always at a disadvantage against those who did; this hasn’t changed much, I imagine. What has changed are the classes offered. Back then, we had 13-and-under and 14-17 for junior exhibitors. There was only English Pleasure, Hunt Seat, Western, and Park—no Classic Pleasure, for example, and definitely no Cowboy or Western Dressage! On the other hand, there was “Most Classic Morgan” and Road Hack and Roadster under Saddle. And there were a lot more horses: Roadster to Bike used to be a scary class, it was so full and fast. In junior exhibitor classes, the ribbons always ran out and there was a reserve. The last time I was at the Morgan Medallion Classic, maybe four years ago, entries almost always ran out before ribbons.
TSB: COWBOY DRESSAGE specifically states that the discipline is intended to be available to all horses and all riders, regardless of breed, gait, or geographic location. Why do you think this particular pursuit can cross the usual boundaries that divide much of the equestrian world?
JB: I believe there are two primary reasons.
First, the guidelines allow for any breed: riders, judges, and clinicians are taught to assess each horse according to its conformation and ability. As such, a Morgan-type is expected to move in one way (higher head carriage, for example), whereas a Quarter-Horse-type is expected to move in another (more downhill conformation, different movement). There is no single image of the “perfect” Cowboy Dressage horse, and the competition is really against oneself: the point is to take the horse you have and improve your relationship
Second, Cowboy Dressage has developed outside of the standard breed paradigms. Because it’s not USEF, shows tend to be held separately from breed shows. This encourages anyone to participate. There are also tests specifically for gaited horses, and even minis can be shown in the Partnership on the Ground classes.
TSB: There’s a lot of back-and-forth over the difference between Cowboy Dressage and Western Dressage, which is legitimate, which is better. How do you feel they are similar or differ? Can they coexist?
JB: They do coexist! I think this is a good thing. Western Dressage suits some people (it’s USEF and people can compete at breed shows; there are a lot of competition levels) and some types of horses (tending more toward traditional dressage, with bigger movements), whereas Cowboy Dressage suits others (it offers its own shows, in more relaxed venues, with an emphasis on learning and community rather than performance) and other types of horses (more Western-y, smaller movements). Some people and horses do both successfully.
They are also both “legitimate,” whatever that means. They both started with the inspired team that was Eitan Beth-Halachmy and Holiday Compadre, and although they have taken different paths, both are valid. I wasn’t “paying attention” when CD and WD separated, and I certainly don’t know the whole story, but I think there was a lot of disappointment initially, that they couldn’t stay together. That’s understandable, but in retrospect, I believe it was the best thing for everyone. Instead of one new outlet for people and horses, we have two! The horse world as a whole benefits from having two options, because a lot of people who would never go to a big breed show are enjoying CD, while at the same time a lot of people whose horse-time is taken up with breed shows would never go to a CD event.
TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember sitting on a horse.
JB: My mother used to longe me on her Anglo-Arab mare named October. On a blue bareback pad. This was before I got my first pony, so when I was around three years old. I remember doing balance exercises, like holding my arms out to the side. Once the mare shied and I had to grab her mane (I remember that bit better than anything else!)
TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember falling off a horse.
JB: My first pony, a Shetland called Angel, bucked me off (or “toppled” me off) when I was around four or five. To add insult to injury, she kicked at me, and WORSE, I was wearing a brand new Cowboy hat, and it got dirty. I picked up my hat and marched out of the arena, swearing that I would never, ever ride again.
TSB: You’ve had some impressive horsey adventures, including riding Lusitanos and galloping Thoroughbreds and Arabians in Spain, as well as galloping Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses in Mexico and Panama. Can you share one story from your riding adventures abroad?
JB: That’s difficult, because there are so many! I’ll go for one that’s sort of funny. During the years I spent at the racetrack in Madrid, I was part of a group that owned a four-year-old mare called Baigorri. She raced in my colors, but there were nine other owners, mainly friends. We had a lot of fun. Anyway, Baigorri was a nasty mare who would rather kick you than receive a pet; she wouldn’t try to buck you off, but she would try to exit the track via any gate, at top speed. One day I was riding her in the training track that winds 1,700 meters through trees and brush at Hipodromo de la Zarzuela, in Madrid. At this time, the track had been closed, and was sadly neglected; since there were fewer people around, the jabali, or wild boars, had decided to invade the tracks. That particular morning, I was trotting Baigorri alone, and we came round a curve on the first loop to find three huge boars in the track. She spooked, but when I insisted, kept trotting. The boars moved into the trees, but once we had passed, they came onto the track behind us and started trotting in our direction. Baigorri thought they were chasing us (and they might have been—who knows what goes on in a pig’s mind). She started pulling hard and trotting as fast as I would let her. The boars went off into the bushes after a few hundred feet, but Baigorri remained a nervous wreck. After about half a mile, I pulled her down to a walk, and she was immediately stiff. Within a few feet, I could tell she had tied up. I hopped off, led her slowly back to the stable, and called the vet.
Since then I have added “fright” (and wild boars) to the list of things that can cause tying up!
TSB: You are currently pursuing your doctorate at the University of Oklahoma, with a focus on the intersection of narrative and morality. Can you tell us a little about your research and what you hope to do with it in the future?
JB: In the future, I hope to flesh out a theory of narrative moral agency that explains the way the life stories we create affect our moral decisions. At present, my research is focused on how media (books and film) affects and is affected by social and moral cognition. For example, in a recent paper that received a lot of news coverage (click here) we reported two studies in which watching award-winning TV dramas increased participants’ theory of mind (the ability to interpret others’ emotions and intentions), compared with watching documentaries. I also study imaginative resistance, or the reluctance to buy into fictional worlds in which immoral actions are presented as the right thing to do.
TSB: If you were trapped on a desert island with a horse and a book, what breed of horse would it be and which book would you choose?
JB: Only one book? Hmm. Perhaps William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll say something different. (Maybe I should choose James Joyce’s Ulysses; possibly I would be able to get past page 100 if I were on a desert island for several weeks with nothing else to do.)
The horse would be an Arabian, but that’s probably because my current horse is an Arabian mare. (Or maybe it’s memory of The Black Stallion!)
TSB: If you had an iPad and WiFi on your island, what movie would you stream?
JB: The Return of the King, because it never ends…
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a friend?
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a horse?
TSB: If you could do one thing on horseback or with a horse that you haven’t yet done, what would it be?
JB: Ride in the Tevis Cup.
TSB: What is your idea of the perfect meal?
JB: Alfalfa, black oats, handful of rolled barley, dash of olive oil. Or did you mean human meal? In that case, wine and cheese and good music.
TSB: If you could have a conversation with one famous person, alive or dead, who would it be?
JB: I never have a good answer to this question, because I have found that my best conversations have often been with unexpected (even if sometimes famous) people. When it comes to people famous in academia, if I want to, I can have a conversation with them, so I guess they don’t really count. And a lot of the dead famous people I find intriguing were also male chauvinists, so that puts them out.
Wait! I know. I’d like to interview Mary Bacon from beyond the grave, because I’d love to write a book about her.
TSB: What is your motto?
JB: Hmm. Carpe diem. Or, “I was born under a wandrin’ star.” Or maybe, when I’m really fantasizing, “at the still point of the turning world” from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton.”
COWBOY DRESSAGE by Jessica Black with Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE. Order by midnight, Wednesday, December 16th and you’ll still get free shipping in time for Christmas!
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