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RorLFB

Has it ever crossed your mind that your horse might be “left-” or “right-handed”?

According to Gabriele Rachen-Schöneich and Klaus Schöneich in their book STRAIGHTENING THE CROOKED HORSE, every horse is either left- or right-handed, and this “handedness” or “sidedness” is almost identical to that of the human population in terms of occurrence (70-90 percent right-handed).

Interestingly, an April 2012 article on LiveScience.com explains how a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface shows that, the more social the animal—where cooperation is highly valued—the more the general population will trend toward one “sidedness” over the other.

“The most important factor for an efficient society is a high degree of cooperation,” says Professor Daniel M. Abrams, an assistant professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, in the article. “In humans, this has resulted in a right-handed majority.”

Certainly we consider the horse to be a highly social creature, and his early development as a herd and prey animal could be said to have nurtured the characteristics of cooperation, and perhaps, therefore, right-handedness. Whatever the cause, one-sidedness or forelimb dominance is a form of natural crookedness (the horse’s center of balance is displaced forward and to the right or to the left), and this can lead to big problems in the horse way of going (rhythm faults, leaning in, falling out, for example), ultimately compromising his physical and mental soundness and overall well-being.

Consider this example from STRAIGHTENING THE CROOKED HORSE:

Rhythm faults originating in the right shoulder and foreleg are probably the result of natural crookedness, which leads us to another serious problem that arises: if the horse is “leaning,” that is, placing excessive weight on his right shoulder, he will take a slightly shorter step with his right foreleg. Consequently—and this is very important—the right hind leg will also shorten its step. The horse drags the right hind leg, at first almost imperceptibly, but then more and more. This is because when the horse is leaning on his right shoulder, there is less impetus for the right hindquarter and hind leg to move, and consequently the hind leg drags behind…”leaning” on one or other of the shoulders causes a constant strain, which must eventually harm the horse. The rider’s weight inevitably makes the problem worse, especially if he is inexperienced and has not yet learned to control where to place it….It is difficult for a crooked horse to carry his rider. As a result, he becomes nervous, and this seriously affects his training.

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A balanced horse shown on the left. A crooked right-handed horse is on the right.

So how do you know if your horse is a lefty or righty? He will display the following characteristics, here described as they would pertain to a right-handed horse, as that is the more common scenario:

  • He leans on his right shoulder and takes a shorter step with his right foreleg. This causes the right hind leg to shorten its step. You can feel what this is like if you try walking while leaning on a cane or a stick in your right hand—you’ll find that your right leg immediately starts taking shorter steps.
  • The horse will not be balanced but will move weight on the diagonal, onto the right shoulder. This causes the horse to carry his head and neck to the opposite side to counteract this excess weight, resulting in concavity on the left side.
  • On the circle as the horse comes away from the wall or rail, the circle tends to get bigger on the left rein and the horse falls in on the right rein.

 

Straightening-Crooked-PB-30For more information on crookedness in horses and how to resolve related problems, check out STRAIGHTENING THE CROOKED HORSE, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

CLICK HERE for more information.

 

Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small company based on a farm in rural Vermont. 

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showingmindsetFB

Ah, show day! The delightful mix of butterflies and caffeine churning within as you rise with the sun. The bustling activity on the grounds as horses are fed, walked, and bathed. The knowledge that at some point in the very near future, you will stand before the masses and be judged

Sure, there are any number of cool cucumbers who can compete without missing a beat, but the majority of us struggle to some degree with show nerves and performance anxiety. In his book PRESSURE PROOF YOUR RIDING, renowned sport psychology expert Coach Daniel Stewart explains that one of the keys to success in this arena is to develop a strong showing mindset.

“The showing mindset is a subconscious skill that helps you avoid over-thinking, overreacting, and overanalyzing during competition,” says Coach Stewart. “The time for all that has passed; the time for self-analysis and criticism is gone; and the time for trust has arrived. Studies have shown that no appreciable learning of a skill—mechanical or technical—takes place on show day. This only happens at home during your lessons. So trying to improve while showing is an ineffective use of your time. As soon as you drive into the venue’s parking lot or exit the warm-up arena, you need to confidently transition from your schooling mindset, to your showing mindset, and just trust that all the self-critiques, analysis, and feedback from your lessons have prepared you well for the demands of the next few minutes.

“Showing with a schooling mindset also creates the impression that the harder you try, the harder it gets. For example, the more a jumper tries to see the distance to her next fence the harder it becomes (the dreaded ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ syndrome), and the harder a dressage rider tries to sit up perfectly straight, the more tense she becomes. When you show, no matter the discipline, it just happens too fast; you don’t have the time to analyze the height of your hands, the placement of your leg, or the position of your hips. You must turn off your conscious thoughts and allow your subconscious to take over. You’re on autopilot, trusting your training, and just letting it happen. In riding, this is often called riding freely, and it is here that you learn to trust, not train.”

Coach Stewart says that in order to ride well and compete at your best your mental approach to showing must be very different than your mental approach to schooling. Here are three of his tips for developing a strong schooling mindset:

Try “Softer”—Trying too hard or schooling when you should be showing can lead to pressure and fear of failure. Replace anxiety and self-criticism with self-belief and confidence.

Focus on a Task—Focus on a positive task, like repeating the motto, “Trust not train,” to stop your schooling mindset from getting in the way of your showing success.

Use a “Show-Starter”—Identify a cue that will create a boundary between your schooling and showing mindsets. For example, tell yourself to “start” your showing mindset when you hear the ding of the bell before your dressage test or when you walk into the start box before going cross-country. The sound of the bell, and the location of the start box, sets the boundary between your mindsets.

 

Pressure ProofGet more tips from Coach Daniel Stewart in PRESSURE PROOF YOUR RIDING, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

CLICK HERE for more information.

 

Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.

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GOODHANDS

“That rider has good hands.”

The comment might mean little to those outside the equestrian realm, but within it, we understand it as a compliment. And one of the highest order.

As young riders, we try our darnedest for a somewhat light connection with the school horses and tough little ponies we likely learn on. We know we should be able to turn and stop with almost invisible aids…we’ve been told, and we’ve seen great performances by liberty trainers and dressage riders and accomplished horsemen with that magic touch on a horse. I even vaguely remember reading a story about a fairy with a tiny, mystical mount, and reins of a spider’s thread…and this is what I aspired to, over the years, despite a number of equine partners with less-than-enthusiastic responses.

Certainly, it would seem some people are born with feel and good hands. They get on a horse the first time and just know, innately, how to communicate with the animal beneath them. But the rest of us needn’t feel dismay, as we can improve the sensitive and effective use of our hands. The late great Sally Swift gives us two fun and easy exercises to help in CENTERED RIDING 2, her phenomenal followup to the international bestseller CENTERED RIDING. Here’s my take on both of them:

 

Booze Cruise (My Name for This Exercise, Not Sally’s)

With your fingers around the stems, walk around with two full (right to the top!) wine glasses. Notice how much easier it is not to spill the wine when you are grounded, centered, and soft with your fingers, than when you tighten and hold the glass stems with tense hands. Practice finding a more grounded, centered self that filters out to soft hands. Note: I recommend doing this in a room with tile floor or outside, where spillage isn’t a concern. Bonus: Go ahead and have a drink when you’re done. (And repeat the exercise as often as needed!)

 

bowl

Ball in the Bowl

Take a large mixing bowl and place any small ball (a tennis ball, for example) in it. Walk around holding the bowl loosely with your arms relaxed, your thumbs just under the outside of the rim, and two or three fingers underneath. Experiment with what you need to do to keep the ball “quiet” in the bowl (ie, not rolling around) as you walk. You will quickly discover that you must not try too hard, hold your breath, or keep a tight hold on the bowl with your hands. If you try to keep the bowl still by tightening your hands, the ball will roll around rapidly. Instead, balance your pelvis by softening your hip joints and dropping your sacrum. Ground yourself, use soft eyes, breathe easily, center yourself, and lengthen your spine up and down. You will discover that your hands become very sensitive in the way they carry the bowl, and the ball will be surprisingly quiet inside it. This is the quality of hands that you want when communicating with your horse through the reins. (Photo from CENTERED RIDING 2.)

 

 

CenteredRiding2PB-300For more enlightening exercises for better all-around riding, read Sally Swift’s CENTERED RIDING 2, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

CLICK HERE for more information.

Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont. 

 

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Pod1FB

Alois Podhajsky with Norman.

 

Colonel Alois Podhajsky was an Olympian and Director of the the Spanish Riding School in Vienna for 26 years. Podhajsky was known to bring out the best in each horse he rode, and to rely on patience, understanding, and affection in the training process.

Podhajsky detailed his riding, training, and competitive experiences in the renowned book MY HORSES, MY TEACHERS, which was first published in English in 1968. By sharing the stories of each of the horses he worked with over the course of his career, we learn his methods, mistakes, and discoveries. One horse he writes of was an eight-year-old, part-Trakehner gelding named Norman, who helps us learn the lesson that sometimes we have to go back in order to go forward.

Norman had been taught quite a number of things by his breeder in Germany. He knew how to perform lateral work, flying changes, and even some sort of passage…most of it was superficial…. Once again I met in Norman a horse without sufficient urge to go forward unless pushed and often he offered a passage without its being demanded. But his passage was not the artistic solemn movement but a tense sort of hovering trot which had its origin in his reluctance to go forward. It is a great temptation for the rider to accept an exercise that the horse offers but would have a very negative effect on the rest of the training. The idea of dressage is to cultivate and improve the natural movements of the horse so that he executes them upon the slightest aids of the rider. If he anticipates these aids he proves that his obedience is not sufficiently well established. Besides, a horse will anticipate only to make work easier for himself and execute the exercise incorrectly. Consequently the standard of work will decline. If this is the case the rider must interrupt his present work and go back again to the basic training until it is well consolidated. 

We had the greatest trouble making Norman strike off into the canter from the trot. Either he tried to run away or he offered his “passage.” He had been taught to strike off into the canter exclusively from the walk and became nervous and excited upon this unusual demand. However, it is a very important exercise which improves suppleness and helps achieve the correct activity of the hind legs in response to the actions of the reins. It also furthers the will to go forward and establishes obedience and is therefore a necessity in thorough gymnastic training. Besides, it is much more natural and easier for the horse to strike off into the canter from the trot. Nevertheless it took quite a long while until Norman understood this unaccustomed exercise and I had to allow him his lapse of time because I did not want to confuse him or make him nervous.

 

Pod2

Walking Norman on a loose rein.

 

Once again I relied on my proven remedy—good for anything and everything, one might say—which is to teach the horse to move correctly and with suppleness and balance, to make him understand his rider and follow him without reserve. I began to take Norman on the same course of training I pursued with my young horses, with the exception that I spent less time on the various phases. That is, I moved on when I saw that he had understood and was able to execute my demands. Of course I observed him closely all the time and found that I could establish his confidence much more quickly after a few rounds at the walk on a loose rein at the beginning of work and that he paid much less attention to his surroundings than if I had had begun our daily session with the reins applied.

In this way, Norman had a chance to look around in the open-air arena and the adjacent paddocks, and when he was satisfied with what he had seen, he would concentrate entirely upon his work. The rider should always give his horse a chance to look around before beginning serious training. His horse will never become “fed up” with dressage if the rider respects his particularities and allows the freedom of mind necessary for concentrated work.

MYHOMY

Click image to order

You can read more of Alois Podhajsky’s stories in MY HORSES, MY TEACHERS, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

 

CLICK HERE to order now.

Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.

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The rider’s trunk and extremities interact and depend on each other. For example, hands and arms depend on shoulder position, which depends on the shoulder girdle, which depends on the position of the spinal column (in particular, the thoracic spine). All of this interconnectedness means that the common instruction heard in riding rings round the world, “Shoulders back!” is detrimental to correct and supple rider position—in fact, it leads to stiffness and tension.

“If you simply take the shoulders back without changing the position of the trunk,” explains Susanne von Dietze in her classic bestseller BALANCE IN MOVEMENT, “you exert a lot of energy and become cramped up in the process. It is a position you would not endure for long on a voluntary basis. Instead, start to straighten from the pelvis. The thorax is lifted automatically upward and forward; it is like pushing the thorax under the shoulder girdle. The building blocks of the upper body are then aligned once more and the shoulder girdle can be carried without any muscular effort.”

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“There are a few very beneficial stretching exercise for the shoulder girdle,” von Dietze goes on. “One of the ailments of our civilized society—poor posture—especially when sitting, often causes the shoulder girdle to slide forward. In the long term this means severe tension in the area of the back of the neck, since the shoulder girdle is suspended there on the muscles of the neck instead of resting on the thorax. As a result the muscles in the front chest area shorten.”

Here is one exercise von Dietze recommends to stretch the often shortened musculature in the front of the body and open the thorax for better and more effective riding position:

OpenThorax.png

1  Stand with your back close to your horse’s side.

2  Bend your arms at the elbows and try to open them to the sides, touching your horse’s body with your lower arms.

3  Then try to stretch your arms out to full length, and if your horse allows it, lean your back gently against his side. This stretches your thoracic spine, expands your front chest muscles, and opens your thoracic cavity and breathing.

 

You can begin to understand more common riding mistakes and find ways to fix them in BALANCE IN MOVEMENT, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

CLICK HERE for more information.

Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small company based on a farm in rural Vermont.

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KarenYesScary

Karen Robertson on Carlos at the George Morris clinic. Photo by Lisa Pleasance.

TSB author Karen Robertson shared her hopes and fears for her clinic date with The George in May (click here to read her first post). Now she’s back to tell us how it all went down.

To tell the story about what it was like for me riding with George Morris in late May, I need to start the week before the clinic, when I showed at Sonoma’s Spring Classic Show. It’s a gorgeous place and such a wonderful show, but Carlos and I had a really rough week…. It was the kind of show where the wires get crossed and each day ends with a frustrated feeling of not being strong enough or fast enough or smart enough to ride well enough in any key moment. Seven good jumps didn’t cut it when the eighth was a stop. I got in my head. I started trying different things to end the pattern of choking… a better night’s sleep, more caffeine, or more breakfast. I walked the show grounds with my ear buds in listening to badass music to get myself fired up before I got on for the next class. But at the end of the show, I drove away from Sonoma Horse Park without ever digging myself out of the rut and laying down a solidly good trip. The familiar, consistent feel I’d had all winter with Carlos had been shaken badly; my riding was full of doubt. Needless to say, it was not the kind of show you want to have just days before your first time riding in front of George Morris.

Or, maybe it was.

The eight-hour drive north from Bend, Oregon, to the clinic location went smoothly, but I was full of restless anticipation. After a quick hack in the indoor and settling the horses in for the night, waves of nerves gave me goose bumps as I watched the farm’s crew collecting piles of cut grass from the beautiful front field in preparation for the next day.

In the morning, I was washing Carlos’s legs in the wash stall at the front of the barn when I saw George pull up. I walked out for a quick hello, gave him a kiss on the cheek when he stepped out of the car, and then scurried back in again to get ready. It had been just over a year since I’d seen him last—at the Easter Wellington book signing—and saying hello settled me. I was ready to put the previous week behind me and try my best for him.

When I rode Carlos onto the field less than an hour later, George looked up at me from his perch on the golf cart, paused and said, “Oh, Karen…I didn’t recognize you with your hat on. You look pretty good.”

I nodded with a ghost of a smile as I walked by him. After all the waiting, having registered six months before, it had begun.

As soon as that familiar cadence of George’s teaching—like the lecture of a college professor weaved with pointed instruction—began on that first morning, I found my nerves had passed. I settled into a mindset that stayed with me throughout the clinic: total concentration on following his direction exactly…with a strong dose of hustle. After watching George coach so many other riders in past years, it was absolutely surreal to have his voice speaking to me. It raised my focus to a calm but primed state of being present. I tried to absorb the big picture concepts while also being alert to react quickly.

The first day I was most concerned with riding boldly and not allowing the klutzy moments that had plagued us the week before in Sonoma. Carlos felt great—a little fresh but not wild. He ogled the ditch behind an oxer when we flatted by it, but when it came time to jump it, he didn’t hesitate. I found myself breathing barely whispered “Thank you” and “Good boy” praises to him. Flatwork set us up to feel the difference in our horses and then apply that feel in jumping exercises. George immediately zeroed in on my jumping position, telling me I needed to close my hip angle and lean forward, taking weight off Carlos’s back. This was his major critique of my riding, but throughout the clinic he acknowledged my practicing the adjusted position and encouraged my work to improve.

Looking back now at those three clinic days, I’m so proud that I met the challenges. We jumped a progressively wider water jump and rode well through some difficult exercises that tested flexibility of stride length, straightness, and tight turns. By Day 2, after flatwork and jumping without stirrups, George had me leading the group in most of the jumping exercises, which was exciting because having audited so many clinics, I knew what it meant: he thought I would bring confidence to the rest of the group.

There were definitely also some clumsy moments! Carlos and I haven’t had much practice jumping a bank, and at first we had a stop when he didn’t want to jump down over the small jump set at the bigger end of the bank. After I went to the stick hard and got him off the bank, I had a fire-breathing dragon underneath me for the rest of the day. I also halted at the wrong post in the fence line after someone had already made the same mistake ahead of me…George was very annoyed—and I heard about it. Then when he had us doing rider stretches, reaching down to touch our toes without stirrups, I knocked my helmet loose and my tucked-up ponytail started to slip out. Hair disaster!

As expected, there were the steely, scathing moments of George’s rebuke directed at various riders and auditors when they did not show proper respect or effort. Comments on the degraded state of our country, our general lack of discipline and work ethic, were weaved throughout the lectures each day. One rider had a fall when her horse caught a heel on the edge of the ditch, and George walked over, pointed down at her as she lay prone in the grass, and barked, “You have to keep your leg on at a ditch or a water! You didn’t leg him!”

He was right, of course. But what a picture that rider saw as she looked up at George Morris from the ground.

George also had soft, encouraging moments for riders who struggled. And he had so many words of reward—for everyone—when something was well ridden. “Excellent flying change!” “This girl—she is an educated rider, she is precise!” “That’s it…very good!” “Yeeeeesssss, THAT’S the way to ride that bank!” “This, people, is an excellent student—she listens!”

Every time George gave a compliment to any one of us, it lifted all of us up like we had climbed another step in showing him we, as a generation of riders, were worthy of the opportunity to learn from him. There was a silent, invisible vibration among the riders in my group. Although the rules of the road require that the riders not talk to one another during the clinic or even visibly laugh at George’s jokes (I’ve seen that go badly more than once), we were in it together and rooting for one another. I could feel it.

GEORGE-FRAMED

Speaking of clumsy moments, I had one while serving as jump crew during the 1.20 meter session on Day 1. I raised the top rail two holes on the water jump and stepping back from it, tripped backward over the wing box right in front of the audience and sprawled on hands and heels in the grass. I jumped up trying to recover and blushed hard, incredibly embarrassed. George looked over and said gravely, “Oh Karen, be careful,” and then addressing the crowd, “Karen wrote my book! That’s why she’s blushing…she knows alllll my stories! She knows more about me than my own mother. She even knows the stories that didn’t make the book.”

And just like that, he had taken my flustered moment and made me into a momentary celebrity out of pure sweetness.

George did not disappoint. He never does, does he? I was freaking out about being good enough to be in his clinic and wanting so badly to keep up with the group and belong out there. Now, looking back, I think to myself, “Don’t be silly—of course I belonged out there.” But maybe that’s just the post-George Karen talking. Maybe he instilled a level of certainty in those three days that makes the pre-George Karen a little bit of a stranger.

One thing that solidified that theory was the horse show I had the week following the clinic at the Rose City Opener back down in Bend. Just three days after getting home from the clinic, we were back in the show ring…and it was the best show Carlos and I have had together. We were consistently solid over all five days. We didn’t have a moment of doubt at a single jump. We got great ribbons all week, won the Ariat Medal class, and were Reserve Champion of our Hunter Division. But it was the Derby that felt like a true application of what I had taken with me from riding with George. I had never made it to the second round of a National Hunter Derby in four tries. At Rose City, we not only made it to the second round, but in the end, we were fifth, besting some excellent professional riders.

In my pre-clinic blog post, I wrote that I had hoped for one moment during the clinic when George Morris’s voice would make me feel invincible. Instead of a single moment to take with me, his voice, carrying me through those three clinic days, created a subtle, stream-of-consciousness-George-presence in the background whenever I ride. He is just there with me. In the Derby he was telling me, “Karen, first and foremost: Get it done.”

 

Karen Robertson worked with George Morris on his bestselling autobiography UNRELENTING, which is available from the TSB online bookstore.

CLICK HERE to download a free chapter or to order. 

Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.

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5.16

Eitan Beth-Halachmy on Santa Fe Renegade. Photo by Lesley Deutsch.

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) defines engagement as “increased flexion of the lumbosacral joint and the joints of the hind leg during the weight-bearing (stance) phase of the movement, thus lowering the croup relative to the forehand (‘lightening the forehand’).”

Engagement is a prerequisite to impulsion (thrust): the “releasing of the energy stored by engagement. The energy is transmitted through a back that is free from negative tension and is manifested in the horse’s elastic, whole-body movement.” Engagement is carrying power, whereas impulsion is pushing power.

Many people who ride horses have no idea what the technical terms mean. Although Cowboy Dressage tries to avoid confusing language, engagement and impulsion are such important aspects of forward motion that they need to be understood and recognized, and so they are explained in the book COWBOY DRESSAGE by Jessica Black with Eitan and Debbie Beth-Halachmy.

In simpler terms, engagement refers to the manner in which a balanced horse brings his hind legs under his belly to move forward off his hindquarters efficiently. Engagement is the basis for a horse’s impulsion–the energy with which a horse moves forward. The true lightness of Cowboy Dressage can only happen when the horse is engaged and moving with impulsion, with his weight over the hindquarters rather than on the forehand.

The hindquarters are the energy source of the horse. At the same time, he carries most of his weight on his forehand thanks to the head and neck. Engagement helps the horse achieve balance under these physiological conditions. To better bear the weight and enable balance, the horse must round his back and bring his hind legs well forward under him. This is called tracking or tracking up (USDF). Tracking is a necessary component of engagement, but it should not be confused with reach (how far the hind leg reaches forward).

Nor should engagement and impulsion be confused with speed. A horse that is rushing will often be strung out and hollow-backed, the opposite of being engaged. The front and hind end may appear disjointed or unconnected. Conversely, a horse that is engaged will move from behind in a balanced, energetic fashion at any gait and any speed.

Although the Cowboy Dressage horse may not have the length of stride or suspension that a traditional dressage horse has, he should show engagement and impulsion. All four feet should be working together in a rhythmic fashion.

To achieve impulsion and engagement, encourage your horse to round his back, stretch and lower his neck, and move forward actively. The energy has to flow naturally through your hands at a free gait. Much of the time spent on the horse’s foundation should be dedicated to encouraging forward motion. Good horsepersons make engagement and forward motion a prerequisite to every maneuver.

6.5B

Encourage your horse to stretch and lower his neck as seen in this free jog.

Again, remember that energetic forward motion requires strength and endurance: the horse must be conditioned slowly until he has the ability to meet the physical and mental demands of Cowboy Dressage or any other equestrian discipline. Much of the cadence and beauty of the finished gaits comes from long hours simply moving forward at the walk, jog, and lope.

Find out more about developing beautiful gaits in your horse in COWBOY DRESSAGE, available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

CLICK HERE for more information.

 

Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small company based on a farm in rural Vermont.

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