Cowboy Dressage: A Fusion of Two Remarkable Horsemanship Styles

Cowboy + Dressage.
What?

The term “Cowboy Dressage” is certainly a “mash-up,” as they say in today’s vernacular. Not two words you would dream of putting together in a sentence. Until now.


A combination of classical dressage embellished by Western tack and attire, Cowboy Dressage is one of the fastest growing disciplines in the equestrian world. Imagine horses of all levels and breeds (even gaited) and horsemen and horsewomen of all levels performing graceful dressage movements in Western saddles and Stetson hats. Quite a sight!

Specifically conceived for the Western type of horse, Cowboy Dressage is intended to build a happier, sound horse that exceeds in all he does. It is not the intention of Cowboy Dressage to promote “dressage horses in Western saddles” and then judge them as dressage horses. Classical dressage has their own wonderful discipline, but it’s not suited for all horses and all riders. So Cowboy Dressage evolved to suit today’s working and pleasure horses of all types and riders of all levels. The dressage element of this sport is crafted to enhance the movement and grace of the Western horse, never taking away from his Western roots.

Lynn McEnespy and Oldenberg mare. Happy pair.

Cowboy Dressage (not to be confused with Western Dressage) invites people to form “gatherings” of like-minded folks who enjoy having fun together and accomplishing engagements with their horses they didn’t think they could achieve. And the Cowboy Dressage shows reward the “try” of both horse and rider. Pretty unique.

So how did it start? One of the founders of Cowboy Dressage World, Eitan Beth-Halachmy, as a young boy in Israel had a dream that was a culmination of driving mules, working in his family’s agriculture fields, laboring as a shepherd, and intensely observing horses at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna — all coupled with a young man’s drive and vision. Watching the riders carefully as he cleaned stalls at the Spanish Riding School, this knowledge later was reflected in Eitan’s distinctly Baroque style of riding. After immigrating to the United States in 1968 and spending two years at UC Davis’s vet school, Eitan became a horse trainer before joining four other dedicated horsemen — wife Debbie Beth-Halachmy, Lyn Ringrose-Moe, Garn Walker, in taking a giant leap of faith (and resources!) to form the art known as Cowboy Dressage. As with any startup endeavor, we all need that “invisible angel” for projects that make us hold our breath, and for Cowboy Dressage it came in the form of Spalding Laboratories and their Fly Predators and now Bye Bye Insects products. Tom Spalding became “the wind beneath their wings.”

One of the many looks of Cowboy Dressage

By properly executing Cowboy Dressage maneuvers, you improve both your personal skills and your horse’s talents, possibly without even knowing it in the moment until you have one of those “aha!” moments. Incorporating Cowboy Dressage — its horsemanship and lifestyle — is a fun and rewarding progression; everyone is on the same journey and faces the same issues and rewards, just at different times. Cowboy Dressage views this journey without judgment — just support!

So why entwine the two — dressage and Western riding? “I’ve always wanted to be a cowboy,” laughs Eitan, “and I highly regard dressage as an ultimate art of performance. So, I just combined the two.” Eitan has performed for standing-ovation audiences at two World Equestrian Games and has gleaned an outstanding winning reputation in the show ring and at horse expos. These remarkable performances were magically executed with perfect dressage shoulder-ins and flying lead changes highlighted by gleaming silver conchos on Eitan’s Western saddle. With a twinkle in his eye, Eitan says of this sport, “When Dressage suits your needs, but a Stetson fits your lifestyle.”

Debbie Beth-Halachmy and AQHA Gelding . Soft and focused on the CDW Regular Court

The Cowboy Dressage World show classes are varied — like Partnership on the Ground, Musical Freestyle, Vaquero, Liberty/ Neck Rope, Gaited, Challenge, Lead Line — all fun and creative. And don’t let the term “dressage” keep you at home. At every level, Cowboy Dressage incorporates graceful movements for both horse and rider. And you get to do it in a Western saddle!

What about that court, you ask? The Cowboy Dressage Court is a shortened dressage court, 20×40 meters, with letters that simply guide the rider in performing movements. Eitan designed the court in a perfect 5 and 10 meter grid making it easy to navigate. To help you overcome the jitters, start your Cowboy Dressage expedition by attending clinician-taught workshops (with or without your horse) and when ready, start showing at whatever level you’re comfortable with.

Nonny Largent and Half Arab and Half Quarter Mare….soft and happy pair. Always the CDW goal.

It’s pretty clear that a Western saddle is required in Cowboy Dressage. The original Western saddle dating from the Old West is a work saddle, made to keep horse and rider comfortable during long hours on the range. It was made with a horn, designed to hold the rope to secure roped cattle. Its design has evolved somewhat over the years, certainly, and today there are a number of designs suited for different needs. But any properly fitting Western saddle will do for Cowboy Dressage.

But what about the bit used for Cowboy Dressage? A variety of bits are allowed from snaffle, curb, to hackamore. How the rider uses the bit is more important than the type of bit, but the type must be chosen with rider and horse in mind. Horses and riders are not judged on the type of bit, although points are awarded for it being used kindly. On the other hand, harshness with any equipment at Cowboy Dressage events will be penalized.

Dave Ellis and Azteca Gelding Partnership on the Ground

Enrolling in a Cowboy Dressage show goes beyond simply filling out an entry form. The list of classes also reflects the caring philosophy of the sport. Honorary awards are given to veterans and cancer survivors. The Jack Brainard Award is given to the rider voted by the judges as the most improved during the show. The Dr. Robert Miller DVM award is given to the highest placing amateur rider in their first year of showing. “Soft feel” is emphasized as an ultimate part of training, handling and showing in this sport, and a Soft Feel Award is given to the rider in the show with the highest Soft Feel score. A Silver Rider (amateur only) is someone 65 years or older and a Rookie Rider is an Amateur Rider in their first year of showing.

In addition to shows, Cowboy Dressage clinics are truly rewarding. Riding in a Cowboy Dressage World clinic is not only fun and affordable, it’s educational for both you and your horse. These clinics (www.CowboyDressageWorld.com) are unique in that they seek to combine the best of the Western cowboy old style way of riding and traditional dressage, along with emphasizing knowledge and helping others, rather than just strictly focusing on competition. And you don’t have to worry about your riding skills or level.

If you’re a little timid about trying anything new with your horse, relax! All you need is a Western saddle and tack and a desire to improve your skills and your horse’s responses. And if you need to bring an equine buddy for your horse to keep him calm, no worries! Just have someone hold the buddy horse outside the court. And be assured that there is no right or wrong in the beginning — instructors are looking for “try.” You’ll be supported by all instructors and judges in a positive way. In addition, a Cowboy Dressage helper will be in the arena if you need one-on-one assurance. Riders are allowed to have a caller (who may call out where the rider should be during the test) or a spotter (who is allowed to walk next to a rider who could possibly become compromised during a test because of an existing health condition).

Davalee Minden Arabian Mare at the free jog.

Here’s something unique. Cowboy Dressage World offers a free way to become part of the Cowboy Dressage family — a simple (virtual) old-fashioned handshake. The organization invites people to harken back to when a person’s word meant something, with the Cowboy Dressage Handshake as their Code of the West. By agreeing to the Handshake principles of try, kindness, trust and being the very best you can be, each member becomes part of the Cowboy Dressage World. (Pledge for free at www.CowboyDressageWorld.com.)

There are Cowboy Dressage World clinics throughout the United States and around the world. It’s affordable and enjoyable. To find clinics in your area (and for more information about this discipline), visit www.CowboyDressageWorld.com. For clinics and events, click on the “events calendar” tab at the top. Come join us!

Amy Prechter and Morgan Gelding Oro demonstrating softness in the hackamore. (aged horse)

For rules, test, diagrams and more visit www.cowboydressageworld.com

by Kate Riordan
photographs by Maria Marriott and Blue Fountain Farms Photography