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Jack Brainard and Cowboy Dressage


By Leigh Ballard

The legendary horseman and National Reining Horse Hall of Fame member, Jack Brainard, was on hand as part of Chris Cox’s Ride the Journey Tour in Tunica MS, February 16-17. Jack, along with Eitan Beth-Halachmey and others, has been at the forefront of the emerging movement called Cowboy Dressage.

Jack was participant as well as instructor for a segment of the tour called “Advanced Riding.” Chris Cox and demonstration rider Donna Duvall worked horses per Jack’s instruction as Jack described for the audience what they were doing and how the horses are taught to perform the advanced maneuvers.

Jack talked at length about keeping a horse straight and balanced. He said, “Dropped shoulder comes about from loping too many circles on a loose rein. The best way to combat a dropped shoulder is to lope boxes with round corners.” By doing this, the horse gets straight and balanced on the straight lines, and bends nicely on the corners, and then goes back to straight again. He learns, and the rider learns too, how to stay straight. Jack said,” A balanced horse is carrying equal amount of weight on all four feet, but he has to be straight to do this.” He compared a horse’s balance to a man crossing Niagra Falls on a tight-wire using a balance pole. “The ‘balance pole’ is his neck; 35% of his weight is from his wither forward. If his neck is canted too far to one side, it will drive his foot into the ground because there’s too much weight on that side. You have to keep him straight.”

After discussion on theory of balance and straightness, the 3 riders warmed up their horses. Jack said it’s best to make a free walk around the arena on a loose rein leaving the horse alone, with the horse going at his own pace with his head set wherever he wants it. Then, after the first full arena pass, the rider can give the horse a “wakeup call” and start extending the walk and controlling the movement. Jack said, however, that as much as you can keep the horse quiet at the initial stage of the training session, the more the session is apt to go well. Jack demonstrated his wake up call, talking to the horse all the while pushing him onward with “Right! Left! Right! Left! Faster!.” He said, chuckling, “I talk too much to my horse, maybe.”  After the warm-up, Jack stood aside and acted as instructor for Chris and Donna for further warm-up which included a slow jog, shoulders-in, haunches-in, half passes and flying lead changes. “This is Cowboy Dressage, gang! Hee yaw, I just love this stuff!” he said.

Jack explained that schooling a horse is a logical progression of steps. He said, “If there’s ever one thing we need to get control of, get control of the hindquarters.” He is considered a “master” of lead changes, so he began his schooling tips by discussing lead changes. “Everybody’s hooked on that,” he said, referring to lead changes. “Hindquarter control is what gets us our lead changes.” He gave an exercise to help teach hindquarter control: Imagine two white lines 3 feet apart running down the center of the arena. Start at one end and walk the full length, keeping the front feet between the lines and the back feet outside the lines, choosing one side for the hind feet but switching now and then from right to left. A variation on this is to take two steps with the back feet on the left and then two steps on the right.

After hindquarter control, Jack discussed cueing for the lead. He talked about timing based on the horse’s footfalls. He said the rider has about two tenths of 1 second to get it right! He said, “A straight line lead change is extremely difficult, it is by no means easy.”

Again, he explained a schooling exercise which Chris and Donna demonstrated. For learning a straight line lead change, first, choose your lead and canter in a straight line the length of the arena. After a few times of this, check back to a trot in the middle, then pick back up to a canter to the end of the arena. After a while, when you check back to the trot, ask hard for the other lead when you pick back up to canter. After a while when this is going well, stop checking back to the trot and just ask for the other lead instead. Jack said, “This will take you about 500 times.” Chris’s horse, who was not nearly as solid and smooth in these moves as Donna’s horse, was what Jack called “twisty.” He wanted to do almost a buck every time he changed leads, and he looked somewhat agitated with the process. Jack said, “That’s ok, don’t do anything about it. As long as he’s getting his feet in the right place leave it alone. He will get smoother and more comfortable with it as he learns it.” To the audience he said, “Do not nitpick on your horse when he’s trying so hard.” He also said ten minutes of this effort is enough for one session.

For more lead change demonstration, Chris and Donna performed lead changes in a circle from a counter canter, and half passes at the canter from side to side. Then to show even more refinement, Jack asked them to show three strides right, three strides left. “Oh, isn’t that pretty?” he exclaimed. “It takes a broke one to do this, gang.”

The riders continued to demonstrate at the canter, moving on to pirouettes. Jack said the horse learns the pirouette by loping down into smaller and smaller circles. A common mistake here is too loose a rein and too low a neck. He said, “The rider must lighten the forehand and have unlimited control of the hindquarters.” Then Donna showed some one-turn canter pirouettes, while Chris received instruction on beginning to teach his horse this advanced move.

Then Jack moved on to what he called some of the “deeper stuff,” referring to the piaffe and the passage. Jack himself demonstrated the piaffe, showing how he asks his horse to trot as slow as he can, then holds him back and bumps him, then lets him out. He said, “I know a lot of the European dressage people have taught this in crossties, but I decided to teach it mounted. But I discovered the Quarter Horse just doesn’t have the knee and hock action that some of the other breeds for dressage have, so it doesn’t look quite as pretty.” He also demonstrated a trot in pirouette.

Then although he claimed, “He’s not finished in this yet,” Jack asked his horse to canter in place, and also change leads while cantering in place.

Chris summed up the crowd’s appreciation when he said to the audience, “What about that? He doesn’t just talk about it. This gentleman gets out there and shows you at age 92!”

Jack has a clinic scheduled in Shelbyville, TN in April. Visit his website for more information.

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