Wranglers or Breeches; We All Have The Same Goal

by Dana Denison

I decided to use the scholarship I was awarded by my state GMO for the Jim Hick’s Dressage Principles for the Horseman clinic.  It was held over Mother’s Day weekend in May at the Y6 Ranch in Bruneau, Idaho.

I had scheduled to go to this clinic with a friend.  I was a new student of Donnette Hicks and super excited at the opportunity to be invited to this clinic as it is popular and frankly an honor to get in. The week came that the clinic was happening. Okay, let’s be honest, my closest family member  is the friend. Her name is Carrie Dice and she is my aunt.  Well, as luck would have it, Carrie got sick so she couldn’t drive from Oregon to meet me there.  My heart sank and my stomach jumped.  I was going alone.  Let me capitalize that. I WAS GOING ALONE.  Now I am not one who is usually shy, but I had reservations about driving five hours to the middle of nowhere not knowing anyone but Jim and Donnette.

Dana Denison with Clinician Jim Hicks

The big day arrived.  My bag was packed, my trailer was loaded, my horse was bathed and clipped and ready for whatever might come our way.  I met Jim and Donnette at the gas station in Silver Creek, UT.  To my surprise they had Katie Wilking, another adult Amateur, with them.  As I got into my truck, my heart skipped a beat. I smiled and thought, I am making a new friend.  We caravanned to the ranch.

Five hours and a couple lattes later, we arrived at the most spectacular ranch.  There were fields of horses, and cattle.  We even had to wait to pull in as there were cowgirls herding cattle down the road in front of us to another pasture.  Real live cowgirls.  Not Park City cowgirls. but the kind who know how to ride! The kind that get dirty. The kind that are tough and work hard.  As the cattle passed by, I was thinking about those brand new chinks hanging in my trailer. Theirs were broke in.  Theirs were actually used daily.  Mine, having never been worn except for a photo shoot, were shiny and the leather still pretty stiff.  Mental note to self: rub some dirt on them before these ladies see them.

We got our horses settled into corrals behind the barn.  There was an alleyway behind the corrals. I wondered what it was for.  I will tell you later in the story.  Strange. Why would one waste that kind of space? Why weren’t the corrals bigger and using that space? I’m not a city girl, but that one evaded me.

That night we had dinner with some of the other ladies at a local bar and grill “The Past Time” in Bruneau Idaho,  It was surprisingly delicious.  Shrimp in the desert. Who knew?  We then headed back to the Owyhee Bed & Breakfast, which was not only completely spotless, but very welcoming. It was like I had stayed there my whole life and was just coming back to visit.

Reata Brown, the owner, had a special way with all of us and made us feel super welcome and special the minute we walked in.  Katie Wilking and I had rooms next to each other and it was kind of like going to camp as kids.  We stayed up late and decided what to wear for our dressage lessons the next day.  I settled on my spiffy new red breeches.  Full of excitement, it was hard to sleep but we finally managed.

Ranch life is busy.  Breakfast was at 6 am and then off we went to the Y6 for a day of dressage.  I was thinking to myself this is going to be a day of excitement and fun.  It couldn’t have been truer!

After feeding my horse, Shalik, I found out what that alley way was used for.  Cattle.  Those same very adept cowgirls were herding those cattle through that alleyway to another pasture.   My Arabian gelding became anxious. His head high, nostrils flared, snorting, tail straight up in the air and prancing around. In my interpretation it was like a pack of lions were going to get him.  Another mental note: stay out of the alleyway.  It’s like a freeway for cattle.  I figured Shalik would eat his hay and forget about the cows. Nope.  He did not.  He fretted and carried on until it was time for my ride almost three hours later.

All saddled up and ready for my lesson, (I was the second one of the day), off I went.  The arena was a good half a mile walk from the corrals so I didn’t see before hand the audience or the other riders that came from other local ranches.  Decked out in my red breeches and black polo shirt, off I went.  I walked up to a huge arena – imagine two football fields.  Next to it are all the pickup trucks backed up, tail gates down, and lots of wranglers sitting on those very tail gates and, like in the movies, they all slowly looked at me.  “What have I gotten myself into?” was going through my head. My stomach suddenly jumped.  It was my turn.  I looked up as the cowgirl that rode before me was exiting the arena. Her chinks were also very broken in.  “Self, do not try out your brand new chinks here” went through my head.   I lead Shalik into the arena.  The cattle were at least a mile away but he was still prancing and snorting.  I could hear a few chuckles from some of the auditors.  Not to fear, I was going to ride my horse and I was not going to be dismissed for my red breeches. No way.

It took a few minutes to calm him enough to even get on his back.  Jim has a way.  He has this horse sense that is no joke.  Pretty soon, with his calm voice and confident words, I was lost in learning.  I forgot that I was the only rider who didn’t have a ranch saddle.  I forgot that I was the only rider dressed like I might have walked out of a Dover catalog.  Instead, I was learning about bending.  Getting my horse’s mind on me.  Helping him and me to relax.  We began to work with leg yielding and straightening to obtain alignment that resulted in him (or maybe it was me) calming down. Through the work, my horse began to move into a physical and emotional rhythm. I was the happiest rider ever, red breeches and all.  I couldn’t get over the change in my horse in five minutes. If I learned nothing else that day, I had my money’s worth.   It was some sort of miracle. Whatever it was, I was into it.  We then spent the rest of the lesson learning.  Serious learning. The kind that made me forget where I was.  A few steps, a leg yield and then slightly straighten. Repeat.  When the day’s lesson was over, I was ecstatic.  I had a horse under me that I had not really seen before.  He was one put together fancy little Arab. I never left the walk that lesson, and learned that you don’t have to go faster to get something new into your head.

Moving onto day two.  So as not to surprise the auditors, I wore grey. It seemed a bit more ranch like.   No bright “in your face” breeches that day.  It was Mother’s Day.  The sun was out, the sky was blue and I was at the most beautiful ranch spending my day with my horse, my new friends, and excited about what today’s lesson would bring.  We spent that lesson at the trot developing the new skills I had learned the day before and expanding on them.  I learned from listening to Jim speak to the auditors as well as me, that the leg yield I was using was used on a ranch too.  They use them to open gates, to step closer to a cow etc.  Who knew dressage was so universal? As I trotted around, my job was to keep him relaxed and happy.  I learned to acknowledge the smallest try; to adjust efficiently and reward;  to move right back to what the goal was, “a horse that was using his body in a powerful way.”  I felt accomplished and proud of my horse and myself.  By the end of the lesson I had a horse that I could take down centerline and stay put together for an entire test. I was elated.  Donnette even took my photo that day, so I knew I had it if it was photo worthy.

End of day nap Danna Denison and Katie Wilking

Not only did I learn that I could do this, I learned that whether I had on breeches or wranglers, we all have the same goal: to be the best horseman we can be. Dressage is for everyone. No matter the place, arena or ranch.  We all use dressage movements to get the most out of our horses.  To keep them relaxed, to keep them focused on the goal, whether that goal is a straight centerline or getting a cow separated.  Our world is one. One with our horses, one with each other.  There should be no division.  We all use dressage so in my head I said to myself, “Wear your new chinks with pride.”  I left the clinic the next day, my heart full and happy clear to my soul.  I didn’t just learn dressage.  I learned a lot about ranch life too.  It was awesome to learn what I love in a setting so beautiful you can’t help but want to be part of it.  Who knows, maybe a Martin Black cow clinic?

Thank you Martin and Jenifer Black for having the clinic at your Ranch and Cindy Bachman for organizing the clinic.

Thank you to the Utah Dressage Society for making this possible for me.  I can’t wait to go back to the Y6 next year. It was not just a clinic; it was a life changing experience for me.

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