Gaited Cowboy Dressage: My Journey Begins

Did you know that Cowboy Dressage welcomes naturally gaited horses? Among the people I’ve met through cyber space since launching is Dollie Horst who just returned from the 2015 Cowboy Dressage World Finals with her naturally gaited Rocky Mountain mare, Annie. I asked Dollie if she would share her story with us about how she became involved with gaited horses and the path which led her to Gaited Cowboy Dressage. I think you’ll love what she has to say about Cowboy Dressage, its training philosophy, and the people who have taken the Cowboy Dressage “handshake” to live out its lifestyle. —Jennifer Klitzke

Cowboy Dressage: My Gaited Journey Begins
Dollie Horst on RMHA registered/certified mare MMR’s Cover Girl aka “Annie” at a Cowboy Dressage Clinic in Colorado. Photograph by Richard Horst.

Gaited Cowboy Dressage: My Journey Begins

By Dollie Horst, Guest Writer

My introduction to naturally gaited horses came five years ago when my husband and I were offered a management position at Mountain Magic Ranch, a private Rocky Mountain Gaited Horse ranch in Three Forks, Montana.

Before that, non-gaited horses like thoroughbreds, AQHAs, APHAs, and BLM mustangs filled my riding background—mostly for trail riding, packing, reining, and working with cows. Like most non-gaited horse people, I thought gaited horses were just, let’s say, different. But with my new job working with mountain gaited horses and my love for anything “horse,” I kept an open mind and willingness to learn.

Meeting the Mountain Gaited Horses
My husband and I have done a lot of mountain riding and pack trips. We immediately saw the value gaited mountain horses brought to “the hills.” These horses can cover country like no other breed we had worked with, and their cool temperaments are exactly what you need when you’re 33 miles into the wilderness.

When I began training the Rocky Mountain and Kentucky Mountain gaited breeds, their exceptional learning capacity really stood out. Overall, they have been the most willing, level headed, intelligent horses I have ever worked with. Not only do they learn twice as fast as the non-gaited breeds I’ve trained, but they seem to retain their schooling with less repetition.

Since gaited horses were new to me coming into this job, I held true to my training philosophy that “a horse is a horse first.” Whether gaited or non-gaited, my goals were the same: develop a soft, supple, relaxed partnership which is based on trust and mutual understanding. After that, I began to recognize the natural four-beat gait, and then train, develop, and certify the gait in the young horses and the horses newly started under saddle. I have found that most people who are interested in the gaited mountain breeds are looking for smooth, soft, willing trail partners.

Introduction to Cowboy Dressage
I don’t ride in a fancy saddle, just a well fitting one. I don’t use a special bit, just a snaffle or bitless bridle. I like to ride on a loose rein or light contact. I love to lope the gaited horses I ride. I respect the time it takes to build a solid foundation and master a maneuver before progressing to a more challenging one. I strive for the ultimate partnership and develop a seamless communication between me and my horse as if we become one in the same. While I love this method of training gaited horses to be trail partners, something seemed missing. I longed for a show venue which aligned with my training philosophies and would showcase the philosophies and would showcase the multiple talents of gaited mountain horses. Little did I know that what I had longed for had already been coined “soft feel” by Eitan Beth-Halachmy, the founder of Cowboy Dressage.

Then in June 2015, I learned of a Cowboy Dressage clinic taught by Dr. Jenni Grimmett, DVM and held at Sleeping Willow Ranch in Stevensville, MT. What I knew of Cowboy Dressage piqued my curiosity, so my husband and I made the 3-1/2 hour drive to audit. Little did I know, this decision would become life-changing.

Listening to Dr. Grimmett explain the Cowboy Dressage principles and philosophy, I couldn’t stop nodding and smiling. Cowboy Dressage is not just a riding discipline or competition; it is a way of life. Cowboy Dressage is a commitment in how we treat our horses, and how we treat each other—everyday, anywhere—regardless if anyone is around or not. It is a commitment to the development of the horse as an individual, at a speed the horse can grasp. Cowboy Dressage transcends training exercises; it is the fundamental relationships between you, your horse, and others.

Membership in Cowboy Dressage is represented in a virtual “handshake” instead of paying joiner’s fees. The Cowboy Dressage Handshake is your word to pledge to “try” to:

  • become the person others can trust with your handshake and your word.
  • exemplify the Cowboy Dressage way of life and find the courage to chase your dreams.
  • not allow defeat when faced with setbacks in your life and your horsemanship.
  • treat all horses and people with integrity and kindness.
  • look for the “try” in your horses and always reward them.
  • look for the “try” in people as you travel down your horsemanship path.

When you pledge this handshake, you become a member of the Cowboy Dressage World and you ride together with others who have also done the same, including its founders Debbie and Eitan Beth-Halachmy, Lyn Moe and Garn Walker.

4 The Girls
From Left to Right: Dr. Jenni Grimmett DVM, Dollie Horst, Trish Knight enjoying the comradery and friendship that is Cowboy Dressage. Photograph by Richard Horst.

I had finally found what I had been yearning for! The girls at Sleeping Willow Ranch must have noticed, because they graciously let me ride their horses just so that I could participate in the clinic. I will never forget their kind gesture. Seriously, who lends their horse to someone they had just met, so that they could ride, not just audit a clinic?! People who have pledged the Cowboy Dressage Handshake—that’s who! Thanks to Shannon, Debbie, and Dr. Grimmett, I left the clinic that day completely engulfed in Cowboy Dressage and couldn’t wait to share it with my gaited four-legged friends!

Annie's first ride
May 9, 2015 Annie’s first ride, Dollie Horst aboard. Val Geissler snubbing on his BLM mustang “Smoke.” Photograph by Richard Horst.

Returning home I began applying what I had learned at the clinic with my registered/certified Rocky Mountain mare, MMR’s Cover Girl (aka, Annie). She had been started under saddle in May, and what better foundation could there be for a green horse then one of “soft feel”? On top of that, Annie has a great mind and confirmation for Cowboy Dressage as well.

In September and October, I brought Annie to two different  Cowboy Dressage of Colorado clinics taught by the Cowboy Dressage founder himself, my new friend Eitan Beth-Halachmy. Eitan was happy to see a gaited horse at the clinics and welcomed us wholeheartedly, as did the other non-gaited riders!

Eitan and I
Dollie Horst and Annie pictured with Cowboy Dressage Founder, Eitan Beth-Halachmy. Photograph by Richard Horst.

At the clinics, Annie and I learned the ‘ins-and-outs’ of riding the Cowboy Dressage tests; as well as exercises we could do to improve our communication and relationship in order to thrive in any riding discipline. Eitan is an incredible teacher and someone I feel so grateful to work with. His vast knowledge is delivered humbly through whit, humor, and a go-getter mentality that is empowering. He makes everyone feel equal, and what he recognizes most, is not the ability, but the “try.”

Annie and I have reached new levels of trust and partnership. Cowboy Dressage has helped me develop a better seat as a means of communication with my horse, and soft contact helps Annie understand more clearly what I am asking of her. She is pliable and bendable to my slightest cues. Her movement and transitions are more fluid and understood. Her gaits are more balanced and rhythmic, with the ability to shorten and lengthen her strides without changing speed. Her natural four beat (intermediate) gait, is smooth and accomplished through light, soft contact. Annie knows what is expected of her and where she needs to be.

Through Cowboy Dressage, Annie and I have learned and accomplished so much in such a short period of time, as have the other gaited mountain horses I work with. In fact, gaited horses thrive with this concept of “soft feel,” and I strongly believe have the most to gain from Cowboy Dressage!

CO Show
Dollie Horst on RMHA registered/certified mare MMR’s Cover Girl aka “Annie” at a Cowboy Dressage Show in Brighton, CO. Photograph by Richard Horst.

Cowboy Dressage Shows
Not only did I travel to three Cowboy Dressage clinics in 2015; Annie and I competed at three Cowboy Dressage shows. Two shows were held in Colorado where Annie and I won the Amateur Gaited divisions.

The third, and most recent show was the 2015 Cowboy Dressage World Finals in Rancho Murieta, California, which drew over 900 entries. At first I hesitated to compete at the World Finals. I wondered if I was ready or if I was good enough, but Cowboy Dressage has helped me put aside those demons and give it a “try.” One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my horsemanship and life this year is that accomplishment begins with the decision to “try.” That we did. At the Cowboy Dressage World Finals, Annie and I won the Reserve Highpoint Champion in the Amateur Gaited Division.

5 CA Show
Dollie Horst riding RMHA registered/certified mare MMR’s Cover Girl aka “Annie” on the first day of the Amateur Gaited Classes – Cowboy Dressage World Finals 2015 in Rancho Murieta, CA. Photograph by Richard Horst.

As a participant at these events, I believe Cowboy Dressage is here to stay, and it is growing at an incredible rate—gaited, non-gaited, all breeds, all associations, all ages and people from all over the world of all walks of life. It is truly an inclusive group of liked-minded, kind, and supportive people who are in it for the horses, one another, and the betterment of horsemanship in general.

The Cowboy Dressage World Finals particularly, was unlike anything I had ever experienced in the horse show world. Not once did I meet someone in passing who didn’t say, “hello” or “how are you” or “nice ride.” Nowhere did I see harsh equipment or rough riding. Never did I see anyone “taking it out” on his or her horse at the barn, warm up arenas, and show areas alike. In fact, the show even had an official to make sure each horse was treated fairly and humanely. What I did see was a commitment to kindness toward one another, the slow, endless journey that is horsemanship and especially toward the love for horses – with patting, rubbing, hugging, smiling, and endless “talking” to their four-legged friends everywhere you looked.

6 CA Show
Dollie Horst thanking little Annie for a job well done after showing the second day at the Cowboy Dressage World Finals 2015 in Rancho Murieta, CA….This is what it is all about. Photograph by Richard Horst.

Annie and I have a long way to go, but we have started our Cowboy Dressage journey to which I am fully committed. For me, there is no other way than to “try.” Thank you Eitan, and thank you everyone committed to the Cowboy Dressage lifestyle.

I hope you enjoyed reading Dollie Horst’s story about how she became involved with gaited horses and the path which led her to Gaited Cowboy Dressage. If you have a naturally gaited horse you’ve developed a special relationship with and ride gaited dressage or versatility, and would like to share your story on, please contact me by completing the contact form. —Jennifer Klitzke


The Versatile Paso Fino

Since launching, I’ve met a lot of interesting people through social media who are enjoying their naturally gaited horses in a variety of ways. Recently, I met J. Ed Casillas who enjoys his Paso Finos for trail riding, endurance riding, rescue, team penning, drill team demonstrations, and therapy riding programs.

I’ve learned a lot about Paso Finos that I never knew. Such as, did you know that Pasos are able to execute up to nine different natural gaits on cue? 1. Walk 2. Trot 3. Fino 4. Canter/lope 5. Corto/slow rack 6. Largo/fast rack 7. Super largo/singlefoot 8. Pace 9. Andadura /amble. Some gaits of which are faster than the gallop of most trotting horse breeds.

J. Ed Casillas’s story unveils a wonderful bond between a horse and rider and highlights just how versatile the Paso Fino is, so I asked him if he would share his story with you. –Jennifer Klitzke

A smooth flying single-foot gait that travels 15 -25 mph.
Obi and I racing along in the Andadura gait, like a slick pace, which travels up to 25 mph and can exceed a non-gaited horse’s gallop. When Obi reaches 20 mph he goes from a natural four-beat, isochronal largo to the lateral glide ride that feels even and smooth but hits like a pace laterally as you can see.

The Versatile Paso Fino

By J. Ed Casillas, Guest Writer

Early years

Although I wasn’t a horse owner until later in life, I’ve been around horses since I was a child. One of my grandfathers was a cattleman who provided mules to the U.S. cavalry. The other was a dude rancher who had business relationships with western movie cowboys. My uncle had a ranch, and I rode his horses during branding round-ups. I also exercised other people’s horses for fun or favor, and I worked around the race track horses.

Then I suffered an occupational back injury. So at 40, when I began looking for my first horse, I knew I needed a smooth-gaited horse to go easy on my back. When I met a Paso Fino gelding named Obrizo Juan Sinsonte (Obi), I knew he would fulfill this requirement very well.

Leo and Lindsay
Leo and Lindsay

I had been introduced to Paso Finos when I rode Obi’s sire, Leo de Vez (Leo). Leo is a son of Coral LaCE, the Paso Fino Horse Association (PFHA) Hall of Fame stallion and 13 time top 10 sire. Leo also competed in the first all Paso Fino drill team in Florida. He was known for passing on his wonderful disposition, confirmation, and natural smooth gaits. Leo was a seasoned competitive trail, AERC endurance horse, had been shown in his younger years, and became a South East Distance Riders Association Hall of Fame stallion.

Paso Beginnings
Paso Finos found their way into my life unexpectedly. In 1996 my work took me from Tallahassee, Florida to Las Vegas, Nevada where I met Lindsay Campbell, a Florida native and Paso Fino owner. After we had been hiking partners to vistas where she wrote while I painted landscapes, she shipped two of her Paso Finos, Obi and Leo, from Florida and we became riding partners.

My initial ride on Obi showed that he was rather green when compared to Leo, so Lindsay rode Obi for the first 10 months. I rode Leo who did an excellent job educating me about riding a trained Paso Fino. While exploring the trails, I shared my enthusiasm for the Paso Fino with everyone I met. Most riders in Las Vegas rode quarter horses, paints, and mustangs. They took notice to our Paso Finos’ naturally smooth gaits.

Obi and Ed
Obi and I

Pasos for Healing
As for me, I discovered the healing properties associated with riding naturally smooth gaited Paso Finos: my back didn’t bother me as I rode and the low-impact strengthening of my abdominal and back supporting muscles rehabilitated my back without the pain of conventional exercise. In fact, the only pain I suffered with a Paso Fino occurred when Obi was unloaded from the rig. He stepped on my foot in his exuberance to get off. Fortunately he was barefoot and I wasn’t!

After Obi and I had completed our training, Lindsay began riding Leo, and I rode Obi. It didn’t take long for me to bond with Obi as my very own. He has been my once-in-a-lifetime horse.

Pasos for Trail
In 2000, Lindsay and I joined the Pasos for Pleasure program offered in Paso Fino Horse World magazine. This program recognizes those who ride their Paso Finos for recreational purposes such as trail riding. Participants log their trail miles for milestone awards. Lindsay and I loved riding long hours through nature on the virtually limitless trail system outside of Las Vegas. Lindsay and I rode with several riding clubs such as Drinkers of the Wind Riding Club, Roughriders, and a gaited group, as well as with members of organizations from the National Wild Horse and Burro Association, Nevada Horse Council, and the Trail Coalition.

Obi and Ed at Red Rock
Obi and I riding at Red Rock Canyon where we often would see wild mustangs and burros running free.

We trail rode West of Las Vegas at Red Rock Canyon, a National Conservation area, where early Spanish missionaries and immigrants traveled through to California. Red Rock Canyon is home to several herds of wild mustangs and burros. On most of our rides we would see them roaming free.

Saving the Wild Mustangs and Burros
In 1999 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed to remove the herds from Red Rock Canyon. I discussed holding a rally and trail ride in support of keeping the wild mustangs and burros at Red Rock. The horse and biking clubs agreed. We notified the media about our rally and trail ride. Several dignitaries voiced their support such as Las Vegas Mayor-elect Oscar Goodman. Lindsay and Leo, her naturally smooth gaited Paso Fino, led the ride.

Mayor-elect Goodman riding Obi
Mayor-elect Goodman riding Obi at the rally

The rally included speeches, sentiments, and discussion about the importance of wild horses to the aesthetics of Red Rock Canyon, with a backdrop of beautifully moving wooden flute music which was played by a Native American. Afterwards, Mayor-elect Goodman’s public relations officer asked if Mr. Goodman could ride Obi. I agreed and a photo was taken of Mayor-elect Goodman enjoying his glide ride on Obi which was published in the Las Vegas Review Journal. This rally and support played a major role in keeping wild mustangs and burros at Red Rock Canyon (at least for the time being).

Inspired by the Native American flute player, I learned how to play a wooden flute and took it to the trails. However I wouldn’t recommend playing the flute while riding any horse other than one as naturally smooth and well behaved as Obi. It’s hard to ride safely while playing an instrument requiring use of both hands. Folks, don’t try this at home. Obi’s largo has been clocked at 20 miles an hour. A misstep at that speed could be disastrous. In fact, we did stumble once and my wooden flute bears teeth marks to prove it!

Pasos for Rescue
Speaking of missteps, riders with much more experience than I have come off their horses during our rides with other groups. Two times Obi and I recovered the loose horses by applying natural horsemanship techniques: Pursue briefly towards the loose horse, driving in, then turning away until the loose horse instinctively follows instead of moves away, and then slowing the pace until getting hold of the loose reins.

The third time the mishap occurred after a long climb up a steep grade into the mountains. My friend was riding an Arabian named Royal who lost his footing on slick rocks. Royal scrambled wildly to regain his footing but went down. My friend’s foot was pinned against the rocks and was badly fractured. Obi blocked Royal’s way while I caught him, and we ponied him five steep, rocky miles down the mountain for help while other riders attended to my friend. I got Royal back to camp. Another rider untacked him while Obi and I met the paramedics on a rough dirt road.

There was no way, an ambulance could reach my friend. The paramedics had to travel by foot carrying their heavy equipment and a tire gurney five miles up the high elevation and steep rocky grade. Seeing that they needed help, Obi and I offered to carry the equipment. Obi had already traversed the steep trail twice—once to take Royal and summon for help and twice to return to my friend and tell her “help is on the way.” We made it the third time back to the accident scene. It took five men to move my friend to where a helicopter could land. Then Obi and I carried the paramedic’s equipment down the mountain. It sure was easier going down, even with a rope tied to the gurney to ease it downhill.

Obi was a real hero on the trail that day. We earned eight Pasos for Pleasure hours that day alone. Obi never faltered. He didn’t even flinch at the sound of the chopper when it landed or took off. We earned our 500-hour patch during that time, and it means so much to me now.

Pasos for Drill Team Demos
Obi has been featured as a demonstration horse to promote the Paso Fino breed. In 1998 and 1999, Lindsay and Leo, Obi and I, and our friend, Carlos Duran and his champion Dominican stallion, Centinela la Joya, participated in the 1998 and 1999 All-breed Festival held at Horseman’s Park in Las Vegas. Both years, the three of us had fun riding drill team routines which incorporated sliding stops. The spectators really loved our Paso Finos’ speed and naturally smooth gaits. I even let a few horsemen of other breeds ride Obi. After one turn around the arena each rider returned with the never failing “Paso Fino grin.” It seems that every person I know that has ridden Obi has turned around and bought a Paso Fino.

Pasos for Penning
For six months I took Obi to a local ranch for team penning where we won the Best Time Award. This was just friendly competition (with serious quarter horse pros). Obi really excels in this sport, instinctively knowing what to do. He cuts, holds herds, sits down, and turns quickly. Fellow riders often asked what breed of horse Obi is and how long have we had been penning. I let some riders give him a try, and they remarked on his reining skill and how fast, responsive, and naturally smooth he is. Our team had penned steers in as little as 40 seconds. Maybe someday we’ll see Paso Fino’s in the pro ranks!

Pasos for Endurance
In 2000, I moved back to Florida and ever since then I’ve acquired more Paso Finos—each one of Obi’s lineage. The Pasos for Pleasure program and the other recreational rider activities have increased the exposure of Paso Finos. The ever dependable and swift Obi has acquired the 2004-2005 High Point Endurance Horse of the Year. He has his Paso Fino Horse Association (PFHA) Title of Proficiency and is the first Paso Fino to earn it with trail points.

I also have Obi’s younger brother, Yoda Eclipsis Sinsonte, who earned the 2008 PFHA High Point Pleasure Trail Horse of the Year. Lindsay rode Obi’s full sister, Pocita de Cosa Dulce (Pocita), and has acquired the PFHA Endurance Horse of the Year in 2007, 2008, and 2010. In 2011 the duo earned the PFHA/AERC breed (highest mileage endurance) award. Obi and Pocita’s full sibling, Miri-Castana Sinsonte has been successfully competing against quarter horses at all breed game shows in pole weaving.

Obi and Pocita
Lindsay and I riding Pocita and Obi

Pasos for Trail Challenge
While Obi is still my demo horse, I’m looking forward to exploring new adventures. Recently Obi and I began riding at the ACTHA trail challenges where Obi earned a blue ribbon at his first ride and three red ribbons thereafter.

Pasos for Soccer?
Horse soccer was showcased at the PFHA Nationals, so I have a soccer ball now. I will see where this takes us. So far our Pasos seem to have fun moving the ball along. Horse soccer anyone?

Pasos for Therapy
My passion for Pasos has grown on my daughters, too. One of my daughters has developmental challenges. Riding not only helps her condition, it also improves her self-esteem and confidence. Whenever she rides she beams with happiness for all to see. For both of my daughters my Paso Finos seem to adjust to their needs like nursemaids. Their sure-footed confidence, smooth gait, and gentle dispositions allow my daughters to feel free from the day’s restraints as they enjoy adventures of their own with Pasos for Pleasure.

Father and daughter
My daughter and I riding Obi and Yoda.

Obi is great with all riders. The video below shows him at HOpe Horses Helping PEople Therapeutic Riding Center in Archer, Florida being used as a therapy horse.

I hope you enjoyed reading J. Ed Casillas’s story about his partnership with his versatile Paso Fino Obi. If you have a naturally gaited horse you’ve developed a special relationship with and ride gaited dressage or versatility, and would like to share your story on, please contact me by completing the contact form. —Jennifer Klitzke


Dressage is more than trot and the saddle you ride in!

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