Photo Credit: Maria Marriott Photography
Each October, a dedicated group of equestrians from across the country gathers in Rancho Murieta, CA for 4 days of friendly competition, growth, and bonding. Some years see competitors from as far away as Australia, who are devoted followers of this unique discipline. This year’s show at Murieta Equestrian Center was an intimate one, with plenty of the excitement and spectacle that attracts trainers and riders to Cowboy Dressage.
As an artist, my focus is on crafting fine art equine portraits of domestic horses throughout the Western states and producing wild horse artwork showcasing the magnificent mustangs that roam our public lands. But, as an equestrian and horse photographer, it is always a pleasure to do something a little different to shake things up. As for the past 6 years, again this year I was the official show photographer for the 2023 Cowboy Dressage World Finals.
“If you have the artistic vision of a true horse person, you look at a horse, see what he is comfortable with and what he is going to be, and you start painting… Slowly, very slowly, the picture that began as a dream in your mind begins to emerge on the canvas.”
~ Eitan Beth-Halachmy
Photo Credit: Maria Marriott Photography
The Cowboy Dressage Discipline
Up until the time I started photographing the Cowboy Dressage World (CDW) shows, I didn’t know what Cowboy Dressage was. I was familiar with Western riding from my childhood in Brazil dreaming of the cowboys (and cowgirls) in America. And when I moved to Northern California, I began doing any type of riding I could, experimenting with both English and Western styles. But, as I’ve been fortunate to watch and learn from the founders of Cowboy Dressage over recent years, I have come to appreciate the approach and the uniqueness of this discipline.
“Anyone can learn to do Cowboy Dressage if he or she is interested and willing… The goal of Cowboy Dressage is the harmonious, subtle, and relaxed flow of information between horse and rider.”
- Jessica Black, "Cowboy Dressage"
Cowboy Dressage grew out of the foundation of Western Dressage - both of which are attributed to the vision of Eitan Beth-Halachmy and his wife Debbie. Eitan and Debbie live on the Wolf Creek Ranch in Grass Valley, California, training and teaching lessons. I was honored to visit them a couple of months ago to deliver several photographic portraits of Eitan that I’d produced on canvas from a photo shoot on the ranch earlier in the year. Several such visits over the years have allowed me to better learn and appreciate what Cowboy Dressage is and how it differs from other similar styles.
As Jessica Black explains in the book she co-wrote with Eitan and Debbie, Cowboy Dressage, “Anyone can learn to do Cowboy Dressage if he or she is interested and willing… The goal of Cowboy Dressage is the harmonious, subtle, and relaxed flow of information between horse and rider.”
The emphasis of this discipline is on the communication between horse and human and the partnership it develops through trust. Undergirding the philosophy of Cowboy Dressage is the concept of kindness - always showing the horse respect and kindness, and recognizing when it is trying. In focusing primarily on the needs of the horse, the rider develops a strong sense of what a particular horse can accomplish at a particular time, and this is the maximum that can be asked.
Black explains the differences between Cowboy Dressage and Western Dressage: “Cowboy Dressage puts more emphasis on lifestyle and the diversity of its community. Western Dressage is easier for those already on the USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) show circuit. Western Dressage relies a little more on the traditional dressage aspect; Cowboy Dressage, in accordance with its name, leans more toward the cowboy, or Western-style horse. Cowboy Dressage emphasizes its unique style that caters to the specific way of going a Western horse, whereas Western Dressage focuses on a horse that can multitask, accommodating the bigger gaits and specific movements of traditional dressage to Western tack.”
As I’ve become friends with Debbie and Eitan (known to his friends as “8”), over many shows, lunches, lessons at his ranch - and, yes, portrait sessions - it has been an honor to hear not only the wisdom of a true horseman, but also the personal stories. Some can be shared; some cannot be; many times these visits and the retelling of stories end in bouts of laughter. But it has been fascinating to hear the history of “8” growing up in Israel, becoming enamored of horses at a young age, and his journey to becoming one of the most influential and revered horseman of his time.
Photo Credit: Maria Marriott Photography
Without going too far into the details, which are magnificently shared in the “Cowboy Dressage” book, the outline of 8’s story is that his fascination with horses began at a very young age. Following his mother’s funeral in Rishon LeZion, British Mandate of Palestine, when he was 5 years old, a friendly sheriff set Eitan on his horse. This fired young Eitan’s imagination and his fascination with American cowboys.
After serving his mandatory time in the Israeli Army between ages 18 and 21, spending as much time riding and learning about horses as he could, Eitan visited the U.S. as part of a student exchange. This was a dream come true for him, as he had spent much of his childhood imagining American cowboys and the Old West.
Upon returning to Israel after several months in the U.S., he applied for veterinary school in Vienna, Austria. Then, he spent 4 years driving a dangerous bus route between Tel Aviv and the Red Sea in order to earn money to go to school.
During his studies in Vienna, he worked cleaning the stalls of the Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School. This daily exposure to the Baroque style shaped his understanding of riding, but also caused him to consider the harshness of traditional riding and training methods.
In 1968, he secured a student visa to return to the U.S., and continued his veterinary studies at U.C. Davis. As he recounts it, he then continued to “study” in many different fields in order to maintain his student visa.
This lasted until 1986 when President Reagan granted amnesty to all illegal immigrants, which set up the situation where he could ride, compete, perform and (eventually) train, without constraints. I won’t spoil all the stories for you, as it would be better to pick up a copy of “Cowboy Dressage” and read for yourself.
Throughout the next decades, his influence and visibility in the equine world continued to grow as he won numerous national and international titles. And he became recognized as a true master horseman, being asked to perform with his horse, Santa Fe Renegade, at the Closing Ceremony of the World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany in 2006. Then, again, at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.
Discipline, Technique, and Entertainment
There are numerous videos on YouTube of these ceremonies and other performances “8” has done. One of my favorites is his live performance with Michael Martin Murphey I encourage you to spend a few hours immersing yourself in the videos of this amazing horseman and entertainer.
“There were all these people who saw what Eitan was doing with his horses, particularly Compadre, and they wanted to do similar things, but there was no guidance,
no path for them to follow.”
Of course, all of the recognition that came with Eitan essentially creating a new equine discipline meant that others wanted to learn, which set him on the path to training and finding ways to spread the philosophies that he’d developed around Cowboy Dressage. Debbie recounts, “There were all these people who saw what Eitan was doing with his horses, particularly Compadre, and they wanted to do similar things, but there was no guidance, no path for them to follow.”
For those that want to dive deeper into the methods and philosophy, I’d direct you to Eitan’s second book, Dressage: The Cowboy Way, which is a little more technical in nature.
Open to All
What struck me most watching the CDW events over 3 days was the camaraderie, encouragement, and breadth of experience represented. From seasoned pros, including some of the founders of Cowboy Dressage, to amateur riders with only a couple years of experience, everyone was welcomed - and no one discouraged.
"It just feels natural to be here"
- 2023 "Riding For The Brand Finalist"
I believe the reason for this is that everyone (and every horse) can be a part of Cowboy Dressage. In fact, that is one of the promises stated in The Cowboy Dressage Handshake: “Ensure Cowboy Dressage is accessible to everyone regardless of his or her income or status within the horse world.”
In the book she co-authored with Eitan and Debbie, Black says, “Because Cowboy Dressage is open to all breeds and all levels of riders, there is no set frame for overall look, head carriage, or action. Each horse is assessed with reference to his type and conformation: a perfect working jog for an Arabian is not going to the look the same as a perfect working jog for a Quarter Horse, and neither is going to look much like the Saddlebred’s perfect jog.”
Christine Hanson, 76, said she started riding at age 68. “It was on my bucket list to ride Icelandic horses. So I started taking lessons with B.J. LeMaster, a trainer based in Sacramento, California. After 12 hours of lessons I thought I was ready, so went to Iceland to participate in driving a herd of Icelandic horses.” When Hanson returned home and started lessons again, LeMaster told her, “You need to try Cowboy Dressage”. Photo Credit: Maria Marriott Photography
Hanson has been riding now for 8 years and recently competed in 12 classes over 3 days at the CDW Finals.
On the opposite end of the age spectrum is Ella Shaw, 15, now in her 3rd year competing. Riding her horse, "I’m What You’re Looking At", she competed in numerous Challenge, Team, and individual events, garnering an impressive collection of blue ribbons.
I don’t think I can state it any better than one of the 5 finalists in the "Riding for the Brand" competition said it on the final night of the show. Talking about why she participates in Cowboy Dressage, she said simply, “It just feels natural to be here.”
Photo Credit: Maria Marriott Photography
The Joy of Horse Photography
As I now cull thousands of images from the CDW Finals, selecting the best for each of the riders, it gives me time to process what I’ve learned and experienced.
I think about the amazing story of a young Israeli boy who dreamed of becoming an American cowboy and through determination, hard work, and incredible talent, found a way to become one of the best living horsemen of our time.
I think about all I’ve learned about riding from looking at these thousands of images - the position of the horse’s legs, head, and body; the posture of the rider and the subtle gestures that are used to move such a large animal. And what I’ve learned from Eitan and Debbie’s generosity in letting me ride their horses and giving me lessons - what an honor.
I think about the communication that can be accomplished between a horse and human - communication that is most effective when it is based on trust, kindness, and understanding.
The “soft feel”.
And, mostly, I think about the wonderful group of people that I’ve met over the years that I look forward to seeing again and again at the CDW gatherings. These are true friendships and genuine people… the kind that have applied Eitan’s lessons about kindness and communication not only to their horses, but to their fellow humans.
Horse photographer, Maria Marriott, who is most known for her wild horse artwork and fine art equine portraits, has been the official show photographer for Cowboy Dressage World for 6 years. As she has photographed hundreds of rides, she has gained a deep appreciation for the Cowboy Dressage discipline and the riders have become her “tribe”.
When she isn’t photographing CDW shows, she combines her passions for photography and horses by creating wild horse art and doing commissioned equine portrait work for her clients.
Her desire is to bring public awareness to the American mustangs and the healing power of horses. She is proud to have her equine fine art in collectors’ homes and offices throughout the world. Maria Marriott Photography is a proud supporter of several non-profit organizations that tirelessly work to ensure the well-being of the American wild horses and promote healing through equine therapy.