Team Spirit

Riders of all ages and skill levels are enjoying the camaraderie, excitement, and improved horsemanship that come with participating in an equestrian drill team. Discover more about this fun-filled activity in this Q&A with two experienced drill masters. From Horse & Rider magazine.
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Riders of all ages and skill levels are enjoying the camaraderie, excitement, and improved horsemanship that come with participating in an equestrian drill team. Discover more about this fun-filled activity in this Q&A with two experienced drill masters. From Horse & Rider magazine.

Drill teams mesmerize people at rodeos and horse expositions with maneuvers so intricate and exciting they take your breath away. If you?ve watched a drill team guide their horses to lope shoulder-to-shoulder in unison, weave in front of and behind each other, and move seamlessly as a group into different formations, you might have found yourself thinking, ?I wish I could do that!?

Pam Bonner's drill team, Ghostriders. Courtesy Horse & Rider

Pam Bonner and Debbie Sams want to tell you, ?You can!? These experienced drill masters (drill team coaches) agree that riding with a drill team is a fun and exciting way to enjoy horses, and it's a lot more accessible than most people think. Together, they?ll give you an overview of what drill team activity is all about and how to get involved.

H&R: What exactly is a drill team?

Pam: A drill team is a group of people on horseback doing maneuvers to music. Control, timing, synchronization, and precision are important elements of a drill. Drill riding is one of the oldest forms of organized riding. Cavalry soldiers would coordinate as they rode into battle by doing maneuvers such as a ?V? formation. Some groups, like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride, still perform traditional cavalry drills. But, there are also many other types of drill teams.

H&R: What types of drill teams are out there?

Pam: There are rodeo teams that perform short routines at rodeos with lots of speed and spectacular maneuvers. There are color guard teams that present flags. There are also competition drill teams. The United States Equestrian Drill Championship has divisions for rodeo, theme, theatrical, gaited, color guard, and quad (four-person) teams. There are also youth, adult, and mixed age divisions, as well as novice and intermediate.

Debbie: There are formal dressage drill teams called quadrills, teams that drill with carts or carriages, teams that perform drills during dramas on horseback, or even English-riding teams that jump in formation. There are also many teams that don't compete or perform professionally. They ride just for fun.

H&R: There are so many equestrian sports and activities out there; why should drill team interest someone who?s never tried it before?

Pam: There are countless sports you can do by yourself with your horse. Drill team is a way for people who love horses to get together and do something fun. Some people find drill team more appealing than participating in a solo equine sport because of the satisfaction of working as a team.

A drill team also works together to share information. You learn riding techniques and skills from more experienced team members, from your drill master, from other drill teams, and from professional horsemen your team might bring in to teach a clinic.

H&R: So fun and camaraderie are major benefits, but they?re not the only ones?

Debbie: Right. Drill teams improve your skills as a rider, because the patterns require you to be at the right place at the right time. To do this, you have to ride your horse precisely and with control. You learn to rate your horse's speed, make exact turns, and ride accurate patterns, all while being aware of what's going on around you. It's good for your horse's training, because he learns to listen to and obey your every request.

H&R: What kind of maneuvers make up a pattern, and how are they different from what non-drill riders are used to?

Pam: There's a lot of ?close? riding, sometimes literally knee to knee. We cross in front of and behind each other, like during a crossover (also called ?threading the needle?; see the Web icon at the end of this article), where two lines of riders cross on the diagonal from opposite sides of the arena. Riders in one line have to precisely ?hit a hole? in between two horses in the other line to be able to cross through to the other side of the arena.

H&R: It sounds like it could be dangerous. Is it?

Pam: There are risks, just like with any equine sport, but you can reduce them with the acronym HATS: horsemanship, alignment, timing, and spacing. HATS makes your performance look pretty, but it also keeps you safe. Alignment involves being straight and in line with the other horses in the drill. Good timing is achieved by always watching the speed of the riders around you, and making sure you're going fast or slow enough to hit your mark. There's different spacing required for different maneuvers, and you always work to maintain that spacing.

H&R: What if you're not quite sure you're a skilled enough rider to manage all these aspects yet, but you still want to participate in a drill team. Are you out of luck?

Pam: Drill team works well for almost everybody, from kids to adults, and novices to experts. As a rider, you just need to be willing to listen, learn, and try. In most drill teams, whether they?re just-for-fun or competition teams, novices can work at a slower pace and progress until they?re up to speed with the rest of the team. The drill master, an assistant, or more experienced team members will work with less experienced team members.

Most teams walk drills first on foot, then walk them on their horses, then trot, then lope. Teams are usually willing to do what it takes to teach each member the drill. It's another benefit of community: There are many people to instruct and encourage you.

H&R: Are there any basic skills you?d like a horse and rider to have before they come to a practice?

Debbie: It depends on the group. I recommend, and I think most drill masters would too, that you be able to walk, trot, lope, stop, and start with control. These are typical requirements.

Pam: More advanced maneuvers like sidepassing and backing are usually considered ?bonuses,? and most teams will work with you to develop these skills if you and your horse can't already do them.

H&R: What about confidence? Do you have to be a bold, daredevil-type rider?

Debbie: Timid riders will do just fine, as long as they have horses that are right for their ability level. An unsure rider should be matched with a steady, experienced horse. With the right horse, drill team can be a great way to build confidence.

Slowing the pace or starting on a walk/trot team are additional ways to build rider confidence. I think it's more important for a drill team member to get along with others than to be a daredevil. But if you have a personality that tends to blame or criticize others, then it won?t be fun for anyone.

Pam: If you feel afraid, remember that the speed is brisk in drill team, but it's not out of control. It's a fun and exhilarating sport, but it's not supposed to feel like you ran through a hurricane and are lucky to be alive. The focus is on control.

H&R: And my horse? Do I need to have a certain type?

Pam: That's another good thing about drill team. You don't need a $50,000 specialized horse. You just need a well-mannered horse that can do basic skills. You?d be amazed by how many horses do well in drill team. Almost every horse adapts to it and enjoys it.

Some maneuvers, such as ones in which you run toward another horse head-on, can be unsettling to a new horse at first. But just like with anything new you teach a horse, you introduce it gradually and make it easy for him to learn.

Debbie: If a horse is having problems getting along, practice riding around other horses in a ring or on trail rides. You can get your horse used to having other horses in front of, behind, and next to him, as well as moving toward him. Start with at least a horse's length, about 8 feet, between you and other horses, then gradually move closer as your horse adapts.

Always look for signs that your horse isn?t happy, such as pinning his ears, swatting his tail, or swinging his head and showing his teeth. In the rare circumstance in which your horse shows no improvement and continues to put others in danger, you?d need to find a different horse to participate with.

H&R: What's the cost and time commitment involved in drill team participation?

Pam: It varies from team to team. Two practices a week is common, with the practices averaging two hours. Closer to competition or performance time, the practices might be longer.

When it comes to your expenses, many teams require that you have your own horse and transportation, even if that means hauling with another team member. Some teams have loan horses they?ll provide. Membership fees are usually very reasonable.

Costumes, competition entry fees, and travel expenses all vary depending on what type of team you join, and whether you have sponsors or team fundraisers to offset costs.

H&R: How do I find out if there's a team near me?

Pam: Check with your local rodeo association, 4-H, or saddle club, do a Web search for drill teams in your area, or visit the United States Equestrian Drill Association website.

Debbie: Remember, if you can't find a team, make one! If you can get four friends together with their horses, you can form a drill team. Use your imagination, make up patterns, and share ideas. Have a goal, work to improve your riding, and have fun!

PAM BONNER of Van, Texas, is the founder and drill master of the Ghostriders drill team. She's been riding in and coaching drill teams for more than 10 years and is a multiple national champion in a variety of divisions. The Ghostriders are the ?official rodeo drill team of Texas? and have been the national quad team champions for four years in a row.

DEBBIE SAMS owns and operates Springer?s Farm in Broadalbin, New York, where her students ride dressage and English hunt seat. She leads and organizes drill teams and dramas on horseback at her stable and local 4-H camp. She's a certified horseback instructor and the author of 101 Drill Team Exercises for Horse and Rider.

From the April 2010 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.