What is it like to be a dressage rider in Cody, Wyoming, just outside Yellowstone National Park in the state's northwest corner--the self-proclaimed "Rodeo Capital of the World"?
I could start by talking about the weather. Winter, which lasts around nine months here, features fierce winds and January temperatures in the minus-20 range. Our Heart Mountain Dressage Club is lucky to have three members with indoor arenas where we can practice and hold schooling shows and clinics. Our horses get used to hearing the arena walls and rafters squeak and shudder when the Wyoming wind is "blowing nine-oh" (90 mph). Because most of the state is arid, we don't get much snow--unless we have a clinic or show scheduled for a particular weekend, when snow is almost a certainty.
Our horses also don't always fit the typical dressage profile. Of the riders who formed the club in 1989, and those who've joined since, many used their old ranch horses for the first foray into the world of dressage. When I joined Heart Mountain five years ago, my equine partner was an 18-year-old, 15.2 hh Arabian/Quarter Horse whose earlier careers included wilderness packing for hunters. In addition to Arabians and Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, Foxtrotters and even Norwegian Fjords have been ridden by club members.
And then there's the distance. A serious rider here who wants to compete in recognized dressage shows must be prepared to travel. One-way drive time of six hours brings six or seven shows within reach each year. By driving nine or ten hours, we increase our options with shows in northern Colorado and eastern Washington.
Finally, we're surrounded by a definitely Western equestrian culture that makes it hard to promote the art and sport of dressage. There's a rodeo every single night in Cody from June 1 to August 31. Our members are constantly being 'joshed' for wearing a helmet instead of a Stetson, and one rider's cowboy friends characterized her dressage togs as "wearing her long underwear on the outside."
All of these factors have made our progress slow-but it is happening. It was 10 years after the Heart Mountain club's organization that it was ready to put on its first USDF-recognized show. The same year-1999-two Heart Mountain members qualified for the Regional Championships for the first time. Now that some of our members have a little more knowledge and experience under their belts, they've moved up to horses that they hope will take them to the next level. Most of these "next level" horses have come from two local Warmblood breeders, Jennifer Dimmers (who has a number of approved Belgian mares) and Wybar Farm, which specializes in Dutch Warmbloods. I have a lovely three-year-old filly out of my half-Arabian mare, by a Swedish Warmblood stallion who stands in Riverton, Wyoming. We try to bring a Grand Prix-level instructor in several times a year to allow our local trainers and upper-level riders to continue to progress. For the past couple of years, we've been fortunate to be able to work fairly regularly with South African native David Macmillan, currently based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
We know we can't change the cowboy culture overnight, but we're trying to make an impression one cowboy at a time. Most of our schooling shows include a Cowboy Dressage class, in which riders can give dressage a try by doing one of the USDF Introductory (walk/trot) tests using the tack and clothing with which they feel most comfortable. The only requirement is that a USDF-approved bit be used.
My own part in this story is a little different. When I decided to switch disciplines from Western (rodeo entries and wilderness horse-packing trips) to dressage in 1998, I found that the English togs I'd worn in my teen years back in Connecticut didn't fit any more. I couldn't find anywhere other than catalogues to get the clothing and equipment I needed, so I started an English tack shop. At first it was a part-time business occupying one room in my home about six miles outside Cody. Two years ago I left my corporate job and moved the tack shop, called Horse Creek, downtown. To my knowledge, I operate one of only two stores specializing in English tack and apparel in all of Wyoming. I was tickled recently when a local cowboy (a regular contestant in bronc-riding events and-when one of his body parts isn't broken-a horse trainer) came in to shop for an all-purpose English saddle for training colts.
For more information, visit the Heart Mountain Dressage Club at www.hmdc.vcn.com.
Read about how more dressage clubs thrive in challenging circumstances, in the "You Can Do It!" column of the July 2003 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.