Dare to be different – Dare to be free

Eitan Beth-Halachmy and Cowboy Dressage

Spotlight from the darkness on a small western Morgan stallion and the quiet cowboy who rides him.  The cheers and whistles of the crowd suddenly still as the music plays and the dance begins.  The little Morgan piaffes in place, the light reflecting off the silver curb bit and conchos on the polished western saddle.  The music changes, and the stallion passages, the ground of the arena suddenly falling away behind him as his extends and his strides lengthen and reach forward in a powerful extended trot. His white-shirted rider sits motionless in the saddle, in quiet rhythm and harmony with his horse.  Perfect suppleness of shoulder as the little horse moves sidepasses to the right at a canter. A flying change and then canter sidepass to the left to salute the crowd at the other end.  A slow dressage spin as he canter pirouettes in place, revolving slowly in one direction, before an effortless flying change heralds the pirouette in the other.  The crowd holds its breath: this is a difficult movement from advanced dressage, seldom seen amongst western horses.  Still no movement, no leaning back, no sign of driving or spurring from his rider, only a quiet fire and the thrill of exhilaration burning from his intense eyes.  The little horse carries himself proudly and confidently, only the lightest of contact through the bowed reins to the silver curb bit connecting the cowboy’s quiet hands to the mouth of the sensitive stallion beneath him.  The crowd roars in appreciation as the little horse suddenly spins around, his long tail flying out behind him, faster and faster to the last bars of San Antonio Rose.  And then it is over.  Horse and rider stand motionless on a slack rein against the deafening applause that thunders around them.

Dare to be different.  Dare to dream.  Eitan Beth-Halachmy and his Morgan stallion Holiday Compadre are well known all over the United States for their special brand of horsemanship to music known as Cowboy Dressage.  Neither a dressage kür nor a freestyle reining performance, Cowboy Dressage is a style of riding that blends both the beauty and control of classical dressage with the speed and excitement of reining. Cowboy Dressage brings a new dimension of elegance and finesse to the western style of riding, combining the discipline and control of the European dressage discipline with the looser style and freedom of the American cowboy.  It is a unique style of riding that gives great freedom and scope for creativity that is as individual and unusual as the man who pioneered it.  It has special appeal for those who have been raised in the classical tradition but love the freedom and romance of the western style of riding.  For riders who love both disciplines and thereby do not easily fit into the purist camps of either, Eitan and Compadre have been liberators, giving the ”misfits” legitimacy and acceptance.  The quiet Israeli horse trainer and his stallion are invited back year after year to perform at several prestigious events throughout the United States, including Equitana USA, Dressage in the Wine Country, National Western Livestock and Horse Show, Eq West and Equine Affaire, just to name a few.  In the last 10 years he has become well known and respected, both as a horseman and as an entertainer in the equine industry. A successful exhibitor and trainer of western Morgans, as well as a popular instructor, Eitan and his American-born wife Debbie live outside Sacramento, California at their ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  There they train show and pleasure horses of all breeds, show Morgan horses and breed a few for their own enjoyment.  Their story is a fascinating one, and it starts with a young boy growing up in Israel dreaming of becoming a cowboy.


Eitan Beth-Halachmy was born in Israel, and grew up there at a time when horses were considered a necessity, not a hobby or luxury.  Most of the horses were either Arabians or cross-breds, and horses, mules and donkeys were used almost exclusively for farming and transportation.  Riding a horse in a field on a Sunday was a special treat.  Despite the lack of organized riding clubs and horse groups, Eitan nevertheless started to ride at a very young age, the first time as a six year old boy on the occasion of his mother’s funeral. The sheriff of the local town had taken pity on the bereaved boy, and lifted him up on to his grey Arabian to try to cheer him.  It was an experience that changed the boy’s life.  From then on, he could not get enough of horses.  He would wait by the side of the road for carriages, the milk cart, —  anybody who had horses and might let an eager child spend time around them.

It is surprising how many Israeli’s are into horses now. In my time it was a rarity. Now it has become very popular. Reining and Western are very popular in Israel now.

A turning point came when Eitan was thirteen and his school visited the Israeli National Stud.  It was here that he first met Adam George, the Hungarian cavalry officer and director of the Israeli National Stud who would become the boy’s mentor  (In Israel, all horses were managed by the government.  All types of horses were stood there. During the breeding season the stallions were sent to breeding stations around the country where people would bring their mares to be bred.)  While studying at an Israeli agricultural school where he used horses to work crops, plow fields and mow hay, the young Eitan would spend all of his available free time journeying frequently to the National Stud to spend time with George, who trained him and instilled the foundation in classical dressage upon which he would later build his hallmark riding style.

”Adam George and the Stallion Station were about 100 miles from school. I had advanced from stable boy to managing and running all the horses at my school. I would take one of our Arabs and ride it to visit Adam. It was not my horse but I would pretend that it was. With my position I had privileges that few others had with the school’s horses. When the horse was not available I would take a bus.  I would stay with Adam for days at a time. He taught me many things. Eventually he would let me exercise the stallions at the breeding station. This is the relationship I had for 3 years. The 4th and final year of school I transferred to a school next to the station. I stayed there another year after I graduated.  During this time I was learning about being a horseman. I got my “saddle time” — lots of miles – literally! – in the saddle. I developed an understanding of horses. I was not an advanced rider by any means but the foundation was laid.  At about this time in my life I also met an Arab Bedouin at a fair. His name was Sheik Solumen. We became friends. I used to go and visit him in the desert. He had some beautiful horses!”

While still in Israel, an admiration for and love of the life and work of the American cowboy was born through the western films that called across the oceans and drew the young boy like a magnet.  The mystique of the cowboy sank deep into Eitan’s spirit, and he yearned for the special understanding that would grow up between him and one special horse, riding extraordinary displays of harmony between horse and rider against the magnificent natural backdrop of the American West.


But the time was not yet.  He went on to Austria to study at the University of Vienna, spending endless hours studying, observing and asking questions at the Spanish Riding School and building upon the foundation that Adam George had laid.  He was struck by the harmony between horse and rider displayed at the School, and felt an instant affinity for the philosophy and work ethic he found there, learning and absorbing knowledge and experience like a sponge, from both the bereitere and the grooms who had a remarkable knowledge and willingness to share it.  Many of them had served at the school for many years, and seen many good horsemen come and go.  A special highlight for Eitan was the time when he was finally permitted to lead one of the stallions to drink!  The Spanish Riding School made a powerful impression on Eitan, and formed a cornerstone in the young rider’s own foundation in horsemanship .

”The thing that impressed me most at the Spanish Riding School was the harmony between horse and rider. The horse and rider were separate yet the same. The idea of putting music with riding appealed to me and still does today. The discipline and finesse of the riders impressed me. It was such a long journey from beginner to accomplished horseman. I felt an affinity there – I too had been raised to observe a strong work ethic. It was to be a corner stone in my horsemanship foundation. Look for a good horseman and you will find a patient man. When I watched the “masters” work horses, I set a very high standard for myself. A seed was planted and a quest for knowledge about the higher level of horsemanship was like blood that flowed in my veins. All that I observed at the Spanish Riding School and later learned is part of my training program today.


It was when he moved to California to continue his studies at the University of California at Davis that Eitan finally acknowledged that what he really wanted to do in life was to train horses. He began to train and show western Morgans, and was very soon noticed for the outstanding performances and allroundedness of his show horses.  He also worked both cattle and sheep, studying the life of the cowboy in greater depth as it related to the understanding and relationship between man and his working partner, the horse:

”I was fascinated by the cowboy’s relationship with his horse. They were partners. Their lives and well being depended on each other. Each held the other’s fate. Even if you ride 10 horses a day there is always that special one…the one you bond with and look forward to. My interest in cowboys started in Israel. Cowboys lived a life of adventure, they lived by the seat of their pants. Cowboys were free spirited, their “word” was good. He was free……that appealed to me. One man, one horse and the whole world was out there waiting for the two of them to make their way.

He trained horses simply for pleasure, not profit, winning World and National titles in the show horse world with a number of different horses.  His own stallion Holiday Compadre was the World Champion Western Pleasure Horse both in 1993 and 1996.  Though the popular wisdom of the day suggested that one could have either a “show horse” or a “pleasure horse” but not both in one and the same horse, the Beth-Halachmy horses came to be known both as quality show horses and solid trail companions. Eitan:

I have always trained my horses as “complete” horses. I train my pleasure horses no different than I train my show horses.  Every World Champion we have has also been a good trail horse. It is part of our program….. it keeps all involved happy and mentally fit.


However, it was his quiet style of riding, the harmony he attained with the horse and the willingness with which horses would perform for him that arrested people and soon had them seeking him out as a trainer.  Eitan brought a sensitivity and artistic dimension to western riding, and Cowboy Dressage was born when Eitan was invited to do a musical performance to music played by a live orchestra at the prestigious Kansas City Royal Horse Show in Kansas City, Missouri.  It struck a chord with the American horse public, and they were soon receiving requests to perform at numerous different venues.  Debbie Beth-Halachmy remembers:

“He was not a man to draw attention to himself. He was very quiet, a loner type. As quiet as he was, he was noticed. He won a lot of ribbons, but the ribbon did not seem to be the goal. It was the performance…. his horses did most of his talking for him, I think.”

”When ever he was on a horse people would stop what ever they were doing and just watch him. Few understood what he was doing, but all knew they were seeing something unique and special. Eitan is a complex man as artists usually are. The public began to make requests and demands from him. One thing led to another and here we are.  I told him once that God had given him a gift and that sharing it was not a choice but an obligation…….. he understands that and shares all he knows. He can connect with a crowd or a student as well as his horses.”


Eitan Beth-Halachmy prefers Morgans and Saddlebreds, horses that are not commonly associated with either classical dressage or western, valuing them for their charisma, intelligence and showiness.  His principal show and demonstration horse is the Morgan stallion Holiday Compadre, and in 2002 Eitan will be introducing a new partner, the palomino Saddlebred stallion Galahad Golden Warrior, or “Trigger”, as Eitan calls him.  When evaluating a prospect, Eitan looks first at the “inside” of horse, seeking first and foremost an individual of character that displays charisma, heart, and a good work ethic; thereafter an animal with three good gaits, capable of working off the back end and “carrying the front like a great ship in troubled seas”.  His horses must also be able to cope with the stresses and strains of travel and performing before noisy and enthusiastic crowds:

“I like an up headed horse with a nice hook at the throat and poll. He has to carry a bridle well. Morgans and Saddlebreds suit my personality. They are show horses, peacocks. When they enter an arena, they own the place. The charisma in these horses radiates to a crowd. They are beautiful horses that appeal to the eye. They are very smart and easily trained. Honest too. I like a horse that is light on the front end. One you can pick up and move. I call Morgans and Saddlebreds “uphill horses.” I respect Quarter Horses and admire them. I have ridden and trained many in my life. They are more of a “downhill” horse. You have to spend a lot of time picking up the front end to do what I do. Morgans and Saddlebreds come by it naturally.

Nor will the trainer sacrifice any stage or necessary time in the training of the horse for the expediency of the moment or to start a horse ready for a show that he does not feel the animal is ready for.  Both Eitan and Debbie stand firm on taking the time it takes, knowing that the best and most consistent results will always come from the horse that has been carefully started and who is ready and mature enough to do the job that is asked of him.

“While showing horses is a lot of fun, the shadow side of it is that competition does not always bring out the best in people. Often the horse will suffer for the sake of a win. Deadlines…. but a horse does not wear a watch, so time means little to him. When the job is done the job is done. When someone comes to me and says, “I want a horse ready by this date for this competition I tell them it is up to the horse. I will do my part and he will have to do his. When you are under the gun you do things you should not to meet the demand. Bad choices are made and the horse often suffers. I think that is what bothers me most. Few trainers today have patience. They want everything now!!


While he was trained in classical riding and uses the principles of classical dressage to put a foundation on his horses, Eitan does not consider himself to be a dressage competitor or a traditional horseman.  His Cowboy Dressage performances are all “freehand” and he creates many of his own movements – they have no formal name and do not necessarily belong to any accepted discipline.  In selecting their music, the Beth-Halachmys often use music that makes people feel “up”.  In contrast to the confines of competition dressage’s kür, none of Eitan’s performances are choreographed, but are born of imagination and the unhampered flow of communication and understanding between horse and rider.

“We like some of the older music that bring back memories for people. The shows are mostly instinctive. You have to read an audience in seconds and then try to give them what they want. Some are easier than others. I have learned that with some audiences you can not wait for them to respond. You have to go get them and give them no choice but to participate. It is called showmanship and is a ”seat of your pants” kind of performing .Each movement is decided by the moment. It is true unity with your horse…..not a rehearsed or drilled presentation.. When my horse is not “on”, I have to carry him and give more of myself to the crowd. He does the same for me. Sometimes he calls the shots and it is his show. I am just a long for the ride. Compadre knows his job. He can read an audience as well as I can.


Though there was some skepticism at first, especially from the dressage community, Eitan and Compadre’s Cowboy Dressage has clearly struck a chord of understanding with the American horse public who appreciate the novelty and pure entertainment value of Eitan’s unusual show.

He has been judged harshly on occasion for the times that there have been technical errors in the quality of the maneuvers; however, Eitan is not so concerned so much with the technical perfection of a given movement as he is with the harmony between him and his horse and the connection between him and his audience.  He is a showman, riding not to win points but to win hearts and imaginations, to inspire his audience them such that they go home enriched and equipped with hope and new ideas to work with their own horses, regardless of breed.

Some Dressage people love what I do and some don’t like it at all.  There are still those that judge with that “critical” eye and find the faults of my performances. Technically there may be some. Spiritually there are not.  I do not ride for the score, I ride for the harmony. A good ride to me is the electricity I create with my audience. The energy and connection I can make. I like to be able to reach out and touch them by what I am doing. Horsemanship comes from the heart.”


His audiences sense a deeper dimension in Eitan and Compadre’s performances, a spiritual connection between man and horse that kindles their imaginations and moves them, many of them to tears. Carrie Craddock, once a spectator in the stands, now Eitan’s business manager, explains:

”When Eitan is riding Compadre right at me in a performance, I get very choked up, even after watching them for years.  There is so much heart energy flowing from them. There is a spiritual union between Eitan and Compadre that bypasses any feeling I have had from any other rider and horse combination. When Eitan is riding Compadre straight towards me in a performance, an incredible joy rises up from my heart. Eitan teases me because I get all teared up!

For others, Cowboy Dressage is a beacon in the dark, the warm hand of acceptance in an environment of misunderstanding and rejection  Horsemen who enjoy aspects of both the classical and western riding disciplines, yet ride the “wrong” breeds of horses, or do not feel at home exclusively in the purist ranks of either camp are encouraged and find a champion and a voice in Eitan and Compadre.

“For every cowboy or horse person who wanted to learn but felt intimidated by dressage or uncomfortable in its circles, I have given them a place to go. I have given those that have practiced training dressage cowboy style some recognition. It is like coming out of the closet so to speak…..we are here, we exist and we love what we do.  Now the ice is breaking and all levels and disciplines recognize that this is not about being a Cowboy or a Dressage Rider. It is about Harmony and Horsemanship. Who could argue with that?


Trained as he is in classical dressage, Eitan has no quarrel with it, instead choosing to draw on the best qualities of both disciplines in developing his own unique style and brand of riding and training.

I feel there is no conflict between the two styles of riding.  When you combine the both of them you find a place in the middle and you become a better horseman with a happier horse.  Both the Cowboy and the Military had a job to do. The horse was the tool.  A better understanding of the horse made for a better tool.  Both are horsemen and the thread that unites them is the horse.

“Let’s just say if there is not a common thread between the two camps….there should be. Every time someone throws a leg over a horse, there is a common thread. Each camp uses their hands, seat, legs and mind to communicate with their horse. Each has a job to do and a goal to accomplish, be it for competition or pleasure. How we get from point A to point B may be different but we get there just the same. A horse doesn’t learn any better because you ride in cowboy boots or dressage boots, a hat or a helmet, a dressage or western saddle. He learns because of who you are. The trappings are simply trappings.


Just as with the Grand Prix dressage horse, training a horse to perform consistently in Cowboy Dressage takes years, and the time must be taken to establish a solid foundation.  Furthermore, much of the charisma of the show horse in the entertainment industry is borne in the horse’s spirit, and while training his colts, Eitan goes to the utmost lengths to ensure that the spirit of the horse is preserved.  He is a great believer in the benefits of trail riding for getting a horse fit, putting condition on him and developing his mind while still keeping him interested and happy to work for the trainer.

“It is a terrible thing to take the spirit out of a horse. My pet peeve is drilling.  I try to develop and maintain spirit. Drilling can make a horse resentful at times. I have three people who do nothing but trail ride my horses for me. They are apprentices here at the ranch. Sometimes a trail ride is used to warm up or cool down a horse.  We have mountains here on the ranch so they are a perfect place to condition a horse without souring him in the arena. You can do a lot of training on the trail also. When you are out on the trail and put a leg on a horse to move in one direction or another to get around a tree or obstacle, he understands it. It makes sense to him. Making sense to a horse helps him learn faster and stay happier. I use a lot of my natural environment for my training aids.

This also goes back to the ‘insides” of a horse. I try to pick horses that are mentally suitable. Talent without the mind gets you a sour horse. Horses are like people….they have work ethics. Some are better than others. I try to pick a ”want to” horse….not a ”do I have to?” horse. That way I do not have to take much spirit out, I try to enhance what is there and allow it to shine through. I am a spirited person. I understand how important that is. I would quit before I stole it from a horse.

Like a Dressage horse it takes years to develop a finished horse. I do not ask for the precision or perfection so it can come along quicker but time and patience is your friend here and should be handled as such.”


I think it is very hard to condition a horse in a arena. You need to take him out and make him work, work hard. If you do this slowly, build muscle going up and down hills, teach him to move forward and engaged at the trot for long distances you build an athlete. You have to create the horse before you create the movement. When you do this the “lightness” comes. The self carriage develops. When you have a horse that is physically prepared to do the job mentally and physically he can do more with less effort on your part. 

The old California vaquero who cowboyed in California created the bridle horse. These horses were taught to carry themselves and a bridle a distinctive way. It is said that you could tell a “bridle horse” a mile away by its carriage. Perhaps that is what you see in my horses. Again it is the combination of two different schools of horse training that I put together to create my particular style of horse.


The quiet Israeli horse trainer walks his talk.  In riding and training his horses, he takes the best of both worlds and combines them for the best of his horse.  Neither a reining or dressage competitor, Eitan is free to do as he pleases and create whatever he wants.  He trains according to the principles of dressage, and much time is spent in teaching the horse to carry himself, so important both to the western horse and the dressage horse.  Eitan trains methodically and with purpose:

From the first day I get on a horse I have in mind what I am shooting for. I want to create forward motion from day one. I ride a lot of circles, I make a lot of turns. I do not use a straight line in the beginning. A straight line creates speed, not power. I use the fence as my hands, allowing it to stop the horse or slow him. I use consistent body movements when approaching the fence that the horse will identify with a stop. I stop him farther from the fence as lessons progress Eventually he will earn to slow or stop from body signals with little use of hands. “Timing” is the name of the game. A cue has to be given at the right time. You can explain to people how to cue a horse but when to cue him comes form feeling the horse and understanding the mechanics of movement.

My goal is to be able to pick a horse up off the ground. Many ride a horse into the ground. If you can pick them up you are then able to send them any where you want. 

Harmony is my ultimate goal. I do not want to have to signal a horse to tell him what I want. I want him to be able to read my mind. I just think what I want and he is there for me. It is called a “partnership.” Perhaps that is what you see between myself and my horses that makes us different, a spiritual communication, not a programmed performance.”


They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and the Beth Halachmys are no exception. Debbie is Eitan’s right hand man, and takes care of all of the practical details of running the ranch.  She wears many hats: wife, companion, confidante, accountant, press agent, photographer, gopher, secretary, groom, critic, visionary and muse.  As well as a horse trainer, Eitan is also an accomplished sculptor and amateur film maker, already having produced Wolf Creek Ranch’s three existing videos on Cowboy Dressage and Eitan’s training methods.  Between them, the couple has three grown children and one grandchild, and already amongst them the horse nuts are beginning to crop up.  Over the years, they have developed a solid and devoted clientele that have stayed loyally with them. They have visited Israel, where many horse people know of Eitan, and the couple receive many calls from young people who want to come and apprentice with him.  Neither of them is afraid of hard work, and they continue to push their parameters and horizons to the limit as they discover and capitalize on new opportunities for the artistic expression of the man to horse relationship that unites and drives them both.  Debbie explains:

“I guess it is easiest to say that Eitan does everything that is done on a horse and I do everything that is done off a horse. We are partners, a team. I drive, I drive hard.  Someone once said the opportunity was disguised as hard work so people frequently passed it by. It left a big impression on me when I heard it.  I remember once he was asked to do a performance across country. I called him on his cell phone as he was returning from a horse show. I told him of the request and he said “no”. I called back and told them he would love to. It turned out to be a turning point in our lives. 

We live a full life and seem to “push the envelope” often, as they say. The longer we live the more simple things bring us joy. Knowing you have grown “wise” is a great joy. Living your life in love with what you do is a great joy. Having a partner to share your joy with is the greatest joy.

Disappointments? In the scope of things, few. At the time, some things may seem like they were less than desirable, but looking back, we always over came our disappointments. You move on, you learn. Pretty simple.

“Our hopes for the future?  To live long and healthy…..there is just to much to learn, share and do. There is so much we still want to do. I want to make horse movies…I want to continue to create, to explore … push the envelope!! We are so busy that at times I think I am too old for this. But I can’t stop…….it is very hard work but very rewarding!” 

Red rock formations against a big painted sky.  Cool running water over rocks in the wilderness.  The steel shod hoof that picks a way carefully upstream,.  The man and his horse in the wilderness, separate yet belonging, on center stage before their Maker, against their plains, their desert, their mountains and their sky.  The living room walls fall away with the music, the camera as the liberator releasing the captive to his dreams.  He rides with the free spirits as they fill up the screen.  He feels the rushing water, smells the fragrant flowers, thrills to the power and beauty of the creature that carries him.  Now he is riding there with them, in the desert, in the mountains, through the rivers and the streams. His soul hails to freedom, and for once he dares to dream.

by Jennifer C. Chisholm-Hoibraten

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