Spanish styles influence La Vernia horse trainer
Birns stretches the foreleg of PFM Calypso at her facility near La Vernia.
Horse trainer Cyd Birns is making a name for herself for her freestyle work with a garrocha (pole) and practicing doma vaquera, or Spanish dressage. Last year, Birns and her rescue horse, Manu, earned grand champion at the Bluebonnet Rescue Horse Training challenge with only three months’ preparation.
The owner of PFM Enterprises ranch -- a training and rehabilitation facility located between La Vernia and New Berlin (in Guadalupe County) -- explains her unique style and how the “young girl with a love for horses” is living her dream.
While Birns is making her mark in the horse training world today, she admits it was a struggle to get where she is.
Although Birns did not grow up around horses, she had a burning desire to be with them. As a young child, she read horse books, drew pictures, and collected horse figurines. Birns recalled placing second in a show, with a horse described as the “meanest, nastiest mare there.” Afterward, the judge stated she could have won first place if she had the correct lead for her “borrowed” animal. But for Birns, she “had no earthly idea” what the judge was talking about.
The young horse lover showed and trained dogs during her junior high and high school days. Birns continued training dogs through college, flight training, and into the U.S. Air Force.
“It was when I was a T38 student that I finally got my first horse,” Birns said. She said a flight instructor who was being transferred and the instructor’s wife “had a horse that they weren’t going to be taking, and I found myself the uneducated owner of a thoroughbred/appaloosa cross stallion.” This was back in 1982-83, and she received pointers from another instructor to help her with the racehorse.
Birns admitted racing was always her “first love when it came to horses.”
“I don’t know what the other kids my age were doing, but I’d be watching the Triple Crown races,” Birns said. “I watched a Canonero II race and I was there to see and hear the call of the announcer of Secretariat’s Belmont feat, ‘He’s running like a machine.’ It was thrilling to me and the ultimate test of a horse, so being on a racetrack [after getting her first horse] was fine with me.”
In 1987, she bought a place near La Vernia and started her own line of horses. Soon, she found herself training horses for others only as a sideline, due to her active-duty status and later, flying professionally.
“I quit listening to people and started paying more attention to the horses; that’s when I really started ‘my stamp’ on horses I trained,” she said. “The training was easy; it was fast and every horse was solid.”
As natural horsemanship methods became popular, Birns “absolutely steadfastly refused to say that I ‘do natural horsemanship’ training,” she said.
“I say there is no such thing as natural horsemanship -- horses were never meant to carry anything, let alone people, on their backs, so there is absolutely nothing we do that is natural -- starting with keeping a horse in captivity,” Birns said. “If one learns the language of the horse and speaks it with them ... then things are ‘easy.’”
Finding her style
Birns also discovered a love for garrocha work and Spanish dressage, called doma vaquera, as she developed her training and horsemanship skills.
Garrocha is what the Spaniards use instead of roping, Birns said.
“In Spain, cowboys (vaqueros) do not rope cows, let alone bulls,” Birns said. “They feel it’s a foolish thing to be ‘attached’ to a big animal that might want to kill you and your horse, so they sort cows/bulls with a pole: a garrocha.”
Birns also said the term dressage originated from the French word dresser, which means to train.
“Dressage, or training to high levels of responsiveness, was pretty important when war was conducted on horseback, which is where so many of those ‘fancy’ moves come from,” she said. “Well, working livestock essentially isn’t any different, especially in Spain, where bulls that want to fight are premier.”
She explained that ranchers in the United States breed good bucking stock -- bulls and horses -- which “fetches big money, as do bulls (in Spain) that they know will put on a good show.” Birns continued, saying, “With that in mind, as the young bulls are growing they are of course tended to, tested, and worked by the vaqueros using the garrocha. They [vaqueros] will knock a bull down -- if it gets up ready to fight, it stays; if it runs back to the herd, it is culled.”
Garrocha has “become an art form unto itself, where no livestock is required [in order] to show the beauty and grace of ballet or dancing with the garrocha,” Birns said.
Birns warns that although garrocha looks “easy -- especially when done correctly,” the art form requires managing the pole without hitting yourself or the horse, or dropping the pole, while managing the horse. Getting the animal “to bend and wind around and over and under the pole, with fluid grace, qualifies it as living art,” she said.
According to Birns, garrocha is never done at the trot, but at walk and gallop only. In the United States, exhibitions are held.
Birns also is involved with doma vaquera. Since she is self-trained, she did not realize this was the style she used. Birns said she trained “looking for lightness and responsiveness with the horse, a oneness -- regardless of whether the horse was going to be a pleasure/trail horse or working the event circuit; the foundation work was the same.”
One of the styles of Spanish equitation, doma vaquera is the classical arena representation of the skills and movements used daily by vaqueros on working ranches or the open countryside.
Birns competed in the Bluebonnet Rescue Horse Training Challenge Oct. 20 at the Travis County Expo Center in Austin. See “Trainers compete in rescue horse training challenge” for more, below.