“What are we going to do with our western horse?” it’s a question my husband asked me several times as our son prepared to go to college. “We’re gonna sell him right?” My husband would say, expectantly. I would only shrug and say “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
However, all along I secretly knew that I wanted to learn to ride western. Cowboy, or “Potato” as we call him at the barn, is a beefy American Quarter Horse. Quiet, fun-loving, very mouthy but all in all, a very solid guy. I come from the hunter-jumper world and I ride a fire-hot red thoroughbred mare. Every ride with her is a compromise. And often just surviving is a great day. Cowboy on the other hand seemed simple, dull from the outside looking in, watching my son Hayden navigate complex trail patterns. But what I found out was that he is a really well-schooled competitor. I really wanted my chance. My joke had always been, trail is like jumping without the threat of death. How hard could riding western be? I thought I’d just hop up on that big comfy saddle and be an expert right away. Wow was I ever wrong. Just like riding English both are technical and both take practice but that’s where the similarities end. Oy! Nothing will humble you faster than trying to hoist that thousand-pound saddle onto your horse while trying to avoid getting smacked in the face with a large leather stirrup. My first ride was tough, thank goodness for my incredibly patient trainer Kellie Hinely of Trendsetter Performance Horses in Chino Hills. She basically had to tell me to abandon all the things I’d learned from riding for 40 years and learn all new ones. Well, that concept was completely overwhelming.
Spurs mean go slow not fast. The inside leg is basically not used. No inside leg to outside hand which has been ingrained in my brain from all those years of hunter-jumper lessons. Hand down not up. And hey, did I mention you ride with one hand and crazy long reins. Sweat has poured. Tears have been shed. The lope was a whole new subject. English riders feel the canter by the push from behind, guess what, western horses are so smooth I barely could tell I was doing it. Kellie would say go with the motion. I felt no motion at all so, I had to fake it till I made it on feeling that gait. The frustration is real. Poor cowboy.
Trail is hard. It’s super technical with so much nuance that trying not to get in his way is a goal for a lot further along the road than I’d like to admit here. Trying not to grip with my legs as I bounce out of the saddle doing trot poles is still a challenge. Then there’s loping over poles. Leaning forward at the poles gives new meaning to the phrase sit back, as I learned on a 90˚ day on my third try. Cowboy had finally suffered long enough and as I leaned forward for the raised pole he flat out stopped hard. He proceeded to teach me a lesson on body position for the next five or six tries. Ultimately ending with an attempt that was at the very least good enough. There’s just a natural instinct that takes over and my body and mind are constantly at war. Then there’s this obstacle. As I call it, the wheel of death. Somehow without an inside leg, you have to navigate a circle of poles sitting back hand forward, and staying slow but with impulsion. The barn joke for me is that I need to make the wheel my B-tch. We may have to make t-shirts. Ha ha.
Now having been at it for a little over a year and a half, I can say I’m having a blast learning a new aspect of the sport I have loved so much. I’m excited to get to the barn. My barn friends are great and Cowboy has definitely become my favorite ride of the week, but don’t tell my other horse Lucy that.
To finish, I’ll let you English riders in on another big difference. Getting off of a western saddle can be tricky. Unlike getting off of an English saddle, there’s a horn. So as I gently leaned forward ready to propel myself gracefully to the ground my sports bra hooked over the horn and as I got closer to the ground pulled my bra and shirt up exposing EVERYTHING!! Of course, as I dangled topless from my horse while a huge lesson was going on means that now I’m even closer to my barn family in a way they never expected. Thank goodness for my friend Tracy Beck who helped lift me enough so I could unhook.
Learning to ride western has been very humbling.
By Pam Moeck