Back in the good old days.
I have just been watching an old black and white movie called ‘Red River’ starring John Wayne. The story is par for the course, but obviously there are lots of cowboys filmed riding working horses herding beef.
The horses look to be about 15 hands and they are very active, with sliding stops and all that business.
Now in real life did those guys really gallop up and slide stop dead on the spot?
In my opinion most of the actor/riders would not pass a modern Western dressage/ riding test. The horse’s noses are up in the air and they are reacting against some pretty heavy handed bits by shaking their heads. There is no subtleness in the way of riding of the actors.
Now, was this the way things really were or was it the way some film director wanted to display the scene?
A young Clint Eastwood was a Western rider who’s style of riding I would have loved to follow. He sits tall, his hands are quiet and he gallops sitting upright and firm in the saddle.
Is he or was he an exception to the rule?
How does the standard of the modern day cowboy riding compare?
Many ranchers had cattle carrying spanish blood. These cattle didn't rise to their feet like a Hereford, they were up like deer and running. It was imperative that everything was done to keep the cattle calm to prevent a stampede. The hard stop in Hollywood was done for drama. Next time check how many horses have their mouth wide open. I watched a western whereby about 20 riders were galloping in desert country with rock and cactus. The camera was filming from a distance to get all the riders. I realized that the extras were not very skilled as riders and the horses turned into runaways, the cowboys glued to the horn.
From what I have read, the wranglers providing horses for Hollywood riders often use(d) American Quarter Horses or crossbred QHs because they were tolerant of the riders. In other words, they would do their jobs despite the poor riders. The wranglers get a couple of hours with the riders to teach them how to stay on. I think it's rare that the actors are already good riders.
John Wayne was actually a good rider.
Keep in mind that the way prople rode back 50 years ago is not who they ride today. You can see this in just watching videos of shows from back then to now. So you can not judge good or bad riding based on what you see in these shows. One they are just that shows. Then add in it was just a different time and way of training.
Actually, that was fairly close to how things WERE done. See the pictures below from around 1900-1910:
All pictures from Erwin E. Smith Collection Guide | Collection Guide
The Erwin E. Smith Collection is the best collection of photographs I've seen of working cowboys from that era. It is well worth browsing - but you will see a lot of high held hands, high heads, etc.
Now, they didn't race up and suddenly stop and dismount mid-stop just for fun. THAT is Hollywood! And much of the time on a cow pony was walking:
But they were not dressage riders, and many were not interested in fine riding. Most cowboys of the day were young. They had a hard life, and their animals shared it. Teddy Roosevelt, writing about ranching in the 1880s, distinguished between horses you owned personally and broke for your use, and ranch horses supplied to the cowboys - that were broken in 3-4 rides in a few days by professionals.
In their defense, I doubt they were all that abusive of the mouth. There was a lot of slack rein time. But when they wanted to stop, the horse had better stop. And given what could happen if a horse didn't stop, I don't blame them.
Also, the dressage idea of collection isn't really the end all of riding. I've never seen any empirical data showing that collected gaits make a horse live longer or function better. Nor is a dressage headset a good idea covering rough ground at speed.
It might be that we know better now, but it also might be that the riding style they used was appropriate for the type horses they had and the work conditions they faced. I've never tried to push 2,000 steers thru unknown country for hundreds of miles. I've never ridden a half-broke horse for 24 hours straight in pee-poor weather, knowing that a fall could kill me. I'd be very careful before assuming we know vastly more than they did then. In some areas (jumping comes to mind), we DO know a lot more than a rider in the 1860s. But what most of us do not know is what the riders of the time really faced, day-to-day.
Good point on the differences in training nrha. I was looking at old issues of the QH Journal & Western Horseman (50's to current) of my grandfather's not too long ago and the difference in reining horses then and now is miles apart. Then they stopped with their heads in the air and much heavier handed riders. Evolution of the sport in photos is pretty cool to see.
Another neat picture:
Cowboy rounding up a cow and her calf somewhere in the "cow country"., 1906-1910
Not much has changed from those pics to stuff I see around here.
You gotta give those old time cowboys credit. They got a horse that didn't know anything and HAD to get a job done. They didn't have weeks to train the horse, they didn't do weeks of groundwork before getting on, they didn't worry about headset, they didn't care about proper leads or any of that. They cared about their next paycheque.
My dad, for an example, is stuck in old western cowboy mode. He's a great rider, has a super duper seat, but he rides with that now frowned-upong heavy hand that all cowboys used to ride with.
Here's a 2 year old he broke:
I do not think those cowboys where as heavy handed as you might think. Did they ride like we do today? No by todays standards they might be heavy handed but in reality I doubt they really where.
Just take a look at horses from 50 years ago compaired today. It really is hard to compair them. I would look at it like this. Babe Ruth it has been said that he was the greatest B-ball player ever. I would argue that while he was a great player and little doubt he was the best of hie era. If you took him and put him in a lineup today I would bet good money that he would have a very hard time even hitting the ball today. It is a different game in many ways today. Same goes for horses.
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