Whenever this topic of Western v English comes up - and it is a regular topic on the Forum - I think of a trail riding centre in Wales whose major business is to introduce youngsters to the joys of horse riding. The centre owns 60 or more common horses and fits them up with English tack. Yet the registered riding instructors to whom I have brought attention to the operational system used by the staff at the centre have all been scathing in their comments. I have described the system in a following post but it is not a typically English regime perhaps because it is Welsh.
A youngster presently coming into the sport in England will sooner or later find him/herself at a registered riding school being taught the current mantra which nowadays quickly starts to teach collection and the classical seat. The school horses, bless them, go round and round in circles in a sandy arena helping to teach novices and upwards how to hold the reins short with the bit in a subtle contact with the horse‘s mouth.
The rider should hold minimal weight on the stirrup bars and the legs are to be kept off the flanks of the horse. The rider’s posture must be verticle, the head must be held up high; the back must be kept straight, the legs kept still and the rider must not be tense.
It is seen to be very important from the very beginning to adopt the correct seat because as Dr Alexander says it will be so difficult to later erase from the brain an incorrect posture. The body has to form new muscle groups and that will take time. This learning system appears to me to be not only hard on the rider - especially the mature rider, but very hard on the horse who from time to time will also be asked to go ‘on the bit’ in order that the inexperienced rider can learn how to bring about in a horse a rounded outline.
In my day - ages ago - it was not that way. I remember once my instructor sitting me up on a horse without stirrups and facing backwards - maybe it was to teach me some lesson or was it as some form of punishment? I forget. Regularly we rode in the arena without reins, stirrups or saddle with the instructor lunging horse and rider from the centre of the ring. We often fell off and it was all seen to be part of the experience of learning and all that bodily abuse was without protective gear. We must have been mad.
Now I would not recommend how I was taught to ride, the insurance companies would have a field day but I do think that we Brits could somehow devise a method whereby the goal was to produce a rider whose aim was merely sit a reasonably schooled riding horse. After all formal dressage does not appeal to everyone.
To me the great appeal of riding Western is the lack of formality. Whenever I have ridden in the US, all my American companions wanted to see was whether I had control of the horse. Would the horse do what I was asking it to do? Even as a strange bearded foreigner, I never once felt I was being assessed by onlookers.
In England nowadays I hesitate to ride a privately owned horse which might well have been trained way beyond my competence level. I do want to ride outside of an arena, I want my horse to pick its own way through the pitfalls of the trail. I want it to be self confident so that it doesn’t spook at a bird rising out of a bush. I want it to gossip to my companion riding alongside. I want my horse to be rideable by other riders both more and less competent than I. I want it to stand and wait.
As it is, I am even hesitant to ride DiDi in front of the perceptive eyes of her current instructor. After almost 40 years of riding I am reluctant to take my own horse along a country lane because I know she will be skittish in a close urban environment.
But I have to say that in the hands of Claire she is doing great in the dressage arena, where she has won three times in her first three outings.
Kevin once in a post wrote that there was always a horse at his place for me to ride. I can imagine standing beside one of his well trained steeds, tacked up with a nice broad, deep comfortable western saddle. I would take a handful of rein, put my foot in that big leather clad stirrup and hop aboard and settle down into that comfortable saddle. I would hold the reins high in one hand and give a slight squeeze on the flanks and whisper ‘giddy up’. And we would be off.
If Kev came to England, he’d be horrified. He might not be able to catch DiDi and if he could he would not know how to tack her up, I’d have to restrain her whilst he mounted and I would have to show him how to hold the reins in two hands. I would point out that he would have to maintain a permanent short contact with the mouth. There could be no leaning over nor sudden shifts of weight. And no whip.
The risk was that she would shoot forwards or come off the ground on all four feet and move a yard sideways in a shy. Then I’d tell him about the barking dogs, the 44 tonne trailer lorries, the single track lanes and the helicopters. I’d hope he’d still take a chance and ride with me but I would be worried from the word go. Guinness isn’t the only thing to come out of Ireland - it also exports clever but skittish mares.
Now DiDi will jump in a small show ring a group of three five bar gates set up close together in a row - which Kevin’s horses might not. DiDi will canter around a sand school rounded and ‘on the bit’ at a steady pace until instructed to stop - which calls for some schooling.
But honestly, which of us has the better deal?
The great advantage of the Western way is that any rider with few words of instruction can sit in the big comfortable saddle and ride a well schooled western horse.
I wish I could say that about riding English in the modern way. Maybe I should have moved to Texas when I had the chance - but Ugh! The size of those spiders down in Houston.
Very nicely written. I enjoyed reading this. I started out riding English. I later switched to Western for something new to learn. Having done both and loving both it grates on my nerves when one "side" bashes the other "side" of the same coin, so your article was very refreshing to read. Thank you.
Barry, I love reading anything you have written purely for the refreshingly correct use of the English language and your eloquent, flowing writing style. The fact that you post interesting viewpoints is of course an added benefit.
I am an English rider, although now I am in Texas I have had the opportunity to try western riding. Despite every effort I still feel like a fish out of water. I also do not do the horse much justice with the way I ride, riding western is truly an art form and something that is not picked up easily, almost like speaking another language. The best I can do on a western trained horse is try to ride like I am not there at all.
As a spectator of western events (reining, barrel racing etc) I think I do magnificently as I am suitably impressed by manouvres and displays of impeccable training, even though I don't understand it. Can't wait for the Houston rodeo early next year!
I am a primarily western rider. I think your conflict isn't so much the difference in disciplines but the difference in reasons to ride.
I love riding for freedom, relaxation and companionship. It gets me out of the city and into the woods. I breathe deeper on a ride. I trail ride to nowhere. We circle the fields and the back roads with no destination. I love every single second of it. No agenda. No problem.
I know others, not always 'english' riders, they ride for a purpose. They want perfect form, harmony in motion. The strive for the blue. The want their riding friends to envy their position and their horses athletic ability. They rarely leave the ring.
In my mind, their horses jump higher than I will ever desire to jump. They can execute dressage moves that I could never fathom. They do reining spins and set land speed records...in the ring.
I am in it for the fun. I think they are too. Niether side is wrong or right. I had my day where I wanted riding to really take me somewhere. Those days are long gone!
Now I am totally content to ride my trail to nowhere. If I showed up in a show ring today, I would be asked to leave. The mental picture of myself in breeches makes me want to hurl and I don't even have to look at myself from behind. My lower leg is unsteady and my heel is just barely down. I wouldn't win any prizes but I love riding. That's enough for me!
You are not alone in this world of horses but for some inexplicable reason we happy hackers are a dwindling band. Your aims and objectives are much as my own - except over here on this little island on the edge of the Atlantic we still have a pub here or there, in which I can partake of a glass of wine or two and a fresh beef sandwich, topped with horse radish and a packet of crisps.
After a brief snack, comes the journey home. Up the lane, through the woods and down into the valley. No rush, a gossip here and a wave of the hand there. Paradise.
Entry ticket, one calm, steady, confident, forward going horse.
Saddle?: optional - English or Western according to choice.
You aren't perhaps a travel writer, are you? If not, you are in the wrong business! Your last description of popping down the lane to the pub for a sandwich was utterly charming. What I wouldn't give . . .
Do you know of a Brit named Tom Moates? He may now reside in the US, but I think he still goes to the UK regularly to do clinics. He has taken up Western riding and become a student of Mark Rashid and natural horsemanship. He is also an eloquent man and apparently, came rather late in life to horses. You might look into him. He has a blog and a website, and I'll see if I can find it.
The thing about Western horses is that a lot of them are QHs and they are, by genetic nature, a generally more laid back animal than a thbd or Irish sport horse. Their nature lends themselves to the western training. So, that's one thing to consider.
Also, on the opposite side of the coin which you describe , your vision of the good western rider, there are a lot of western riders that (IMHO) are really bad riders, who forces their horse into such a low/slow position that it destroys the horse's natural gaits and makes them look virtually lame. There are W riders who use abusive bits and spurs and endlessly snap the reins to get the horse to tuck his head under. All for a certain "look". We are not immune to fashion and the judgement of the onlooker.
However, I can see what you mean about the general attitude here being more focussed on just enjoying the horse. It is connected to our having so much space, and out long standing worship of the individual. Know what I mean?
Horesmanship is always changing and I wonder if the UK wont' also or isn't already, moving along down the evolutionary trail to a different style. I understand NH is really getting big there, too.
Who knows what is around the corner. Maybe in 25 years people won't ride horses, just walk them like dogs. And dress them and keep them inside the house.
Tiny I'll look the fellow up - thank your for the tip.
Monty Roberts has a strong following despite the fact that his thinking is Western. Here he uses in the ring an English rider to demonstrate for him.
His ideas on NH are well received.
The sport is changing here too. We seem to be moving over to more and more arena orientated uses of the horse - dressage, show jumping. The horses are also changing. When I started out we kept cobs - cold bloods. Nowadays it is more blooded horses such as TBs and the Continental breeds. The IDs & Connies are bred to be sharp and the Welsh Cobs for their looks. All three breeds are possibiles for consideration as sports horses.
But a major influence these days is safety and to be honest the risks involved when riding on the British narrow country lanes which are shared with traffic are increasing. To teach a horse to hack out in British rural countryside calls for training, which means the young horse rides out to learn and before it is ready to ride out and away from the barn. The horse must be under full control at all times and that doesn't come easily. It is one of the reasons why we ride 'on the bit' or at least 'collected'.
It helps if the horses are calm by nature and that mostly comes from the breeding.
There has also been a lot of legislation to try to ban fox hunting. As the older generations die away, I can see fox hunting declining and in the past it has been the hunting horses which made the best hacking horses.
My own horse DiDi is making excellent progress in the dressage arena but even at 9 years she does not make a bombproof hack - she is too alert, too sharp and too sensitive. As for chasing cows, she would be frightened of a calf.
My old heavy cob, Joe, was a much better horse to hack out on. Sadly he's gone. Joe was the horse that loved potato crisps.
Barry, I love reading your posts. As a devout western rider, I can see your place from the other side of the fence. Cori, especially, made very good points about the reasons to ride. I consider myself a 'happy hacker' even though I ride horses for a living, but I don't train with the intention of showing. My customers just want a horse that they can be comfortable riding and being 'happy hackers' themselves.
I also wanted to mention that the training methods generally seem to be very different as well. From my understanding, most English trained horses are ridden for months or years in the ring before ever going outside (and still more never see the outside of a fence). However, from day 1, my horses are taught that relaxation is key. I let them carry their head wherever is comfortable for them providing that it isn't dragging the ground or placed squarely in my lap. I am always on a loose rein and the finesse and proper reaction to cues comes later in the training. I want them to be confident and relaxed before I ask them for much. In addition to that, most of my horses never see the inside of a ring. After the first few days of being ridden in a round pen, their training arena is the thousands of acres of land surrounding us. Very seldom do they get a nice, slow, short ride. For the first quite a little while, everywhere we go, we go at a long trot or a lope and it is very seldom under 5 miles that we travel. There are some days that I will spend 7 or 8 hours on a young horse working cattle. I have a feeling that me and your Didi would never get along LOL. I like a horse that I can walk up to in the pasture to catch them, throw my saddle on, step on and lope off with no warm up or shenanigans. This is my arena, this is my training ground and I wonder if maybe that has something to do with the difference in the horse's personality as well.
And though you have gotten an invitation from Kevin, I will throw mine out there as well. If you ever come to Texas again, swing by. I'm sure I've got a horse that will carry you .
SM - You've made me jealous. That photo maks me realise all I know of Texas is what is alongside the I-10 and there is so much more to see.
I am absolutely positive SMR that as an experienced horse owner/rider/trainer , you'd get to like my DiDi but it might take a month or so to find what is so fascinating about her. She is very intelligent, very sensitive, very capable
And very alert. What makes life difficult for her is the environment in which she now lives that is filled with the clutter of civilisation. A series of owners have taken her down the route of the modern way of riding and she is without doubt a competition horse - she seems to thrive on it, be it modern dressage or show jumping. Sadly that very spirit is what makes her unsuitable for me. When riding her you have to be alert all of the time, you can't relax on her. She also has to be ridden in the modern way - ie collected in a rounded outline.
I have been spoilt really. My Joe, a common if unusual cob, - of whom there are numerous stories on this forum, was much more suitable for my likes and dislikes. However the horse I rode regularly in 2003-2005 named William, a Welsh cob X Hannoverian gelding was the epitomy of what a good trail riding horse should be. He was never mine to own but he was mine to ride each week. He could cope with the wild moors of central Wales and the comings and goings of small towns. He took me fox hunting and for week long trail rides. I don't write much about him but he was arguably the best horse
For me I have ever discovered. He would have loved Texas.
As for DiDi, well she'll be my last horse. I am too old to take on another. One good reason for seeing what she can do in the ring is to find her the right sort of sports home. I get some pleasure from watching her do well when Claire rides her in competition but DiDi is so much own self that she doesn't need me
Personally - whereas Joe was such a character that he did need me to protect him from the outcome of his misdeeds.
I've been so lucky to experience what a horse can mean to a human and I know that winning rosettes is merely the tip of the iceberg. Back in the '70s I had not only a horse to wander about on but a labrador called Stomper who would come along too. That really was one of life's privileges.