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.