WESTERN meets ENGLISH
There is nothing to stop a Western trained rider jumping up onto a horse tacked up “English”. Indeed if the horse and the saddle and bridle were presented separately no doubt an experienced horseman could work out how it all fits the horse. It is not rocket science. What would be questionable though is whether the bridle and the saddle had been fitted correctly. What would take an experienced eye a few minutes or less might never be apparent to someone who had never looked closely at English tack before. The first signs of improper fitting would be some sign of discomfort on the part of the horse. The saddle for example could leave rub marks, lumps or even blisters on the back. Getting the correct fit is important but the principles are the same for Western - the saddle must not, with rider aboard press down on the weaker sections of the horse’s back.
An incorrectly fitted bridle might lead to head shaking. But the simple thing to do would be to use the plainest of bridles say a one eared type and a Western type snaffle bit. The reins well, what’s a buckle between friends?
Mounting up calls for the horse to stand still - some do, some don’t. Hunky western boots might or might not fit into those pesky narrow stirrup irons. If the irons are too wide then the boot will move about, if they are too narrow then the rider’s foot will develop blisters. If the boot goes too far home, then the rider might have difficulty extracting the boot in times of urgent need.. And be careful with them spurs - English trained horses aren’t always ridden with spurs especially the sharp variety.
The rider will notice instantly that the is virtually no pommel and very little cantle. There might be knee rolls but the western rider will have pushed his legs down straight and the rolls will be of little use to him.
The Western rider once seated won’t think to check the girth (cinch) - even if the saddle did not slip round during the action of mounting. But the girth should always be checked after the rider’s weight comes down onto the saddle. The horse will have taken the weight of the rider and re adjusted its stance. It will sense instantly that the rider sits differently. It may even fear that the rider is a novice. The horse’s neck will come up and if the horse is anxious the nose will rise up. The horse will be waiting for the rider to take up contact by shortening the reins. Again the horse will get a clue to the rider’s capability by the way in which the reins and hence the bit are held. The horse may then decide to test the rider out by walking off.
The horse will know if the rider has a balanced seat from the pressure coming down through the saddle. It will even be able to tell how the rider holds his head., It will know if the ride sits tilted to one side. The footprint of the English saddle is small and the pressure per square inch of contact surface caused by the riders weight is accentuated as compared with a Western saddle which mostly has a thick blanket to further soften the load. If the rider sits over to the right then the horse will think to move left. If the rider is leaning forwards, then the horse will be edging backwards. If the rider leans back into the cantle then the horse might shoot forwards. If even one calf presses into the flank of the horse, then it will move - but who knows which way.
There is another potential problem about the horse. A well trained Thorobred is a very sensitive creature. The slightest move on the part of the rider will provoke a response of some kind A cob, with a bit of draught horse blood in its veins will be more stoical and tolerant although a modern Welsh Cob can be extremely sensitive and very skittish.. A school master cross breed horse can have a mouth of iron and be as stubborn as a mule. Whatever every horse will be feeling the new rider out from the moment it has become apparent to the horse that the rider is going to mount up. What’s more serious is that most horses will be working out from the very beginning who is going to be the boss.
The fundamental problem for the newcomer to English is that an “English” schooled horse has been trained to respond to different communication aids (cues). I am not saying that the horse can’t be retrained by a knowledgeable experienced western rider but if the idea is for the Western rider to learn English then it is for the human to learn the new practices first.
The holding of the reins is another skill to learn. When mounting the horse expects the rider to gather up both reins and to take them both in one hand whilst grabbing a handful of mane. The tension on the reins should be sufficient to command the horse to stand still but not too tight as to inflict pain on the horse’s mouth. The rider must then when seated adjust the length of the rein to give a very light contact at the halt. If the back pressure is too great then the horse will fidget, if it is too loose then the trained horse will reach down and try to find the bit. The English bit is the earpiece and microphone of the communication between horse and rider . It is a very delicate instrument. A rider who does not have a firm seat, who is holding the reins short will jerk the horse’s mouth and thereby inflict pain on a very sensitive part of the horses anatomy. Inflicting pain on a flight animal is not the way to develop a good relationship.
Learning to hold the reins at the correct length for all paces is an acquired skill and it takes months to perfect. The muscles of the human around the abdomen, the lower back and the thighs must have developed to perform correctly. At the walk the skilled dressage rider keeps the hands still and moves the fingers rather than the hand and arm but the average rider learns to follow the movement of the horses neck by moving the hand and arm. At the trot the horse’s head comes up and stays still as the rider takes a firmer hold on the bit and but some horses still rocks the neck slightly and this movement must be allowed for. At the canter a English schooled horse looks for a light but constant contact to maintain balance - some horses will, as a fault, even lean on the bit. But the rider must maintain constantly a suitable contact to be in communication with the horse at all times. The aid to slow is a squeeze of both hands , an aid to turn right is a squeeze of the right side of the hand and similarly the left. An aid to move forwards from the halt is a relaxation of both hands. The aid to come down “on the bit” ( don’t ask yet) is a wiggle of the little fingers of both hands.
I can’t in this article (however long it may appear to be) do justice to the sophistication of the “English” system of riding. I have been riding for well over thirty years and I still don’t sit bolt upright in the saddle and I exert too much pressure on the stirrup irons. My heels ride up. I know what I should be doing but I can’t get my brain to change the bad habits of my lifetime. Largely that’s because I was never taught properly at the very beginning.. I’ll never win anything for style. But I can ride a horse.
What I can do is sit on a Western saddle and ride English on it. Of course I shall be confusing the horse but within an hour or so we‘ll have the measure of each other. Similarly a good Western horseman can sit an English schooled horse and come to an agreement with it. But if he has any sense he won’t try roping a steer nor barrel racing. It is noticeable then when Monty Roberts comes to Europe he doesn’t ride the horse, invariably schooled “English”, which he is working with.
The two riding systems each have a lot to recommend them but they were developed to perform a different function. I would encourage any Western rider to learn English but I do strongly believe that it is something that one cannot do easily - if at all - without an instructor from the centre of the arena. Buying a book and a video will help understand the principles but they must still be put into practice.
Simple words, don’t always describe actions with clarity.
The great thing about horse riding is that it can become the hobby of a lifetime. There is just so much to learn and so many variables.
Remember, when handling the horse, to be patient.
As they used to say a long time ago: “Rome was not built in a day.