Article by Emily Tenbruck, first published in the Highland Pony Journal in 2012
The kindest eyes I think I have ever seen looked up at me from underneath a mass of grey fuzzy Highland Pony forelock and I knew he was the one for me. Three days later he arrived home, my two year old grey dun Highland Pony gelding, Little Fenwick MacDonald nicknamed as ‘Donnie Boy’ and instantly it stuck!
I have always been fascinated by Western Riding and decided long ago that a riding holiday in the USA was definitely on my bucket list. I would love to go and watch Reining in the home land of Western riding! Having been an English rider most of my horsey life it was about four years ago that I started watching lots of Western Riding on Sky TV, clinics by Clinton Anderson, Chris Cox, Craig Cameron, Monty Roberts. I decided to follow this up with some You Tube videos and that was it. I was hooked. By this time, Donnie was three years old and was broken (English). We spent that summer riding English but I kept mentioning to my husband how fascinating all this Western stuff looked and how there seemed to be more to it than just being a ‘cowboy’. Donnie and I had been playing around at natural horsemanship ground work, which was fun and worked really well, trying to put into practice what I was watching on TV. We got some surprising results. Then my husband bought us a Western saddle for Christmas! I spent the next few months playing at Western, copying some of the exercises I saw and practising them over and over, watching the programmes again and again, over and over until I understood. We were having great fun but I decided I needed to get Western lessons. I looked on the Western Equestrian Society (WES) website and found I was part of Area 11. The rep for Area 11 was (and still is) John Fyfe. I sent John an email mentioning what I had been up to and asking if he could recommend a Western Riding School I could go to for some lessons. As I recall he sent me a very pleasant reply which suggested that “Western Riding Schools in Scotland (Area 11 at that time) were like hens teeth”! However, he very kindly invited me to go along to his home, Blackford Glen in Edinburgh, to meet him and his horses and some of the other WES Area 11 members.
I had a great time and was made so welcome. I learned a lot about Western riding, things I had never given much thought to before, like its origins and why Western horses jog so slowly. It never made sense to me until John explained that, when cowboys are driving the herds of cows over many miles, the horses must be able to maintain a speed and gait for many hours without tiring and a gait which is comfortable for the rider. Why do Western riders ride with one hand? Well, traditionally you would ride with one hand, usually the left, so that the right hand is free to lasso the cow or to open the gate. John explained that everything that is done for the show ring, such as reining manoeuvres like roll backs and sliding stops, originate from the real cow horses herding and corralling cattle.
By the way, did you know that, in America in the 1850’s and 1860’s, some of the young men who drove cattle north from Texas for thousands of miles were from Scottish drover families who had herded cattle from the backs of Highland ponies for many generations.
The first few times I went along to Blackford Glen I went horseless. I continued to watch and learn so much about Western Riding and Horsemanship. It is more technical than I had ever thought. John kindly let me ride one of his beautiful Quarter Horses and gave me a few pointers. Everyone was so supportive and helpful. To be honest, I was completely surprised by what I found. I myself had been very judgemental (human nature I guess) as I expected to see Quarter Horses, Paint Horses and maybe some Appaloosa Horses. I honestly thought I would get laughed at when I told them I had a Highland Pony. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I did see Quarter Horses and Appaloosas but I also saw Cobs, Thoroughbred crosses, a Welsh Pony, an Arab, a Dales and an Icelandic Pony! Donnie and I would fit right in! I travelled over to Blackford Glen a few more times during the rest of that summer and autumn. Everyone kept asking when I was going to bring Donnie over and I told them I would bring him the following spring. He had injured himself in the field and was having the rest of that year off.
And so, the following Spring approached and I guess you could say nervous doesn’t even begin to cover the way I was feeling while towing Donnie to Edinburgh to attend our first Blackford Glen Clinic Day. Although I had been along myself and had met most of the people who were regulars, I was still the ‘newbie’ and a little worried about what they would say about my Donnie Boy, who, by this time, was five years old. I dragged my poor husband Paul along for moral support that day and I pulled into the yard with Donnie standing patiently in the trailer behind us.
We had a brilliant day! Donnie was a hit with everyone and they all loved his cheeky monkey expressions and they too call him Donnie Boy! I got some really positive feedback. People have since told me that they were impressed by Donnie’s responsiveness and softness, along with his natural ability in Trail courses. Since that first day at Blackford Glen we have come a long way. We attend the Bob Mayhew clinics within WES Area 11 and are now ‘regulars’ at Blackford Glen. We also have our own club called the Blackford Glen Western Riders Club, more affectionately known as ‘The Glen Gang’ where we all share a fascination with Western riding and natural horsemanship. The Gang members range from those who have little experience to those who have competed at the highest level but, to us, we are all just like family.
Donnie and I have had a busy year. We have been to lots of clinics and practice days and we competed at the WES Area 11 Show in a downpour where our judge, Bob Mayhew, referred to the Trail course as ‘Splash Throughs’ and ‘Turns in a Puddle!’. However, the good old Western spirit came through and we had a great day. Despite the rain and the mud we came home with a 1st, four 2nds and a 3rd from our first show. We also went to the Scottish Coloured Horse Show in Tayside where we did the two-tone classes, causing quite a stir, being the only Western rider at such a big show. Very many people came up to us asking about Western riding. Donnie loved all the attention and cuddles he got that day. We felt proud to be promoting our sport! Finally, the season ended with the Western Equestrian Society Scottish Championship Show held at Ingliston Country Club. We did the Novice Trail classes, Walk/Jog Pleasure, Novice Pleasure and Novice Horsemanship. There were horses and ponies of many breeds there and, again, we had a great time and caught up with friends old and new. We are looking forward to next year when we might try our hoof at a bit of reining (or cowboy dressage!).
And so I think one of the important things I found through joining WES and taking up Western riding is that firstly you can ride Western with any horse. Firstly, the people are so genuine, friendly and supportive of each other, whether it be cheering on someone who has managed a lope (canter) for their first time or cheering on someone who has qualified for National events. Secondly, I believe that we, as people, are too quick to judge what we don’t understand. If it is something we don’t know enough about we tend to be happy to go along with the myths and tales we have heard. We are followers, when really we should be leaders, leading the way. So, please, come along to watch or attend a Western Clinic. I can assure you that you will be made most welcome and it is definitely a way to quash myths about Western riding and, believe me, I have heard them all.
‘Western Riding is fine but you can’t do as much’ or ‘Western is lazy riding’ or ‘It’s all about big spurs and big bits’ or ‘You can only hack out in a Western saddle’ or, my all time favourite (and I’m sorry to say it came from the mouth of an of English rider), ‘You can’t do Western on a Highland Pony’. Well sorry, but I have, I did and I do, with my Donnie Boy!
Thank you for reading this article.