I was first popped onto the back of a small pony aged about eighteen months and started proper riding lessons aged seven. We had a loan Exmoor pony cross when I was eleven and, since then, I have owned ponies, thoroughbreds, Arabs and a Russian Budyonny. With these I did a little bit of everything – none of it to a very high level. I currently have two Icelandic horses and a young Arab gelding. About two years ago I discovered Western riding and the amazingly helpful and friendly riders of Blackford Glen.
Why was this so important? I suspect that I have become increasingly concerned by current mainstream trainers’ heavy-handed insistence on “getting the horse into an outline” and “making it submit to the contact”. Mostly this translates as kicking the horse on with the legs behind, whilst hauling it hard at the front – i.e. applying the brake and the accelerator at the same time! What is the poor horse to do? No wonder the horsey magazines are full of colour photos of animals with tense, anxious faces, gag bits, running martingales and mouths strapped tightly shut. No wonder the problem pages are crammed with letters from worried owners of horses who “resist”, “evade” and “fight” this domineering and aggressive contact. Exploring other ways, I found that Classical Equitation (as still practised at Vienna and at Saumur in France) makes it a rule that the legs and hands never act simultaneously i.e. you do not push and pull at the same time. Equitation Science (see books by Andrew McLean) endorses this philosophy from a rigorously researched scientific standpoint – one cue for one action. In modern Western riding I found the same philosophy. The fully trained horse is guided largely by the balance, posture and, not least, the intention of the rider. It does not need to be forcibly held by the rider in order to balance – how on earth can you hold up something you are actually sitting on top of? Try it on a chair with a broken leg! With head free and natural neck carriage, the horse finds its own balance. You teach the horse the cues for the reactions you want and reward with release and praise. In this way a happy, co-operative partnership can develop without stress or fights.
I find trail riding particularly appealing. Modern dressage is totally pre-occupied with set movements in an arena that is the same size and shape all over the world. Outside this standardised set-up, riders are often helpless and horses out of control. Many of the top horses go berserk at the prize givings. At the last Olympics, Anky’s (the winner’s) horse did not even halt when required. She still won. Something has gone very wrong which, I like to think, Western riding may have got right. Of course, a Western Trail horse may have the same problems if it is exclusively worked in an arena on nothing but the prescribed gates, poles and bridges. It too can become frightened by the real world outside with its unpredictable hazards. To me, the Trail horse should be happy to negotiate woods, rocks, hills, plough, stubble and fallen branches along with barking dogs, running children, bicycles and umbrellas.
I am only a beginner, Western wise, but am learning so much. Of course the saddlery, blankets and riders’ costumes are fun and much more attractive than plain brown leather, dingy tweed or navy jackets, but, to me, it is not about fantasies of pretending to be a cowboy/girl but a logical, humane and horse friendly way of riding.