Spinning into the World of Western Riding
by Stephanie Hackett, December 1, 2011, page 18.....Stephanie is a Charlotte resident, a Washington College junior and News intern. This article appears in the December 2011 issue of Practical Horseman.
I’ve been competing hunters and jumpers for eight years, two of them on the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association circuit as part of the English equestrian team at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Last year, though, I decided to expand my knowledge of the equestrian world and headed over to Summer Winds Stables, where the school’s Western team trains with Elena DiSilvestro and Meredith Nelson. Soon I became absorbed into the slow riding style, the heavy, sparkly tack and the sequined riding shirts.
For my first Western lesson, I didn’t have any of the right clothes: I was dressed in my paddock boots, half chaps and a helmet. The differences between the two styles didn’t stop there. After swinging into the saddle, I quickly realized my legs were not long enough for the stirrups because I had my knees bent like a hunter/jumper rider. As I took up the reins, I learned that instead of having a solid connection to my horse’s mouth, I needed to ride with a longer, looser rein to allow his neck to drop closer to the ground. And as I started to trot – well, jog – my trainer told me to grab the back of the saddle with one hand and pull my seat deeper in to the saddle, which felt awkward after riding in a forward seat. For weeks I kept losing my stirrups because I wanted to bend my knees. I couldn’t figure out how to hold the reins in front of the horn with my elbows bent, and I could never sit as deep as I needed.
Soon, though, I was trading in my tall boots for a pair of leather cowgirl boots and my beige breeches for clack chaps with fringe. I was thrilled when Elena and Meredith told me I was going to be the reiner for our IHSA Western team but hesitant because I had no idea what that meant. They explained that a reiner performs a set pattern made up of circles (small, large, fast or slow), spins (the horse spins 360 degrees leaving his hind legs in one place), rollbacks (the horse lopes down the arena, slides to a stop, spins in a half circle and lopes down the opposite direction) and, lastly, backs up. All of these variations are put together much like a hunter/jumper course but without the jumps. I practiced these combinations with my trainers, the hardest of which was (and still is) the spin. Although it looks easy, the hand and leg cues are harder to communicate to the horse. The weeks passed quickly and soon it was time for our first IHSA show.
For the big day, my teammates and I had our hair braided, make-up plastered on and our glitter shirts ready for the ring. (After seeing a photo of me in Western attire, my parents jokingly said, “I‘d officially turned to the “dark side.”) As the time for my first pattern drew near, I became nervous: What if my horse went too fast or too slow? What if I rode past ones that marked where I was supposed to stop? I reviewed my pattern, and then it was time to ride. I started nicely: my seat was deep in the saddle, my reins were loose, my chin was up with a smile on my face. I got through the first part of the course easily, but next up were the spins. I cued my horse to start: my body was forced back, my seat sunk deeper in the saddle and the reins rested softly across his neck as the IHSA crowd blurred past. Finishing the pattern, I came out of the arena, and my trainer said, “You rode that horse the best way you could, and that is what the judges are looking for. The key is to get the best ride out of each horse.” I unzipped my fringed chaps, tore off my hat with bobby pins still attached and felt confident knowing I had done my best.
Despite the many circles and spins I rode throughout the school year, I didn’t give up hunter/jumper riding. Returning home to Vermont the following summer, I eased back into my English riding style. My trainer chuckled at my position, long reins and feet curved into the horse’s stomach. Overall, though, my foray into the Western world has improved my riding. I sit more deeply in both kinds of saddles, and I can feel my horse’s rhythm more distinctly. My hands have learned to be quieter, too. Above all, riding a variety of horses and styles in college has made me more confident.
I’ve also learned that no matter the style, my love for riding won’t change and that the more experiences I have, the more I will grow as a rider.