How Learning To Ride Western Helped Me In The Hunter & Jumper Rings
By Lindsay Smith
January 2, 2020
Hi, my name is Lindsay and I live in southern Oklahoma—10 miles from the Texas border—and I ride...English. Yes, I am one of the very few people that I have encountered in my part of the country who primarily ride hunter/jumper. Tack shops nearby don’t sell English saddle pads or a variety of English riding bits (but hey, that is what Corro is for, right?). However, during my time riding on an NCAA Equestrian team in Texas and now living in Oklahoma, I truly appreciate western horsemanship and riding.
I am by no means an expert on western riding, but I have sat in a western saddle enough times to know that there are some key similarities that can make you a better English rider. How you squeeze with your leg, how you carry your hands, and how you sit in the saddle—it’s all different. I recently saw an Instagram post from Mavis Spencer where she talked about her experience riding western (reiners) and how you take 80% of what you know and throw it out the window. I would agree with her since the first time I sat in a western saddle, my horse took off when I added leg to literally hold on. However, I strongly believe that the things you can learn in a western saddle can translate quite well to the hunt seat style of riding.
You take 80% of what you know and throw it out the window
Meet Martha Gail, a key member of my growing four-legged family
Let’s start with how a western horse goes. Have you ever seen a high-headed reiner or cutting horse? Because I have not. Those horses are so broke that the minute you do add leg, their head drops. They obviously get that way by a serious, no excuses training regimen that involves a horse paying serious attention to what the rider is asking, using their hind end correctly, being soft in the mouth, and responding to the leg and hand in such high detail. I often struggle with getting my green OTTB to use his lanky, praying mantis-like body to connect, and I think about how soft most quarter horses go, which makes me work even harder.
This is my green OTTB as previously referred to above
Now let’s talk about the difference in body position in the saddle. Sitting in a western saddle is like riding in a motor coach compared school bus—there’s so much more space! It’s luxurious! It really gives you the opportunity to think about your body. Are your shoulders square? Are you sitting centered? Are your hands even? How is your hip angle? The western saddle gives you the opportunity to do a self-check. Take a look at western horsemanship riders (which for those who may not be familiar with the discipline, it’s the western equivalent to the equitation rider where riders are evaluate on their ability to execute a pattern in concert with their horse), they are perfection in the western saddle. My roommate and teammate in college was one of the most beautiful horsemanship riders I have ever seen on horse. While we English riders can’t afford the rigid perfection of horsemanship riders (I personally think if I tried, I’d probably fall off), it is still something I can apply to my riding the way they use their body parts for effectively communicating with their equine partners.
My horse, LV, taught me so much about equitation and body position as a junior rider
On the other hand, disciplines like cutting require your riding to be soft and responsive to your horse. Again, these horses know their job and, by god, don’t get in their way because you will probably fall off and they will cut that calf with or without you. For me, it’s helped me realize that when your horse is soft, you can allow them to carry themselves without getting in their way. For instance, if your horse has a nice jump, follow it with your body, stay soft, and allow them to shine. We, as riders, tend do more than we sometimes need to in order to help our horses do their job, but I’ve found that if we focus on getting our horses to be soft and responsive, they’re more able to perform at their best, regardless of the style of riding.
Image courtesy of Lindsay Smith.
Whether it’s reining, horsemanship, team roping, cow-horse, ranch horses that take cowboys out over hundreds of acres in all seasons to check on cattle, as a hunter jumper, one of the most prevalent aspects of all of these disciplines that connect us with one another is the importance of developing strong communication between the horse and rider. Life is a lot easier when I’m jumping into a tight five stride if my horse comes back to me when I’m asking him at stride one instead of stride four-and-a-half. And some of the tools that I have developed in order to accomplish that have come from the experiences I’ve had while riding western. I encourage you the next time you have the opportunity to observe another discipline—western or otherwise—pay attention to how the riders sit, carry their hands, and command the horses’ attention, because while there are many differences, there are also many similarities that can provide you with new perspectives, techniques, and tools to improve your connection between you and your horse.