As Western riding traces its origins through the Spanish ‘vaqueros’ back to the Spanish classical methods of riding which were also the foundation for the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, there are many similarities between true, high-level Western riding and classical/dressage forms of equitation. The correct Western (or “stock”) seat practiced in Western Horsemanship (equitation) classes is identical to that in classical/English riding, i.e., with a line falling from the rider’s ear through the shoulder, hip, and back of the heel and with the rider sitting on his/her seat bones. And a well-trained Western horse will be able to properly perform turns on the hindquarters and forehand, leg-yielding, shoulder-in, half-pass, collected flying lead changes, and more.
The principal difference between proper Western riding and English riding is that Western is more psychological rather than physical; it seeks to ultimately have a horse that will both carry himself in the proper outline on a loose rein and perform every manoeuvre on his own after being given an almost imperceptible cue, rather than having the horse held in position and moved around by the constant contact and physical force applied by the rider’s rein and leg, as in English riding. Through consistent, repetitive training wherein the rider applies pressure/makes a correction with the legs or reins only when the horse goes wrong, then removes the pressure/praises the horse when he performs correctly, the horse learns to think for himself and do what the rider wants without being constantly solicited. Obviously, pressure is also put on (in the smallest amount necessary) to ask for/initiate a particular movement or manoeuvre, but as soon as the horse begins the proper response, the pressure is removed. Therefore, the Western trainer seeks to maintain the sensitivity of the horse to the rider’s leg and rein cues; he or she attempts to gradually use less pressure when making a request as the horse becomes better trained and more sure of what is wanted. As a result, highly trained Western horses will often respond to a request to move away from the rider’s leg as soon as that leg is put into position, even before the leg actually touches them. This sensitivity and intelligence allows the rider of a well-trained Western horse to move any one of the horse’s feet or parts of the body when desired, whether the rider wants the horse to slowly move only two inches or do a 360-degree spin with lightning speed.
Therefore, we can very briefly summarise what correct Western training is by saying that it involves teaching/training the horse through more psychological means rather than physical by the use of pressure and release (pressure put on when the horse is wrong, released when the horses does what is right/what is asked). This enables the horse to learn through error/correction of error and through association; he thereby learns to perform almost on his own, with minimal intervention from the rider, and to be come extremely responsive without the need for constant contact with the legs, reins, or both. Thus, it is very wrong to train or ride a Western horse with such constant contact or to use the constant application of rein pressure to regulate speed or maintain position, and this is one of the most basic, essential things that riders should be taught and that they need to constantly work on (being taught by the competent Western instructor how to achieve slowness, proper frame and responsiveness through other means that a good instructor/trainer knows).
It must be emphasised that true Western riding does NOT entail English-trained riders using a Western saddle on English-trained horses, nor unskilled riders galloping about pulling on the horse’s mouth while using a long-shanked bit. This horrendous image of Western riding is only made worse by some national horse magazines in the U.K. publishing articles about Western riding written by or about amateurish, inexpert people (complete with cringe-worthy photos) who make false statements about Western riding and training. Adding to the poor image are local Western shows in which beginners who neither dress nor ride properly compete, since spectators may believe that this is the normal level of expertise in Western. Unfortunately, Western riding in Britain has long been—and continues to be—taught badly and erroneously by a number of Western ‘instructors’. What is often being taught is a hybrid of English and Western techniques and practices, due in large part to the fact that most people who ride Western in the U.K. started out riding English. There would be nothing wrong with that in principle; I myself started out riding Western at the age of 3 and at the age of 14 began a very successful career in riding and showing Hunters and Jumpers. The problem lies in English riders deciding that they wish to ride Western and then either being self-taught or taking instruction from others who know very little about Western (despite what they claim to know). They do not learn from the beginning the great difference between the English and Western philosophy of training, which has total impact on the way one is supposed to ride Western; they therefore ride Western incorrectly, and then when they become recognised as instructors by whatever U.K. riding group, they pass on this erroneous methodology to everyone they teach. There are numerous Western instructors in the U.K. who continue to produce students who have much too much rein contact, have heavy hands, harden their horses’ mouths, and compete in horse show classes going much too fast, with their horses completely on the forehand and on the bit. (A few years back, for example, the WES magazine even put on its cover a photo of a so-called Western rider who, even at the standstill, had so much contact on the curb bit in her horse’s mouth that his mouth was pulled open.) These instructors are even some of those who teach at large clinics; therefore, a great number of persons new to Western riding are learning to ride the wrong way. What is more, a number of these ‘instructors’ don’t appear to understand what proper Western dress and equipment is, or at least are not insisting that their students are properly dressed, equipped and turned out when they compete. For these two reasons, the image of Western riding in the U.K. continues to suffer, and who can blame accomplished riders, instructors and followers of other equestrian disciplines if they shun Western riding when they are confronted with this type of image?
There IS a basic, correct method of teaching every element of Western riding, and even if slight variations on these basics are allowable because of differences in personal approaches held by different instructors/trainers (or used on different horses with different personalities), Western riding is NOT a DIY, do-your-own-thing form of equitation any more than dressage is. All British Western instructors should be informed of these basic, correct methods, if they don’t already know them and practice them, and should teach them to all students. They can then also inform their students of any personal variation in these methods which has proven to be advantageous in certain situations. The Canadian Equestrian Federation programme, for example, was created by, and continues to be overseen by, a wide group of well-known, experienced, knowledgeable Western instructors, trainers, and top international competitors who manage the programme by consensus as to what is accepted practice in teaching Western riding.
Also, the CEF recognises, and is adamant about, the fact that one cannot teach what one does not know. Prospective coaches in the CEF programme are required to have passed the exam for all four Horsemanship levels, which involves the demonstration of the ability to perform all Western competition and schooling manoeuvres, and are then required to complete a coaching course involving a great deal of advanced riding as well as theory and teaching work. Candidates for the CEF coaching exam are expected to have significant experience in horsemanship and horse management and be able to perform at a high level of Western competition. Much of what is involved in and necessary to proper riding involves feeling, not thinking, and someone who has never experienced the feeling of doing something, especially at a level of near-perfection, cannot explain or teach that sensation to a student. When the student is having problems achieving particular movements or manoeuvres, the instructor can rectify the problem and help the student to progress only if the instructor himself is able to perform, and train the horse to perform, these manoeuvres. If a student is unable to relate to or communicate with a variety of different equine personalities, the instructor can help the student to do so only if he himself has the experience and ability to do it. Thus, Western instructors should be expert Western riders and trainers who have demonstrated and proven their abilities in the show ring.
We suggest that anyone interested in high-level Western horsemanship attend shows approved by the AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association), the governing body for Quarter Horse events worldwide. The AQHA is the world’s largest breed registry with more than 4 million horses registered; there are AQHA-approved shows held in all 50 American States and more than 30 foreign countries, including Britain, where top certified judges are flown in mainly from the U.S. Although there are classes for various categories (including Youth, Novice Amateur, and Amateur), it is the Open division where the top professionals compete that is the one to watch. Competition takes place in various classes, including Trail (negotiation of a difficult obstacle course with minimum distances and maximum precision), Western Pleasure (performance of the three gaits with perfect obedience, self-carriage, and graceful movement), Reining (performance of manoeuvres that simulate work with cattle including spins on the hindquarters, sliding stops, flying lead changes, and changes in speed on a loose rein with minimal guidance), and Western Riding (a prescribed pattern involving nine flying lead changes at a slow and rhythmic pace). Some of the same Quarter Horses that compete in these events can also be seen competing under the English saddle, on the bit, in events such as Hunter Under Saddle, Hunter Hack and Working Hunter, demonstrating their athleticism and versatility.