I show up at the western barn in my tall boots, helmet in hand. Old stubben that's good for wide young quarter horses on my hip. “You ride English?”
I go for a trail ride, tie my packing/patrol neck knot, with my halter under my bridle. I might need to tie my horse, and would never tie with my reins.
Amongst all the people at the western barn, I don my helmet, in spite of jokes. I want to ride when I'm 90. I need my mind.
I wear my cowgirl rhinestone belt to the 3 day event for my dressage phase. It reminds me to ride forward, to shine.
When teaching at the English barn, I have my students ride on the buckle, learning how to regulate the horses pace from their seat, core, and breath.
I teach the western students, and the dressage students, to stand in their stirrups in two-point, preparing their bodies to balance, no matter what. They protest at first, but can't complain when their riding improves.
To me, riding is work on the flat to loosen, strengthen, and lighten.
Riding on the trail, out in the open, deepens my awareness, readiness, and toolkit. Riding out frees both my and my horses brain, and teaches us not how to spook, but how to work together to interpret the world—blending the equine and human perspective.
Jumping teaches us trust, balance, coordination. It gives us confidence, agility, and fun—riding the waves of life together.
There’s so much versatility in the horse world. So many different ways to ride. And so many opinions on how to. I’m forever curious on blending and synthesizing different disciplines and methods. I truly want to offer every horse I ride a style that fits them.
With many different styles and philosophies out there, it’s hard to know which path to follow. A student of ours from the company I work for, the Flow Genome Project, called me the other day to ask some questions about an upcoming trip. He said, at the end of the call, “I was wondering if I could ask you a horse question?” I lit up completely. This is my favorite type of question! “My ex rides English, and our daughter is traveling and I wanted to sign her up for a trail ride. My ex is fearful that riding Western would ruin or confuse the work she has done in her English lessons. What do you think?”
Ah. Not being a horseman himself, but having had some exposure to horses, I told him he had stumbled on a very interesting question, and a rather large can of worms in the horse world. But that I would love to attempt an answer. After I was finished, I said, “Maybe I should write all of that down.” He heartily concurred and complimented me on the thoughtfulness and passion of my answer.
Here is my attempt at answering as eloquently as I did on the call.
Let me start a long time ago—in Ancient Rome and Greece, when geometry and new math was emerging in the philosophic and mathematical fields. Our beloved Xenophon wrote about the training and riding of the horse, and a new form of training emerged, or at least was written about for the first time. By riding a certain way, with certain figures, in a measured arena, a rider could develop a horse to become a light and maneuverable battle partner. A weaponized pair. This training continued to be practiced as classical dressage, and still lives on today. One of the places you find masterful classical dressage is in the Spanish riding school.
A digression: Prior to the ice age, horses did live in the Americas. The ice age did not see their survival in the Americas, but they were able to survive in Europe/Asia.
Horses did not return to the Americas until the Conquistadors brought them over. They were small and compact, imported from Spain, and generally smooth riding. They would have ridden some form of Dressage, in a saddle to reflect the purpose of the work being done: exploring for long hours on horseback. Over time, wild horses escaped and bred into the modern mustang. A true mustang has this Spanish blood. A feral horses’s bloodlines are more modern and do not necessarily carry the code of their Spanish compadres. These mustangs were appropriated by the native folks, as well as those who might have stayed behind to develop missions and ranches.
Over time, cattle ranching grew, and thus the need for the horse turned from just exploring to riding for long periods in the “dressage” seat. The saddles began to reflect work with cattle, in the elements: Deeper seat/cantle, horn to tie off cattle, places to tie clothing and bedding. The seat the rider needed to be effective was the same, but the saddle evolved to fit the task at hand. As for the horses, they needed to be calm around cattle, hardy and tough, possess good endurance, hardy feet, and be able to run fast when needed. The training of the horse would need to focus around the rider needing their hands free to achieve tasks.
For the English world, that xenophonic style would have lingered for battles and battle training horses. Horses needed to jump over obstacles while approaching or retreating in battle. Would need to bravely jump ditches and run through water. Would need to be able to trust the rider enough to eventually encounter cannons, later gunfire, and explosions. For the aristocracy, the horses needed to be savvy foxhunters. Covering the countryside at canters and gallops, jumping over hedges, ditches, fences. Crossing bridges and maybe racing. Side-saddle riders had to do all of this while not straddling the horse.
Jumping saddles evolved to reflect a more forward leg position and a shorter stirrup. The pommels of the saddles needed to stay low, so as not to hurt the rider, and the cantles needed to be relatively flat so the hips of the rider would not be stuck in the saddle over fences. Mind you, back then, they did not practice two point position—that was later developed by Italian rider Caprili. You can see this old style of jumping in the movie National Velvet, and in old English hunting artwork.
Fast forward to modern riding:
In both Western and English riding, the horse needs the rider to have a balanced seat.
Biomechanically, the rider needs to train for all disciplines with the general coordination of the seat, leg, core, breath, arms, hands, eyes and head.
A general rule across disciplines is for there to be a line one could draw or drop from the ear of the rider, and have it pass through the shoulder, hip, and ankle/heel of the rider.
If a rider can lengthen their heel, the calf muscle and leg muscles can run in a longer line—more ready to “speak” to the horse, and less likely to have unneeded tension or gripping. Some disciplines or horses require more or less of a “hugging” feel from the riders leg, and some require more or less rein contact.
Once you start to specialize in a certain discipline, that is when you begin to see a difference in the styles and ways the rider needs to condition and train their signals to the horse.
Ultimately, the horse can do whatever the human leads. And it will have a predisposition to what it was bred to do, though there are always outliers. Injuries, diseases and age can shift what that horse might be able to focus on.
Remember, horses were originally made to eat grass, run and walk all day, and play with their friends, and to not get killed by predators.
Personally, I love developing a feel for all different kinds of riding.
Then, if I am working with a horse I can ask what it has done before. Then I can find out what it might like to do best. I’ve been surprised by dressage horses that wanted to jump, jumping horses that would rather do dressage, reining horses that would rather be dressage horses, cutting horses that want to jump, dressage and jumping horses that want to sort and cut, barrel horses that would like to do dressage, racehorses that would like to do anything you want them to, and so on and so on.
Sometimes horses have been bred for one thing and never offered another—I love to watch their body language as I show them what else is possible. I get various reactions: yawing, overall relaxation, willing excitement, absolute fear or uncertainty, initial resistance shifting to curiosity, initial resistance not shifting and turning into a definitive no, and so on and so on. I am reluctant to put these human words to their feelings, so I tend to stick to the body cues.
Eyes softening of wrinkles, nostrils relaxed and wide, corners of mouths relaxed, ears easy, limbs at ease. I do have to translate, so I do the best I can—but there is something lost in the language of the horse as it translates over to human speech. I find myself using my body to speak with them, and I practice with other humans. Even just with imaginary horse ears. It typically gives me a chuckle when other humans can see my pinned mare ears, a wrinkled nostril, a quick swing of my head at a random noise.
What is Westish? It's a direction to ride, neither here nor there. Neither English nor Western. Englern didn't sound as cool, but is probably closer to the truth for me personally. It's so easy to get caught up in the "which discipline is better" debate. Much as we are feeling these days with politics, religion, etc. The forbidden topics that need discussion.
I offer the horse disciplines as a metaphor to mix and merge our differences, research where we have all come from, and look at things from a different perspective. In this case, that of the horse.
The horse doesn't know your politics, just your energy. The horse doesn't know your religion, just the feeling you give off after you give gratitude or forgiveness. The horse will follow where you lead them.
To those that would counter and say that your horse took you somewhere you didn't want to go, I would counter that you gave off cues that you were either a) unaware you gave, b) were a lie to yourself but the horse picked up on it, and c) were unclear and confusing so the horse took over the lead.
But that's a topic for another day.
In the meantime, I challenge you to try a different style of riding for a ride or two. Go take a reining lesson if you ride dressage. Go take a jumping lesson if you trail ride. Go ride for a few hours out if you always stick to the arena. If those things don't feel safe with the horse you have now, find an instructor or another horse to try and create a new perspective and a new feel. Have fun. Make mistakes. Try new things.