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Summer of Western riding

From: Holly

Dear Jessica,

You're the top! I can't thank you enough for all your great help. Thanks to you I sold my first horse to someone who really loves him a bunch and doesn't want to jump him, and now I have a new horse that is totally awesome and that I probably wouldn't even have looked at if I hadn't read some of your advice about sizing the horse to the rider. Corsair is only 15.2 and I am 5'7" and I thought that my new horse would have to be at least 16 hands, but I tried him out and it was just like you said about barrels and legs, he had this big barrel and he fits my leg just perfectly. He's the best horse I've ever owned. Thank you!!!!!! But that's not why I'm writing to you, I really do have a question, I just wanted to say "Thank you" first.

My question is this. My parents got divorced a while back (I'm 14 and they got divorced four years ago, so I'm pretty much used to it). Now my Dad lives out West and he wants me to spend the summer on this ranch with him and his girlfriend. I'm cool with that, she's okay and she likes horses and she's got my Dad riding at last! And my Mom is cool with it and she thinks I should go. And I'd like to spend time with my Dad. But here's the thing. I can't take Corsair with me, so he can just be in the pasture all summer for summer vacation, he'll be fine. But I'm really interested in getting better at dressage and jumping so I can start eventing, and I don't want to waste a whole summer riding Western, which is all I can ride at this ranch.  I'm not really interested in riding a horse just with my hands. I kind of know how to neck-rein a horse, you pull both reins left to go left, both reins right to go right, and so on. I even think it could be fun for a weekend or something, but I'm worried that if I ride like that all summer I'll really hurt my English riding for eventing. What should I do? Help please!!


Hi Holly! Thanks, I'm glad my advice helped you find a new horse. It's interesting, isn't it? Sometimes the taller horses are narrow, and the shorter ones are wide, and sometimes they're NOT --  so you really DO have to sit on them to find out how they'll fit your leg. I hope that you and Corsair (great name!) have a lot of happy years together.

I can't really tell you what to do with your summer, but it does sound as though you're in a good position to do something that could be a lot of fun. Why not take advantage of the offer and spend the summer with your father, especially since you want to spend time with him, you like his girlfriend, and your mother thinks it's a good idea for you to go. ;-)

A summer of good Western riding could actually do a lot for your dressage and your jumping, even if you don't do any dressage or any jumping! There's a lot more to it than you think. Neck-reining, for example, isn't really what you think it is, and I'll go into that in a moment.

In a good Western saddle, you'll be in a position very similar to your position in a good dressage saddle: sitting tall, legs long, knees bent, heels low, and with your body balanced over your legs, with your shoulders and hips aligned over your heels. A summer spent riding in balance over interesting terrain can't do anything but HELP your riding, no matter what kind of riding you do.

Good Western riding isn't about hands at all -- it's about your body balance, your alignment, your eyes, and the way you turn your head and shoulders. It's about the way you shift your weight and move your legs -- NOT your hands. If you're lucky enough to ride a well-trained Western horse, you won't turn it with the reins. The reins against the horse's neck in Western riding are like the rein contact with the horse's mouth in dressage: something that tells the horse which way you would like it to point its nose. ;-) On a good Western horse, you'll just let your eyes point where you want to go, turn your head and shoulders to follow that line, and your horse will GO there.

If you're riding a green Western horse, you'll ride it much as you would a green English horse, and you'll be direct-reining it with a rein in each hand and a snaffle bit in the horse's mouth.

Either way, your English riding shouldn't suffer at all, and your balance and aids should benefit. When you ride Western, with the reins in one hand and your reins loose, you'll become very aware of the effect of your body movements on the horse's direction and movement. You'll also probably become very aware of how much hand you USUALLY use -- when you turn a horse, do you (1) use rein first, or do you (2) use leg and then rein, or do you (3) use eyes and balance and weight and leg, and only a tiny bit of rein to tell the horse where to point its nose? If you said "yes" to either (1) or (2), Western riding can help you improve your dressage. If you said "yes" to (3), then Western riding on a well-trained horse will feel very natural.

Just remember to wear your helmet, no matter what kind of saddle you're using -- and have a great summer! You'll be a better rider in the autumn. ;-)


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