In My Boots: The English rider’s guide to Western

Lest you think we’re a bunch of prissy-pants city-slickers, we’ve wrangled ourselves a real cowgirl. Kristen Kovatch explains various western events and how they rate on the bling-o-meter.

From Kristen:

Confession: I was raised on a steady diet of English for six years. My childhood heroes included the O’Connors and Anne Kursinski. But like other youths, I chose to experiment in my teens, dabbling in western pleasure with the occasional hit of gaming. Once I had chased my first cow, it was all over: western all the way. Along this journey I’ve realized the stereotypes are true: There IS a lot of glitter. Below you will find an English rider’s crib sheet to western events, designed to allow you to fake your way through a conversation or encourage you to try some of these for yourself.

Reining: Called “western dressage,” reining originated in the maneuvers a cowboy’s horse would have to complete in the field: circling, changing leads, stopping, turning around and rolling back, all done with the lightest touch from the rider. Unlike dressage, audience participation is encouraged: reining crowds are constantly whistling, cheering, yipping, hollering or calling “yeeeeeeeeah.” Dare you to try that at your next dressage show. Glitter level: medium.

Showmanship: Competitors in showmanship will fall into one of two camps: they hate it or love it. A mere healthy appreciation for showmanship is rare. A good showmanship horse is a force to behold: they walk, jog, halt and pivot like a pre-programmed machine with the lightest cue from the smallest child on the end of the line wearing a bejewled costume in pastel or day-glo. I spent twenty minutes once trying to get an old pro showmanship horse to stand un-squared so he could have a foot x-rayed. Glitter level: high.

Cutting: For anyone who has ever ridden western and has found the saddle horn to be a convenient handle, this event is for you. Clinging to the saddle horn is not only legal, it’s encouraged; the entire point of the event is to prove that horses are, in fact, more athletic than cattle, and a cutting horse will turn itself inside out to prove its point, rider be darned. There’s nothing more macho than watching a grown man gripping the saddle horn with white knuckles as his horse dives and spins in the face of a cow. Glitter level: extremely low.

Western pleasure: This event tends to get a bad rep for horses moving unnaturally and riders dressed up like a beauty pageant. I’m pleased to report that the AQHA, the defining association for setting the trends in western riding, is emphasizing to its competitors, judges and trainers that horses are to be encouraged for more forward motion and a natural way of going. Originally, the event started at rodeos as cowboys competed their smoothest-riding horses off the ranch. Add a few decades, a lot of silver and a ton of gemstones, and you have the modern western pleasure show. Glitter level: extremely high.

Reined cowhorse: The “eventing” of western and a blend of cutting and reining: horses cut cattle from a herd, perform a reining pattern and then work a cow individually on the fence. The fence work gets back to the root of cowboy riding as competitors are required to turn a cow on the fence and circle it in each direction. The luck of the cattle draw adds an element of unpredictability to every single ride. Horses are required to be shown in the California style of romel reins, which is the western language for “very fancy and expensive.” Glitter level: low.

About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.

Top photo: Prippy Handbook

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