In an equestrian spin on Save the Last Dance, columnist Kristen Kovatch shares her experience of transforming a hunter princess into a reining queen.
Riding western and riding English really aren’t that different in basics: vertical alignment of head, shoulder, hip and heel over three gaits. It’s not hard to be safe and competent in both. When you start adding fences or sliding stops, however, things start getting a little complicated. While the university equestrian program for which I work encourages cross-training across disciplines, I faced one of the biggest coaching challenges of my career so far this past spring: turning a top IHSAOpen rider over fences into a top IHSA reining rider.
While we have a dozen mid-range and beginner riders competing successfully on both teams, having an Open rider winning in both disciplines is rare. At the top levels of competition, winners are chosen not just on having the correct basics, but for bringing presence and class to the arena as well. While a strong horseman is usually rewarded accordingly, Open western and hunt seat riders look startlingly different. In one harebrained attempt to discover the difference, I dismounted some of my crossover riders in a practice and made them hula-hoop for ten minutes. When they remounted, they didn’t ride any more or less effectively than they had before, but they looked suddenly…western. It’s all in the hips, as they say.
But hula-hoops and other tricks would not be enough in the case of my new Open rider. A very strong hunt seat rider over fences, my rider was effective in guiding a reining horse through a pattern and typically scored fairly well. But “fairly well” wouldn’t be enough to earn her a blue ribbon every time: despite the cowboy hat and chaps, she still looked like a hunt seat rider on course. Our own horses, tolerant to forward-sitting riders, carried her through just fine. If she was going to be successful out of our own barn, however, she had to learn to sit back and use her entire seat.
We watched videos. We looked at pictures. We talked for hours and rode horses together and discussed training ideas at length. While a lot of riders can remember the first horse they rode, I will always remember as a coach the moment my rider learned to truly sit a reining horse:
We were working a simple exercise to lift the horse into the bridle as the rider applied leg, slowly applying rein pressure by drawing the rein through a hand sitting stationary on the horse’s crest. “When you lift him up in the bridle, you need to be off his forehand!” I called across the arena as she circled at the lope. She slid to a stop in front of me.
“How can I be off his forehand and still reach his neck? My arms are too short!” She demonstrated for me.
“Change your angle,” I blathered, trying to demonstrate what I wanted to see, flailing about on my own horse. “You can keep the same arm length if you–”
I stared. I smiled. There she sat, finally deep in her saddle, not looking ready to take off into the air over a three-foot oxer, her weight over the horse’s back end, her hands free to set him in the bridle.
She found it at last. Tentatively, she loped off, working herself into this new position, feeling the transformation in the horse beneath her.
On Saturday, she won the last reining class of the season. This Saturday she will head to the Regional Championship, where I have every confidence she can win again. The next week, she will head back into the jumping arena, where I know she will also excel. She’s passed the crossover challenge, riding the best of both worlds.
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 thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.
Top photo: Prippy Handbook