In My Boots: Beginner’s luck

With the help of her Alfred University students, HN’s in-house cowgirl Kristen Kovatch illustrates some common (and some just plain hilarious) beginner western riding mistakes.

From Kristen:

As riding instructors, we tend to see the same beginners’ errors appearing again and again. Riders hang on the saddle horn, hold their reins unevenly, lean too far back or too far forward. Usually, teaching beginners on a one-on-one basis, these problems are fairly easy to correct.

And then there’s teaching western riding: the gym class edition.

At Alfred University, we offer our intro-level riding courses as phys-ed classes: students can learn to ride and also fulfill one of their physical education requirements. Try taking six college students with little to no horse experience and throw them all together on horseback… this semester, I have a great mix of enthusiastic students who have been humble enough not only to admit that they’ve made almost every basic western riding error in the book, but invented a few more. Even better, they allowed me to photograph them doing them all.

Without further ado, I introduce you to Western I.

This is Sharnea. She is glibly demonstrating a common error in western riding thanks to the use of split reins: students ride off with one rein a mile longer than the other. Shortly after the taking of this photograph, Sharnea’s horse Mahogany began to wander in tiny circles to the left like a lame duck. I remedy this issue by having students check their rein length before starting the walk and encouraging ample use of the arena mirrors to self-check. (“Is your horse going in a circle? What way is his nose pointing? Why do you think that might be?”)

Meet Kelly. She’s doing her best to demonstrate what happens when a rider grabs the saddle horn and braces their weight forward. The saddle horn is a huge temptation for beginners—it’s practically screaming to be used as a tool to find balance. What usually happens, however, is that riders hang on too tight, brace their arm, and then get locked against the motion of the horse, bouncing forward and eventually right over the front end. Kelly’s been working very hard to sit on her seat pockets and keep her weight deep in the saddle, making even pretending to lean forward hard for herself (but clearly no work for her horse Willie.) Good work, Kelly.

Here’s Jack. He loves to wear brightly-colored pants to class for whatever reason, which in this case clashed wonderfully with his favorite pink riding helmet. Paulie the horse does not seem to mind Jack’s choice in wardrobe. What he does mind, however, is Jack’s leaning back with his “feet in the dash”—it’s just as easy for riders to learn their weight back as it is forward, letting the feet drift as the rider believes he is lowering his heels. We have been correcting this problem with Jack (overexaggerated in this picture) by having the class stand in the stirrups and keep the free hand on the mane.

And then, there are the problems that arise that simply make me laugh. Sometimes I laugh until I cry. I try not to do this as it makes the students get worried for my sanity.

Hi there, Derek. Looks like you have a little problem with your reins. Beginners often forget the complete process of tightening cinch, setting stirrups, finding the mounting block, and the all-important step of setting up the reins. Derek in this photo has mounted up without splitting his reins and he now has both reins on the same side of the neck. He is not going to get very far on Roan, who seems completely perplexed as to what on earth is going on up there.

Oh, Javon. Whatever are we going to do with you. Javon is our newest convert to the equestrian team, getting geared up to make his beginner walk-jog debut in a few weeks with the varsity squad. However, there’s the small problem of his helmet constantly going on his head backwards. Most of the time, it’s a humorous fashion statement. The other day, he actually rode off like that and I had to calmly shriek his name across the arena so he could fix it. Rey, being a very good horse, stood quietly while Javon made the necessary adjustments.

And then we have Nick. This is a true story—Nick was handwalking Wyatt at the beginning of class when I noticed that something on Wyatt’s bridle looked a little… off. Being a saintly creature, Wyatt had calmly accepted the bit totally upside-down and then let Nick finish the bridle. Yes, that’s a curb strap over his nose. Yes, that’s his browband waving out behind his ears. Yes, this horse is made of angel dust and sweet dreams. Nick was kind enough to create this moment for the photo and allowed me to laugh out loud for 10 minutes before helping him adjust his bridle right-side up.

Go teach riding.

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.

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