The Academic Equestrian: Horses First in Catch Riding

“For coaching to create a horseman instead of just a rider, instruction has to be centered on caring for horses first.” Collegiate blogger Haley Ruffner shares her thoughts in this editorial on what she sees as a necessary change in catch riding competitions.

The author, performing a sliding stop on a catch-ride. Photo by Ellie Woznica of Counting Hoofbeats Photography

The increasing popularity of the catch riding competitions as a venue for middle-, high-school, and college students to compete without requiring the ownership of a horse has opened the sport of riding and increased many young equestrians’ riding opportunities. Having participated in various catch riding competitions myself for going on eight years, riding hunt seat and western, I appreciate the experiences my coaches gave me. Catch riding on a regular basis can greatly increase one’s self-awareness as a rider and create a solid foundation of horsemanship, and the format of these shows makes the sport more inclusive to riders who don’t have a horse and might not otherwise be able to afford to show.

In my opinion, however, despite the advantages for competitors, the hardships these shows create for the horses used have begun to increasingly outweigh the benefits

Horses used for catch riding shows shoulder the heaviest burden. They are tuned and trained for their own regular riders (and likely with a single rider or few riders in mind, not droves of them in one day), and struggle through weekends with less-educated and -experienced riders. I was one of those awkward young riders once, still learning and struggling with some horses — but as the popularity of catch riding competitions continues to grow, it seems as though some teams place riders in divisions they are not ready for in order to fill a team roster. In watching these shows, I see many examples of adaptable riders who adjust to their horses and improve throughout the class, but I also see riders who are terrified, who use more pressure instead of adjusting their cues when something doesn’t work, and riders who have not been taught how to do use their aids correctly, at the expense of school horses.

At my own school, our reining horses, as some of the most highly-sensitive horses we have, seem to bear the brunt of shaky riders during shows. While all horse shows are a learning experience, in my opinion a rider’s first time on a “real” reiner (i.e., one with an NRHA record and that wears sliding plates and can do all maneuvers) should not be at a show, riding someone else’s horse. All riders are supposed to have professional reining training before they are eligible to catch-ride a reiner at a show, but based on some of the riding I have seen, it is obvious that either the training is coming from an unreliable source, or has not occurred with any regularity. While most riders are willing to learn, it is unfair both to horses and riders to enter into a division the rider isn’t ready for — both are set up for a bad experience, and it takes weeks (if not months) for some of the horses to recover mentally from the too-quick hands and over-spurring from lack of leg control of inexperienced riders.

As someone who learned on some of the same horses that still carry catch riders today, I know as well as anyone that, in my period of learning to rein, I also did damage to the horses in the same way that today’s riders do. I know that it takes years of practice to perfect soft hands, to understand the feel of how to ask for a correct spin every time, and that sometimes some kicking might be required on a lazier horse. I will never stop learning. These mistakes come with the territory, and in no way do I condemn anyone for trying to learn and improve.

My apprehension with some of the catch riding shows arises from concern for the horses, having seen them ridden in rowel spurs by riders who kick incessantly with both feet to ask for a spin, having seen them overridden almost to the point of danger, running borderline out-of-control circles, having seen them nearly pulled over backwards by a rider who thinks a stop is induced by jerking back with their hands. I see speed coming before correctness, effective riding and fundamentals of horsemanship abandoned for a run that’s fast and exciting in all the wrong ways.

In my own reining journey, I’m sure that I left a few horses sore-backed, pulled them a little too hard into the ground for a stop, and made them anticipate a lead change across the center from unclear cues. However, I count myself lucky to have had coaches who made me work through those mistakes and educated me on the harm I caused, and taught me how to alleviate it with different exercises while riding — as well as post-ride horse care like cold hosing, standing wraps, and proper cool-down. I was taught that correctness had to come before speed, and taught to ride with the goal of being penalty-free, not running the legs off a horse. For coaching to create a horseman instead of just a rider, instruction has to be holistic and realistic, and centered on caring for horses first.

As catch riding competitions become more popular and grow in size, they become more profitable to coaches with large teams, so more and more teams have sprung up with rosters to fill. Most catch riding organizations have few requirements or tests for coaching eligibility, leading to some coaches giving “professional reining training” without ever having ridden a reiner themselves or having access to one to give lessons on. Sure, the fundamentals of reining can be taught on a horsemanship horse — the deep seat, the softness, pattern placement and even circles — but to prepare a rider to show a reining horse, there needs to be a significant amount of time spent riding a reining horse.

Although some organizations do already require the coach to pass a rule book test in order to have a team, this practice is not universal, and its effectiveness is questionable — anyone, even a non-equestrian, could look up phrases in a rule book without extensive effort. A practical coaching test would be ideal but likely not convenient or possible to do completely free of bias, and the format of the test would pose further issues as some coaches no longer ride themselves.

However, an evaluation of the riders wishing to enter into the reining could solve some of the strain on horses. Tested on different maneuvers and ideally with a written component as well as riding, under the supervision of show stewards, and mounted on an approved reining horse with sliding plates that can do all maneuvers, such an evaluation should determine a rider’s eligibility to show in the reining. If the rider is determined unsafe or unable to perform all maneuvers at a safe level and with control of the horse, they should remain in a lower division until they are able to pass a standardized evaluation without coaching.

These changes would be difficult to implement and enforce on a large scale, but as catch riding competitions become less sustainable and people less willing to donate their horses for use in them, change is necessary to keep catch riding as a viable option for equestrians who want to compete but don’t have their own horse.

Haley will continue to share more adventures from the perspective of a collegiate equestrian! Keep an eye out for The Academic Equestrian weekly.

Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with a minor in Equine Business Management. She owns two Quarter Horse geldings, Cricket (“At Last an Invitation”) and Slide (“HH Slick N Slide”). Haley is a captain of the AU western equestrian team, competing in horsemanship, reining and hunt seat. She also loves trail riding.

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