EAST IS EAST AND WEST IS WEST by Gincy Self Bucklin
….and never the twain shall meet,” or at least that’s how the poem goes.
And it seems that that’s the way it is with English and Western riding. Certainly to the casual eye they are very different: saddles, bridles, attire, gaits, colors of horses, types of competition; all totally unlike. The people are different, too. Western riders are ‘rough and tough,’ English riders are ‘restrained, stuffy.’ So what could they possibly have in common?
Well, one thing they have in common is horses and riding. And, whether the horse is being ridden stock seat or hunt seat (or one of its related disciplines, that is jumpers, combined training or dressage) the essential requirement is the same. The horse must go calmly forward in a round frame in order to perform (correctly!) the activities which are required by the discipline. Furthermore, the rider must obey certain rules of riding in order for the horse to be able to go calmly forward.
Oh come now, you say, they don’t ride the same at all! Cowboys use those big rough bits and yank their horses around and holler, and English riders sit in those little bitty saddles and pull on the horse’s head all the time and let their horses do whatever they want–spoil the heck out of ’em.
Needless to say I’m giving you the common English opinion of Western and vice versa. The truth is that there are bad riders in both disciplines and since neither group tends to see much of the other, and since, in any sport, the duffers outnumber the experts by a large percentage, the likelihood is that one will only get to see the poorer representatives of the other discipline. I can remember, as a child growing up in a stable which did very little showing, believing that all jumper riders were bad, cruel horsemen. Of course, some of them were, and since I only went to a few little backyard shows, those were the ones I saw. And they, or their descendants, can still be found at that kind of show, but not very often at the big shows in the Grand Prix ring, since that kind of training doesn’t make it in the big leagues.
Similarly, the kind of backyard show where both English and Western classes are held is going to have a large proportion of the less expert riders, and a few of them will be really bad. Really bad riders frequently get into some sort of serious trouble with their horses which is very noticeable to the passersby. If it happens to be an English horse that is giving trouble, the Western people will all be saying “See, those English people don’t know anything.” (Meanwhile the rest of the English people will be pretending they sure don’t know the people who are making fools of themselves.) And so the legend continues.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch or the farm, the capable horsemen in any discipline all use the same basic techniques. I happened to do some articles which involved interviewing top professionals in several disciplines; dressage, reining , polo, saddle seat and hunters. Not at all to my surprise, they all agreed on the same training principles: take your time, listen to the horse, learn to ride well, don’t try to do what you don’t understand, don’t hurt the horse or scare him. Western riders have a reputation among English riders of not caring about the horse; just using rough training methods to force the horse without considering the horse’s point of view at all. Certainly it is easier to abuse a 14.3 hand quarter horse while sitting in a Western saddle holding the reins of a long shank curb, than it is to abuse a 16.2 hand throughbred while sitting in a flat saddle with only a snaffle. You are less likely to walk away unhurt from the thoroughbred. Therefore the sadists are more likely to be attracted to Western. On the other hand, there are a lot of thoroughbreds around whose brains have been fried by sadistic English riders.
Actually, if there is any rider who needs to have a horse that he can trust–and trust is only gained through kindness–it is the true Western rider who spends most of his working life alone with his horse, a long way from help if his horse flips over on him. A good Western horseman is an extremely sympathetic rider. English riders, on the other hand, have a reputation among Western riders for spoiling their horses. And I remember my vet saying, thirty years ago before the days of tranquilizers, “I hate working a place where they ‘just lo-o-ove horses.’ he was speaking, of course, of the sort of person who won’t let you use a twitch, or disicpline horse that’s trying to kill you while you’re treating him. But capable English horsemen understand just as well as their Western counterparts that anything the size of the horse needs to have good manners (which are achieved at least partially by discipline) in order to be safe.
So, in these days of Equal Rights, let’s not judge our fellow horseman by the clothes he or she wears–or their horse’s clothes either. Let us instead look for the good horsemen in every discipline, which really means looking for the happy, well-mannered horses.