Like many people who were horse mad teenagers in the 80’s, I grew up on a diet of superheroes with names like Harvey Smith, Ginny Leng, Lucinda Green, John Whitaker and Nick Skelton. (Yes, I admit it dates me outrageously!). BSJA Show jumping and Eventing was the route I took at a fairly respectable amateur level, I then moved into classical dressage and I then slowly become thoroughly disillusioned with riding horses and the horse competition world to the point I barely even hacked my horse any more, let alone competed. If you were to ask me how I rode Western, I would answer “very badly”. (Incidentally, that’s still my answer!).
It’s also fair to say, I fell into breeding American Quarter Horses by accident. It’s a well known story (and a running joke between us) that Huw forgot our anniversary one year and so bought me a pregnant AQHA mare (Acorn) to make up for it because he couldn’t find a decent enough Lusitano for our stud without going to Portugal.
I’m a successful breeder. I understand genetics, I understand horses, I understand horse conformation. I’m very good at it. I started with Lusitanos, I’ve carried on with Quarter Horses. I “thought” I was a good rider – I mean, I used to play polo and I can stay on a very hot, firey horse as it heads over a five bar gate and still be on board when it lands the other side, so I must be, right? Wrong!
I remember my first Western riding “experience”. I was at Sam Magdeleno’s yard discussing 2 AQHA youngsters that I’d bred and he was starting for me. I happened to mention in conversation that despite breeding quarter horses, I’d never ridden Western. Sam’s eyebrows shot up and he looked appalled. Now, if you know Sam at all, you’ll know that he’s a man of very few words and a very sharp wit. You’ll also know that you can trust his judgement implicitly and that he is an incredible teacher.
After he’d recovered from the shock of what I’d told him and his eyebrows were back in place, he pointed to a smallish, ginger, quarter horse stallion who was standing tacked up in Western gear and half asleep. Never one to mince his words, he said “Get on that”. I’m not as a rule one to ever argue with Sam, so I did as I was told.
I then had an impromptu Western riding lesson, from both “Unlucky”** the Quarter horse stallion I was riding, and Sam. I remember walking around the arena on the horse, with Sam shouting “You’re riding too English! Relax!” and “Unlucky”** doing everything I asked, even though I had no clue how to make him do it and I was riding like a complete lemon. (I can only conclude he was so well schooled by Sam he’d learned telepathy).
I realised just how much I didn’t know and how bad I actually was at Western riding. I remember getting off, and saying to Sam, “I feel about 12 and I know nothing. It’s brilliant!”.
And it was indeed the best feeling ever.
That probably sounds odd. But it’s not. Let me explain.
When I was 12, I lived for my weekly riding lessons. I breathed, ate and slept ponies. My life revolved around horses, grooming them, mucking them out, riding them, dreaming of becoming a show jumper like my heroes, and (this will really date me!) hoping to “win a horse” every year in the WH Smith “win your own pony competition”. My life was horses, they were all I cared about. I remember watching the clock in the last lesson on a Friday afternoon (it was music, with Mrs Bowen) and counting the seconds until I could run out of the door and get to my riding lesson. I didn’t care about winning the next cup, or about the fact that Jenny McCarthy had a new glittery saddle cloth with her name on it and I didn’t give a flying fig about the fact that I’d come 3rd instead of 1st at the local show, because I was over the moon just to get a rosette.
As I grew up, I became more competitive and it became all about riding to win. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as competitive as anyone else and I like to win. But somewhere along the line I lost the essence of what it was to be that 12 year old girl excited to just be hanging out with her pony. Horses became a job and a grind. Over the years, one thing led to another and although I didn’t have any for a while, they never really left my life and eventually wormed their way back in properly via a retired Lusitano gelding called Jeitoso, and a very tolerant husband.
Recently, our 5 year old daughter started riding properly. She was hooked on Western the minute Sam gave her a ride on a horse he was training. It was like he’d given her a dose of crack cocaine. She immediately wanted more. In the 10 minutes she was on board a horse with Sam, her whole aim in life became “I want to be a cowboy like Sam, mummy””. (To be fair to Sam, he always corrects her with “Cowgirl, Charlotte”). Her life revolves around her next riding lesson, how soon she can get to the stables after school and when she can next ride Mickey, her pony.
And I get it. In the instant I’d managed to get “Unlucky”** to move into a canter (sorry, “LOPE”) because I’d given him the right instructions, I was suddenly that 12 year old girl again, desperate to spend every waking moment with horses. It wasn’t about the next win or the red rosette, it was about hanging out with a horse and working as a partnership.
I have to say, I am rapidly sliding down a very slippery slope with Western. I’ve been talked into maybe!!! doing my first ridden western clinic by a friend (who to be fair is an utter force of nature and wonderful to boot) and who knows, you may actually see me showing my youngsters at shows this year. And thanks to the incredible people I’ve met along this journey so far, I’m the 12 year old girl, with the passion for horses again.
To quote another friend who has also been trying to get me to show… “He who dares, Rodney, he who dares…”
She’s not exactly “Del Boy”, and I can in no way be described as “Rodney”, but indeed, he who dares… See you in the ring! (Hopefully not riding too badly!)
** Names changed to protect the innocent – in this case a very amiable stallion who clearly thought I was a total idiot!