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OPINION

Hoofbeats: How to buy a horse, part III

Joan Fry
The Ag. Journal

Western vs. English riding is a debate that won’t be resolved any time soon. You’ll probably choose the seat you rode as a kid, although I rode my neighbor’s horse hunt seat because the neighbor was a former cavalry officer. After moving to the West Coast I switched to Western, then switched again, to dressage. Whichever type of riding you decide on, buy the horse first. Then buy the tack that fits you both.

Why ride Western? Because here, everybody’s a cowboy. Even the girls. Most owners at Boo’s boarding stable trail ride using Western tack. A good Western saddle is heavy and solidly built with a horn and two cinches. That way a cowboy can rope a steer and wrap the other end of his rope around the horn. When the steer hits the end of the rope, the impact won’t yank the saddle—and the cowboy—off the horse. Even riders who don’t plan on roping anything want a Western saddle so they can grab the horn if necessary. The high cantle is another safety feature because it cups and stabilizes the rider’s butt. Traditionally, cowboys held the reins in their left hands so they could rope using their dominant hand. Most Western bridles lack a throat latch, and the bit is nearly always a curb with short shanks and a low port, often called a grazing bit.

Why not ride Western? Because Western saddles are made of multiple layers of leather, they weigh more than the average third-grader. And that’s before you put anything in your saddlebags. Saddles advertised as trail saddles still have a horn, although the swells aren’t as pronounced and the cantle is lower. And that rider-friendly horn isn’t so friendly if your horse falls on you—or decides, without warning, to soar over that creek instead of wading through it. A curb bit is traditional, whether the horse needs one or not. If you’re a first-time owner without

much experience, Western or English, you probably don’t have “good hands” yet. (Another reason I want you to take lessons.) Riders with good hands maintain a light rein contact, and the horse barely feels the bit in his mouth. A heavy-handed rider keeps the reins unnecessarily tight, and the horse can’t escape from the pressure of the bit until the rider dismounts.

Why ride English? All three English saddles—hunt seat, saddle seat, and dressage—only weigh about fifteen pounds, including stirrup irons. They lack a horn or swells, and the cantle is barely there, so riders learn to develop a balanced seat. What that means—among other things—is that you can move one hand, for example, without moving anything else. Once you have a balanced seat, you can influence your horse not only with your hands and legs, but also by your posture, seat bones, and thighs. All English bridles have a brow band and a throatlatch to make sure the bridle doesn’t slide off the horse’s head. Since a noseband isn’t essential—it keeps the horse’s mouth closed—most trail riders don’t use one. They do use a smooth jointed snaffle bit, much easier on a horse’s mouth than a curb because it doesn’t have shanks or a port.

Why not ride English? Other riders will laugh at you. Around here, you are literally in Marlboro Country. The late Bob Norris, owner of the Tee Cross Quarter Horse Ranch in Colorado Springs, was one of the original Marlboro cowboys. If you ride English, you hold a rein in each hand. Roping a steer is not in your future.

And then there are Australian stock saddles. Originally they looked like heavy-duty English saddles—British colonists imported foxes to Australia so they could hunt them—no horn, but a higher cantle and longer, thicker flaps than a traditional English hunt-seat saddle. That’s because Australian cowboys don’t rope their cattle. Instead, they brandish long whips. To attract American riders, some Aussie saddles now come with a horn.

Whatever seat you choose, don’t let yourself get suckered into the old argument about “cowboys are better riders than fox hunters,” or vice versa. Bring the question down to your level—make it personal. It doesn’t matter which type of riding is “better.” What matters is what you and your horse decide is the best for both of you.

Joan Fry

Joan Fry is a lifelong horse lover and the author of “Backyard Horsekeeping: The Only Guide You’ Ever Need” (The Lyons Press, Revised Edition, 2007). She can be reached via email at joan@joanfry.com