Quiet Riding

Equestrian Book Reviews

Book Review

The Classic Western Rider

Misty, the horse.

The Classic Western Rider is an eclectic work that appears to be more a collection of articles than an uniform book on the subject. In fact, four of the book's nine chapters were written by other authors — not a bad idea when the authors have particular knowledge on the topic and can present it well. The book's title seems an afterthought, however, since no explanation is given as to what constitutes the “classic” western rider or how this rider differs from any other western rider.

In slightly more than two hundred pages, the book tries to cover a lot of territory. The author begins with a brief history of the origins of western riding and how these origins evolved over time through the experience of horsemen and women working in what is now the western United States as well as the influence of literature, movies, and television. There is a chapter on tack as well as one on training. There is even a chapter on dressing the part that explains how a rider's appearance is expected to vary from one competitive event to another. The majority of the chapters introduce the rider to a variety of western riding competitions including: equitation, western horsemanship, reining, team penning, and other speed and skill contests.

In her introduction to the book, Donna Snyder–Smith provides the reader with the reason for her work when she says, “…not all men (or women) who sit upon a horse are true horsemen.” She adds: “…if you want to rise to the top, you must shoulder the responsibility of educating yourself.” The avid horseman should not take this as merely advice to read this book but to read widely and seek out instructors who can evaluate and correct his or her riding habits.

The author echos classical masters when she writes: “The horseman…realizes the horse is both a partner and a critically important teammate….” This attitude leads to an effort to understand the partner and afford him the courtesy of clear communication.

This attitude, also, serves as the basis of the desire to provide one's horse with a saddle that fits him properly. Linda Huck, one of the contributing authors, cautions against a common misconception when she states: “Don't assume that simply adding an extra saddle pad or blanket will improve the fit of a saddle that doesn't fit in the first place.” Snyder–Smith reinforces this principle when she says, “If a saddle fits well, a simple blanket to absorb sweat is all you should need.”

On the topic of bits, Snyder–Smith points out that “Most young horses today are started either in a snaffle or a hackamore.” She gives the reason for this: “A snaffle bit gives better lateral control than a curb.” She adds: “If a harsh bit is used as the primary method for stopping or controlling forward energy in a horse, long–term results will have a diminishing rate of return….”

Nancy Cahill, another of the contributing writers, states: “Most performance problems that come up need to be corrected with training, not a bit change.” Huck writes: “…a harsher bit isn't the answer to solving a problem you are having with a horse.” A major principal stressed throughout the book is that the rider should learn how to ride properly and not depend on gimmicks or equipment to achieve the desired result.

While most of the book revolves around various forms of competitive western riding, Snyder–Smith warns that “…pressure [to achieve] is a major ingredient in getting both people and horses hurt.” She points out that “The training, care, and handling of horses is a lifelong learning course, so being in a hurry doesn't offer much of a reward and can end up costing a lot in missed opportunities and downtime for horse and/or rider.” Additionally: “It can take many years of working with and around horses to reset your clock to horse time and learn to correctly read their body language.”

These words are not meant to encourage passiveness. The author stresses the need for persistence in working towards a goal with a horse: “…you will, without hurrying him, keep his mind engage on your conversation and the task at hand.” The idea is that spending time getting the basics correct saves time in the overall training process.

Various forms of training are touched upon. With regard to the use of the round pen: “Round penning does not mean chasing a horse around in a circle until it is physically and emotionally exhausted.” With regard to cavalletti: “These adjustable–height poles promote the following in the horse: increased focus, increased range of motion (both extension and flexion), balance, impulsion, and tempo.” With regard to work outside the arena: “…expand your knowledge of training beyond the arena and learn how topography can be used…. You can strengthen the muscle groups that are responsible for enabling the horse to both collect and extend his body and gaits with graduated hill work.”

With any kind of training, moderation is the key. “You can only strengthen the horse by regularly taking him to the edge of his fitness level, but you must not cross over that line.” Doing so will cause damage and may negate days, weeks, or even months of work. Sensitivity and feel are very important, and the author states: “Anyone who is a good rider will tell you that feel takes focus, balance, and practice to develop.”

Cahill emphasizes the importance of feel: “Feel is one of the most important components of riding and only comes from hours and hours of time spent on and around horses. The more horses you are able to experience — the good as well as the bad — the more you learn about feel.” Learning to feel improves riding in many ways: “With feel comes timing, which is the ingredient necessary to polish your ability to answer all the questions found in a horsemanship pattern: what, where, when, and how.”

Training is the responsibility of the rider. “Horses rely on people for their well–being; so good horsemanship includes making sure that the horse is capable of performing the task that is being asked of him.” Not all horses are capable of all things. “…every horse must be evaluated, not just before you purchase him, but also periodically during training by asking, ‘Is he working out in this job and does he enjoy it?’” If you have a horse that, by conformation or personality, is not suited for a particular task but you don't want to give him up, you “…can adjust your competitive goals by focusing your efforts on a division that better suits your horse's type and personality.”

Even if your horse is fit for the competition you prefer, it is important to know your horse well. Cahill emphasizes this principle when she states: “Knowing your horse will prepare you to know what to expect from him in response time, and that information will help you decide how best to cue him during competition.” And again when she writes: “Horses are just like people in that they are all individuals. What works on one might not work on the next one.”

A true horseman knows there is always more to learn. Learning to be a good rider starts with the basics. Cahill points out that she has seen “…far to many riders go into a specific discipline without first learning the basics of riding.” They often think riding basics are beneath them, but “There is no room for a big ego when you are learning to be the best you can be.” Huck reinforces this when she states: “The walk is just as important as the trot or the canter….Training takes time, and the more time you spend making sure you have a solid horse, the better you and your horse will perform in the long run.”

Some of the advice given in this book runs counter to commonly taught principles. When turning, Huck tells the rider to “…push with your outside…leg slightly ahead of or at the cinch.” While this method works, it runs counter to the generally accepted advice of drawing the outside leg back to encourage the horse to bend throughout his body. Again, she advises throwing the horse off balance to achieve a flying lead change. While this method works, it lacks the elegance of achieving the change with the horse in balance.

As with all books, the advice provided should not be taken in isolation. Compare the advice provided with that given by others, experiment, and listen to your horse.

Buy The Classic Western Rider