I had a blast.
For the 0.02 individuals out there who stumble across this blog by accident and don't know me personally, my background is in dressage. There's a little bit of show jumping thrown in there, along with the random gamut of events that come from being part of 4-H. I am honestly not sure what kind of rider I would call myself. These days I mostly ride bareback, with adherence to the basic principles I learned in dressage. The point is, I ride english...except for one very silly venture into Western on my thoroughbred. I'm sure I looked like a complete moron, and probably have the pictures to prove it. But I digress.
So yesterday was my very first western lesson, and a reining lesson to boot. For those who don't know what reining is, I am probably the wrong person to explain it. From what I understand, it actually has some aspects in common with dressage. Each move in a dressage test earns you a score between 1 and 10, and your final score is a percentage. In reining, you enter the ring with 70 points and can gain or lose points depending on whether you screw up. Emphasis is placed on showing the horse so that his or her movements seem effortless on the part of the rider. Much of the guidance of the horse is done with seat and leg rather than reins. Both reining and dressage have freestyles, which are patterns performed to music. Beyond those basic similarities, however, they're about as alike as cell phones and crack babies.
I say that not because the fundamentals of early training are different; in fact, they are probably much alike. But the way you ride a reining horse and the way you ride a dressage horse feel completely different to me. The biggest difference for me is that reining horses are ridden off the contact, and dressage horses are ridden on the contact. (For non-horsey people, that means in reining you have slack in the reins, and in dressage the reins should feel like supple elastic making a direct line between your hands and the bit. There is no slack, but you aren't hanging on the horse's face, either).
For my lesson I was fitted up with gigantic spurs (which I nearly tripped and killed myself on every five seconds when I was off the horse). We rode in a big shanked bit, and after some issues with the first saddle, Kyle found a midget saddle that actually fit me. We warmed up at the walk, trot, and lope. The warmup was a great confidence boost, because I found that my dressage training served me well. The reining mare was just as sensitive to my seat and leg movement as any dressage horse would be. Getting three beautiful gaits out of her was effortless. I should also mention that this was by far the most well-trained push button horse I have ever ridden. That mare knew her job, and knew it well. When it came time to get down to business, the first move we attempted was the spin.
Spinning is a transcendent experience all its own. The mare is cued with the rein across her neck, and a tap from the outside spur to push her into the spin. Then, you take your outside leg off the mare and let her do the rest of the work. Bear down into the center of the saddle when you're ready to stop. It may look unusual to a spectator, but sitting on the back of a spinning horse is an amazing experience. I was awed by the athleticism of my mount, as well as by the strange feeling of being lifted off the saddle as she spun faster and faster. It made me feel as though I were levitating. And of course, there's the intoxication dizziness always brings! Here is a video of a horse spinning in each direction:
Sliding stops were the other main feature of my lesson, and incidentally also what I had the most trouble with. I've never been much of a speed junkie, so the thought of tearing across the arena (with no walls, mind you) at mach 10 and then skidding 15 feet to a dead halt seemed a bit intimidating. I thought my stomach was going to try and exit through my feet before we did the first rundown. Also, my friend Tara warned me that I'd better sit back, or be prepared to fly over the saddle horn. Yikes! Anyway, we loped down the center of the arena, and pushed out into a slow gallop, and then I sat back. I'm sure I looked like a sack of potatoes. Poor mare! It took a few times, but I finally began to get the hang of it by the end of the lesson. Our last stop was a big old slide. Kyle whooped for us and said, "if you're going to stop like that, I guess I don't need to school that mare today!" I was happy to end on a good note and to feel like I was getting the hang of things after all.
Here is a video of a sliding stop:
And now so you don't all fear that I've gone completely to the dark side and become a true Texan, here is a very cool dressage freestyle that has gained some internet popularity of late. This is a stunning ride from Andreas Helgstrand on the mare Blue Hors Matine.