Comprehending English

Becky Newell, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, details her first English riding lesson – ever.

How I got out of my comfort zone and into a pair of breeches for my first English riding lesson.

Hoot’s look said, “Now what exactly is it that you want?” Journal photo.

By Becky Newell for America’s Horse

Growing up, the closest I got to riding lessons was when Dad put me on the back of some of the younger, green-broke horses he was too big to get on himself.

Recently, I mentioned offhand that it might be interesting to try riding English. My boss said, “If I arrange a lesson, do you think you could turn the experience into a story?”

“Um, sure,” I said.

I should never have opened my big mouth.

I can ride a horse. I enjoy checking fence or moving cattle. I don’t cut, team pen or rope, nor do I pay much attention to proper riding posture. I just like to ride. So the thought of taking any kind of lesson stressed me out.

I didn’t want to look out of place, so I ordered some riding sneakers and riding breeches online. Still, the closer the time came for my lesson, the more nervous I became. I worried all the way to Gretchen Mathes’ Powder Brook Farm near Harwinton, Connecticut.

Boy, she’s gonna think I’m a real hick.

When I arrived, Gretchen introduced me to my four-legged instructor, a 16.3 hand, 14-year-old gelding named “Hoot.”

He can’t be a Quarter Horse. He’s too tall.

“His registered name is Latigos Poco Dude,” she offered.

OK, with a name like that, he’s got to be a Quarter Horse. But, man, he’s tall. How am I gonna get up on him? I can’t even see over his back!

As we headed for the outdoor arena, butterflies fluttered in my stomach. “Grab that step stool,” Gretchen directed on our way out.

Ah-ha, that’s how I’m gonna get on. It looks pretty sturdy. Wonder how I’ll get off?

Once in the saddle, Gretchen described the proper posture for English riding.

Here we go. The sit-up-straight-don’t-slouch speech.

“You should be able to draw a straight line from the middle of your ears, through the middle of your shoulders, through the middle of your hip down to the back of your heel,” she explained. “You want your heels down and your inside calf against the horse to secure your position. Don’t get behind on your horse; stay right in the middle, right in the pocket of the saddle.”

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OK, I can handle this.

“I like to see a straight line from the elbow, through the wrist, hand and rein straight to the corner of the horse’s mouth,” she continued. “Not a lot of tension in your elbow, wrist or hand. Use your elbow down to your hand like a spring and ride with the horse’s motion.”

That sounds easy enough.

Taking the reins, she showed me how to lace them over my pinkie, fold the next three fingers over the top of the reins and fold my thumb down onto my closed fingers.

“Your fingers should be closed,” she added. “Not tight. You’re riding from your heel and calf and deep into your seat, soft in your elbow, in nice control so that you and the horse become a pair.”

“Sit up straight and don’t slouch.”

Sounds like Mom.

With a cluck and a nudge, I asked Hoot to trot.

Hey, this is kind of nice. He’s got a soft trot.

Then, Gretchen explained posting – bouncing with the rhythm of the horse’s gait. Well, it felt like bouncing until I got the hang of it; then it was smooth.

“Rise up in your thigh and your seat,” she said. “You have to have a solid lower leg. Then, rise softly. Don’t pinch at the knees. Kind of caress the saddle.”

Wait a minute, I have to do all that other stuff and post?

I gave it a try.

This takes some serious coordination. If I bite my lower lip any harder, it’ll bleed. Hey, come back here, Hoot. We’re supposed to trot in a circle, not head for the barn.

I can walk and chew gum at the same time, but it’s a little more complicated to steer a horse, keep your heels down, calves in, back straight, head forward, hands together, fingers closed and post. I’d get it for a little bit, then my heels would come up, my knees would start pinching, my foot would come out of the iron, and the rest of my posture would crumble.

Seeing my frustration, Gretchen asked if I was ready to try cantering. I paused, then asked – OK, whined – “Do I have to post?”

“Oh, no,” she said, laughing. “You don’t post when you canter.”

Cool. Let’s canter.

Little did I know that this required a whole new set of instructions.

“You’ll be cantering to the left,” Gretchen explained. “So, you need to hold the left rein up, nudge Hoot with your right foot and kiss to him.”

“Really?” I asked. “I didn’t realize you had to give this specific of a cue to get them to canter.”

“That’s how we train them,” she explained. “You want your horse to get a proper departure. Cluck to get them to trot and kiss to get them to canter. Use the reins and your legs to tell him which lead you want him to take. If you always do it the same way, you’re always sending the same signal. Then, use your leg to add length of stride.”

Piece of cake.

I lifted the left rein, nudged Hoot with my right foot and kissed to him. He just stood there. He turned his head and looked at me with an expression that read, “Now, what exactly is it that you want?”

I apologized, patted his neck, took a deep breath and tried the cues again. This time, he started trotting. I stopped him. He stomped his foot. “Biting flies,” Gretchen explained.

It’s more like he’s frustrated with the driver.

The third time I cued him, he took off cantering.

“Good girl!” Gretchen shouted. I got so tied up in trying to keep my posture, I didn’t have time to keep a leg on Hoot to keep him in the canter. Next thing I knew, he’d stopped.

Man, doesn’t this horse have autopilot? Do I have to do everything?

It was a small victory. We cantered a couple more times before returning to trotting.

“I think you should know how to post on the correct diagonal,” Gretchen said.

As if just learning to post isn’t hard enough. Post. Correct. Diagonal. What do these words have in common?

When you post on the diagonal, your rump hits the saddle every time the horse’s front outside leg hits the ground, she explained. It’s like you’re keeping time with his beat. The key is to stay on the correct diagonal.

So, Hoot started trotting and I started posting.

“What diagonal are you on?” Gretchen asked in a tone that indicated I was on the wrong one.

“The wrong one?” I answered.

“If you get off, you have to double bounce in the saddle to get back on,” she answered.

Oh, boy, this is gonna take some work.

It’s tricky. But, once you’re posting correctly, you can really tell a difference in the ride. It’s smoother.

Before I knew it, my lesson was over. Gretchen told me to use the step stool to dismount. I maneuvered Hoot next to the stool and looked around.

Hmmm. How am I gonna do this without falling off?

I swung my right leg over, leaned across the saddle, pulled my left leg out of the iron and slid down onto the stool.

Not a pretty dismount, but I’m off.

By no means did I become a pro at English riding in one lesson. I liked it, though. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d like the English saddle. Having always ridden in a western saddle, I wondered if I’d miss the crutch of a saddle horn. This time, I didn’t even need it.

Will I ride English again? Heck, yes. I figure any time you get to ride a horse is worthwhile. And if you improve your riding ability, it’s all the better.

And now I find out that we in the United States are the only people who call it English. Everywhere else, it’s simply called riding.

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8 thoughts on “Comprehending English”

  1. Beckie,
    Lovely article, you have my deepest sympathy, as an ex ‘English Rider’ (I’m 61yr English man)who’s turned to the ‘Western’ way 10 years ago, I had trouble not rising to the trot (posting). However as an ex race rider I was very impressed with the western way. I have a Morgan and a Quarter Horse both 14:3hh which, I ride in competition, bit of a drop from 16:2hh throughbreads.I never had lessons until I was offered lessons by a friend who was in the calvery. 2 hours of non-stop trotting and cantering without stirrups then without a saddle, was I sore, stiff and achey next morning. A couple of things looking at your picture, I think your stirrups could come down a bit to put you in to the classic dressage/western seat, at present you could pass as a ‘Master of Foxhounds’ that looks like a jumping length. A nice scarlet hunt coat and hunting cap (I know I hate them as well)wouldn’t go amiss.
    Keep it up and it will improve your western style.

    Steve Frost

    ps. I do have western lessons, I am also the ‘Cornwall Rep’ for the ‘Western Equestian Society’

  2. I too can sympathize. I took English riding lessions for 6 weeks with a friend to keep her company. I had horses and had ridden Western all my life while she was new to the sport. I thought, what could it hurt? They said it would teach me a “balanced seat”. With all that posting, I could never figure out how I was going to learn a balanced seat when my seat never stayed in the saddle long enough to be balanced! All jokes aside, I think everyone could benefit from some English riding lessions no matter what your discipline.

  3. I was under the impression that in Western Pleasure and English, the skills noted by our esteemed author are basically the same. Heels in and down, straight line from ear to heel and a feeling of oneness with the horse (Sally Swift, famous equestrian). I tried English, but decided to go Western. I found that in both disciplines the way you sit the horse is almost the same (good posture). Yes…quarter horses can reach 16 to 17 hands. It depends upon their breeding. I had a Zippo Pine Bar gelding that was 16 1/2 hands. He was a big boy. I much prefer my short mares…14 to 15 1/2 hands. Easier to mount and dismount.

  4. “Latigos Poco Dude”! That’s a blast from the past; I remember that name when he showed in Arizona. I can’t remember who owned him, but I know Mike and Gayle Drennan bred him he was sired by their stallion Smokey Poco Dude. Glad to see he’s still alive, happy and productive. And that Becky had a good time riding him.

  5. Thanks for a well written and humerous article. Ten years ago at age 55 I began learning to ride Western and I learned how to post.
    But my Percheron/Quarter horse has such a smooth and comfy trot, I don’t really need to post. Riding English is something I do want to try – anything that gets me a closer contact to the horse.
    So, I’ll copy and paste your article to help me ease into lessons.
    Thanks again.

  6. I too, enjoyed your article. Nice information along with your story. I enjoy horses. I’d like to take lessons some time though. I think it would be great to help with my knowledge and confidence on a horse (I’m a bit green). Thank you again.

  7. I always rode western as a kid while showing in 4-h and swore I would never ride English. My last 2 years a friends dad talked me into riding English in a couple of classes to compete for the versatility title. I won versatility both years and got my first taste of English riding. A couple of years later when my paint filly matured to riding age it was obvious she was going to be a much better English horse than western so i once again picked up riding English. I trained her myself and now has apha points in hunter under saddle. I now ride more English more than I western. And it all started because someone talked me into it . . . .

  8. i am german and when i startet riding here there was no western stable around. so i got english lessons, for my arabian horse that was ok, when he died with 27 i visited a westernstable and really – i felt over a paint – and took that baby home. now i startet a mix between english and western to figure out what is best – finally he got to much muscles for a english saddle so i trained him in my own way western. both have good points but i never liked the bits. so up to now my Chesper never had a bit in his mouth and still just listen to voice to stop :-D. I learned both styles are good in a mix for the horse – and all in all ride a horse with the heart and not with the rains or bit, if you do a good job there is no need for it and horses follows their riders blind if he does a good job!

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