I am the only western rider in this village. Am I bovvered? Not one bit. I have been a western rider and a member of the Western Equestrian Society (WES) for over 20 years and I am used to the occasional stare, comments about cowboys and questions about my saddle. Where I live there are many horses of various types, used for a wide range of disciplines and the saddles and equipment vary from tiny racing saddles to the more usual GP saddles. So why should someone on a western saddle stand out? It is certainly true that over recent years western has become more widely accepted amongst horse people and the question I am asked most often these days is “where can I learn western?”
Back in 1985 when David Cassidy, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bryan Ferry were favourites in the music charts, a group of western riding enthusiasts held the inaugural meeting of WES at a pub in Worcestershire. At that meeting the reasons for forming the Society were discussed and it was clear from the outset that the main aim was to improve the standard of training for both horses and riders in the art of Western Riding. A list of approved Instructors was needed and a clear route for progression through the levels. Well, over 25 years later has that been achieved? You can bet your shiny silver spurs it has! The current WES organisation has a Rule Book, Instructors list, Judges list, Area Reps, County Reps, a Points system, end of year awards and just about everything else that you need to run a good riding club, including a Health and Safety Officer, a must in today’s litigious society. Instructors are assessed and graded between Levels 1 and 5 and need to have up to date Insurance, First Aid and CRB check to stay on the approved list. Judges have to pass both a written exam and a live judging test and work initially under supervision before they can take up a full judging ticket. Show Secretaries have to attend a Show seminar every 5 years to ensure they are up to speed with their responsibilities. The current competition structure includes youth, novice rider/horse, amateur and open classes for each of the 7 performance classes and more recently an Intermediate Amateur class has been added. The Society is run by a group of hard working volunteers who are passionate about western riding and keen to promote it in this country.
The show season typically runs from April through to October. Back in the early days, the judges often travelled half way across the country to a show to find only a handful of competitors had turned up. But by the early 90s WES had grown enough to hold the first Championship Show run over 2 days at Arena UK, Grantham. A report written after the event says that in excess of 30 horses entered! The annual Championship show has gone from strength to strength and now renamed “The WES National Show”, it runs for 3 full days over the August Bank Holiday weekend at Moreton Morrell College, Warwickshire and attracts competitors from all over the country and typically sees 75 or more horses entered. The show is very popular amongst the wider western riding community and for the last few years has included classes for the American Quarter Horse Association, the UK Paint Horse Association and more recently, the Appaloosa Horse Club UK.
As part of the commitment to improving standards, since 2001 WES has run two annual 3 day training clinics over the Easter holiday, which are very popular with members. A judging seminar is held every Spring and Show Managers Seminars are held when there is sufficient demand. For local events, the country is divided into 13 Areas, each with an Area and County Representatives who try to put on events in line with demand.
WES, which is an all breed society, is not the only western riding club in this country and members often compete with more than organisation. Many members were English riders before western and compete in both, sometimes with the same horse. Over the years a number of members, including former youth members, started out with WES and have gone on to work, train and compete in America and Europe and some are now professionals in the industry proving that there are great opportunities for those who are really serious about the sport. WES is often considered as the grass roots of western riding in this country and that is also true on the judging front as the training of WES judges is taken very seriously. As a multi-discipline and all-breed society, WES is a good grounding for judges who wish to further their judging career by gaining qualifications with the various breed specific or discipline specific organisations in order to judge shows in USA and Europe.
So how exactly do you set about having a go at Western. Western riding is not as widespread in the UK as in other countries so it can be difficult initially to find out much about it. Sometimes you need a little perseverance but there are more of us out there than you think! Success can depend on whether you happen to live near to one of the “western hotspots” around the country and it is true that people have often tried and given up in the past because it became too impractical to get training and help without travelling huge distances. It is also true to say that sometimes people have tried western because they thought it looked easy but, just like any other discipline, it requires concentration and effort to learn the basics. However, it is well worth the effort and these days there are plenty of good training DVDs, magazines and websites that will help anyone at any level and 2011 saw the launch of the Western Rider Development Programme which is an innovative online programme available to WES members. After a succesful pilot, the scheme is now fully up and running and is proving very user-friendly and a brilliant way of learning western at your own speed and at home! There is a wealth of information available on the website free for anyone to use. Riders enrolled on the programme have access to even more information and on-line support and all for a very affordable fee. See the WRDP website for further information www.westerntrainingonline.co.uk
Of course, just how far you take it depends on you. It is very different to English riding, but that is what got a lot of us hooked in the first place! If you are thinking of trying it you might want to come along as a spectator at some events first. Like other disciplines you will see good and bad riders so do not be put off if the first one you watch is not to your liking. At shows it is a good idea to watch riders in the warm-up arena and watch them training and schooling their horses. If you cannot join in at a clinic or training event go along and watch and see how much information you will pick up. WES events are widely considered welcoming and friendly and there is no charge for spectators.
BHS member Henrietta Campbell joined WES in 2007, having developed an interest in Western riding after years competing show ponies, hunters and dressage horses as a teenager. ‘It was the lightness, responsiveness and self-carriage of the well-trained Western horse that just blew me away, and opened my eyes to an alternative way of training and riding which I felt might suit me and my horses better. Western riding principles have helped me enormously not only with showing, but also in hacking out and trying sports like BHS TREC. I have really had to go ‘back to basics’ to unlearn some bad habits and re-assess how I ride, but it’s fantastic fun, it’s a logical approach to riding – and the people engaged in all levels of Western sport make it really sociable.’ She has competed the last two seasons in Western Pleasure, Trail and Western Horsemanship and was 2009 WES Intermediate Amateur High Point winner. This year she’s having a go at reining!
Julie Magnus- Hannaford has ridden from an early age but only discovered western in 2005. She says. ‘My husband rides western and convinced me to go on a ranch holiday in Devon which I enjoyed but I didn’t at that time really “get” Western riding. A few years later we went on a ranch holiday in Montana . I still didn’t learn much about Western riding but very much enjoyed our holiday in Big Sky Country. Determined to actually learn something, I began to take formal western lessons with Bruce Lawrence at Malvern on his wonderful Quarter Horse schoolmaster Dude. It was much more difficult than I could ever have imagined. The differences from the English style are huge. The most difficult part for me was letting go of the horse’s mouth and riding with loose reins. But I loved Western riding and have been taking lessons ever since. It’s so relaxed but precise and the horses are so well trained. It’s a long way from what most people imagine Western riding to be – all yee-ha, spurs and galloping.’
We owe a lot to those determined folk who formed the society in 1985 and fought hard to prove that Western Riding deserves a place in the UK. For more information about WES including a list of Events, see www.wes-uk.com
WES Press and Publicity Officer
(this article first appeared in British Horse Magazine Sept 2010 and has been updated)