By Alex Purcell
I often wonder who first looked at a horse and said, “Yeah, I’m gonna jump on the back of that half-ton animal and ask it to carry me places.”
Whatever the case, I’m happy the human race decided horses were good travel animals, because I’d be totally lost without them.
I’ve been on the backs of so many horses in my 21 years I can’t even begin to count them. I caught the horse bug when I was six. My first mount was an old chestnut Quarter Horse named Ellusion (yes, with an “e”). My instructor strapped a lunge line to the halter, stuck a helmet on me, put me on the horse’s back and made him walk in circles for an hour while I learned to balance.
For the first few weeks, I rode without a saddle. What better way to get a feel for a thousand-pound animal than to sit directly on its back? When my trainer finally decided I had a good feel for Ellusion, she put me in some stirrups. They felt foreign. Still do. Every so often, I’ll risk falling off and take a trail ride without a saddle for a few hours just to get in touch with my horse again. I’ll be lame from thigh soreness for days afterward, but it’s worth it, trust me.
The first saddle I ever rode in was an English saddle. Those saddles are barely more than padded leather strapped to the horse’s back, and I didn’t realize how much I hated riding like that until years later. English riding requires you to have perfect form. You are expected to be more concerned with that form—yours and your horse’s—that it can suck all the joy out of riding.
After Ellusion, I began riding with a different trainer. She taught me to ride Western. Western-style riding is what you see in old cowboy movies, with the huge saddles with a horn in the center of the pommel. It’s a hell of a lot more comfortable than English. Those saddles are padded enough to protect your rear from hours of sitting.
There’s a lot more to grip onto, too. Clamp your thighs down around a Western saddle – good luck to the horse trying to throw you. The stirrups are huge and held with sturdy leather rather than flimsy straps. And, of course, there’s the saddle horn.
Western lets you focus on the horse, not how you look. That’s why I like it.
For a few years, I rode saddleseat on great big “hot-blooded” Saddlebred horses. Saddleseat is like English riding on steroids. Saddlebreds are trained to pick up their feet like circus horses. They’re not easy to ride. They get easily spooked and are seriously powerful animals.
I loved my Saddlebred. He was huge, even for a Saddlebred, towering above me at seventeen hands high. His registered name was Marlon Brando, but we called him Adam around the barn. I hated the way I was supposed to ride him with complicated bridles and uncomfortable saddles, stepping like he was dancing over a bed of hot coals.
Adam was blind on one side and tended to spook a lot. I got real good at staying in the saddle because of him. I rode him in that flimsy saddleseat style until I got sick of him almost throwing me every ride, so I slapped a big, heavy Western on him. I’m proud to say I only ever came off Adam once, and that was because I decided to ride him bareback. Whoops. Never ride a half-blind horse without a saddle unless you have a death wish. Adam lost a lengthy battle with colic and had to be put down in late 2012. I’ve not owned a horse since.
Adam’s death didn’t leave me horseless. Instead, I ask around, see who needs a horse worked or has an extra horse and needs a trail ride companion. Sometimes, I find horses. More often than not, horses find me.
Am I a good rider? I’d like to think so. In 15 years of riding, I’ve only ended up on the ground six times. My form might make the professionals cringe, but I stick to horses like a burr. The only serious injury acquired from a spill was a broken shoulder and torn labrum. (That only happened because the horse fell. Had he kept his footing, I would’ve been fine.)
I get calls all the time that go something like this: “So-and-so told me you’re a good rider. I’ve got this horse that likes to buck and everyone else is scared to ride him…”
I wouldn’t have it any other way