Entering the Western World as a Hunter

I was in the middle of patterning Murray State University's horse Malcom at Regionals. It was extra special that I was able to finish out my IHSA Western experience on the horse that played a huge role in teaching me how to ride horsemanship.


Growing up in the hunter world, the most exposure I had to western riding was from cowboys in movies.  My perspective of western was that it was rough around the edges and very “yee haw.” Humans usually look down upon what we don’t know, and I was no exception. I was clueless about a very large part of the equine industry and had no plans to learn about it. However, that quickly changed when I went to college.  

I started at Murray State University with plans to join the IHSA Hunt Team. At hunt tryouts freshman year, I met and quickly befriended a girl that asked me to try out for the western team later in the week with her. I am pretty sure I laughed at the question. Ride in a saddle with a horn? It didn’t really seem like my thing. Breeches and tall boots were my happy spot.  

Spoiler alert, I tried out and made the team. But then what? I remember calling my mother, and she laughed as I explained what I decided to do. All she wanted to know was if I had to buy a cowboy hat because she thought that was the funniest part of the whole situation.  

Finishing up one of my classes on Murray State’s horse Spooky. Every ride, whether successful or not, I pet my horse when leaving the arena. She was perfect for this ride, so she got extras.

In the beginning, I wasn’t fully committed to stepping into the western world.  Change is scary.  I rode in a blue show shirt, because the color felt comfortable to me. I refused to buy cowboy boots, so I showed in my paddock boots. And for most practices I still tried to ride in breeches. I got full chaps, a belt buckle, and cowboy hat… but I wasn’t doing it all.

It wasn’t just the clothing. To say the horses were different than anything I had ridden before would be an understatement.  For starters, we rode one handed to allow their shanked bits to work properly and I was confused how steering would work the first few times I rode. Second, they were slow. Well, they were supposed to be, but it took me some time to figure out how to ride without my entire leg squeezing.  My stirrups felt way too long and I felt like a beginner learning how to ride again. I had to learn a new way to sit in the saddle, absorb the motion of my horse, and ask for a lope.  

This little horse helped me in figuring out how to absorb the motion of my horse differently than I have had to in the past.

I struggled switching back and forth between riding western and riding hunt. They were so different.  Even worse, I had to start patterning. For horsemanship, part of the time is judged on the rail and the other part is how well you can follow a set of directions to move your horse through a pattern of maneuvers. 

I hated it. Mostly because I struggled with what was asked of me. I had no idea how to ask a horse for a correct square corner, I kept asking for transitions incorrectly, and my pattern layouts were not good.  And right as I was getting more comfortable riding on the rail, I moved up to the next division where I was introduced to my first spur trained horse. The idea of using my spurs to make my horse go slower and stop felt very backwards. Every practice I either couldn’t keep my horse cantering or made them very angry. 

Standing with teammate and good friend Travis Fortune at Western Semi-finals in Ocala, Florida. He was always there to help and push me to succeed.

But by the end of my sophomore year, something unexpected happened. I became friends with the person that would help me figure it all out. After offering to help, he told me I either had to commit to making this work or I should just give up. So I entered western bootcamp as I fondly call it.  

I rode all the time, and usually the horses that I struggled with. I had to learn that I was not on a hunter and I was never going to make them a hunter. These horses were trained a certain way, and I had to adjust to match that.  

I would love to say it was an overnight fix, but it took a long time to get to the point where I could be competitive with girls that had shown AQHA their whole life.  Every part of my body hurt at one point or another, and I sometimes left the barn frustrated with myself, the horse I was riding, my coaches, and my friend trying to help me succeed. 

Middle Tennessee State University’s horse Scotty ready to head out of the arena after winning our class together.

But eventually, I got to the point where I was competitive. I finally learned how to pattern (which was no small feat) and I was loving what I was doing.  Along the way I was forced (or persuaded as they refer to it) to step outside of my shell for my show clothes. As with any type of showing, you need to look the part. I started with buying square toe cowboy boots that I had revolted against from the start—turns out they are really comfortable! I had a teammate always do my makeup so I had the correct amount on to step into the ring. I got new chaps and bigger earrings, all in the effort to show at the best level I could.  If you had told me at the beginning of college, I would own an olive-green show shirt and a fuchsia show shirt, I would have laughed in your face. But as I began to trust my friend’s ideas, I bought these weird colored shirts and matching scarfs to show horses that would come to a stop as I would squeeze my legs.  

Life had gotten weird.

The craziest part was that the saying is true, hard work does pay off. I began to enjoy the new buttons I found while riding. I spent time out at the barn patterning and riding around for fun on horses that months earlier I was struggling with. I began placing in the ring and proving to everyone else, but mostly to myself, that I can accomplish whatever I put my mind to.  

Standing with my friend and teammate Rachel Lawrence, who always made sure my face was ready to head into the show ring.

I qualified for regionals and semi-finals during my time at Murray State, and I beat those girls who I never thought I would be able to compete with. There came a point where people never would have been able to tell that I had not sat in a western saddle before freshman year. On top of that, being successful in my western riding didn’t mean that I gave up anything with my hunt riding. I was captain of my hunt team and did well showing throughout college. I was lucky enough to be part of two teams and had double the horses to spend my time riding.

The equine industry is made up of people from all over the world with different beliefs, ideologies, and ways of achieving their dreams and goals. That is partly what makes this industry so special, but we need to be more accepting of our differences. If I learned anything from my time in college, it’s that there are many different ways to get to the same result. Just because someone doesn’t train your way or ride your way doesn’t make them wrong, it just makes them different. Watch, listen, and learn from other people, you never know what you might discover.  

I grew to love a side of this industry I never thought I would even step into, and learned to never be scared to fully commit to a new experience. We grow and learn from our struggles and discomfort. That is the positive of trying something new, you will always start at the bottom. There were times I wanted to give up western, but it made me a better rider and horsewomen. 

Four years after showing in our first IHSA class together, my good friend Bailey Coffman and I were able to show in our last class in IHSA together. The ending is always the hardest part of a good experience.

“It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”  Yes, winning was fun, but I grew as an individual because I had to put in the effort to get to that point. Had I quit, I would have missed out on riding some amazing horses and being part of a team that I will never forget. The memories and experiences I gained will always outweigh the hard times.  

So, try out for a team, join a club, do something you have always wanted. It could end up being one of the best decisions you ever make.

McKenna Debus grew up riding in Ixonia, Wisconsin and Waxhaw, North Carolina.  She graduated from Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. She was captain of her IHSA Hunt Seat Team while at Murray and rode on the Western Team during her time in college.