The Importance of Versatility

By KAITLYN CRAWFORD

When you’re 14, you don’t realize you are inadequate because you do not fear failure.

Because of this, any inadequacies are covered up by grit and force of will. But when you’re 18, and leaving the hunter-jumper world for the first time since you started riding, it becomes painfully obvious just how ignorant you really are.

For me, the self-awareness and life changes that come with aging led me to the unfortunate conclusion that, despite my love and dedication to horseback riding, the amount of knowledge I had was next to nothing in the grand scheme of things. My abilities in the saddle were based almost exclusively on feel with no cerebral intent to back them up.

By the time I was finishing high school, I had confidence in my riding. I knew I could jump a horse around a 2’6 course, and that I could at least walk, trot, and canter on probably anything remotely trained. I was heading into the next stage of my life with complete confidence that I was good. But when I got to college and joined the equestrian team, my first few weeks of practice revealed several inconsistencies in my training.

“As you go down the long side toward home, let’s do a leg yield toward the rail. Then on the long side away from home, leg yield toward the middle,” my new trainer had said.

Leg yield? Isn’t that something you do in dressage?” I had wondered.

I thought leg yield was synonymous with half-pass, and in my head, I imagined horses going from centerline to the rail doing a dramatic crossing of the legs. I went around the ring and attempted the supposed leg yields, which inevitably turned into just going from the quarter line to the rail and back. 

“Help the hind end move with the front end. Don’t let the shoulder get away from you as you ask, that’s where the outside rein and leg need to come in,” she continued to instruct me.

Hind end? Front end? My outside leg? I was floored.

My new trainer was telling me to do something I had never done before—control each end of my horse individually. Essentially, split your horse in two to control both ends and use your two legs in different ways.

I may have come into contact with this idea once or twice before, like if I turned to a jump and got a bulging shoulder. Or, if the horse’s body wasn’t straight down an outside line. But until this moment, I had quite honestly never considered the fact that horses should be able to control the front and back ends of their bodies on an individual basis—or that I should be able to as well.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I started riding western my sophomore year of college and learned about haunch turns.

“You’ve got to make the front end go around the hind end—take your left leg away. If you’re closing the door on the right, you have to open a window on the left,” my new western trainer had said.

I had never been told to take my leg off the horse in my hunter training. 

“Now, tap your right spur by the girth, in time with his steps,” the trainer said.

I looked down at the shoulders and timed my spur with the movement of the front legs. Lo and behold, that horse turned on his haunches, no interference from the reins necessary.

My college career furthered, and my knowledge about riding and the mechanics of the horse expanded. I took riding and training classes where we learned dressage, jumping, and western techniques, alongside abilities that all horses and riders simply should know. Week one in my first horsemanship class was about collection and extension. I was at least familiar with the concepts this time, but I knew none of the intricacies surrounding what collection and extension were, or how to achieve them.

“Alternate your leg pressure to push the ribcage further side to side,” the trainer said.

It was like I had never even felt the horse’s movement beneath me. The rib cage swayed side to side, just like my trainer said. How could I not have noticed this before?

“Now, restrict that movement, but maintain the energy of the walk,” the trainer said.

I was more attuned to the feel of the horse’s body and movement than ever. I felt the slight up-and-down energy of the walk as I tightened my leg and resisted the rib cage’s movement—it was like magic.

Week two was circles. Week three, leg yields. But this time, a deep dive into how to succeed in the movement. Every week was a micro-epiphany that led to the larger realization that I was riding blindly for years, thinking I had a say in what it meant to be an equestrian when I wasn’t even a part of the conversation.

I got really into riding Western. I bought jeans and boots so I looked the part, and I rode at the Western shows in a full Western get-up—hats and chaps included. As I became serious about Western, I learned a lot about what my body can actually do while on top of the horse. Where English I had been simply half seating and posting with a short rein for five years, the western saddle and bridle taught me what a seat actually was, and how you can make the horse carry themselves even with a long rein. 

“Lope down the long side and halt. Use your core. Practice a few times,” the trainer said.

It was no sliding stop, but I felt like a reiner as I loped to a dead halt, abs doing a crunch in the saddle as I told my horse Woah. My reins had a loop in them, but the horse still knew what I wanted. To me, that was pretty incredible.

The journey didn’t stop there.

I learned many things through my college career that I had never known to do or even questioned before, and as I improved my basic and more advanced techniques, training suddenly made a lot more sense.

I came home and learned how to incorporate what I had learned across the disciplines to improve horses that were solely a part of that hunter/jumper world. Between learning basic dressage, flatwork techniques, and diving deep into the western side of this sport, I have a lot more to add to the conversation now—and the versatile knowledge that I now have will serve as a strength. 

Versatility in the saddle was something that I didn’t realize I was missing. The tunnel vision I had as a teen is long gone, and I am a better, stronger equestrian and horsewoman with an ever-expanding landscape of knowledge before me.