Heading east for a taste of the Wild West

You don’t have to be a cowboy to ride a western horse. In fact, you don’t even have to leave Suffolk. Sheena Grant dusted off her Stetson and went to find out more

THERE may be no cattle to herd, no wide open prairies or camp fires in sight, but for an all-too-brief hour each week there is a place in Suffolk where it’s possible to be a cowboy.

As the sun sinks low in the sky and you saddle up your steed to learn a few of the spins, loose-reined lopes and comfy jogs familiar to any ranch hand, it is entirely possible, if you suspend your imagination just a little, to conjure up the spirit of the Wild West... on the edge of Wickham Market.

And so it was I joined a group of riders who do just this every week at Valley Farm Riding and Driving Centre.

My mount was called Juno, a mare who has been trained in the western style (among many others) by proprietor Sarah Robertson and her daughter. When Juno isn’t in the western arena she can sometimes be found in one of her other roles, carriage driving or perhaps even carrying

the groom at a Sikh wedding.

It’s obviously a varied and interesting life and Juno seems to be thriving on it. Guiding a western novice like me is all in a day’s work for her. I may have ridden a lot in the past but never like a cowboy. It was going to be a steep learning curve.

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There are many similarities between western and English riding but also many differences, which become obvious before you even get on your horse’s back: the saddle and reins are all a little strange at first and you even have to stand at a slightly unusual angle to mount.

Likewise, when it comes to getting off you need to be a bit careful. There’s no taking your feet out of the stirrups, leaning forward and swinging your right leg over the horse’s back before jumping to the ground. You’d probably impale yourself on the stick-line attachment at the front of the western saddle and get your leg stuck on the raised back. Dismounting a western horse is more like carefully stepping down, really. Despite all that, Juno seemed to cope with my lack of expertise admirably and after a few circuits of the arena I was getting a little better at changing direction by “neck reining” and sitting further back to perfect the jog, which is a shorter-stride version of the trot.

Our instructor, Kimberley Elden, suitably attired in cowboy hat and checked shirt, then moved on to teaching us a spin, performed at a somewhat more sedate speed than that usually employed by the experts.

The idea of the spin is that the horse pivots smoothly on the inner hind leg, allowing it to turn at break-neck speed in pursuit of wayward cattle.

Once we’d practised that (in the absence of any cattle, wayward or otherwise) we tried our luck at “backing up” – getting the horse to take a few steps backwards. And as the lesson drew to a close it was on to our own version of barrel racing – negotiating tight turns around a series of barrels before racing back to the start.

The Quarter horse, specifically bred for this type of work, is the best at performing all these manoeuvres, but Juno, a horse of unspecified breed, and a couple of Carmargue ponies in our lesson, were also pretty light on their feet.

And that, it seems to me, from my limited taste of the discipline, is the real beauty and attraction of western riding.

As Sarah Robertson puts it, the western horse is a thinking horse. It has to be, because of the job it is being asked to do. And to be part of that lightness and ease of movement, that constant conversation about how to achieve the job in hand, is a real privilege.

I can see why people get hooked on it – and that’s before you even touch on the romanticism and spirit of the cowboy life; out in the open, moving from place to place in a big, beautiful landscape.

“Most of the horses are very easy to train in western,” says Sarah, who looks like she might have stepped straight out of a scene from Dallas in her wide-brimmed Stetson and cowboy shirt. “I think they enjoy it. They need to be light in front and move off the leg for a good western horse, but we have all grades of rider and all grades of horse. Everyone will find something to suit them.”

Sarah’s restless enthusiasm for all styles of riding has been life-long.

“I am just very interested in all the different types of riding and I have a very short attention span,” she says. “As soon as I have mastered something I want to try something else. It just fascinates me.

“I used to work in a tack shop a long time ago and the tack held an endless interest for me: all the different bits of equipment you could get and its various uses. I just wanted to study all the riding styles and learn them all.”

She has certainly done just that.

As well as western riding and traditional English riding classes, Valley Farm also offers the chance to try a huge variety of other disciplines, including side saddle, carriage driving, vaulting and horseball, which is like a combination of polo, rugby and basketball on horseback. In addition, it has the only breeding herd of Carmargue horses in Britain.

Some disciplines Sarah has taught herself and some she learned from others.

“I suppose out of all of them the ones I have pursued the most are western and vaulting, because they are so enjoyable. I love the elegance of side saddle too,” she says.

“With western I just like the relaxed discipline of it. People think it is just for ‘cowboys’ but actually it is a very refined way of riding and a real partnership between yourself and the horse. It is like when you dance with someone who is a really good dancer.

“People are often surprised that we do western riding here in Suffolk and then what surprises them further is how quickly you can learn to do it. Because you don’t have to learn rising trot, people get going faster with it.

“The western horse is a thinking horse. When you train a horse in western they pick it up quite quickly because they realise they can start to think for themselves a little bit.”

While that attribute might be merely desirable for a western-trained horse in rural Suffolk it is crucial for a real ranch or “stock” horse. Good stock horses are agile, quick and intelligent. The best have an innate “cow sense” – an instinctive understanding of how to respond to the movement of cattle with little or no guidance from their rider.

As well as western lessons, Valley Farm also offers western trail rides along its extensive farm tracks and can guide people through the basics of the riding style if they are planning a ranch holiday in the US.

For Kimberley, working at Valley Farm has been great for giving her the chance to try lots of riding styles she may never have sampled

elsewhere. “I love western because it is just so comfortable,” she says.

Heidi Cooper, who rode the only Quarter horse in our lesson, took up western riding a few months ago after trying it on a pony camp and really enjoying it.

Rhian Bladen, who rode one of the Carmague ponies, was, like me, a western newcomer. She enjoyed it so much she’s already booked in for another lesson.

“It’s something I have always wanted to do since I was a child,” she says.

Karen Dewick’s reasons for having lessons are different. She has had multiple sclerosis for 20 years and thought riding might help her mobility.

“I had never ridden before I took up western about 18 months ago,” she says.

“Riding is supposed to be good exercise for people with a disability. Apparently, it’s the same sort of pelvis action as walking, and my walking is increasingly poor. Riding wasn’t something I grew up doing. It was purely because of my disability I decided to give it a try.

“I came up and spoke to Sarah and she suggested western as the best style for me to try. I tried it and loved it and haven’t looked back. I come every week, even in the dead of winter. Sometimes I’m the only rider who turns up on a cold day in the middle of January.

“I just love the riding and all the people here and just being around horses. It’s such a lovely thing to do.

“I’ve had MS for 20 years and I’m determined not to give in to it, even though I have no feeling or strength in my left leg especially. They are brilliant here and take me as I am – it took two people to even get me onto the pony the first time. They just work around what I need.

“On a horse I can move like I could never dream of moving on my own two legs and I can be outside in the fresh air. What could be better?”

To find out more about western or other kinds of riding at Valley Farm, visit www.valley farmonline.co.uk, call 01728 746916 or email sarah@valleyfarm online.co.uk