If you ride hunt-seat style, it's easy to forget that there are lots of other kids who ride western or saddle seat style. Let's meet a talented reader who loves putting on her bowler hat, buttoning up her long jacket, and showing off her high-stepping Saddlebred horse in saddleseat classes. Ashley Howard of Lexington, KY, is the proud owner of Mikey, a sleek chestnut 16hh Saddlebred.
Ashley learned how to ride hunt-seat style, but after about a year she discovered the world of saddle seat riding and Saddlebred horses and she switched over. "I loved the way Saddlebreds looked, and I liked the formal style of saddleseat riding," explains Ashley. Ashley began taking saddle seat lessons, and when she became a more experienced rider, she and her mom began looking for a Saddlebred.
A local trainer found five-year-old Mikey and thought he'd be perfect for Ashley. She was right. Ashley fell in love the minute she spotted the young horse, and after riding him in lessons for a few weeks, and getting to know him, Ashley bought Mikey.
When most people think of Saddlebreds, they picture show horses with extra-long hooves and heavy, specially made shoes. But most Saddlebreds are "naturally shod" — just like your horses and ponies. Mikey wears normal shoes, and his feet are trimmed just like any other pleasure horse.
Ashley rides Mikey in a cutback Lane Fox style saddle with broad, flat flaps. The cutback pommel allows plenty of room for the high-headed motion of a Saddlebred — the saddle won't rub his withers. The saddle seat is quite flat and very long. This is so a rider can sit back a bit and move her weight away from her horse's shoulder so he can raise his withers and move his front legs more freely.
Normally Ashley rides Mikey in a simple snaffle bit, but when she goes to shows she uses a double Weymouth bridle with both a snaffle bit and a curb bit. The bridle is thinner and more refined than a regular hunt bridle, and the reins tend to be thinner. Using a colorful patent leather browband, like the one Mikey is wearing jazzes up Saddleseat show bridles.
When Ashley goes to a show, she really dresses up. She wears a dark blue saddle suit. It has a coat with notched lapels and tails that reach down to her knees. Underneath she sports a matching vest and a plain, white button down shirt. Her jodhpurs fit snugly around her thigh and calf, and then flare out over her short, black jodhpur boots. She finishes off her show outfit with a bowler hat and a pair of black gloves.
Ashley explains that while saddle seat riders wear dark saddle suits — gray, blue, black — for equitation classes, for less formal country pleasure classes they can wear brighter colors and really show off their own personal style.
Even though he's a Saddlebred, Mikey has been trained to walk, trot and canter like ungaited horses. But when he trots, you can tell he's a Saddlebred because of his high leg action. Sometimes Ashley puts tiny, lightweight chains on his legs to encourage him to lift his legs a little higher. They are tiny chains, though — almost like a bracelet that you or your friends might wear.
Riding saddle seat is a lot different than hunt seat. "You hold your hands higher, like you are carrying a tray of coffee cups," explains Ashley. "You ride in much longer stirrups, and you grip with your knees and thighs, not your calves. You don't use a lot of lower leg pressure. Your heels should be down. If someone is watching you from the ground, she should be able to see the bottom of your feet."
"And you talk a lot more to your horse. Mikey listens to me. When I say trot, he trots."
A lot of Saddlebreds are taught two gaits when they are young: the slow gait and the rack. The slow gait is a four-beat gait with the same footfalls as the walk. Each foot rises from the ground and hesitates in the air. The rack is a faster version of the slow gait, with footfalls that occur in rapid, even intervals.
Mikey can jump, too! Ashley says that he clears two feet easily and that she is training him to jump higher. She takes him to a lot of local shows, and loves to ride him bareback. Mikey is also is wonderful out on trail rides. What a Saddlebred star!