By Meredith Hodges
To wear the breeches, or not to wear the breeches—that is the question. The Western training influence has been prevalent in our mule industry growth here in the United States, while other countries seem to vary with respect to their historical growth. Countries with an older equine history seem to prefer the English style of training, while newer frontiers have adopted the Western style of training out of necessity. The Western classes in breed shows reflect the varied uses of mules and horses which evolved as this country developed, and the bridles and saddles used were built out of practicality and need in a rough country atmosphere.
Today, we have more time to spend training our equines and cultivating our own riding skills. In most cases, the choice of tack is no longer of necessity, but of choice. Fashion, in any country, is supposed to be a statement of individuality and identity. The Western style of dress and tack suggests a hearty, rugged individual, surrounded by wide open spaces, using his equine as a partner for work. English attire paints a picture of dignity, reserve and concentrated skill. The Western image is a wonderfully romantic and picturesque way of seeing oneself, but it really doesn’t allow us the opportunity to improve our equestrian skills to the maximum. Western style riding is as limited as its uses. The smaller English saddle, made with a lot less leather, allows us to feel our equine’s body more closely (with the added stability of the stirrups) while we learn and exercise our bodies to become more harmonious with our mounts. As we can feel our equine more closely, so can he feel better the cues that we to give him. Thus, he can respond more accurately to our commands. However, most men don’t feel comfortable wearing “Sissy Pants” and riding in a “Sissy Saddle”—it just isn’t macho!
As most of you already know, Sally McLean and I got mules accepted by the United States Dressage Federation in 1986. It was a great day for mules, but it was also, almost my husband’s undoing! After a year of training our mules under English saddle in Dressage, we found them to be a lot more responsive and easier to train than they had been in the past. In addition, they were conditioned to perform well in both English and Western classes which only enhanced their versatility. With this obvious success, we decided to train exclusively under English tack. My husband, Gary admitted to this success, but let me know, in no uncertain terms, that he preferred to ride Western and that was all that he wanted to do! After all, everybody has their own preference. My only question was, had he given English a fair enough try before making his decision of preference? Since he had never ridden English, the answer was obvious. My daughter, Dena and I felt that he should at least give it a try!
One Saturday morning, I finished a lesson with one of my students when Gary strolled into the indoor arena and announced that he was willing to give the English saddle a try, but that we would never get him into a pair of those “Sissy Pants!” “Fair enough,” I said, and brought my student’s horse around for him to ride. Getting on was a bit of a struggle, and exercises at the walk went really well, but as soon as the horse began to trot, Gary started bouncing. He was about to lose his balance, so he grabbed the rail to steady himself. The only problem was the rail stayed where it was and the horse kept going, leaving Gary dangling behind on the fence! I thought we would never stop laughing – he looked so ridiculous! Our macho man didn’t have the balance he thought he had!
Gary decided not to give up on the first try and took English lessons at our clinics for the next few months, but continued to train his feisty half-Arabian mule, Lucky Three Cyclone, with the Western saddle. About 10 shows and 35 runaways later, he thought his balance to be good enough to try Cyclone under English tack. Within a couple of months, Cyclone was actually going where Gary wanted most of the time. This was an exciting breakthrough for Gary since Cyclone was the first mule Gary had ever trained by himself. Originally, he had wanted to train him for Western Pleasure and Reining, but he couldn’t get Cyclone to complete a circle without dodging or running off. Mules were supposed to be fun, but this was rapidly becoming an unpleasant chore. Gary asked me what he could do to make the training sessions with Cyclone more fun and rewarding. I suggested that he start with some elementary cavalletti and jumping exercises to add more variety to their routine. A couple of sessions later, they were a different pair. Cyclone became much more manageable and actually seemed to enjoy his sessions. Gary, too… except… after every session he got this weird look on his face… sort of pained, yet happy. When I asked what the problem was, he said English riding was great and Cyclone was improving rapidly, but it made him very sore!
On Gary’s birthday, two weeks before his first English classes at the Colorado Classic in 1988, I decided to take him to the tack store to be outfitted in proper English attire. I didn’t tell him where we were going because I knew how he would react. I just told him we were going to get his present. When we pulled into the tack store he said, “Is this the only place we’re going for my birthday?” So as not to alarm him too much, I told him we would go to the computer store afterwards.
After 45 minutes of coaxing from the dressing room to see how the pants fit, 25 minutes of explanations about why they needed to be tight and another 15 minutes of getting him out of a pair of English boots that were too small, Gary looked the picture of the English equestrian: tall, dark and very handsome in his new sporty attire! And in the next two weeks, he discovered the intrinsic value of his “Sissy pants”—you don’t get sore when you ride! Granted, you may have to take a little flack from a few ignorant cowboys, but the equestrian skills gained and the fun that goes with it far outweighs any adversity.
After a while Gary decided that English riding was, in fact, the best way to train. However, he still wasn’t too interested in “watching cement set” or doing Dressage tests. We decided after two years to start showing in Combined Training with the horses. We signed up for the second day of a two-phase show, not realizing that we would be asked to ride our Dressage tests the same day that we jumped. Two days before the show, Gary discovered that he would have to ride Training Level Test 1 at 9:00 A.M. the day of the show. We reviewed the test the day before the show, thinking that if all else failed I could read the test to him when he rode. Sunday morning, Gary was feeling tired, but confident. I took my place at “B” and prepared to read for him when the announcer explained that only United States Dressage Federation tests could have a reader, but not the same in Combined Training. Gary’s face turned ashen. I climbed back into the stands as he warmed up for his test… at the walk… lost in space! He stopped short below me and quietly said, “Meredith, will you please come here.” I ran down to see what the trouble was. “I can’t remember anything… I can’t do this!” he worried emphatically. I quickly explained the pattern. Gary’s first Dressage test ever in his first Combined Training show and he emerged in third place with a mule in the Elementary Division against 8 horses. Was he ever thrilled!
As my husband gazed into the adoring eyes of his numerous fans, I doubt that he felt less than “On Top of the World!” in his controversial “Sissy Pants.” A flood of compliments on his animal, his equitation and his turnout fell upon his ears, making him swell with pride and self-satisfaction. With a wink of his eye, Gary turned his mule around and walked proudly back to the trailer after the show, feeling very much a tall, dark and handsome macho man!
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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