When the video of that ride, which was dedicated to her late father, was posted on the Internet in February 2008, it went viral, catching the attention of not just horse lovers, but the general public. Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was one of those people, and she invited Stacy to be on her show. Stacy even showed Ellen how to ride.
When it was announced that Stacy would be doing riding demonstrations at the 2010 Royal Horse Show, I wanted to ask her how she gets horses to do these amazing things. Stacy not only competes, but she also trains horses for a living and has an incredible amount of interesting information to share.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Stacy has loved horses as far back as she can remember. Her friend next door had a pony and the two little girls would walk the pony to the end of the property, then one of them would hop on and race back to the barn. Stacy admits that back then, she was more of a passenger than a rider. The day before Stacy’s parents bought her a pony of her own, she fell off the neighbour’s pony, breaking her arm. That didn’t stop the horse-crazy little girl. Once her arm had healed, her mother began giving six-year-old Stacy lessons on her pony, Misty. Misty was an older pony— whom her mother had learned to ride on many years earlier.
Although she’s primarily a western rider, Stacy used to jump Misty bareback for fun. “I think jumping is a good thing to know how to do. It worked great for my balance, too,” Stacy says. “If you can ride horses over jumps, especially if you’re doing a lot of bareback, you’ve really got a seat.”
During lessons, Stacy’s mother would ask her questions like, “Why do you think Misty just did that?” or “How do you think you could get her to want to cooperate? What is she thinking?” Stacy became very aware of trying to understand her horse and finding out how to get the most out of each horse that she worked with and rode over the years.
She explains: “Instead of being mad that they’re not doing something, if I could see it through their eyes, it explains a lot. Then I can figure out how to mold it. Okay, this is what they’re seeing; this is what they’re interpreting.”
The horse on which Stacy won the championship bridleless and bareback, is a beautiful Quarter Horse named Roxy. I asked what it takes to be able to ride a horse without a bridle. “You have to first start with a bond with the horse,” Stacy explains. She compares training horses to working with kids. “Some people think if you give kids everything they want, then they’ll love you. Other people raise kids a little bit more military style—they’re very, very disciplined, almost to the point where it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of love. Really the right answer is somewhere in the middle. There needs to be a relationship with respect and love.”
Stacy says she always makes sure that not only her horse, but every horse in the paddock, sees her as the leader of the herd. “When I’m in the pasture I am the dominant creature. If I’m leading a submissive horse that’s really scared, if a more dominant horse comes toward me, I will chase the dominant one away and the submissive one behind me that’s scared, thinks, ‘Wow, she chased away the dominant one.’” By shooing away the more dominant horse, not only does the dominant horse realize Stacy’s the boss, but the submissive horse now sees her as a leader.
Although Stacy can ride most of her horses without a bridle, she says 90 per cent of the riding she does is with a saddle and bridle. She explains: “It’s not all about ‘Can I take my bridle off?’ It’s about getting that relationship. If you take the bridle off and you don’t have the relationship, chances are you’re going to get hurt. So when you take the bridle off, you’re showing everybody that you have the relationship.” To prepare her horses to go bridleless, she rides with a very loose rein and first makes sure they’ll do everything she’s asking. “The reins are there as a safety net,” she explains. “What I’m trying to do is go from pulling on the left rein to go left and the right rein to go right, by pressing with my right leg to drive to the left. If it doesn’t work, I’m going to pull on the left rein.”
Watching Stacy and Roxy compete without a bridle or a saddle made me wonder if it takes a very quiet, well-behaved horse, but Stacy says when she first began training Roxy as a two-year-old, she was really spooky: “Roxy was not an easy horse. There are horses who almost feel like they’re broke from the first time you ride them. Roxy wasn’t one of those. She wasn’t just a “piece of cake ”kind of a horse. She was very reactive and not trusting, but she wasn’t conniving. There are different horse personalities that you meet, and she wasn’t trying to think her way out of work. When she spooked, she was legitimately scared.”
To get Roxy to be less spooky and in control of her emotions, Stacy did a lot of ground work. “It’s a lot of playing with tarps and balls and sticks and whatever I can come up—things that will cause the horse to have an emotion without physically telling them to do anything. We do it a lot before we ride. Especially in the winter, when you can’t ride outside, I go crazy with the ground work. That’s how I get a lot of the emotional control.” Once the horse is used to the tarps and balls, she’ll step it up a notch. “I move that into riding them while dragging tarps and doing weird things and just being like a kid again.”
Stacy lives on a ranch in Ohio with her husband, Jesse, a talented reining trainer who also coaches her, and their three young sons, who also ride and help out around the farm. She continues to compete, as well as give demonstrations and clinics on riding and training horses.
If you haven’t seen Stacy’s 2006 Championship ride, you can view it on her website (www.westfallhorsemanship.com) or watch it on YouTube. It’s incredibly inspiring, and sure to bring a tear to your eye.