Ride 'em like a real cowboy

Howdy pardners! The Wild West has come to Ireland. But why is an Offaly stud farm teaching people to ride like John Wayne?

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Caitriona Murphy

'He's a bit of a cowboy." Here in Ireland, the word is mostly used to deride someone who is known for shoddy workmanship or rough practices but there is a growing number of people in this country who would love to be called a cowboy, albeit with a very different meaning, much closer to its western origins.

Western-style riding first arrived on the scene around 15 years ago but, while the sport flourished in other European countries, it languished somewhat in Ireland. But that's all about to change if one Dublin man gets his way.

Former businessman Derek O'Byrne-White left the IT industry to fulfil his lifelong ambition of working with horses. Now the resident trainer at Cochise Stud, Dubliner Derek is an avid fan of natural horsemanship and uses the concept to train both his horses and his clients.

Located at Drumcoura Lake resort in Co Leitrim, Cochise Stud is owned by Elke Christophe, who named the stud after the horse John Wayne rode in the film El Dorado. His mount was an Appaloosa called Zip Cochise.

Together the pair hope to re-establish western riding in Ireland and regain some credibility for the style so popular in other countries.

"We want western-style to be about recreation, while improving its reputation and encouraging some competition in Ireland," explains Derek earnestly.

"We need to convince what I call the 'equine Vatican' that western riding is equally as challenging as English-style, and requires just as much effort and skill," he adds.

The Sandyford man is keen to encourage more riding centres to offer western training, but only if they have been properly trained and use authentic American horses.

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"If it's a dude ranch experience you're after, go to Montana, don't come to us!" he insists.

At first glance the riding style is very different to English-style, although Derek is quick to point out that 'neither style is better than the other'. Western demands that the rider rides with a much longer leg and deeper seat, facilitated by the wide, square saddles that can weigh from 12kg to 20kg each.

The saddle is designed to spread the rider's weight across all of the horse's back from withers to hip, without any pressure points, and was intended to be comfortable enough for cowboys and ranch workers to spend all day in.

The bridles are fitted with shank bits, although many of the horses are trained to ride in a bosal -- the western equivalent of a hackamore. Made from rawhide, the bit works by placing pressure on the nose and poll of the horse.

Aside from the lack of a rising trot, steering is probably one of the most noteworthy differences between English and western styles of riding. Western riders use a combination of neck reining and leg pressure to steer the horse, and ride with a loose rein at all times.

"In English-style you have to control the horse for jumping: set the type, length and size of his stride in order to give him a clue how, where and when to jump," explains Derek. "But there is no jumping in western riding so the only thing we need is speed control and steering."

In western riding, stopping and slowing is controlled by vocal command. Even horses at a flat-out gallop have been trained to stop dead on hearing their rider "woah". "It's imprinted in them as foals from day one, to stop immediately," says the instructor.

The western concept is based on the working horse of America's ranches and many of the competitions are based on herding cattle: reining, barrel racing, working cow horse and cutting classes.

Accordingly, American horses were bred to suit their work, so strength, speed and agility are their main attributes.

"They are barrel-built, have loads of muscle in the hindquarter and chest and have a very calm demeanour," says the Cochise trainer. "They have been bred to be stable and reliable horses because cowboys didn't want loo-lah breeds.

"The American Quarter Horse got its name because it was recognised as the fastest breed over a quarter-mile, even though the Appaloosa has the track record for speed," he laughs.

American horses typically range from 14.2hh to 16hh but the average would be around 15hh to 15.1hh.

"If you go any bigger than 16hh, you are losing the western advantage of agility," says Derek. "After all, the longer the stick is, the easier it breaks -- you never see a skinny weight lifter!"

Cochise Stud is home to four different breeds of American horses -- the Appaloosa, Paso Fino, Paint and Quarter Horse, and stand stallions of each breed.

The characteristic mottled skin of the Appaloosa results in its distinctive speckled or blotchy coat colour and bold and clearly-defined vertical stripes on its hooves. It appears that us humans have recognised and appreciated spotted horses such as Appaloosas throughout history, with French cave drawings found dating as far back as 2,000 years ago depicting spotted horses, as do later detailed images in Asian and Chinese art.

The Paso Fino breed was known as "los caballos de paso fino" or "the horse with the fine step" and has its origins in Spain where a chance mix of breed (Barb, Andalusian and Spanish jennet) sparked the seed that became one of the world's finest riding horses.

The Paso Fino horse was virtually unknown in the United States until the late 1940s, but it has been bred in Latin America since the day of the conquistadors, when Columbus transported the ancestors of the Paso Fino to Santo Dominico on his second voyage to the New World.

Cochise Stud has three Paso Fino horses, two of which were imported from Germany and Canada while the third, a filly, has the unique tag of being the first native Irish-born Paso Fino.

The Paint Horse is said to have originated from the cross-breeding of a horse that belonged to Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes. One of his 16 war horses was a striking chestnut and white horse with spots on his belly. The horse was bred to the native American mustangs and laid the foundation for today's Paint Horse.

Because of their colour and performance, flashy spotted horses soon became the favourite mount of the American Indians.

In particular the Comanches, considered to be the finest horsemen on the plains, favoured loud-coloured horses and had many among their immense herds.

Using their American horses and western riding, Cochise Stud aims to provide a pleasurable western experience for their clients with the target being a safe trail ride where everyone has achieved something they did not previously.

"Our main market is in equi-tourism and we have lots of visitors from North America, Germany, France, Belgium and Italy," says Derek.

Working within Drumcoura resort, as well as partnering other tourism destinations such as Sika and Swan Island open farm and adventure centre, helps to generate plenty of business.

"We also have Irish riders trying out western for the first time, corporate groups and people who have had a bad fall or experience and want to use western riding to ease themselves back into the saddle. We've had everything from hen parties to GAA clubs out trail riding."

Aside from giving lessons and running training clinics, Derek also competes at a European level with Cochise horses and claimed two European titles in 2006.

He is currently working towards the 2008 championships where he will compete on one of his client's horses in the Western Pleasure and Trail Riding categories.

And as if all that wasn't enough, Cochise Stud also imports American horses into Ireland. The weakening of the dollar has created a bit of a boom of late, with five horses imported last month alone.