("Cover Photo by Tonya Corzatt" )
Stacy Westfall is known for her award-winning freestyle reining rides aboard reining horses, communicating and controlling them without the aid of a saddle or a bridle.
The first time she tried riding without a bridle, though, Westfall was trying to find a soft spot to jump off.
The harrowing first ride was courtesy of her first horse, a mare named Bay that had barrel racing - and speed - on her mind. With just a halter on, Bay took her rider on a wild - and very fast - ride. “It was a dead run and I was bareback with a halter,” Westfall says. “I couldn’t get her stopped.”
As the mare thundered away at a run, Stacy was trying to figure out the least dangerous way to get off. It was enough to keep her to traditional riding for some time. “That was my first thought about (riding without a bridle) and that was my last thought about it until after college,” she says.
It’s a good thing she reconsidered.
Westfall, who grew up in Maine and learned to ride with the help of her mother, has earned thunderous applause and standing ovations from arenas across the country for winning freestyle reining routines --- without a bridle or saddle.
She’s won multiple National Reining Horse Association competitions, American Quarter Horse Association events and the Road to the Horse colt-starting competition.
In 2003, she rode a Quarter Horse mare named Can Can Lena to victory in the National Reining Horse Association Freestyle reining competition without a bridle.
She trumped that in 2006, when she rode another Quarter Horse mare, Whizards Baby Doll, to victory in the Tulsa Reining Classic and All American Quarter Horse Congress reining competition without a saddle or a bridle. It was one of two competitions Westfall and the mare, known as Roxy, won that year without a saddle or a bridle.
“It’s been really strange, because that (video of the routine) Roxy and I were doing went around the world, that really had the phone ringing off the hook,” Westfall said
Today Westfall and her husband, Jesse, operate Westfall Horsemanship in Mount Gilead, Ohio. He’s a successful horse trainer and judge. She’s a competitor, trainer and clinician. Together, they juggle busy show schedules with raising three boys - 9-year-old Caleb, 8-year-old Joshua and 6-year-old Nathan - and operating the clinics, training horses at their farm and tending to business at Westfall Horsemanship.
Her schedule is packed with often sold-out clinics and demonstrations, where people are eager to learn how Westfall can help them communicate better with their horses. Those who can’t make the clinics can buy DVDs and books from Westfall’s merchandise offerings or by joining her online community at www.westfallhorsemanship.com.
The success did not go un-noticed.
This year, Westfall went global through the power of the Internet.
Someone posted a video on the Internet of Westfall and Whizards Baby Doll winning the All American Quarter Horse Congress freestyle reining competition without a saddle or bridle to the music of Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying.
One version of the video has been viewed more than 370,000 times of Youtube.com. It also has been forwarded to countless email inboxes, including national talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who featured Westfall on her show.
Many have seen the winning rides and the horsemanship, but not many know where it all started.
The story doesn’t begin at a ranch in Colorado or in the Bluegrass, surrounded by a string of show horses. Westfall grew up in the village of South China, Maine, about 10 miles from the state capital in Augusta.
Her parents, Biff and Sherri Glidden, didn’t show horses professionally. In fact, her dad didn’t ride at all and her mom didn’t get a horse until Stacy got her first pony. Sherri Glidden fed her love of horses by persuading horse owners to let her exercise horses she saw standing in the pasture. “Mom was that kind of kid that grew up riding whatever horse she could find,” Westfall says.
Glidden clearly passed that love of horses on to her daughter, who grew up wanting to ride the black stallion in Walter Farley’s book. “I just wanted to be (main character Alec Ramsey),” Westfall says. “I wanted to be wrecked on an island with that big black horse.”
Her first pony was a Hackney/Shetland pony named Midnight Misty, who belonged to their neighbor. Glidden estimates Stacy was five or six years old. Young Stacy and her brother, Jesse, both chipped in to “buy” the pony, spending one penny each. The family had just arrived home from the hospital, where Stacy had her arm put in a cast, when the neighbor called to say the pony was ready.
Although she was injured, Westfall was not deterred. “She got on her, cast and all,” Glidden says.
Glidden recalls her daughter practicing her riding, trying different activities. Sometimes it was traditional and other times it was not.
On her Web site, Westfall says she always tried to think like a horse. Once, she taught a horse to sit down after it accidentally performed the trick while backing into a snowdrift. “She can see into their mind…she seems to feel what they feel,” Glidden says. “She seems to know what will work.”
When Westfall got Bay – the mare that would take her on that wild ride – she eventually focused on barrel racing.
“When she was in high school and other kids were off to the movies, she’d be riding her horse,” Glidden says.
Westfall took her interest in horses, and desire to train them, to college at the University of Findlay in Ohio. It was a big change from the small village in Maine. “It was definitely a whole new experience,” Westfall says. “I thought for a while, wow, this is crazy.”
It was at college where Westfall learned more about the discipline she would become famous for -- reining.
Westfall competed in traditional reining competitions with a saddle and a bridle, but used freestyle reining to take the discipline a step farther.
In freestyle reining, competitors create their own routines and perform to music. They must complete a required number of spins, circles, lead changes and sliding stops within a time limit, but are able to compose the routines themselves. Costumes are allowed -- and often very funny -- but are not required.
Westfall says she didn’t think about riding without a bridle until 2003, when she dropped a rein while riding Can Can Lena in a reining competition. Westfall, not one to let a good routine go to waste, reached down and grabbed the rein while the mare was still in motion. She was later disqualified for the move, but it got her thinking.
“In reining, you’re supposed to be getting where its resistance free and cues are very subtle,” she says.
She considered the possibilities of resistance-free riding and thought back to the out-of-control ride aboard her first horse, Bay. “I came home and it was kind of a light bulb moment - in a much more logical way than I did before when I almost got killed,” Westfall says.
Riding without a bridle was a test Westfall wanted to try again. “I like challenges,” she says. “I’m very competitive with myself.”
Success came, but it didn’t come instantly.
“What most people don’t know is the first competition that entered bridleless, I lost in a big way,” she said. She and Can Can Lena were doing well, but Westfall says she left out a lead change and was disqualified. However, Westfall says she was winning by nine points when she made the mistake. “Mentally, it trained me to accept the fact that I might train really hard for something and not be able to do it,” Westfall says.
Some people would have deemed Westfall’s first freestyle ride on Can Can Lena without a bridle a failure, but Westfall sees it another way. “The ride that I lost completely is the one that got me invited,” she says.
Westfall accepted the invitation to ride Can Can Lena bridleless in a reining competition in Oklahoma City - and won. The crowd went wild. “It had a really neat feeling, because I did it just the way I had planned and it worked,” Westfall says.
Westfall and Can Can Lena won several competitions, but she started looking to her next challenge. That’s what took her to Roxy.
Although Stacy Westfall would make Roxy famous, it was Jesse Westfall that first showed the mare as a three-year old. The two of them thought Roxy might be the next bridle-less competitor. “We suspected -- it’s not something you know until you do it -- we suspected she was a horse we could follow up with after the Can Can Lena mare,” Westfall says.
Although she says Can Can Lena’s personality was akin to a “prim British nanny,” Westfall says Roxy is more mischievous. “If (Roxy) knew she could get rid of me, she probably would,” Westfall says.
It took years to train Roxy to perform without a saddle or bridle, and for Westfall to learn to stay aboard.
Goals are important when training a horse to do anything, Westfall says, but it’s important not to go too fast. She believes she’s always training her horse, whether she’s on its back or interacting with it it’s stall.
When training a horse to perform without a bridle, Westfall starts by training with the reins and then moves to tying the reins loose around the horse’s neck. This way she can practice without using the reins, but can pick them up and stop the horse if it takes off.
Stacy and Jesse were right about Roxy’s talent. Riding with a saddle but with no bridle - and in her wedding dress - Westfall guided Roxy to victory in the 2005 Congress freestyle reining championship.
Eventually Westfall felt comfortable riding the mare without a saddle or a bridle. It was her winning ride on Roxy in the All American Quarter Horse Congress - a performance she dedicated to the father, who died suddenly only 24 days before the competition - that proved to the world, and to Westfall, that it could be done. “It was a personal challenge that happened to be on a national stage,” she said.
The success lead to more competitions, clinics and a slew of requests for demonstrations. Fitting all those activities into a family routine takes a talent of its own.
When the Westfall family hits the road, there’s a good chance it’s with four horses in the trailer and three boys in the backseat.
Their schedule changes with the seasons. There are more horse expos in the spring, followed by horse shows and clinics in the summer and shows in the fall. They get to slow down during winter, the off-season, with only the occasional horse expo. “It’s not uncommon to find you’re gone for two or three weeks a month in the spring,” she says.
When asked how she travels thousands of miles with three young boys, Westfall reveals her secret: the Gameboy video game.
The family also tries to make traveling fun. “(The boys) think that going to a hotel is a fun way to camp out,” she says. Any hotel they stay in must have a pool, which the family puts to good use. “The kids all learned to swim on the road,” Westfall says.
This year, Jesse and Stacy Westfall enrolled the boys in school for the first time. Until then, the parents had home schooled the boys. Home schooling them to a certain age and then sending the boys to school was always the plan, but Westfall says her older sons let her know that time was approaching. “The older ones started wanting more interaction with other kids,” she says.
The boys love school, Westfall says, and probably are the only elementary-age children with an appreciation for the classroom. “I think it’s because they know the other option is home school and that it is work,” she said. Having the boys in school means either working around their schedule or, occasionally, finding someone to stay with them.
“The first question I asked (school officials) was how much time can they miss,” Westfall says, but added they had perfect attendance through Christmas break.
The boys grew up going to horse shows and are good travelers most of the time.
“There are other times when you’ve been on a 16-hour-drive with thee kids and you think you’re insane,” she says.
Success -- and the video -- also led to a phone call out of the blue.
Ellen DeGeneres, Emmy-winning talk-show host, saw the Internet video of Westfall riding Roxy without a saddle or bridle when someone e-mailed it to her father.
At first, Westfall says Ellen staffers just asked if they could play a video clip on the show. Then, as soon as Westfall agreed to that, she says the plans began to shape into a live appearance on national television. On the show, DeGeneres called the performance “one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.”
“It happened so fast…really, really fast,“ Westfall says. “They called us and it was on the show two days later.”
Then the Westfall family packed up their things, loaded Roxy into the trailer and made the cross-country trek from Ohio to California, where they agreed to tape segments for the Ellen show. During the second show, DeGeneres climbed aboard Roxy and Westfall climbed into the interview chair.
“I was surprisingly nervous,” Westfall says of the interview. “(And) at this point I don’t get that nervous about things.” Westfall’s career choice involves riding reining patterns in front of thousands of people and lots of public speaking, but as she said, “it’s Ellen and it’s national television.”
In addition to the interview, production staff filmed Westfall, Roxy and Ellen at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. DeGeneres climbed aboard fully tacked Roxy and, with Westfall‘s guidance, cued the mare into a series of spins. “It was kind of neat,” Westfall said. “(Ellen) was excited.”
Westfall and Roxy capped off their national television debut with a final live appearance, when she rode the mare bareback and without a bridle into the studio.
Then Roxy took a bow to the cheers of the studio audience.
Whether or not Roxy and Westfall will make another national television appearance is uncertain, but Westfall has come a long way from riding horses at her home in small-town Maine.
And it’s far from over.
Westfall still rides Roxy, who had a foal through embryo transfer earlier this year, and also is spending time on what might be one of Westfall Horsemanship’s newest stars, Can Can Lena’s son Can Can Vaquero.Looking back at the wins, the clinics and the television appearance, Westfall says her saddleless and bridless exploits are a personal challenge with another, perhaps more important purpose. It shows a wide audience what Westfall learned as a child growing up in South China - the almost invisible communication between a ho