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June 24, 2009
In the history of the Road to the Horse colt-starting competition, only one woman has ever competed — Stacy Westfall. In her debut appearance in 2006, at the age of 32, Westfall bested three highly-respected trainers to clinch the title.
To those familiar with the sport of reining, Westfall’s accomplishment was not surprising; in 2003 she won the National Reining Horse Association Futurity Freestyle event riding without a bridle (or neck rope or stick aid). She followed that feat with nine consecutive freestyle reining championships culminated with a win at the Quarter Horse Congress in 2006 riding bridleless and bareback.
“Many people questioned my ability to be competitive at the Road to the Horse,” Westfall recalls. “But I stuck to my plan and won.”
For Westfall, as a trainer, clinician, and active reining competitor, “playing with the boys” is part and parcel of her life. It’s clear watching her with a horse, though, that she plays by her own rules. “People were a little worried when they found out I wasn’t going to learn to rope,” she says. “They couldn’t figure out how I was going to catch my colt.”
While Martin Black, Craig Cameron, and Van Hargis all roped their colts, Westfall took her time — nearly 45 minutes of a one-hour first session — to make her horse comfortable enough for her to approach and halter it. “I could tell the crowd was praying that I would at least catch him,” Westfall says with a laugh. “But I knew I had to do things my way. And that means with patience and building that trust.”
Then, at the beginning of day two, Westfall announced that she had decided to buy her colt, so she gave him a name, Popcorn. “Once he was mine, it was a bit of a relief. I knew these three hours weren’t all I was going to have with him, and I knew I wouldn’t be tempted to do anything crazy to win.”
Her methods and tempo worked wonders, and when after three hours of training she took Popcorn through the obstacle course, it was a sight to behold — an obvious example of horse and rider in a trusting partnership.
“It’s interesting,” says Westfall, “until the interviews at the event, I hadn’t realized what a huge thing the gender issue was. Then when I was asked again and again what it felt like to be representing all women, I remember saying, ‘I don’t think that was in the contract.’”
But, there were plenty of women and little girls for whom Westfall’s presence in the arena was hugely significant. After all, if you’ve ever been to a clinic, tour stop, or the fan sites of any of the well-known clinicians, you’ll have recognized that a good 80 percent or more of their audiences are female.
To see a man demonstrate how to make a large animal cooperate shows that it can be done — by a man. Westfall’s successes have opened the eyes of many women who may not have previously believed they were also capable.
“Women come up to me and say that because I do what I do, and I’m a wife and a mother, that they know it’s possible for them to go home and try to do the same thing,” Westfall says. “Little girls look at me and my horses and it makes it easier for them to believe they can hope to do the same.”
While she never set out to be a women’s role model of sorts, Westfall has come to welcome the inspiration she provides.
“If I can inspire women and girls to have the courage to build better relationships with their horses, then I’m doing what I set out to do,” she says. “Of course I wouldn’t mind if I’m inspiring some men and boys along the way.”
For more information about Stacy Westfall, visit www.westfallhorsemanship.com.
Lisa Rohner Schafer works from her canyon home west of Boulder, Colorado, writing and editing for magazines and the Internet.