Confessions of a Hunter Princess Gone Rogue: Life Lessons from Different Disciplines

If you followed my journey to the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover in 2019, you’re well informed of my #disciplinegypsy lifestyle. If you’re not (I won’t hold it against you), you at least know I’m a hunter princess gone rogue. Last year, I started wearing a new hat, a Stetson, and dipped my toe into the working ranch world.

Photo by Beth Takacs.

From a young age, I had a free spirited attitude towards disciplines.  It wasn’t until much later in life I realized how rare that approach truly was. I grew up in Pony Club, which is heavily based in the eventing world. However, I spent a larger part of my time involved in Southern (yes, it’s important I specify) New Jersey’s Gloucester County 4-H, which included the western disciplines, dressage, and hunters. Looking back, I can see just how much those experiences molded me into the trainer and rider I am today.

I competed mostly in the hunter, dressage, and equitation classes – but as any 4-H member knows, you must compete in a showmanship (in-hand) class to qualify for the state horse show. So, I became well versed (but not talented) in showmanship, started getting a real kick out of the poles and barrels classes, and enjoyed dabbling in western horsemanship and pleasure. However, my real claim to fame was when my childhood hero/mentor Mrs. Gerry Leonarksi, voluntold me to represent the “horse kids” for Round Robin at the fair that year.

What is a Round Robin class, you ask? Well, they gather a kid from each of the livestock disciplines (horses, pigs, steers, and sheep) and have them all show each of the animals in an in-hand class. What did I learn from my time in that Round Robin class? First, we’ll set the scene… My steer drooled all over me as I stroked it with this weird poker/hook thing, my sheep ran away from me twice, and the only thing I was okay at was ushering my pig around a pen with a cane. I did NOT win, but the lessons I think Gerry wanted me to learn was that it’s not always about winning, roll with the punches, and take advantage of the ability to try something new. Winning is not always where the biggest lesson lies.

This outfit is why I hate pink.  Photo by Beth Takacs.

Last year when I broke bad and entered the working ranch world, I teamed up with a local professional, Cornerstone Horsemanship in Reva, VA to learn the ins and outs. This winter, I took advantage of a clinic series they hosted for beginner ropers. The first class was all unmounted, with the purpose of learning how to work and control your rope. We roped different types of dummies and stumps. The second class was mounted but involved stationary roping.  You weren’t required to steer and rope a dummy, but you did have to place your horse in the right spot, hold your reins, and rope. To make my life exceptionally exciting, I was borrowing a friend’s horse who shipped in the day of from out of state. It was also the first time he’d been ridden by someone other than his mom in over a year. I had a BLAST and now have a deep respect for those that learn the art of roping and are good at it.

While all skills require practice and hard work, what I learned from my jaunt with roping is that there is always something more difficult than what you do. I, for one, am so happy that jumps aren’t moving targets. Riders are so protective of their disciplines and quick to say that what they do is the hardest and requires the most skill. It’s okay to say that something else is trickier, and it’s certainly okay to admit that a different discipline requires just as much skill, no matter how simple you think it is. We can love our disciplines and still show admiration and respect for others.


Video by Amanda Cousins.

Several years ago, I delved into the world of natural horsemanship. I hate to admit that I didn’t have a lot of respect for the discipline. To me, it was a bunch of horse owners too terrified of riding, so they opted to shake their long ropes at their horses instead. When I befriended a very well respected trainer in my area who was also a jack of all trades, I was interested to learn more about the ground work she utilized in her training program. The theories and practices she used were all based in good horsemanship from the ground up. Using these training practices, she helped her horses learn theories that would carry through to the under saddle work. I couldn’t help but feel guilty about my teenage self not taking the time to more thoroughly understand the meaning behind the in-hand classes at my 4-H shows. Natural horsemanship showed me that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Take the time to truly understand something before you make a knee jerk judgement. At the end of the day, my preconceived notions did nothing but short change my training practices all these years.

The discipline that probably gets the most eye rolls from the hunter world is the dressage world. Despite the fact that dressage queens are so similar to hunter princesses it’s eerie, riders on either side of the line hate to admit they’ve tried the other. It’s not just the expensively clad riders that make them similar, both disciplines rely on horses that are exceptional movers with self carriage and supple top lines. It would be logical to think that the western disciplines would be the most humbling to me since everything from tack to attire is different. If that was your assumption, you’d be wrong. Dressage is the discipline that puts me in the very backseat of the struggle bus. It has taught me the most important lesson of all. If I want my horse to use his body to the very best of his ability, I should use mine to the best of my ability.

Photo by Amy Flemming Waters.

I know that being a jack of all trades is not for everyone. Not everyone wants to chase cows, dance around a dressage ring, or jump jumps. It’s certainly okay to have your niche, but I know I personally wouldn’t be half the trainer and rider I am today if it wasn’t for the ability to smorgasboard my education.