This is a story that begins with a pony — a penny pony.
“Actually, it was a two-penny pony,” said Stacy Westfall with a laugh. “I was 6 years old and my brother and I each paid a penny to buy Misty, a Shetland Hackney (we think) pony.”
Misty, an experienced teacher of many young riders, including Stacy’s own mom, would be the first of many horses that would play a prominent role in Stacy’s story.
It’s the story about the extraordinary horsewoman, Westfall, and headliner of the 10th Annual Washington State Horse Expo, March 6–8, at the Clark County Event Center in Ridgefield.
Stacy, a nationally renowned equine clinician and trainer, has many titles to her name, among the Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee, first woman to win Road to the Horse Colt Starting-World Champion, western dressage-world champion, All-American Quarter Horse Congress freestyle reining champion, American Quarter Horse Association ranch horse world qualifier and avid trail rider.
Add “wife to James Westfall” and “mother to three sons” to the list of the many highlights on her resume.
To think, it all started with a “penny pony.”
“I went from dreaming about having a pony to owning my own pony,” Westfall said. “I rode Misty until my feet were practically dragging on the ground. It was obvious my horse-craziness wasn’t going away. I needed a horse. After much negotiation, I entered into a contract with my dad. He promised he’d get me a horse if I brought home straight A’s.”
Her good grades earned her horse, a bay named Bay.”
So far this is a nice story, but honestly it is one that has been played out thousands of times with “horse-crazy” girls all over the world. What makes Stacy’s story different? There is the fact that she is a naturally gifted and talented horse communicator and the fact she put in the extraordinary hard work needed to become top in her field.
She has a solid support system and a strong belief in herself and that fairy tales can come true — all the usual ingredients behind any successful tale. But one of the things that makes her story different is a life-changing conversation with a high school teacher.
Can 15 minutes change a life? Yes, according to Westfall.
“Fifteen minutes was all it took for my math teacher to change the course of my life,” she said. “Before that, I didn’t realize that a career in horses was a possibility for a girl like me. I always dreamed of working with horses but growing up I thought the only real options in the industry were a farrier, a vet or something to do with racehorses. I actually cried when I grew over five feet tall!
“That teacher asked me one of the most important questions anyone has ever asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ Without hesitation I answered full of sarcasm and with a teenager eye-roll thrown in: ‘I want to ride horses but you can’t go to school for that.’ He challenged me to go look at the college book right then. I was shocked that you could go to school for that. So I did.”
After her high school graduation, Westfall left South China, Maine, to attend the University of Findlay in Ohio. She majored in equestrian studies.
College taught her how to train horses but at the same time, she was also beginning to doubt her beliefs that she and Bay had some sort of “special” connection as she was immersed in the practical applications of horse training. Two very special events happened that proved to westfall that fairytales are indeed possible.
First, her future husband, Jesse Westfall, a reining trainer and a judge for the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA), sold his horse to buy her a ring and proposed. Second, despite everything she was learning about traditional horse training at the university, and against the accepted thinking of the time that horses do not form relationships with their riders, she returned home to visit Bay, and he proved they did indeed have a special connection.
“What I’d been learning at college had me doubting my little girl beliefs that I had a special relationship with my horse,” she said. “I started to believe that I had watched too many Disney movies as a kid. That is until Bay proved otherwise, and changed my thinking forever. After being separated from her while I was at Findlay, I went out to the pasture where she was with several other horses. As soon as she saw me she left the other horses and came running up to me. I knew right then and there we did have a special connection and I would never again let anyone tell me different.”
Stacy and Jesse Westfall started their life together working, training horses and raising three sons when something happened that would change their lives. Accidentally dropping a rein while in a traditional reining competition, a move that usually results in disqualification, gave her the idea to test herself with a new challenge.
She set herself the training challenge to compete bridleless in freestyle reining, a form of reining competition where exhibitors design their own routines and perform to music. Her goal was to ride the freestyle competition bridleless and showcase her communication with her horse. Mission accomplished.
Her groundbreaking ride resulted in a freestyle world championship and a national name for herself. Videos of her bareback and bridleless rides soon went viral and even landed her a spot on “The Ellen Degeneres Show.”
According to Westfall, riding bridleless is not the end goal, but rather it is just one tool you can use to check your communication with your horse. Not all horses are good candidates for going bridleless.
“You need to have a horse you can invoke a level of choice with them. We both agree to stop,” she said. “Some horses are more willing to listen to the subtle cues needed to ride bridleless.”
If you don’t leave the bridle in the tack room, does that mean you and your horse are not communicating?
“Absolutely not,” she said.
Westfall said communication takes many forms, and each horse and rider pair has their own unique language.
“If I never get to a bridleless stage with a particular horse it’s OK,” she said. “My satisfaction comes from educating the horse — the education of the horse always comes before the outcome of the show or class.
“I enjoy showing and have had success across multiple disciplines. I love training and showing at a high level in multiple events because it gives me a deeper understanding of my horses. We challenge ourselves together.”
Westfall also loves educating fellow horse lovers. Attend one of her clinics at the Washington State Expo and you will be treated to a master class on how to open the lines between you and your horse. As a student of the art of communication, Westfall has extended her skills to include how to teach her methods to other riders.
“It is my hope that I did my job well and people leave my demo with a better sense of how to communicate with their horse,” she said, but more than that, “I want them come away with their questions answered.”
In between her scheduled clinics, Westfall can be found in her booth.
“I do everything I can to spend as much time as possible in the booth. There are so many questions and not all of them work in the clinic setting. These questions are just as important so I do everything I can to answer questions one on one,” she said.
Do you have a question on how to improve the communication with your horse? Westfall’s story is still being written — come be a part of it.
Expo attendees will be treated to amazing acts performed by beautiful horses each day.
With that, bring the family, watch a clinician in action, meet them personally in the presentation pen, attend a seminar, shop in the marketplace, play in the Kid’s Corral, visit the Chuck Wagon and catch fun equine performances.
With even more riders and spectacular horses, the very popular Saturday night show will be bigger and better than ever.
The 10th-annual Horse Expo March 6-8 promises three full days of fun activities and education for the horse enthusiast.
For more information about the Washington State Horse Expo, including ticket information, visit www.washingtonstatehorseexpo.com