It was at the Kananaskis Rodeo that Emily Peebles first saw Niki Flundra perform her trick riding routine.
“I was 11 at the time,” says Emily. “I turned to my mom and told her I wanted to be a trick rider just like Niki.”
Lucky for Emily, her family happened to live a short drive from Niki’s home, where she offers trick riding lessons and clinics.
Five years later, the young novice is still training with Niki and is herself a bona fide trick rider. She now performs with Niki at rodeos across Alberta.
I caught up with the two of them after a performance at the Strathmore Rodeo, just outside Calgary, Alta., and I had a lot of questions: What tricks are taught first? What exercises do you make your students do to get physically fit for the sport? Is trick riding physically demanding for a horse?
“First things first,” said Niki. “Safety—it’s the most important part of trick riding.”
Horseback riding itself involves a considerable amount of risk. For obvious reasons, hanging off the side of a galloping horse is significantly more dangerous.
“I teach my students to do a safety check every time they get on.” she explained. “I get them to check the cinch… and not just once but a few times. I have them check every buckle and strap on their saddle. After all, you wouldn’t want a strap to snap in the middle of a trick. I also have them check the ground conditions, make sure gates are closed, and always have another person present… in case something happens.”
For those new to the sport, Niki teaches six introductory tricks. They include the forward and backwards fender drag, the slick saddle stand, the layover, the stand aside and the vault.
“I usually wait a long time before introducing my students to more difficult tricks which often involve using the straps on the saddle,” said Niki. “Trick riding is a dangerous activity and as the tricks get harder, there is more room for accidents to happen.”
As a first step, Niki has her students perform the six basic tricks while the horse is standing, giving her a means of evaluating the rider’s level of fitness. The vault for example, where a rider jumps to the side of a horse then pulls him or herself back atop the horse, allows her to gauge a rider’s upper body strength.
Most of her students usually come to her with some horsemanship, gymnastics or figure skating experience under their belt. However, in order to move forward to more advanced tricks such as the hippodrome stand, the saddle stand, the full saddle layover, the death drag and the tail drag, Niki recommends lots of strength training.
“I do 40 pushups every day,” said Emily. “I also do lots of abdominal work and lots of cardio work to be able to perform with Niki.”
Much of the training that Niki does with her beginner students involves performing the basic tricks on a lunge line.
“Whether it’s at the walk, trot or slow lope, the lunge line allows them to focus on the tricks rather than controlling the horse,” said Niki.
Which begs the question, how do she and Emily control their horses as they practice and perform their tricks without a lunge line?
“It takes lots of creativity to get your horse to go where you want while trick riding because you don’t have the availability of both hands and legs to give aids,” explained Niki. “You have to use what you have free to communicate with your horse, even if it’s one hand or one foot.”
It may require lots of creativity on behalf of the rider, but it also involves considerable amounts of strength on behalf of the horse to gallop around an arena with a 120-pound weight hanging off its side.
“The more weight a horse has to support and carry, the harder it is,” explained Niki. “That’s part of the reason why I find it easier to teach younger students as opposed to adults.”
In the end, however, the hard work and training are well worth the effort. When Niki and Emily take to the rodeo arena, their tricks amaze the audience. Among them, there is bound to be a little girl (or boy) who looks up at her parents tells them she too wants to be a trick rider — just like Niki and Emily.