What are the Different Types of Horseback Riding?
Among the many varied riding disciplines and sports, most types of horseback riding fall within two primary styles: English riding and Western riding.
Equestrianism is often described as the relationship between horse and rider, and this sentiment underlies every discipline and riding style. Beyond this core commonality, English riding and Western riding differ in many ways, including tack (gear), riding apparel, gaits (patterns of leg movement) and disciplines.
English vs. Western Riding
English riding includes the three Olympic equestrian riding disciplines of dressage, show jumping and eventing. The English riding style has emerged out of military tradition but has evolved to focus on sport.
Western riding, however, still reflects its original function on cattle ranches of the American West. Its disciplines demonstrate the essential skills of the cowboy, like cattle roping and reining.
These origins created conditions that required different gear and apparel. The difference between Western and English riding comes from their roots. Cowboys needed a comfortable saddle they could ride in all day on the range, while English riders needed lightweight gear to facilitate quick response and close contact with the horse.
The difference between English and Western riding is largely based on the different kinds of tack, or the gear that’s used on the horse, as well as the position of the rider.
Here are three characteristics of an English rider’s tack:
- Most English riders use saddles that are lightweight and relatively flat. This allows the rider to be in close contact with the horse and give cues through their seat and position.
- You may see an English rider sitting up straight in the saddle or in a position called a “two-point,” where the rider’s seat hovers above the saddle, and their balance is slightly forward in the tack.
- English riders carry the reins in two hands and give their horses direction by applying pressure through the rein to a bit that’s connected in the horse's mouth.
Due to the simpler gear, many beginning riders find Western style horseback riding to be the easier, friendlier style when entering the sport:
Western saddles are heavy and usually feature a large horn at the pommel (the front of the saddle) which is used to tie off a lariat or rope.
Large Western saddles have a deep seat that can feel more secure and more comfortable than the firm, flat seat of an English saddle. This makes it easier for riders to find their balance.
Most Western riders hold their reins together in one hand (so cowboys would have one hand free to swing a rope) and steer the horse by moving the reins across the neck.
Both English and Western riders dress for their sports by wearing long pants. Beyond that, each style of riding horses includes its own unique apparel.
English riders typically wear riding breeches or jodhpurs (tight stretchy pants with knee or full-seat patches to help the rider grip the tack). English riding attire still adheres to a semi-formal tradition, even in schooling, or practice.
You’ll see many English riders with their collared shirts tucked in and wearing tall leather riding boots or paddock boots with half chaps. During competition, the rider’s discipline will inform the specific type of clothing they wear, but in general, formal jackets and helmets are required.
Western riding attire is made up largely of jeans and cowboy or cowgirl boots. The Western style of riding is generally more laid back than English in its rules and apparel, and riders will be seen sporting cowboy hats rather than helmets. Show attire is a mix of traditional ranch-style wear (think full chaps and Western-style snap or button shirts) and bright performance gear. Many Western riding disciplines encourage colorful and sparkly patterns featuring sequins or crystal bling. Because of the simpler clothing and tack, Western riding can be a less expensive style to get started in than English riding.
Each riding style values and trains for differing movement in their horses. English horses should be flowing and forward when trotting, while a Western horse’s jog should be slow and smooth. Most Western riders “sit the jog” rather than posting up-and-down (standing) as seen in English riding. The canter for English riders has many adjustments that allow it to be collected or extended, while the Western lope is slow and controlled.
Underneath each category or type of riding style, there are countless equestrian disciplines. The United States Equestrian Federation, the governing body for equestrian sport in America, recognizes 17 disciplines of the sport on the national and international level.
Top English riding disciplines include dressage, hunter/jumper and eventing, which enjoy much popularity all over the world. USEF-recognized Western disciplines include Western pleasure, Western dressage and reining, though there are many others without official recognition like rodeo sports, horsemanship and even polo.
Now that you understand that difference between English and Western riding, which will you choose to explore?