When first making the decision to learn to ride a horse, you may find yourself in the position of having to choose a riding discipline– English or Western. But what is the difference between Western and English riding? Let’s take a close look at each one.
Western riding is the style of cowboys. It originated from the Spanish Conquistadors when they came to North America as early as the 1500s. The Conquistadors taught the Native Americans their horsemanship practices, which were also then taught to the earliest settlers.
As these horsemanship practices developed in America, western riding was used as the type of riding done by cowboys on ranches and farms. Having well-trained and responsive horses became an important part of raising and farming cattle.
Horses were used on ranches to herd and move cattle, and cowboys spent many hours each day in the saddle. Eventually, rodeo competitions were held as a way for cowboys to demonstrate their riding and roping skills.
A western saddle has a deep seat with a high cantle in the back and a horn in the front. It is designed for comfort, and many new riders find that having the horn to hold onto as a source of comfort. A western saddle has loops and hooks for hanging ropes and saddlebags to accommodate for the supplies needed for long hours in the saddle.
A western bridle can vary, but it typically has a headstall that goes around the horse’s ears with no additional throat latch or noseband. The reins on a western bridle can be split or a connected loop. Western riders typically ride with one hand and steer their horses by neck reining.
English riding originated in Europe. It was the style developed and used by the European military in countries such as England, France, Germany, and Spain.
The old European cavalries required well-trained, obedient horses who could perform highly agile moves. These cavalries would perform drills that demonstrated the athleticism of their horses.
In later years, English riding was developed more for sport and competition. English riding has several variations, such as dressage, eventing, and hunter/ jumper. All variations use a similar style of tack.
English saddles are generally lighter and flatter than western saddles. They do not have the prominent horn on the front but instead have a more shallow seat with a lower pommel (front of the saddle) and cantle (back of the saddle).
English saddles allow for the rider to have closer contact with the horse to be able to feel their movements. They are designed for horse and rider performance rather than for many hours in the saddle. Therefore, English saddles are smaller than western saddles and allow the horse to have more freedom of movement in their shoulders and back.
English bridles typically have a headstall over the ears, a throat latch under the jaw, and a noseband. There are variations of bridles, but all English reins are a continuous loop. English riders ride with two hands and steer with their reins and legs.
Events and Competitions
Both English and western riding have different events and competitions that draw competitors and spectators around the world. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular events in each genre.
The western pleasure classes have horses and riders exhibit the three gaits of western riding: the walk, jog, and lope. The jog and the lope are slower, more smooth versions of the trot and the canter.
Judges score the western pleasure class on the horses’ obedience and pleasurable way of going. The horses should perform all three gaits in a quiet and calm manner.
Western Horsemanship judges the rider’s form and position while riding. This is also sometimes called equitation. The rider may be asked to perform a pattern in addition to being asked to show their horse at the walk, jog, and lope.
A rodeo competition is a series of timed events where cowboys and cowgirls are able to demonstrate their riding, roping, and animal handling skills. Some rodeo competitions include bull and bronc riding, cattle roping, and team penning.
Reining competitions demonstrate a horse’s responsiveness to the rider by having the rider take the horse through a pattern. The pattern includes things such as flying lead changes, spins, and sliding stops.
Western Dressage is also a horse and rider combination performing a pattern, however, the emphasis is more on the horses’ movements and way of going. The pattern consists of the three different gaits and the horse and rider are scored for each movement performed.
Gymkhana competitions include horses and riders competing in timed events that include barrel racing, pole bending, stakes racing, and other timed events. Because, Gymkhana tests speed and agility as horses perform the set pattern for each competition, with the fastest times winning each event.
In a trail competition, horse and rider negotiate a series of obstacles that they may find on a trail ride. They may be asked to do things like open, walkthrough, and close a gate, retrieve an item out of a mailbox, walk over a bridge, and back through a path of poles on the ground without touching them.
Hunter jumper competitions compete both over fences and on the flat. The over fence classes should demonstrate the horse’s capability to be a good field hunter. The horse should jump quietly and obediently and in good form. In a flat class, a group of horses is judged at the walk, trot and canter for manners and way of movement. In a flat
Equitation classes are similar to hunter-jumper classes except that instead of judging the horse, the rider’s form and effectiveness is judged. Riders compete over jumps and on the flat, and may be asked to do a pattern.
The objective of show jumping competitions is for the horse to jump quickly around a series of jumps without earning faults. Faults are accumulated by knocking down rails, by having a refusal, or by exceeding the time allowed. If more than one horse jumps the first round clear, a jumpoff is held. The jump-off determines the winner. Riders win by getting the least amount of faults in the fastest time.
Dressage competitions require horses and riders to perform a test. During the test, scores are given for each movement measuring the horse’s obedience and suppleness. Dressage is often compared to ballet, as it requires very precise movements. The highest levels take many years of training to achieve.
Eventing is similar to a triathlon, as it combines three components: dressage, cross country, and show jumping. A horse trial or three-day event, as competitions are called, often takes place over two or three days. Horses and riders do a dressage test first. Then they do the cross country phase, where they gallop and jump over natural obstacles following a course through fields and the woods, and they end with a show jumping competition. The horse and rider who have accumulated the lowest number of faults win the entire competition.
Is English or Western Easier?
For a beginner or novice rider, western riding tends to be a bit easier to learn. The larger saddle with its deeper seat offers a bit more security, and western gaits are slower and smoother than English gaits. English riding tends to require more balance as riders learn to steer and use their hands, seat, and legs independently of one another.
At the higher levels, both disciplines are challenging and require years of learning and training. Certainly as an advanced western rider, learning to rope cattle or tactfully ride a gymkhana pattern at high speed takes precision and practice. The same holds true for the advanced levels of English riding no matter which type a rider pursues.
While western riding developed in America, and English riding originally developed in Europe, both can be found all over the world, with the majority of western competitions still taking place in the United States.
No matter which discipline a rider chooses, riders of both English and western will enjoy learning their craft, and then honing their skills into a specific genre of that discipline. Some riders may even find more than one discipline that appeals to them, or they may change disciplines during their riding career. Whatever discipline you choose, you are certain to find a rewarding connection with horses and have fun at the same time!