Let’s get right down to the main questions that every new rider asks about horseback riding: what is the difference between English and Western riding, and which one is right for me?
For those who prefer a style of riding that involves more showiness, elegance, and physical poise, English riding would most likely be the better option. For the rider who enjoys a more simplistic riding style with a focus on getting work done and long hours in the saddle, Western riding would be the best option.
The answer to which horseback riding style is best for you really depends on your tastes and what interests you the most.
History of English Horseback Riding
English horseback riding dates back to around the 1100s when the English royal family started the import of Flemish and Spanish horses.
Horses were originally used for transportation and as beasts of burden. They were not distinguished by breeds, but by the work they were used for.
Over several centuries, their uses transitioned to mainly pleasure riding. This transition was due mainly to the growth of technology, which rendered using horses for labor less effective.
These days, English horses are mainly used for pleasure riding, and for events that draw millions of fans worldwide. There are horse riding events that occur in almost all European countries.
History of Western Horseback Riding
The origins of Western horseback riding were strongly influenced by the Spanish Conquistadors, who brought their traditional high cantled saddles with them to America.
Influenced by this early style, Mexican cowboys reintroduced Western-style riding to America around the time of the Mexican-American War.
The deep-seated, high cantled saddle was perfect for ranch work. The larger saddle increased balance and provided a place for the cowboy’s ropes to hang.
As ranching and homesteading spread throughout America, so did this style of riding. Today Western horseback riding is still used mainly on cattle ranches to work cows.
Other events such as rodeos and Western Pleasure also draw many fans worldwide.
Horseback Riding Equipment
To ride a horse you need the proper gear and equipment. This horseback riding gear is called tack by people who ride on a regular basis.
The term tack is used in a general way referring to the saddle, bridle, and other items used for riding a horse.
Tack is essential to horseback riding. There are different styles of tack for English-style riding than there are for Western-style riding.
English saddles vary depending on the event you are competing in, but most have the same basic shape.
English saddles take a small area on the horse’s back and are designed to interfere as little as possible with the horse’s movements.
The small saddle means closer contact with the horse, which improves communication between horse and rider.
An English saddle has light, high-placed stirrups that help increase a rider’s balance and are conducive to the English riding style.
English bridles are similar to Western bridles. The only main difference is the noseband.
Most English bridles have a band that goes over the horse’s nose as well as the band that goes across the horse’s brow.
The two most common bits used are the snaffle bit and the curb bit. Snaffle bits are considered gentle bits that directly pull on the horse’s mouth when the rider moves the reins.
Curb bits are another common type of bit, that pull on a series of levers that then exert pressure on the horse’s mouth to direct them.
What bit is used depends on what the horse is used to and what they have been trained to use.
There are many different types of Western saddles, but they all have the same basic shape. They are larger than English saddles, with a wooden tree and a saddle horn.
They take up a larger area of the horse’s back which spreads the rider’s weight over a larger area making it easier for the horse.
This type of saddle is ideal for new riders as it is much easier to balance in.
A Western saddle provides balance while riding over rough terrains, comfort during long-distance rides, and support at high speeds.
The Western bridle is similar to the English bridle. The main difference is the lack of a noseband and occasionally a browband.
A lot of Western bridles have a browband that only goes around one of the horse’s ears instead of both.
The bits used for Western riding are generally the same as those used for English riding. Occasionally Western riders will use no bit at all, instead opting for a hackamore style bridle.
What to Wear for Horseback Riding
There are specific outfits used for riding based mostly on which discipline of riding you choose. Below we will cover many of the most common options available.
Clothing for English Style Horseback Riders
English Style Shirts and Breeches
The most common clothes worn by English riders are a combination of sun shirts or short-sleeved riding shirts and breeches.
Sometimes you will see English riders wearing a fitted jacket for a more formal look, especially during events. The outfits don’t change too much between seasons.
Thinner, moisture-wicking fabrics are worn in the warm months, while insulated and weather-proofed fabrics are worn during the cold months along with riding jackets or coats.
English Style Footwear
Footwear for English riders mainly consists of tall boots that are made specifically for riding. There are slight differences in styles, but most are black or brown with laces or zippers.
They generally go up to the knee, with some styles having a lip that covers the front of the rider’s knee.
English Style Hats and Helmets
Helmets are usually always worn during English riding. There are several different styles, but most are black with a basic chin strap to hold the helmet on.
Some more colorful options are available for pleasure riding that would not be acceptable for formal competitions.
Clothing for Western Horseback Riders
Western Style Shirts and Pants
The most common clothes worn by Western riders are a combination of tank tops, short-sleeved t-shirts, or western shirts and jeans.
Any type of long pants is acceptable, as long as they are thick enough to protect the leg from rubbing on the saddle.
Western Style Footwear
The main footwear worn during western horseback riding is the leather cowboy boot.
The traditional cowboy boot is high topped, ending a few inches below the knee, with a narrow toe, and high heel.
The high top prevents the lower leg from rubbing on the stirrup, while the narrow toe and high heel help with correct food placement in the stirrup.
Western Style Hats and Helmets
The traditional hat worn during Western riding is the cowboy hat. With its wide brim, the cowboy hat provides shade for the face while on long trail rides or cattle drives.
Helmets worn during Western style riding are either the same type as worn during English style riding, or are the type that is worn over a cowboy hat.
Best Horse Breeds for Horseback Riding
The variety of horse breeds throughout the world is truly staggering. There are so many different breeds, they could fill several books.
Included in our article are only the most common breeds used for English and Western riding.
Horse Breeds Used for English Riding
There are many different breeds used in English riding, with more being introduced often. Here are some of the most common breeds.
This list ranges from beginner breeds that are more gentle and recommended for beginners to experienced level breeds that have hotter temperaments and more power.
- The Thoroughbred is one of the main horses used in English riding.
With its long legs and sleek body, the Thoroughbred is perfect for many English riding events, with racing being the most notable.
- Fresian horses are a graceful breed mostly used for dressage and horse shows.
- Morgan horses are a well-rounded breed used for many different events. They are most noted for dressage and show-jumping.
- The Holsteiner breed is mostly used for show-jumping.
- Westphalian horses are German warmbloods used mostly for dressage and show-jumping.
- Dutch Warmbloods are a versatile breed used for many different events. They excel in everything from jumping and dressage to cart pulling events.
Horse Breeds Used for Western Riding
There are several main breeds used in Western horseback riding. There is less variety of Western horses than English horses, with several of the breeds overlapping styles.
- The Quarter Horse is the main iconic breed used for Western riding. They are well known for their quick quarter-mile run, and their lightning starts, stops, and turns.
The Quarter Horse is the true cow horse and can be used for almost any Western riding event.
- The American Paint is a breed that traces its ancestry back to the Spanish horses that first roamed America. They are used in a variety of events ranging from barrel racing to cutting.
- Arabian horses are a very well-rounded breed and are used in many different events and styles of riding.
They are prevalent in English and Western riding, particularly in events requiring stamina, which Arabians have in excess.
- The Appaloosa horse breed originally stems from the large herds bred by the Nez Peirce Indians before the west was settled.
They are mostly used in cutting and barrel racing events.
Horseback Riding Events
Nothing is more enjoyable, in my opinion than going to watch a horseback riding event. Everything from rodeo to dressage can be fascinating and inspiring.
The amount of work that both the riders and the horses put in is incredible!
Events for English Horseback Riding
There are many different events for English riders. Some of the most common ones are dressage, show-jumping, hunter-jumping, and eventing.
- Dressage is also a very popular event. It is even an event included in the Summer Olympics.
Dressage is the showcasing of a horse’s training in certain difficult movements and its responsiveness to its rider. It is very akin to teaching a horse to dance.
- Show-jumping is a fun event that includes a rider jumping over a series of jumps set at various heights around an arena.
Points are accrued for timing, form, and, most importantly, clearing the jumps.
- Hunter jumping is basically a combination of show-jumping and trail endurance events.
It is based on the original fox hunting events that have been performed in England for hundreds of years.
Riders follow paths with alternating terrain and periodically clear jumps that would be consistent with jumping over logs and creeks like the fox hunters of old.
- Eventing is a triathlon event that includes a dressage portion, an endurance cross-country portion, and a show-jumping portion.
Horses used in these events must be versatile and possess great poise and endurance.
Events for Western Horseback Riding
There are many events for Western-style riders. Some of the most common ones are rodeo events such as barrel racing, roping, and cutting. Other classes of events include western pleasure and reining.
- Barrel racing is a female Western rider event. Barrel racing is to test the ability of the horse to turn sharply at high speeds, a traditional quality wanted in a cow horse.
Three barrels are set up and the horse must circle them in a clover-shaped pattern.
- Roping refers to several different rodeo events including calf roping, team roping, and several others. The horse’s job is to track the cow so that the rider can rope it.
Once roped the horse is then trained to keep pressure on the rope so that it cannot loosen and allow the cow to escape.
- Cutting is also based on traditional qualities wanted in cow horses.
The event includes the rider and horse cutting several cows out from a herd and keeping them from rejoining the herd.
This can be challenging and requires high agility and cow sense from both the rider and the horse.
- Western Pleasure is a competition that rates the gates and showiness of each horse. The goal is to have the quietest, prettiest, and smoothest gated horse.
- Reining is exactly what it sounds like. It simply involves the rating of how well a horse responds to its rider through the use of the reins.
Can a Horse be Trained in Both English and Western Riding Disciplines?
The simple answer is yes, a horse can be trained in both disciplines. There are definitely some differences in tack and rider cues, but a horse can be used to both barrel race and jump.
If you want your horse to compete at a high level though, I would recommend sticking mostly to one discipline.
Is English or Western riding Styles Better for the Horse’s Health?
Neither riding discipline is bad for the horse.
Western saddles spread more of the rider’s weight across the horse’s back, possibly creating less stress, but English saddles are lighter, smaller, and less restrictive to the horse’s shoulder movements.
There are pros and cons to both riding styles for the horse.
Is English or Western Riding Easier for Beginners?
While there are pros and cons to both styles of riding, it is generally considered easier to start out with Western riding.
Western saddles are bigger and offer more support, whereas English saddles require more balance and have little to hold the rider in the saddle.
What is the Difference Between English Reins and Western Reins?
While reins are used for the same purpose in both riding disciplines, English reins are generally held with one in each hand whereas the western style of riding will keep both reins in one hand.
What is Direct Reining?
Direct reining is when the rider pulls the one rein on the side of the horse in the direction they want the horse to go. This is a more forceful and mechanical type of reining technique.
In contrast, neck reining is when the rider ‘pushes’ on the horse’s neck with the rein in the direction they want the horse to turn.
This is considered a more gentle and nuanced method of horse reining.
When Did Horseback Riding First Start?
The first known records of people riding horses are from around 4500 B.C. Horses pulling carts or chariots originated before then, but actual riding is thought to have started around 4500 B.C.
No matter what discipline of riding you enjoy there are always lots of things you can do.
Differences between English and Western horseback riding are many, but what really matters is the relationship the rider forms with his or her horse.
The bond created between horse and rider is what horseback riding has always really been about.