In the world of horse riding, there are many different styles, disciplines, events and sports, and more. Horses can be ridden in all manner of ways, performing all sorts of tasks and activities! But as a broad categorization, you can usually place riding into one of two styles: Western or English.
Although some people will learn to ride in both styles, most people will stick to just one of them, with English riding originating from the United Kingdom, and Western riding originating from the United States.
So as a general rule, everybody in the UK and most parts of Europe learn to ride English, and people in the US learn to ride Western. You can think of English riding as the posh style, and Western as the wild cowboy style, as that’s usually how people refer to them!
However, it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, because the style of riding is up to you (and your trainers and horse riding group too).
But…what is the difference between Western and English riding? Is it really that different? Well, there are many differences between both riding styles, some more visible than others. Most noticeably, the tack used, with the saddle being the biggest identifier of the style, as the Western style is bigger and heavier.
But just so you know all of the basics, we’ll run you through all the main differences between the two riding styles. Does that sound good? Then let’s get right into it!
Western VS English Tack
We’ll start by talking about the different tack because as we mentioned, that is one of the biggest differences between both riding styles, and also one of the most visible and noticeable.
The first main difference is the saddle, which is by far the first thing people notice that is different between one style and the other. Here is each type of saddle, explained:
Western saddles are bigger and heavier, as they were designed in order to be used by cowboys and those working on the ranch for long periods of time. So they had to be extra comfortable to sit in, and they also needed to be strong so that you could secure a rope to them when catching a cow.
For the rope, Western saddles have a horn at the front, to which you can tie a rope, or hold on to when the horse is doing a fast turn.
Western saddles are also great at distributing the weight more evenly, all over the back of the horse, and they are deeper so that the rider’s legs can be more relaxed, and therefore more comfortable over longer rides.
English saddles are smaller and lighter than the Western ones, with a more traditional design. The current English saddle was designed in the early 18th century, to be even lighter and smaller than it used to be before! The main aim of the design is to allow for speed.
In England, fox hunting was very popular, so horses had to be able to sprint comfortably, without anything holding them back. And not just speed, horses also had to jump over hedges and fences during their chase, so the lighter and smaller saddle allowed them to jump in a more agile manner.
So basically, the smaller and lighter saddle is designed so that both horse and rider are more comfortable in speed, and jumps.
Just so that you have a visual comparison between the two types of saddles, here is a photo of both, with all the parts, signaled out:
As you can see, it’s very easy to tell the differences between a Western and an English saddle, which is why they are one of the main differences between both riding styles. But that’s not the only piece of horse tack that varies.
Here are other tack differences between Western and English riding:
The bridle is pretty similar in both the Western and the English riding style, however, the curb bit is more commonly used in Western, while the English style prefers to use the snaffle bit.
The reins used can depend a lot on the preference of the rider and the needs of the horse, but on average, Western prefers to use split reins, while English prefers to use standard closed reins.
The difference between these two types is that closed reins are either one rein or two reins, joined together with a buckle. Split reins, on the other hand, are two separate reins that aren’t joined, and they tend to be a lot longer.
There are other small differences in tack, but most of the time these can also depend on the preference of the rider, with some people choosing small details from the other style, just to accommodate certain needs.
So the main tack differences are just the saddle, the bridle (although not that much of a difference), and the reins.
Western VS English Clothing
If you’re riding for pleasure, in your own time, or with friends, or simply training, then there are no rules on what clothes you should be wearing, other than you should be comfortable and safe. Riders will dress according to their own preference and comfort, taking into account the weather, the location, and more.
Although in English riding there does tend to be a bigger emphasis on safety, with helmets being mostly mandatory, and some riders wearing other means of protection, such as impact protection on their back or chest.
But when it comes to competitions or official events, there is a strict dress code that riders of each riding style must adhere to, or else you’re not allowed to compete!
Now, it is also important to keep in mind that these dress code rules might vary from place to place, and depending on the exact competition or event. Some are more strict than others, and some are more high-class or formal.
So you should always check the specific regulations of the competition or event that you are entering, and check with an experienced rider if necessary.
But, as a general rule, this is what “the uniform” for each riding style is:
Western Riding Clothing
In Western riding, the most iconic piece of clothing is the western cowboy hat. In most competitions, you will also be allowed to wear a riding helmet instead, if you choose to do so for safety reasons.
But most riders will wear the western hat, as it’s the tradition, and one of the most popular aesthetic visuals of the riding style as a whole. After all, it’s based on cowboys!
You then also wear a shirt, show pants or jeans, a western belt with a buckle, and some western cowboy boots. The shirt can be paired with a scarf or a necklace if you’re a woman, or with a bolo tie if you’re a man.
The belt and the buckle can be plain but are most often jeweled and decorated. And as for the boots, although traditionally cowboys had spurs on them, this is completely banned, and you would be instantly eliminated if you turned up with them!
English Riding Clothing
In English riding, the look is very different. In most competitions, you have to wear a riding helmet, and some of them will allow the alternative of wearing a hunting cap (as long as it meets all of the safety regulations).
You also wear a white shirt (usually paired with a tie, or a neck scarf and pin), a fitted jacket, jodhpurs or breeches, and tall riding boots.
The English riding clothing style is a lot more formal, very much based on high-class society and popularly considered to be extremely posh. Riders have to spend a great deal of money on their attire, and it must be perfectly clean and neat!
Just so that you get a visual comparison between the two styles of clothing, here are two pictures you can compare:
Western Riding Clothing
English Riding Clothing
Basically, the clothing attire of both riding styles is a reflection of the origin of both riding styles. Western comes from ranch workers and cowboys, and the style very much has cowboy and ranch elements. And English riding comes from high-class people who went out on hunting rides, and therefore the clothing is formal and neat.
Western VS English Gaits
Western and English riding are also different in the style of the gaits, as they have different ideas on how the horse should move. This goes with the type of riding performed, the rider, and the activities common to the riding style as a whole.
In Western riding, for example, the aim is for the horse to move smoothly, traveling low, with consistent movements and speed. Kind of like cruising by, you know?
In English riding, on the other hand, the aim is for the horse to have long flowing movements, paired with sharp variations in speed when needed. Plus, in English riding, the horses are expected to be collected, which is when the hind legs are further under the body, with a more rounded back.
However, both Western and English horses are technically the same in regards to the gait, some of them simply have different names, and slightly different expectations or executions. Or that is unless you’re riding a gaited horse!
A gaited horse is one that has been selectively bred, specifically for the way they move, and in that case, you are catering your riding style to the horse.
But anyway, let’s look at what gaits have or do not have a difference between both riding styles:
There is no difference in the walk between Western and English, each horse will have its own particularities, sure, but walking is pretty basic.
Here we find some differences. The jog is the Western version, and it is relaxed and smooth, essentially just a faster walk. The trot is the English version, it is faster, with a lot more bounce, and the rider either remains seated (posting trot) or rises out of the saddle (rising trot).
The rising trot is more iconic of the English riding style, and it is when the rider rises from the saddle every other stride, to bounce a little less. Meanwhile, the seated trot is more often associated with the Western jog.
In Western riding, they have the lope, which is slower than the canter, and it is essentially the in-between of a jog and a gallop. In English riding, they have the canter, and there are many different types of canter, such as elevated, collected, and extended.
There is no difference between the two riding styles when it comes to galloping. The horse runs, and that’s that!
Differences Between Western And English Horses
With differences in the riding style, there also come differences in the horse breeds most commonly used, so each style will have a preference for different breeds, or at the very least, there will be certain horse breeds more associated with one or the other.
However, we want to make it clear that, at the end of the day, this doesn’t matter at all. All horses can be trained in any riding style of your choice, so you don’t have to specifically be riding a certain horse breed.
Trust us, all horses are more than capable of adapting, and learning to perform in the style that you ask of them. Not to mention that, although some horse breeds have specific natural skills or capabilities, the main bulk of skill comes from training, practice, and experience!
So yeah, any horse can be used in either of the two main riding styles, so don’t feel limited to certain breeds.
Nevertheless, there is a tendency towards certain horse breeds in both riding styles, due to certain horse breeds having more of a natural talent for certain aspects of riding, and due to which horses are common in the area in which the riding style is popular.
Not to mention that depending on the location and the riding style commonly used, certain horse breeds are developed more.
As a general rule, horses used in Western riding are sturdier and more compact. They are able to work for long days, adapting to all sorts of terrains and weather conditions, and they are then also able to suddenly spring into action when needed.
This makes sense, as they were majorly used as working horses on the ranch for long hours, and would also have to be able to chase after cattle.
Horses used in English riding, on the other hand, tend to be leaner and taller, with longer legs. This is because they were used to cover long distances on hunts, and they had to be fast and agile, able to jump over fences.
The iconic horse breed in Western riding is probably the Quarter Horse, an all-around excellent ranch horse that is known for being the best at barrel racing.
In English riding, Thoroughbreds are highly prized, bred as the elite athletes of British horse racing. But as we said, any horse breed can excel at either of the riding styles, so you see all sorts!
Western VS English Riding Disciplines
Western and English riding styles each have their own set of riding disciplines, which are created in order to showcase different abilities or skills within the riding, akin to their own style. These are done through different events or competitions, and both horse and rider must complete specific tasks that showcase the skill in question.
So let’s take a look at the main riding disciplines of each riding style!
Western Riding Disciplines
Western riding disciplines are mostly designed to showcase abilities and skills that were originally useful in ranches, going back to the cowboy origin of the riding style as a whole. Here are some of the most popular disciplines and events:
In barrel racing, rider and horse must complete a course with a cloverleaf pattern, going around three different barrels, in as little time as possible. It tests the speed and the ability for sharp turns.
In this event, a single rider and horse must try to separate a cow from the rest of the herd, anticipating movements, and outmaneuvering. It tests the horse’s response to the rider’s commands, and how they work together.
In this event, the way in which the horse performs different gaits is judged. Basically, it’s all about riding the horse as smoothly and effortlessly as possible, so it looks like a pleasure.
In this event, horse and rider must perform a set routine, in which the horse’s response to the rider is showcased, with all sorts of gaits, turns, changes in pace, and more.
In this event, rider and horse must chase after a calf. The rider must rope a calf, then dismount and tie the calf’s legs together, as fast as possible! Very much a reflection of work on the ranch.
This is a team performance, in which the riders must coordinate amongst themselves to work together, in order to isolate a cow from the rest of the herd and get it to stay in a pen. It tests not only the maneuvering of the horses but also teamwork and coordination on the go!
English Riding Disciplines
English riding disciplines don’t have a specific purpose or origin like the Western ones do, but instead, they have developed as recreational events that test and challenge the skills of riders and horses.
Although some are specific to English riding or iconic to the English riding style, they are far more widespread around the world. Here are some of the most popular disciplines and events:
Often referred to as the ballet of horse riding, it is an Olympic event in which the rider must have the horse perform a series of tasks and movements, the maneuvers becoming more complicated the higher the level. It is all about elegance and precision, and it tests the training of the horse.
This is usually a three-day event, and it combines three different activities: dressage, cross-country, and jumping. It has its origin in the old cavalry tests that would check the skill of the rider.
Originating from the old fox hunting, this is also commonly referred to as cross-country, and instead of a fox, a runner that lays down the scent trail is used. It involves riders on horses and dogs, and it is all about chasing after the trail at top speed, jumping over natural fences and streams on the way.
This event is pretty straightforward, as it simply involves jumping over fences. There is usually a set course, and the rider and horse must complete it, jumping over all of the fences and obstacles, in the least amount of time possible.
Horse polo is one of the poshest horse sports, with it traditionally being an event for the royal family in England. It’s actually quite old, with it being ongoing for over two thousand years! In this event, there are teams of 4 riders, and they use long-handled mallets made out of wood to hit a ball, in order to score goals!
Despite belonging to the English riding style, this discipline has its origin in plantation estates in North America, and in South Africa. In this, the aim is to show off high knee action in gaited horses.
A comfortable and smooth way of riding, to show off the elegance and gait of the horse, popularly also showcasing a long flowing mane and tail for aesthetic.
And those are all of the main and most popular disciplines within each style of riding! However, there are also some disciplines that equally belong to both riding styles.
For example, standard horse racing, or endurance tests. With endurance tests, it is most commonly long-distance races, some of them taking place over difficult terrain and over the course of several days, with the rider having to navigate in the right direction.
Some of these can be pretty hardcore, but there are plenty of stops, with veterinary checks and similar.
Western VS English Riding – Which One Is Better?
So…which riding style is better? Western riding, or English riding? The truth is, neither of them is better than the other. They both have their similarities, and most importantly, their differences.
Each style is suited to certain activities and events and has its origin in different places and ways of living. So they can’t really be made to compete against one another!
The better question is which riding style you should choose, in particular. And we don’t have the answer for that, because it depends on your personal preferences, along with what you have at your disposal.
Most riders simply follow the style that is common in the place where they live, as that is what they have available. Others will try both disciplines, having a few classes in both, and then they will decide which one suits them best.
In conclusion, there are many things that set Western and English riding styles apart. They have different origins and are suited to different lifestyles and events. But also, they showcase different horse tack, different clothing attire, and have many different disciplines that they practice.