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English vs Western Horse Riding: What is the Difference?

English vs western riding? Which one should you choose? If you are considering learning horseback riding, you may wonder how the two riding styles differ and which one is easier.

Although the two horse riding styles share similarities in the basics of riding, there are also many differences in the techniques, tack, riding attire and terminology. Both have pros and cons. However, much depends on what you want out of your riding and your personal goals.

For some people, that goal is to ride while on vacation or go trail riding once or twice a week, whereas others are more serious and want to compete. You may already do English riding and want to try western or vice versa.

Here, we aim to give you a better understanding of the two disciplines and what makes them so unique. With this information, you can decide on the best riding style for you.

What is the Difference in Western and English Riding?

The biggest difference between English and Western horse riding is the horse’s tack. Of course, the iconic cowboys boots are one such difference, but in terms of the tack, the biggest difference are the types of saddles.

The Western saddle is comparatively larger and more comfortable whereas the English saddle has a sleeker design to enable closer contact with the horse’s back.

In terms of riding style, an English riding rider holds the reins in both hands while maintaining a direct contact to the horse’s mouth. Riders use the rein aids in conjunction with the seat and leg for direction and speed.

In western riding, riders have little or no contact on the reins, often holding them in one hand, so the other hand is free for roping. The rider uses their seat, weight and neck reining techniques to apply the aids to the horse.

Western horseback riding style
Western Riding

The position of the rider is the same in both disciplines as the rider should sit tall and straight in the saddle with an imaginary line running from the ear, shoulder, hip to the heel. The legs hang naturally against the horse’s side with the feet in the stirrups, and the arms are relaxed and against the rider’s sides.

Sitting crooked or slumped in either style of riding places undue pressure on the horse’s back which can lead to problems.

English Vs Western Riding – Which Style is Easier?

Western riding is considered easier than English riding. The large, western saddle with its wide seat and high cantle and pommel, provides more security to the rider.

In contrast, the English style requires more core strength and balance along with co-ordination of the riders’ leg, seat and reins aids while maintaining control of the horse.

Also, in English riding, the rider must learn to post or rise to the trot, where there is a moment of slight suspension as the horse moves from one diagonal to the other. This gait is slightly bouncy and will take the rider a while to gain their balance and rhythm.

In western riding, the pace used is more of a jog than a trot, allowing the rider to sit without posting, which is far more comfortable in the larger western saddle.

Woman riding her horse English style
English riding style

For someone learning to ride, it is probably better to start with the English style of riding.

The reason being that a rider who is comfortable riding in an English saddle and applying the English aids finds it is no problem converting to western.

Going from western style to English is considered somewhat harder. That said, although western riding is more laid back, it is not easy, especially at the higher levels.

Whichever style of riding you choose requires lots and lots of practice, taking regular lessons from someone who is experienced and knowledgeable in their field and who is safe.

What are the Different English and Western Riding Activities?

If you know what type of discipline you want to participate in, it will give you more of an idea as to which style of riding you want to choose.

If you’re going to concentrate on jumping, then the English style is better as you cannot jump very high in a western saddle.

But if you like the idea of roping and working with cattle or barrel racing, then western riding is the obvious answer.

Types of English Horse Riding:

  • Showjumping
  • Dressage
  • Eventing/combined training
  • Hunter classes
  • Fox hunting
  • Showing
  • Polo
  • Mounted games
  • Pentathlon
  • Pleasure riding
  • Racing

Types of Western Riding:

  • Western pleasure riding
  • Ranch work
  • Roping
  • Reining
  • Cutting
  • Barrel racing
  • Western dressage
  • Competitive trail
  • Endurance
  • Rodeo
Woman barrel racing on her horse
The western riding sport, barrel racing

While English and western styles of riding share some similarities, there are vast differences which make these two disciplines unique. They developed for various purposes using different tack and techniques to direct and control the horse.

Those riders who have only tried one type of riding may be pleasantly surprised to discover other enjoyable equestrian experiences.

History of English Riding

The English style of riding evolved in Europe and has a long history chiefly in the military. Many of the different riding disciplines we know today originate from training techniques used on military horses. It also explains why methods and attire are more rigid and traditional.

Posting trot, also known as rising trot, was an English invention from the days of horse-drawn carriages. One rider, known as a postillion, always rode the left lead carriage horse to control the pace of the horses.

Rising trot was more comfortable over long distances, but other countries did not use this technique until the 19th century.

History of Western Riding

Although the English riding style came to America during the 1880s, western riding was already long-established.

It traces its history back to the 1600s, influenced by the Spanish vaqueros, who were horsemen and cattle herders. Ranches in northern Mexico and what is now the southeastern United States developed a riding style that was both comfortable and practical for cowboys who spent long hours in the saddle herding and roping cows.

Equipment for English and Western Riding

One of the main differences between English and western riding is the equipment, designed and influenced by their origins and culture. The saddles used are dramatically different from one another.

What are the Differences Between an English Saddle and a Western Saddle?

The English Saddle

The English riding saddle is smaller and lighter than a western, with variations for different disciplines. They are not meant for long durations but intended to give the rider more flexibility when jumping and closer contact to the horse when riding dressage movements.

A saddle pad or numnah is placed underneath the saddle to keep it clean and to cushion the horse’s back.

A row of three English horse saddles
English saddles

The stirrup leathers are thin, and the stirrups, made from metal, are smaller than those used for western riding, while the padded knee rolls help the rider to maintain the correct leg position.

The English saddle also allows the horse more room and flexibility through the shoulder compared to a western saddle, with a girth attached to girth straps to keep it firmly in place.

The Western Saddle

The western saddle is far larger and heavier than an English saddle with a higher cantle. It distributes the weight evenly over the horse’s back, providing comfort and stability for both horse and rider for long hours of riding.

When working cattle, the rider needs to be safe and secure while riding at fast speeds and performing quick maneuvers. Placed underneath the saddle is a large blanket or western saddle pad.

Also, read our guide on the most comfortable western trail saddles.

A Western saddle on a horse's back
A Western saddle

The horn is the most notable feature of the western saddle, used to control cattle after a rope is thrown around the neck of the animal and then tied around the horn.

The leather stirrups are bigger than those of an English saddle to help riders mount and dismount easily and quickly. Instead of a girth, western riders use a cinch which attaches to a single wide strap either side of the saddle, made to withstand the often fast, twisting and turning style of riding.

The western saddle also has additional attachments and are often decorated with designs in the leather.

What Is the Difference Between a Bridle and a Headstall?

The bridle is the headgear worn by the horse for English riding and consists of multiple straps which include the browband, cheek pieces, headpiece, throat latch and noseband.

The cheekpieces attach to the bit, holding it in place inside the horse’s mouth. The reins attach to the bit rings and joined by a buckle.

Western bridles are known as a headstall. Unlike the English bridle, it usually does not have a noseband or a browband.

The reins are either split or one continuous loop. Sometimes, headstalls have rope reins instead of leather.

What do English Riders Wear?

English riding wear is very traditional and formal. For horse shows and fox hunting, riders wear a helmet or hunting cap, breeches, a shirt worn with a tie, stock collar or choker collar, and a fitted jacket along with long riding boots.

For more casual riding or on a lesson, the rider wears a smart fitting t-shirt or polo shirt with breeches and boots or half chaps.

What do Western Riders Wear?

The clothing style of the western rider is far more practical consisting of a long-sleeved shirt to protect against sunburn, denim jeans, boots with a small heel, and the distinctive cowboy hat to block out the glare of the sun.

Sometimes protective leather leggings called chaps are worn which protect the rider when riding through bush and provide extra grip in the saddle.

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