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Horseback riding has been around for thousands of years, and different regions had minor unique variations but were basically the same. However, modern riding styles fall into distinct categories.
The three primary horse riding styles are Western, English, and Group. If you are interested in horseback riding, it’s essential to gain a firm understanding of the different riding styles, the tack used, and the horses involved in each.
Horse owners typically buy a horse to participate in a particular equine activity, such as trail riding or dressage. Generally, the discipline dictates the tack and riding style. So it’s essential to know how you will use your horse.
What are the Different Horse Riding Styles?
If you are new to riding horses, or if you are trying to hone your knowledge about a specific riding style, then you’ve come to the right place.
Since there isn’t much information available on the Internet today covering the different riding styles, we created this guide to help you. Below we’ll discuss the three meaningful horseback riding styles and the sub-categories of riding that fall within each.
That way, you’ll have an excellent understanding of the different types of horse riding so you can choose what equine activity interests you the most and you can adequately prepare.
Some of the most popular horse riding events, like dressage and gymkhana, fall under the two primary horse riding styles: English and Western.
The origins of each class, the saddles used, and the horse and rider’s positioning distinguish these styles from each other. Additionally, there are several sub-categories of riding types that fall under each of these primary disciplines.
Some horse riding events require special equipment and use training techniques unique to their activity. For example, one may rely primarily on leg cues and another on reining to communicate with their horse.
Horse breed traits determine the riding style it’s best suited.
Specific characteristics of each horse breed determine how the horse functions within a person’s favorite horse riding style like:
- the breed’s size
Below we’ll break down the different sub-categories that fall under the Western and English disciplines, and then we’ll cover some group riding events as well.
That way, you’ll recognize which horse breeds fit best for each discipline and have a solid understanding of the sub-category of horse riding styles.
English horse riding style.
I began thinking about English riding events after my grandson became curious about it when we were at the racetrack. He noticed the differences between his western saddle and the saddle the jockey rode.
He wanted to know if they’re used for other events besides racing. I was aware of some but decided to research to learn more about riding English style.
English saddles are made to be small and flat this style gives the rider closer contact with the horse. Also, in the English category, the bridles and bits used have more direct contact with the horse’s mouth than many Western-style bits.
English riding style originated in Europe, and Western riding and the tack developed on cattle ranches in early America. Both the English and Western horse riding styles include several subgroups that cover many activities and usually use various horse breeds.
There is no strict rule for what horse breed should and should not be used for the different sub-categories. However, different horse breeds offer certain traits that can make them perform better in particular disciplines.
Western horse riding style.
Western saddles are much more substantial, and their seat deeper than English riding saddles. They also spread farther over the horse. And in most Western disciplines, neck reining is relied on to direct the horse, whereas English riders use more leg cues.
Also, Western saddles provide a deep seat, which adds more security when a horse makes fast turns, which is vital for barrel racing and many other rodeo events.
Horse breeds that learn quickly are typically well-suited for Western riding, which requires a lot of perception from the horse. Conversely, English riding styles generally require horse breeds that can demonstrate high endurance and jump over obstacles.
Not all horses are suited for every discipline. Different horse breeds have unique traits, like Arabian’s high stamina for endurance racing or the Hanoverian’s powerful hindquarters for showjumping.
Group riding events
Group riding events involve teams of people riding horses to achieve a goal. Horse riding competitions that usually involve groups include:
English Riding Activities
English riding styles differ from Western riding styles. People that ride English typically utilize more structure and pomp when competing, and they often require precision not found in Western disciplines.
English riding styles are numerous and entail discipline, endurance, and athletic ability. The sub-categories of English riding styles we discuss include:
- Saddle seat
- English pleasure
Dressage is a type of English horse riding that emphasizes elegance and control. Riders perform a series of movements with their horse, showing off their skills and teamwork. It is considered a traditional horse-riding style, and it requires a rider to utilize a horse with rhythm and perform a specific routine.
Horses must tackle a variety of tests in a sequence using:
- Different gaits
Both the rider and the horse are judged by how well they both use
Dressage is one of the most beautiful and dance-like events to watch between a horse and a rider. Dressage horses move in a choreographed pattern, requiring the horse to be well-trained and a willing worker.
Horses have to respond well to their riders to show their finesse and artistry during dressage events. Competitive dressage requires specific saddles and riding gear.
Two of the best types of dressage horse breeds are:
Both of these breeds are gorgeous and able to perform with the agility and grace required for dressage. Hanoverian horses are willing and offer light and graceful gaits when needed.
Andalusians, on the other hand, are beautiful breeds and are quite intelligent. They also have a pleasing cadence to their paces, which makes them the perfect kind of horse for dressage.
2. Show Jumping
Showjumping involves horses carrying their riders over a series of fences that are placed in a circle. It’s a timed event that requires jumping with grace and speed.
Both horse and rider need to learn how to recover immediately after each jump so that they can perform the next one with ease. Horse breeds that are usually involved in show jumping are typically warm-blooded.
They are generally tall and have strong legs to leap over tall fences, make a quick recovery, and head to the next obstacle. Irish Draught horses, with their long legs and powerful hindquarters, are impressive jumpers.
Other horse breeds that have long backs and can arch well make fantastic show jumpers. For instance, Thoroughbred’s conformation and athletic ability make them excellent show-jumping prospects.
Eventing is another type of English riding, and it’s perfect for those who like a bit of competition. Eventing consists of three parts: dressage, show jumping, and cross-country. The horse and rider must complete all three parts in order to be eligible for prizes.
Cross country riding is included in eventing and uses a course that features:
- high and low fences
Many of the obstacles presented in eventing are designed to represent structures that a horse might see while riding across large cross-country fields.
If a person intends to participate in eventing, they need a multi-talented and athletic horse trained in various events. Horses that perform well in eventing have high stamina and endurance.
The jumping required by horses in eventing is taxing on both you and the animal. Your horse needs power but should also be smooth and graceful. Hanoverians are one of the best types of breeds to use in eventing.
These horses have consistently demonstrated that they possess all the skills necessary to excel in eventing competitions. Not only are Hanoverians great at dressage, but they also make excellent show jumpers.
4. Saddle Seat
Saddle seat events require horses to be capable of high-stepping, and they need to be:
The best horse breeds for saddle seat events are Morgan horses and American Saddlebreds. Morgan horses have muscular necks and beautiful gaits, which provides them with the grace and flair they need to compete in saddle seat events.
On the other hand, American Saddlebreds have both a weight and a height that makes them appear regal. They also have a back with a light dip. American Saddlebreds can create exaggerated movements, giving them an edge in saddle seat events.
5. English Pleasure
English pleasure is somewhat similar to Western pleasure, where horses trot and jog. However, English pleasure uses more showmanship when horses change gaits and are mainly focused on cantering and trotting.
In English pleasure, horses are more animated than those in Western pleasure. A common breed used in English pleasure is the Arabian.
Arabians can perform a high-scoring strut that makes them perfect in English pleasure events. Arabian horses also have an amiable temperament, enjoy competing, and have a desire to perform well.
Hunting is often called hunt seat riding. In hunting, riders utilize a forward saddle as well as a forward riding style. Both horse and rider are scored independently while performing on flat terrain and over fences.
There are also obstacles placed in the course that resemble things a horse would see riding outside. Horse breeds that can handle fences and ride with smooth gaits do well in hunting events.
For instance, Thoroughbreds are intelligent, high-jumping horses surefooted, beautiful, with a smooth gait. Riders can quickly train Thoroughbreds to be skilled hunt seat horses.
Western Riding Styles
Western horse riding is a style of horse riding that developed in the Western United States. It includes several different disciplines, such as Western pleasure, barrel racing, reining, roping, and cutting.
Western riders typically wear Western hats and cowboy boots and use Western saddles. Western riding styles first developed in the American West during the 1800s when cowboys were needed to herd cattle across vast expanses of land.
Today, Western riding is still popular in the United States and Canada and has even spread to other parts of the world. Western riders enjoy the challenge of working with a horse to complete complex tasks and the satisfaction of knowing they are working together as a team.
The various types of Western horse riding styles all require:
- Hard work
- A strong bond between rider and horse.
Many of the sub-categories of Western riding styles are easy for horses bred to perform work at a ranch. Also, since a larger saddle is required and many of these horses know reining neck cues well, you’ll need an intelligent and spirited horse.
The different types of western horse riding events we cover include:
- Western pleasure
- Team penning
- Trail riding
- Barrel racing
The most iconic Western competition is reining, which involves a series of complex turns, stops, and spins. Reining competitions are judged on both the rider’s ability to control the horse and the horse’s response to the rider’s commands. Western riding is a popular sport across the United States, and reining competitions are held locally and nationally.
Western Reining includes the performance of:
- Sliding stops
- Flying lead changes
All of these activities in reining are designed to show how agile the horse is. Reining requires skillful moves, so horses must respond well and quickly to specific cues. Most horse breeds that are known to work cattle can perform well at these tasks. Some of them include:
Reining requires a great deal of athleticism from a horse. Each of the breeds listed above is compact and has solid conformation resulting in exceptional balance and low centers of gravity.
Horses with this type of build stay firm and in control when they shift and respond to the reins. Each of these horse breeds is powerful, athletic, and intelligent.
2. Western Pleasure
Western pleasure is a horse riding style that requires horses to be prepared for accurate, measured moving. The rider asks the horse to perform a steady, smooth gait, and judges watch for particular beats and paces.
In Western pleasure, horses have to be alert and move with their heads level and slightly down. Western pleasure is typically best performed by horses that are easy-going and can move with a precise and steady cadence.
Most horse breeds used in Western pleasure have stable frames and are tall. These horses are often leaner in both the shoulder and hip areas. That’s because Western pleasure requires horses to keep steep angles and perform with steady, deliberate movements.
Western pleasure requires horses to keep their necks level with effortless-looking strides. Quarter horses are often great for Western pleasure because they have powerful lower bodies and perform well in Western pleasure as long as they’ve been trained in the sub-category.
Quarter horses can provide smooth gaits and are typically quiet horses, making them ideal for this riding discipline. Another breed that is also well-equipped for Western pleasure is an Appaloosa.
These horses are very graceful and have easy-going gaits that make it easy for them to perform.
Cutting is an exhibition of competitive ranch work. On cattle ranches, often, one cow needs to be separated from the herd to be doctored or relocated. Some cowboys and their horses developed great skills in performing these tasks.
Competitions developed between cowboys and ranches; Individuals and teams used these activities to showcase horse and rider skills. In cutting, both the horse and rider cut off and steer one cow to a designated area.
The rider and horse work as a team to single out one cow and pull it away from its herd while the cow attempts to return to its pack. Often the rider allows the horse to work the cow, which displays the horse’s instinct.
It can be challenging to steer and control a cow that doesn’t want to be separated from its herd.
That means the horse must have superb instincts, solid training, and plenty of practice handling cows to be successful. Cutting horses are usually able to anticipate the cow’s next movements. Also, cutting horses must be flexible to move quickly and bend back to keep the cow from escaping.
Typical horse breeds involved in cutting are working cow horses like
- Quarter horses
However, quarter horses dominate cutting competitions because of their compact athletic body and sharp mind.
4. Team Penning
Team penning is more of a group event, but it falls under the Western category as well. Three different handlers work with their horses in team penning to force three particular cattle into a pen.
Typically, the pen faces the opposite side of the arena. The riders must work with each other to keep the cows away from their herd. A label identifies all the cows in the arena. When the competition starts, the riders are assigned three cows to separate and pen.
Team penning is a form of cutting that involves a collaborative team and a pen. So, riders must have an intelligent and agile horse that can also cut well. Most team penning horses also make excellent cutting horses.
So, you’ll typically find Quarter horses active in this event since they make outstanding cutting horses. Another horse breed commonly used in team penning is the Morgan horse since it has the correct temperament and conformation.
5. Trail Riding
Unlike endurance riding, trail riding isn’t a timed event. When people compete in trail riding, they are scored based on how they handle obstacles and how flexible and responsive the horse acts:
- Closing and opening gates near the horse.
- Changing the terrain
- Using logs
- Water obstacles
Unlike endurance riding, trail riding isn’t a timed event. When people compete in trail riding, they are scored based on how they surmount the obstacles and how flexible and responsive the horse acts.
Most horse breeds involved in trail riding need stamina, smarts, and a lot of athleticism. That’s because trail riding does require covering a lot of ground and frequent stops. The best horse breeds for trail riding usually have adequate endurance skills and are flexible.
You’ll commonly find Arabians in trail riding competitions because they have high endurance. Endurance trail riding can be exhausting and hard on a horse’s feet, so riders need to pay attention to the horse’s hoof health.
Arabians are known to be very sure-footed, and that helps them perform well in trail riding events. They are also an elegant breed, which makes them look great while performing the trail riding events.
Another breed of horse that’s often used in trail riding is the Missouri Fox Trotter. This breed brings a lot of energy and stamina to the trail, making them proficient at trail riding events.
Missouri Fox Trotters also have sloping shoulders and strong backs that make it easy for them to hold the rider’s weight while they easily overcome obstacles in the course.
Gymkhana utilizes several different rapid games that are fun for younger riders. This riding style is sometimes called mounted games. In gymkhana, riders perform activities like
- Barrel racing
- Flag races
- Pole bending
- Keg races
- Keyhole races
All of the events in gymkhana involve fast-paced activities using horses. So, the kinds of horse breeds utilized in this event must understand the goals of each game.
Horses used in gymkhana events need to run fast and pay attention to the rider’s bridle cues. Since gymkhana often involves younger people, these riders use experienced horses that have excellent personalities.
Young children enjoy competing on ponies. However, Appaloosas are a popular horse breed used for gymkhana events. But I typically notice most of the competitors riding quarter horses.
However, appaloosas are athletic, quick, independent, and innovative, making them suitable to handle the requirements of these events.
7. Barrel Racing
Barrel racing is a form of gymkhana, but it’s so popular that it is typically a stand-alone competition. It is often part of a rodeo, county fair, or separate barrel racing show.
In barrel racing, the horse must circle three barrels that are laid out in a triangle pattern. The horse must circle each barrel using a cloverleaf pattern and then run out of the arena.
Barrel racing is a timed event. The faster a horse can get to a barrel, circle it, and blast out, the quicker its time will be. Horse breeds involved in barrel racing typically have powerful hindquarters to explode out of a turn and to the next barrel.
The horses used for barrel racing must also have good conformation and balance to maintain control of their body during sharp turns. Quarter horses make the best barrel racing horses because they are compact and quick.
Quarter horses with even builds can use their power in short distances, which typically results in beautiful times when running barrels. To read more about barrel racing horses, click here.
Group Horse Riding Styles
Besides Western riding and English riding, there is also team horse riding styles. Below we’ll discuss the different team horse riding styles, including
Polo is probably the oldest equestrian sport you’ll find anywhere. Polo games use two teams that feature four players on each side. This horse-riding event takes place on a massive grass field that is 300 by 160 yards.
The competition is divided into seven and a half-minute “chukkers.” Chukkers are a playing period involved in a polo game. Depending on where the game is played, there will be between four to eight chukkers involved.
During the chukkers, riders stop and change their horses out for a fresher horses. That means every rider must show up with several horses to take advantage of the chukkers or horse changes.
In polo, mallets are used by the players to hit around tiny wooden balls between the opposing team’s goalposts. The goalposts traditionally stand about eight yards apart from each other.
Polo also involves a single off-court umpire and two mounted referees to judge every game. Traditionally, polo was seen as a game for the wealthy, but it’s still accessible and affordable if a person plays at the club level.
Horseball also features teams of four, like polo. However, the game does differ from polo. In horseball, the players pass a ball to each other and score points by throwing the ball into a hoop that resembles a basketball-like move.
Below is a YouTube video of a horseball match.
However, the hoop used in horseball is traditionally larger and laid out vertically instead of basketball’s horizontal format. In horseball, players can also complete a “tackle” using their horse to force an opponent out of the arena or to try to take the ball away.
However, this can only be done if the rider is still seated in the saddle while performing the moves. If the ball falls to the ground, any player can grab it as long as they take the ball in the same direction the game was headed when the ball first dropped—the team scoring the most points in horseball wins.
Horse driving is a catch-all term used to describe attaching a horse or an equine to a harness to pull a modality behind it. Horse driving is used in agriculture for:
- transportation purposes
- it is also a competitive equine discipline.
4. Endurance Riding
Endurance riding features a long-distance racing event that monitors the stamina of rider and horse. Most of these races are very long, with distances of
- 100 miles
- 50 miles
- 25 miles
The races are divided into various sections. To be successful, a horse and rider need to modify their pace while going through the course to complete the event as quickly as possible. During endurance riding, riders typically deal with:
- Riding up and down hills
- Going through woods and fields
However, the rider also has to be careful not to tire out the horse or go beyond the maximum heart rate level guided by the event’s rules.
In endurance riding, horses must pass vital veterinarian checks:
- Before competing
- During the competition
- After the competition finishes
These veterinarian checks ensure that the horse is still performing well enough to participate in the competition without any health issues. Horses must stop in at vet hold checkpoints for a specified time.
After that, the horse is allowed to continue with the race. The winner in an endurance riding event must cross the finish line first and pass the race’s last vet check. Endurance racing not only requires a fit horse, but the rider also must be in shape.
Why Are There Different Riding Styles?
These two distinct horse riding styles each have interesting histories that helped develop the different riding disciplines we see today. The two types have various purposes and utilities.
English style riding is better for some events but isn’t practical for others, such as cutting competitions or barrel racing. There are times when a small English saddle isn’t realistic.
And although horses can jump with a western saddle, it’s much more efficient for them under an English one. Both styles have positives and negatives, and one is not better than the other; they are different.
Western or English riding style?
Horse activity dictates the riding style and gear used for a specific event. Hopefully, the information we provided helped you decide on the horse and riding style best suited for you.
Is English or Western riding better for the horse?
Both styles have their pros and cons; western saddles disperse riders’ weight better across the horse’s back, while English saddles are much lighter. This is a topic that is frequently debated amongst horse owners and riders alike, and there is no clear answer.
Is English or Western riding more expensive?
I think Western horse riding gear is more expensive, but when you consider the cost of apparel, lessons, boarding, showing, etc., the costs between the two evens out. Neither is cheap; some of the entry fees in eventing can reach $1,000 or more.
I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.