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English vs Western Riding: Which Style is Best for You?

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For most people starting in the riding world, a big question that often comes up is whether to choose between an English or a Western riding style. Both styles have long, rich histories that have resulted in two distinct but highly popular riding disciplines for horse lovers around the world.

In this article, we explore the main differences between the two styles to help you decide which of them would suit your riding goals the best.

Woman riding horse in English riding attire

Choosing English versus Western riding depends on many factors, but it mainly depends on what you would enjoy the most.

To start, you must consider the type of riding discipline you would like to do as they do differ between English and Western riding. The type of discipline you choose will impact the type of horse breed and tack (equipment) that will be best suited for it.

Though your skill level or comfort level with horses may be a factor in deciding, both types of riding are appropriate for riders of all ages and skills.

English vs Western Riding: An Overview

English riding originated in England and other European countries and developed over many centuries. Many of the disciplines of English riding evolved from training techniques used on military horses.

English style is considered to be more traditional and formal, both in its methods and in the type of clothing riders wear. During casual riding or lessons, English riders usually wear a smart fitting t-shirt or polo, riding breeches and boots or half chaps.

Western riding originated in North America in cattle ranches. Riders working in these ranches developed their unique style by spending long days on their horses handling cattle.

Riding Horse in Western Riding Attire

This type of work directly influenced the types of Western riding disciplines riders learn today. The attire of Western riders is less formal than English riders and usually consists of denim jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, boots, and a hat to protect from the sun. (source).

In English riding, the rider holds a rein in each hand and keeps close contact with the horse’s mouth through the reins, which are used to direct the horse’s speed and direction.

In contrast, Western riders usually hold both reins with one hand, with the other one falling at their side or laying on their thigh. The second hand is kept free to handle roping while working with the cattle. In Western riding, riders use their weight and seat, as well as neck-reining to direct their horse. (source).

In both styles, the rider should always sit tall and straight, with their legs hanging naturally against the horse’s sides. Slumping forward or backward may place excessive pressure on the horse’s back and can lead to problems with the horse’s natural gait later on. (source).

Differences Between English & Western Tack

There are significant differences between English and Western tack due to the way both styles of riding evolved over time.

Saddles

Horse Saddle

One of the main differences between English and Western riding tack is the saddle.

Western saddles are bigger and heavier than English saddles. Western saddles are spread over a larger area of the horse’s back, which allows for the weight of the saddle and the weight of the rider to be spread over a larger area of the horse’s back as well. This makes it less tiring for the horse. (source). 

The bigger saddle also makes it easier for the rider to spend long hours on the horse more comfortably. (source).

Western saddles have a horn (like a handle) in the front, which is used by the rider when working with cattle. (source). 

Traditionally, Western saddles are more elaborate, with designs or embellishments marked into the leather and the addition of leather frills. These saddles are completed by thick stirrup leathers and wooden or plastic stirrups. (source).

English saddles have no designs or embellishments and have no horns. (source). English saddles are also smaller and lighter and allow the rider to be in closer contact with the horse’s back. (source)

English saddles have been evolving since medieval times. As they developed over time, their main purpose was to help the rider sit upright.

The evolution continued with the arrival of equine sports, and they began to be designed to be thinner and to allow the horse to feel subtle directions from the rider’s legs. (source).

Headgear and Reins

Western horses wear a bridle called a headstall. Unlike the English bridle, the headstall usually has no noseband and sometimes no browbands.

Western Rider Headgear

The headstall holds the bit, the part that goes inside the horse’s mouth, and the reins that are attached to the bit.

Also, Western riders sometimes may use rope reins instead of leather with their bridles. (source).

The English bridle has many components, including the browband, headpiece, throat latch, noseband, and cheek pieces, which hold the bit. (source). English reins are always made of leather or rubber. (source).

Gaits and Terminology

English and Western horses are expected to move in different ways. English horses should have long, flowing movements and lots of variety in speed. Western horses are expected to travel low and to move smoothly and consistently.

English and Western riding also give different names to the horse’s gaits. The table below shows the differences in names and movements.

GaitWestern VersionEnglish Version
WalkNo differenceNo difference
Jog/TrotThe jog is a faster walk used when herding cattle. The main difference is that in a jog, the rider remains seated in the saddle.The trot is considerably faster than the jog. It is also bouncier, so the English trot is posted (rising over the saddle seat every other stride of the horse’s legs to smooth the jolting)
Lope/CanterThere is only one kind of lope, which is slightly slower than the canterThere are different kinds of canter, including elevated, extended and collected
GallopNo differenceNo difference

(source), (source).

English Versus Western Competitions

Western riding disciplines include western pleasure, reining, cutting, trail riding, team penning, barrel racing, endurance, and Gymkhana. (source). Some of these, like reining and cutting, emulate the skills horses develop when working with cattle. (source).

English riding disciplines include dressage, hunter/jumper, equitation, eventing, and show jumping. Except for dressage, all of these disciplines involve jumping. (source)

Horse Breeds

Western horses are trained to chase cattle. When cattle go stray, they can run at a quick speed in sudden bursts of energy.

Western horses should have the ability to be somewhat independent and be good listeners to allow the rider to concentrate on handling the cattle. (source)

In terms of their build, Western horses tend to be of medium size, compact, with strong lower limbs.

Some of the breeds considered most ideal for Western riding include Quarter horses, Tennessee Walking Horses, Paints, Appaloosas, and Arabians. (source).

English horses tend to be taller and “leggier.” This allows them to jump over fences and cover long distances.

Some of the most popular breeds in English riding include Thoroughbreds, Hanoverians, Andalusians, and Arabians. (source).

Best Style for Beginners

The consensus tends to be that western riding is easier for beginners. One of the main reasons is the wider saddle used in Western riding, which provides a more secure, stable seat for a beginner. Other reasons include the type of riding involved in each style.

New riders being introduced to English riding will have to learn to post the trot and learn to coordinate multiple elements to control the horse.

English riding also requires a higher level of balance which may be difficult to attain for new riders. Also, the slower, more consistent stride of Western horses makes it easier for beginners to stay stable on the horse. (source), (source).

However, some experts also agree that new riders should try to start with English riding. The reason is that a rider who has learned to ride comfortably on an English saddle and use the English style of reins will more easily transition to Western riding. (source), (source), (source). 

Choosing English Versus Western Riding

English riding is more popular in Europe, while Western riding is more popular in North America. This may impact the type of horseback riding classes available where you live.

Western riding is usually more affordable than English riding. The English saddle, as well as the English riding games, such as show jumping, can be much more expensive than their Western version. (source).

If cost is not an issue, riders curious about English and Western riding should perhaps try a few lessons in each style to determine which riding style, and their surrounding history and culture, appeal to them the most. Most of all, a beginner rider should go for the riding style that best suits their personality, taste, and goals, because riding should be, above all, fulfilling and fun.

Resources

When learning about your favorite sport it is important to consult different sources. These are the sources used in this article.

April Lee

I've owned horses for 25 years and have a particular love for gentling wild horses. I write these articles to help others learn more about horses. If you enjoyed the article please take a moment to pin it to Pinterest or share on social media. It really does help! Check out my about page for more detailed information.