Learn what Western riding really is, and how it might fit into your personal horsemanship experience.
What exactly is Western riding? If my saddle has a horn, or if I neck rein my horse with one hand, am I a Western rider? Is Western riding less sophisticated than English? Is it just for cowboys? In the equine industry, although there are dozens of individual disciplines, most people would agree that the two major categories of riding are English and Western. This article will help answer some common questions such as those listed above, and help you understand what Western riding is all about.
Tack – saddles and bridles
The Western saddle of today has its roots in the Western United States and Mexico, where the handling of cattle was – and still is – done primarily from horseback. Typically, a Western saddle is much heavier and more durable than an English saddle because of the extreme work it is asked to do. For instance, the saddle horn, built up from a sturdy wooden tree, was designed to handle the heavy jerk and pull of wild cattle at the end of a rope. The back cinch, which is also unique to the Western saddle, would help hold the saddle in place when the torque and leverage of a cow at the end of a rope could otherwise pull the saddle right off of a horse’s back.
Most of the differences you’ll see in Western versus English bridles are cosmetic. However, there are a couple of things we can contrast.
On English bridles, the reins are almost always two pieces of thin leather running from the bit up to the rider’s hands and buckled together. Thus, they make one continuous rein. Western bridles are often used with split reins. These individual reins can be 7’ to 8’ long and can be used one- or two-handed, as we’ll see later on.
You might also notice a difference in the bits used in Western riding. The most common bit for English riding is the snaffle bit. Although these are certainly used in Western riding as well, the curb or leverage bit is very common as the horse and rider advance in their training. The curb bit is also most commonly associated with neck reining, which is distinctly Western.
In my opinion, there are more similarities between English and Western riding than there are differences. Good horsemanship is good horsemanship. All good riders are trying to communicate effectively with their horses and all equestrians desire to have the body control necessary to execute any desired maneuver.
Believe it or not, the two riding styles aren’t all that different either. Posting is a good example of this (see sidebar below). Perhaps you’ve been told you that English riders post and Western riders sit the trot. I don’t believe this is true. Any good rider, regardless of his/her discipline or tack, should learn to post and be comfortable posting when the horse extends his trot. This is better for your horse physically, and will ultimately be more comfortable for you, the rider.
Maybe you’ve heard that English horses canter and Western horses lope. The truth is, these are two discipline-specific terms that refer to the same three-beat gait. These synonymous terms describe the way a horse is traveling, and either discipline can perform the gait collected or extended.
Depending on a particular horse’s level of training and the rider’s style of horsemanship, he or she can ride Western either one- or two-handed. Riding one-handed (otherwise known as “neck reining”) developed in Western riding because of the need to handle a rope or stock whip in one hand, while guiding the horse with the other. It has since become a common skill that’s handy in both Western and English riding. In Western competition, some classes require the rider to use only one hand, while many other classes permit two-handed riding.
Of course, a number of different techniques make Western riding unique. Because of the additional leather on a Western saddle and its fenders, the rider does not have as much leg contact with the horse’s body. This will immediately feel different if you have exclusively ridden English. Also, a Western rider’s posture will differ slightly. When riding Western, a rider will sit back on his or her back pockets, keeping the shoulders above the hips. In contrast, English riders will often ride with their body posture slightly forward. However, the rule for both disciplines is heels down with just the ball of your foot resting in the stirrup.
Tips for trying Western
Do you have an English horse that you would like to ride Western? There is certainly no reason why you can’t enjoy both styles of riding. If you’re putting a Western saddle on your English horse for the first time, however, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- The Western saddle generally has more weight, leather and additional attachments your horse might not be used to. Take the time to introduce the new saddle in a safe environment to help build his comfort and confidence.
- Pay attention to saddle fit, as this might look different from what you’re used to. One general consideration in fitting the Western saddle is to look underneath the gullet (directly beneath the saddle horn) to make sure there’s clearance between your horse’s withers and the top of the gullet. You don’t want a saddle that sits too low in the gullet. This pressure point will begin to rub and make your horse sore.
- Western saddles have different parts than English saddles, so be sure to familiarize yourself with these variances before tacking up. For instance, many Western saddles have a separate back cinch along with the traditional front cinch. This back cinch is a valuable piece of equipment, but will feel very foreign to a horse that has not been properly introduced to it. Slowly introduce the back cinch while working the horse on the ground. Start with the cinch loose, and gradually tighten it closer to the horse’s belly as she acclimates to this foreign ticklish feeling.
- When riding English, there’s not much to hold you in — or hold onto — when horses spook or move quickly. Advanced English riders often develop a very good sense of balance and timing without having a large Western saddle to help hold them in. In certain situations, you might find more security with the added surface area and handhold (that saddle horn isn’t just for roping!) that the Western saddle provides.
Riding tools and styles develop to meet certain needs. If I was to go over a jump course, I believe an English saddle would serve me well. When working cattle or heading out for an extended trail ride on which I want to carry some extra items, a Western saddle might prove to be more appropriate. But whether you ride with a helmet or cowboy hat, on a thoroughbred or quarter horse, you might find that Western riding fits well into your personal horsemanship experience.