Difference Between English and Western Riding Styles

by | Apr 17, 2020 | Blog, Equine Saddles

There seem to be as many ideas about riding as there are people in the world. Some picture cowboys, galloping across the plains in the American west with fancy silver bits. Some picture the riders of the Spanish riding school performing advanced maneuvers on snow-white stallions. Still others picture carefree girls sitting bareback on a galloping horse, as both manes blow in the wind. In general, when we consider riding with tack (that is, a saddle and bridle), there are two styles: English and Western. While they have many things in common, there are also a number of significant differences between them 

Western Riding

Western riding was developed for practical reasons in the American West. Regarding Western tack, its design and decoration are based on the practical needs of cowboys and ranchers. These riders needed to work for hours and hours at a time riding fences, working cattle, and tending to the needs of their herds and ranches. You can see this in the design of the saddle as well as how the horses are bred.

Horses that are bred for Western riding are bred to be agile and muscular, and are characterized by great endurance and speed. They are bred to be able to carry a rider and many pounds of gear for the long days doing ranch chores. They also need to endure brutal Western winters, so they are smaller with more efficient metabolism. Their gaits are smooth and easy to ride, and they are very quick on their feet, capable of reaching great speed over short distances. Some examples of popular breeds for Western riding are Appaloosas, Paint Horses, and Quarter Horses.

The gear for Western riding is designed to distribute all the riders weight over the horse’s back, so they can withstand it for many hours of riding. The saddle is also designed to hold a cowboy’s equipment and necessities, including saddlebags and ropes.

In western riding, the aids work a bit differently as well. The horse is controlled by the rider shifting his weight with his upper body, his lower legs not in constant contact with the horse’s sides but using spurs for refined movements. Neck reining is used rather than direct reining. This means that the rider holds the reins in one hand and turns the horses head by laying the reins against the horses neck, rather than applying pressure directly to the bit through the reins (which is called direct reining). Horses who understand neck reining may be ridden in a curb bit, a snaffle bit, or a bosal. A bosal is a loop of rawhide that goes around a horses nose in place of a noseband. Many of the disciplines of western riding have competitions which showcase the western horses ability to work with cattle, such as team penning, cutting, and roping. There are also Western competitions without cows, such as Western pleasure, reining, and barrel racing show the horse’s rideability and agility.

English Riding

English riding was developed in Europe. This style of riding was developed first for military purposes, and then refined as a leisure activity for nobility. Today, English riding is best known for two sports: dressage and jumping. These disciplines are refined from old military riding techniques to make the horse into a refined military machine. As technology developed over time, horses became leisure animals and not working or military animals. Dressage, once used to refine the movements of warhorses, has since been used as a way to train horses to be highly obedient and athletic. Jumping was originally developed as a practical activity. Horses were ridden in hunting together with dogs, chasing prey over fields and through woods, which often involved jumping obstacles. Over time, as horses were replaced by automobiles, the sport of jumping horses became defined as a leisure activity mostly for nobility and other wealthy members of society. 

Regarding riding aids, English riding relies more on direct rein pressure than Western riding. The rider holds one rein in each hand, and turns the horse’s head with pressure on one direct rein. The English rider controls the horse’s movement with his seat, but does not use shifting of his own weight in the same way that a Western rider does. The English rider controls the horse with varying pressure from the legs. English riding involves more gymnastics and more jumping rather than traveling many hours and miles. Therefore, English tack is much lighter and designed to allow the rider to lift his weight off the horses back. 

Many English breeds are a mixture of different bloodlines featuring some combination of hot-blooded (such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds) and cold-blooded, or draft horses. Known as warmbloods, nearly every European country has at least one breed that they are known for. Breeds that are known to excel in English riding today are bred for athleticism and fancy, eye-catching gaits. While they may not have the endurance of their western counterparts, they are big and powerful. Many of them stand between five and six feet tall at the shoulder.

One breed that has been shown to excel at English and Western disciplines is the Thoroughbred, which is fast over short and long distances, and has tremendous endurance and agility. Indeed, the Thoroughbred may be one of the most athletic breeds of horses in general. 

What Are The Differences Between English And Western?

Western riding was developed in the American west; English riding was developed in Europe.

Western riding uses neck reining, English riding uses direct reining.

Western riding has larger tack to distribute weight across the horse’s back for better endurance, English riding has lighter tack to allow for greater gymnastic movement.

Western riding controls the horse with the rider’s heels and body weight, English riding controls the horse with pressure from the seat and legs.


Whatever your interest in riding, whatever your horses conformation and skills, there is a riding discipline that will make you both happy. The most important thing is to have the both of you be safe and happy, with equipment that fits. 

Which discipline do you ride with your horse?

About The Author

<a href="https://www.equiniction.com/author/ani-petrak/" target="_self">Ani Petrak</a>

Ani Petrak

Ani Petrak is a freelance linguist and writer based in the Czech Republic. A lifelong English rider and groom, she has experience showing in dressage, hunter-jumpers, trail, and young horse in-hand competitions. She is currently working with a Grand Prix showjumping and dressage trainer while raising and training her young warmblood gelding for a career in dressage, working equitation, and cross-country hacking.

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