There are many different horse riding disciplines within equestrian sports, each with its own rules and attire.
The riding disciplines are divided into Western disciplines and English disciplines.
However, there is also horse racing, horse driving, vaulting, and gymkhana, none of which fit into these categories.
Here, I will explain what a horse discipline is and provide an in-depth look at each of the different riding styles for horse owners.
What is a Horse Discipline?
Horse riding disciplines are different horse riding styles that equestrians can participate in with their horse. You can participate in one or multiple disciplines, every rider has their preferences.
I ride in the discipline of para-dressage, which is a branch of dressage adapted to the capabilities of people with disabilities.
Disciplines are named so because it takes a lot of time and skill on the part of both the horse and rider to participate. You cannot put in the bare minimum and expect to progress and be successful, especially if your goal is to compete internationally.
How Many Disciplines Are There in Horse Riding?
18 equestrian disciplines are recognized both nationally and internationally by USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) and FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale). (1)
However, there are also at least another 40 riding disciplines that do not have this recognition. This includes rodeo and horse racing events.
This brings the variety of disciplines to at least 58. Riding disciplines are divided into two main categories, English riding, and Western riding. Each discipline has a unique flair and there are a wide variety of sports to participate in within each.
31 Different Horse Riding Disciplines Explained
In this section, I will give a brief but comprehensive overview of the top 31 horse riding disciplines so that you can have a general understanding of each.
English Riding Disciplines
The English riding styles are more formal and typically have stricter rules and dress codes. They are also the ones that you can see on display in the Olympics.
English riding got its start in Europe, but slowly made its way around the world and is now practiced in most countries
Dressage sport is commonly known as ballet or dancing with horses. Modern dressage is derived from the natural movement of the horse and those they were taught in cavalry training.
Riders are asked to perform a series of movements with their horses at levels of increasing difficulty. Each competitive dressage test has a prescribed design of movements in walk, trot, and canter. The movements are then scored 1-10 and turned into a percentage.
Watch this video to learn more.
#2 Show Jumping
In this sport, rider and horse teams compete to be the fastest around a course of jumps without knocking down any rails.
There is a set time to complete the course, and riders gain penalty points if their ride takes longer than the optimum time.
They also receive penalties for knocking rails down. The rider with the fastest time and the least time penalties wins.
#3 Cross Country
In this timed event, rider and horse compete to be the fastest around an outdoor jumping course with 30 to 40 jumps. The course also includes ditches, banks, and more.
It is designed to replicate the feeling of riding a horse at high speeds across the countryside and tests the skills and obedience of the horse.
Also known as three-day eventing, this sport combines the three disciplines of cross country, show jumping, and dressage over three days of competition. The horse and rider with the lowest score or least amount of faults takes home the top prize.
#5 Hunter Jumper
This is a jumping class that focuses solely on the horse. It is mainly found in North America. The judges score the horse on the way they move, jump, their behavior, and their stride, among other things.
Jumping rounds are scored on a scale from 0 to 100 and the horse & rider combination with the highest score is the winner.
In the video below, you’ll learn the difference between dressage and hunter/jumper.
This is a jumping and flatwork competition where the focus of judging is on the rider instead of the horse.
Riders are judged on their position over jumps and on the flat, decision-making while on the course, and the quietness of their movements, among other things.
Similar to the hunter jumper ring, horse and rider teams are scored from 0 to 100 and the ones with the top score are the winners.
#7 Saddle Seat
In this discipline, gaited horses that have highly animated gaits, such as American Saddlebreds are ridden in a ring to show off their flashiness. (3)
The horse and rider pair that is the best representative of the breed are the winners. Riders are judged on their attire and sportsmanship in the ring, as well as showmanship.
In this sport, riders hit balls into goals using mallets on horseback. (4) Essentially, it is croquet on horseback.
Riders will switch horses every 3 to 6 minutes as they dash to score more points than the opposing team and get the glory. Polo can be played on a grass court or an arena.
#9 English Pleasure
This discipline seeks to crown the best pleasure riding horse, and it dates back to when horses were the key way to get from place to place. (5)
English pleasure is divided into hunter seat, saddle seat, and carriage driving. Judges look for an obedient horse with strong gaits and transitions between them. The horse that matches the judge’s specifications the most is the winner.
A team sport where a group of horses, riders, and bloodhounds work together to chase down and hunt a fox, or in today’s standards, an object with a fox’s scent. Hunts are a full day affair and riders love the high-speed adrenaline rush
There are so many English riding styles to try. Even if it, is not your specialty or what you prefer, it might be fun to venture outside of your comfort zone.
English riding has the stereotype of being pretentious and unaffordable, but there are a lot of ways to ride English on a budget, especially at lower levels,
Here is a video that explains more about English riding disciplines.
Western Style Riding Disciplines
Western horse riding disciplines are generally more laid back than English. The dress codes are not as strict as in Western rodeos and shows are less formal than English ones. Western riders compete in a variety of events in a western saddle.
Here is a basic overview of some of the different styles of western riding. Western riding started in the Western United States and still has most of its popularity there. The rodeo is a staple of American culture.
#11 Western Dressage
This sport is classical dressage adapted to show off the skills and abilities of the working cow horse. (6)
It is judged and governed by the same rules as English dressage but focuses on the hallmarks of the Western working cow horse. These include usefulness, rideability, willingness, pure gaits, and steadiness.
This sport is designed to showcase the athleticism and spirit of the working ranch horse. (7) Horse and rider teams perform prescribed patterns consisting of slow circles, large fast circles, rollbacks, spins, and sliding stops and are scored on each element.
#13 Barrel Racing
In this event, horse and rider teams compete to be the fastest to run a cloverleaf pattern in a dirt arena. (8) A timekeeper records each time, and the team with the fastest time wins.
Contrary to other horse sports, barrel racing is a female-dominated sport and was originally set up just for women. If a rider and horse knock down a barrel, five seconds are added to their run time.
#14 Pole bending
Similar to barrel racing, pole bending is an event where horse and rider compete to weave a set of upright poles in the fastest time possible. (9) 6 poles are spaced 21 inches apart.
They must weave the poles one way and then circle the last pole to go the other way, before racing back to the alleyway
In this sport, a horse and rider team are judged on how well they can handle cows and other cattle. (10) Cutting is when a cow is separated from its herd, and the horse must do everything it can to prevent the cow from rejoining the herd.
This sport consists of several different timed events where the rider has to rope a steer or calf from horseback and tie them. (11)
Types of roping include calf roping, steer roping, team roping, single steer roping, steer stopping, and breakaway roping.
Roping is an essential skill to master for ranch work and the fastest team wins.
Check out this video.
#17 Western Pleasure
In this sport, horse and rider teams compete in groups and walk, trot, jog and lope at the judges’ command in both directions. (12)
The goal is to be soft and quiet while doing all of these things, and the pair that does this the best is the winner.
In this event, horses and riders are tested to see how well they handle obstacles out on the trail. (13) These include going over bridges, opening and riding through gates, and riding through water.
Judges will not only look to see which pairs can do these tasks but also score how well they do them. Mistakes add penalties, and the horse and rider that perform the best are the winners.
In this event, the horse and rider must sort cows into a pen in numerical order as fast as possible. The team that sorts the most cows within the time limit wins. Many horses are afraid of cows, so your horse has to do well around them to compete.
This sport means games on horseback and consists of timed-speed events and speed pattern racing. It usually combines barrel racing, pole bending, and other western disciplines with an emphasis on speed and teamwork
Here is a video that explains more about Western riding styles
Western riding tests a horse’s skills as a working companion, where English riding accentuates a horse’s natural abilities. You can ride whichever fits your goals better. However, some riding disciplines do not fit into any of the above categories.
Riding Disciplines Other Than Western and English Riding
These are the riding disciplines that are not part of either the Western or English riding categories. Who knows, you might learn about a discipline you never knew about and want to try!
This sport is the art of doing dance and gymnastics on horseback. (14) There are increasing levels of difficulty, and acrobats are judged on the accuracy and difficulty of their routine.
The horse is directed around the ring by a handler via lunge line as the acrobats perform skills
#22 Horse Racing
Young 2 and 3-year-old thoroughbred horses are ridden around a track of a set distance. The horse and jockey that crosses the finish line first is the winner.
There are both steeplechases, or racing over obstacles, and flat racing.
Horses from all disciplines and breeds are shown in hand, or guided around the arena by a handler. The goal of these classes is to evaluate the body composition or conformation of horses.
The horse that comes closest to the standards for its breed class is the winner.
#24 Endurance Riding
This sport challenges riders to work with their horses and ride long distances. Rides range from 25 to 100 miles and the horse that is in the best condition per the vet check and that carried the most weight at the end of the ride wins.
Here’s a detailed explanation.
#25 Miniature Horse Showing
Miniature horses can compete in both English and Western. There are classes for miniature horse show jumping, handwork, and carriage driving. I have seen handlers dressed in both English and Western-style for these events.
#26 Mounted Archery
In this sport, horse and rider teams work together to shoot targets using a bow and arrow on horseback.
Being the winning team requires coordination, skill, agility, and accuracy. The pair that shoots the most bullseyes on the targets after a set period of time wins.
A winter sport in which a person on skis is pulled by a horse down a hill through a series of markers. The goal is to complete the slalom course in the least amount of time.
#28 Equestrian Drill Team
Drill team is when a group of four or more horse and rider teams work together to perform a choreographed routine of movements to music.
To perform on a drill team successfully requires coordination, teamwork, and a great deal of skill.
#29 Trick Riding
Usually performed at rodeo events, trick riding is an extreme form of vaulting where a single rider performs potentially dangerous stunts on a galloping horse.
Trick riders use a special saddle so they have places to grip while they do tricks.
Find out how to become a trick rider in this video.
#30 Liberty Horsemanship
In this discipline, a horse and rider perform in harmony at liberty, or without tack. The horse is directed by the handler to display elegant and relaxed gaits as well as a variety of tricks like pirouettes, rears, and bows.
#31 Combined Driving
In this sport, also called team horse driving, a team of two riders works together to steer a team of horses and their carriage through a series of obstacles as fast as possible.
No matter what style of riding you choose to pursue, you will have a blast training and competing with your horse.
None of the equestrian events is better or worse than the other, it all comes down to personal preference and the goals you want to achieve.
Should I learn Western or English Horse Riding?
This depends on your personal preference. If you want to learn to ride dressage or show jump, learn English. If your heart lies in reining or Western pleasure, learn Western.
What is the most popular discipline in horse riding?
In my experience, show jumping is the most popular discipline. Showjumpers dominate the equestrian social media space and people love the feeling of soaring through the air on horseback.
Is English or Western riding more expensive?
English riding is generally more expensive than Western because of all the formality in the rules and dress for both horse and rider. The cost of showing in English classes is also more costly than in Western.
What is the hardest riding discipline?
Eventing competitions are considered the hardest discipline. This is because you and your horse both need to know how to perform well in dressage, show jumping, and cross country all at once. If you ride other disciplines, you only have to focus on being your best at that specific one.
How do I choose a riding discipline?
Choose a discipline based on your preferences. If you enjoy elegance, precision, and speed, try show jumping.
On the other hand, if you want a thrill but prefer less formality, try barrel racing. If you are not sure, try combined driving. No discipline is better than the other.
Whether you choose Western or English horse riding disciplines, you are sure to have a good time. Choose the style of riding that best matches the skills of your horse and your preferences.
They all take a lot of skill and time, so it’s best to select the one you will enjoy. The best part is, that you can change disciplines whenever you like, so you can try as many or as few as you want.
What’s your favorite horse riding discipline? Let us know below!
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- 3. What is Saddle Seat Riding? [Internet]. Trinity Farm. 2010 [cited 2022 Jun 4]. Available from: https://trinityfarmindiana.com/riding-lessons/what-is-saddle-riding/
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- 8. Burns H. Everything You Need to Know about Barrel Racing – Watch Barrel Racing [Internet]. Silver Spurs Rodeo. 2015. Available from: https://www.silverspursrodeo.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-sport-of-barrel-racing/
- 9. Pole Bending – AQHA [Internet]. www.aqha.com. [cited 2022 Jun 4]. Available from: https://www.aqha.com/pole-bending
- 10. What is Cutting [Internet]. National Cutting Horse Association. [cited 2022 Jun 4]. Available from: https://www.ncha.com.au/what-is-cutting
- 11. Roping – Riding Styles, [Internet]. www.artbycrane.com. [cited 2022 Jun 4]. Available from: https://www.artbycrane.com/riding_styles_disciplines/western/roping.html
- 12. Western Pleasure – AQHA [Internet]. www.aqha.com. Available from: https://www.aqha.com/western-pleasure
- 13. Western Trail Class – Riding Styles, [Internet]. www.artbycrane.com. [cited 2022 Jun 4]. Available from: https://www.artbycrane.com/riding_styles_disciplines/western/western_trail_class.html
- 14. FAQs – American Vaulting Association [Internet]. www.americanvaulting.org. [cited 2022 Jun 4]. Available from: https://www.americanvaulting.org/faqs/
Bryanna is a 23-year-old Florida-based Grade 1 Para-dressage rider based in Florida and she has been riding for 5 years. Horses are her passion and her ultimate goal is to be selected for the US Para-Equestrian Team and represent the US at the Paralympics. She rides at Quantum Leap Farm and Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center and her equine partners are Shane, an American Paint Horse, and Cappy a Welsh x Thoroughbred. When she is not helping at the barn, riding, or training, she is learning about horses, writing articles about them, and using her social media platforms to raise awareness for therapeutic riding and para-equestrianism, shares her journey, and advocates for greater inclusion of para-equestrian in the media and equestrian sport at large.
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