Western horse riding disciplines are a challenging yet rewarding sport.
Originating from the cowboy culture, everything about this riding style is absolutely fascinating, from the maneuvers to how the western riders dress.
If you’d love to know more about it or even want to participate in some of these disciplines, join me as I explore all you need to know about western horse riding.
Table of Contents
What is Western Horse Riding?
Western Horse riding is a riding style inspired by the cowboy culture, which was introduced in the United States by Spanish Conquistadors.
Cowboys used horses mainly to herd cattle in cattle ranches. So, they had to use one hand to control the horse and the other to control the cattle using a special rope known as a lasso or a lariat.
For effective herding, they trained the horse to respond to light controls from one side of, the neck, also known as neck reining, and use their instincts in directing the cattle.
English Vs Western Riding
So, let’s talk about English Vs Western Riding.
For starters, while Western-style horses respond to light reining, you have to use mouth reins and both hands in the English style. The horse mostly depends on the rider to give instructions.
Their saddles are also different. English style riding saddles are light, and the rider is in contact with the horse’s back.
On the other hand, Western saddles are larger, wider, and heavier to make them comfortable for both the horse and the rider.
That’s because the riders have to spend several hours on the horse’s back, sometimes in very rough terrains.
The horses used in each of the disciplines also differ to some extent. A Western riding horse needs to have “cow sense”, which is their ability to herd cattle.
They should also be stocky and able to trek at moderate speeds for long hours. On the other hand, English riding horses are often taller, faster, and can also jump.
However, it’s possible to find horse breeds good at both the Western riding style and English riding. A good example is the American Quarter horses.
How about the attire? Western riders wear traditional hats, western-style boots, jeans, and flexible shirts.
English riders wear tall boots, also known as jodhpur boots, a hunting cap, and fitted jackets.
Some English riding competitions include;
- Country Pleasure
Some Western riding disciplines include:
- Western Pleasure
- Pole bending
- Trail riding
- Team penning
We’ll go over all of those disciplines in a moment. First, though, you need to understand basic Western horse-riding principles.
Western Horse-Riding Basic Principles
Several disciplines make up western riding, and each involves controlling a horse to perform various tasks. Even the simplest of those movements take some time to learn.
With that in mind, below are some basic principles you can learn and teach your horse.
Catching the Horse
This is one of the most critical principles since you can’t ride a horse if you can’t even approach them correctly.
It will help if you start by making sure you have the lead rope and the halter.
Next, approach the horse from the left side.
Don’t approach from the back since they may kick you, and don’t approach from the front since their vision is not the best, and their face (nose and eyes) are pretty sensitive.
Be calm and talk to them as you approach. Once you get to the left shoulder, you can start attaching the rope and the halter.
Speed Control at the Walk
In this step, the rider controls the horse’s speed by controlling their sitting position on the horse. The horse is trained to respond to these changes.
For instance, leaning forward tells the horse to move forward and or move faster.
Sitting upright with some tension directed towards the heels tells the horse to stop. When you lean back, the horse starts to back up.
This is a great exercise to bond with your horse and gauge how they respond to your instructions before mounting him for any western riding pattern.
It involves using a line and whip; all you do is lead the horse to walk around you.
According to Bob Mayhew, the goal is to make sure the horse “respects” your space, and they shouldn’t enter your space unless you ask them to.
Others see it as one form of groundwork exercise to instill discipline and respect in the horse.
Three Snake Trail
The 3-snake trail is another principle used to train a horse how to conduct various maneuvers and respond to neck reining.
As mentioned earlier, a neck rein is crucial for Western riding since you can use one hand to control the horse and use the other hand for other activities. Three snake training involves three main concepts;
- Direct bending – Where you bend the horse’s neck towards the direction you need them to go. It’s also where the horse learns how to step out, such as when moving forward.
- Revers/Indirect Bending – The horse steps across with the front legs.
- Hip displacing – In this movement, the horse learns to shift the hip as they move forward.
This is where you train the horse to jog. The goal is to make sure they maintain the speed without sprinting or coming to a complete stop.
A perfect jog involves the horse mainly utilizing its hind legs. Bob Mayhew teaches not to hold the reins too tight and not to lean back too much since the horse will interpret that you need them to sprint.
7 Western Riding Disciplines
Below are some of the most common Western riding disciplines/competitions.
Also described as the Western riding form of dressage, Reining is a Western-style horse riding discipline that involves controlling a horse in various movements.
These include a pattern of circles, spins, rollbacks, lead changes, and sliding stops in rapid succession, similar to the way cowboys controlled their horses.
Initially, cowboys used it to control horses when moving cattle from one place to another.
The term “reining” means to control a horse using natural aids and movements of the hands, reins, and legs – no bit is required.
Reining has become more popular over time, and today it is practiced professionally at many horse shows, including the World Equestrian Games. It became an FEI-recognized sport in 2000.
Barrel racing is the ultimate test of speed, balance, turning ability, and perfect coordination between the horse and the rider.
Three barrels are placed in an arena in a clover pattern, and the rider should maneuver the three barrels in the shortest time possible.
Points are awarded based on how fast the horse ran.
Tipping the barrel leads to a penalty. 15 to 20 seconds is the average time most riders take to go through the barrels, but the record stands at 13.46.
Only women are allowed to participate in professional barrel racing. However, men can take part in local events.
While most riding disciplines rely on how the rider controls the horse, cutting is about the horse’s instinct and cow sense.
It involves the main contestant cutting (separating) a steer from a group of about 20 cows.
Once they have successfully separated them, they stop using the reins and let the horse independently control and prevent the cow from going back to the herd.
Four more riders in the arena help keep the herd intact and prevent strays. The rider and the horse have 2 ½ minutes to cut the steer and drive it away.
Points are awarded based on the horse’s attentiveness, quick reflex, and ability to discern the cow’s movements.
The rider can be penalized for interfering with the horse’s movements.
Cutting mimics how cowboys control the herds, but it has grown into a popular sport governed by the National Cutting Horse Organization.
Steer Wrestling is an event where riders compete by attempting to catch a running steer in a specified distance as fast as possible; the arena’s size determines the distance.
Steer Wrestling involves two horse riders, one known as the bulldogger, and the other is the hazer. The hazer, bulldogger, and steer are all placed behind a barrier.
The steer gets a head start, and the hazer rides a horse on the right side to make sure he doesn’t divert on the course.
The bulldogger then rides on the left side a few moments later, dismounts his horse, grabs the steer by the horns, and makes sure it sleeps on its back.
All this happens in seconds, making it one of the shortest rodeo events.
Unlike other fast-paced disciplines, western pleasure riding is a sport that involves horses performing light/pleasure tasks such as loping, jogging, backing up, or horse walking.
These movements may differ based on the breeds competing. For instance, for some breeds, judges may ask the exhibitors to perform an extended jog.
The rider should show little to no control over the rein. In Western pleasure, horses are awarded points based on calmness, easy-going, and overall form as they accomplish the movements.
Any horse breed with a calm temperament can participate in this western riding competition.
This sport also tests the horse’s speed, agility, and coordination with the rider.
It’s a timed event where the rider has to maneuver like a serpent between six poles placed at 21-feet intervals.
The rider and the horse start by racing to the last pole, then turn sharply and maneuver the poles to the sixth pole.
They then turn and maneuver the poles back to where they started. Then they race as fast as they can out of the arena.
Just as the name suggests, team penning involves a team of three horse riders cutting at least 3 to 5 steers from a herd and driving them to a pen within the fastest time possible.
It is the same method cowboys used to separate cows from a herd when they needed a few of them for transport, administering medication, or when they needed them in separate pens.
5 Valuable Tips for Western Horse Riding
Below are more tips for riding a horse in the Western style.
#1 Gear Up
The first step in Western-style horse riding is wearing clothes and using tools that match the Western disciplines.
That includes the traditional cowboy hat or safety helmet, comfortable pants, preferably jeans or denim, comfortable shorts, and western paddock boots.
The boots shouldn’t be flat. They should have short heels to prevent them from sliding. Wear warm clothes, gloves, and other protective attire if it’s too cold.
Check out my list of Western Riding Boots for Rodeo Events.
#2 Maintain the Right Posture
For effective riding, below are some sitting tips;
- Sit upright and hold the reins softly. Avoid moving your arms too much since you may distract the horse.
- Sit comfortably at the center of the saddle without shifting your weight to one side of the saddle.
- Your legs should match the horse’s movements.
#3 Uphold the Western Reining Style
In the Western style, you should only hold the reins with one hand instead of two hands, like in English.
An excellent western horse should readily respond to neck reining.
You can also shift your body slightly to the direction you need them to go, then back to your position once it gives.
#4 Observe Your Horses’ Behavior
Just like any other pet or household animal, it’s your job to maintain their well-being. They may not always want to ride.
So, before taking them to the field, observe their mood, monitor if they’re in pain, and make sure you are feeding them the proper diet.
If they’re not themselves, address the issue first (call the vet if necessary) until you’re sure they’re in good shape to ride.
#5 Invest in Training
Different horse breeds react differently to various forms of Western riding. You can’t get a horse today and expect to start riding like a pro the next day.
So, before you begin practicing any of these disciplines, consider professional training.
This will save you a lot of time, and you’ll learn on a more personalized level.
Is Western or English Riding Better?
I find the western riding style easier due to the heavier saddle, which makes it easier for beginners to balance. The reins are also relatively easy to use. On the other hand, English riding has lighter saddles and more complex reins.
Can I Wear Western Boots for Riding?
Yes, you can. Both boots were designed for comfort. So, it’s all about preference and whichever feels more comfortable and safer. But for competing, it’s crucial to have the appropriate attire for the riding style you’re participating in.
Can You Ride Western in an English Saddle?
It’s possible, but not a good idea. Western saddles are thicker and minimize the contact between the horse and the rider. English tacks enhance contact since they are lighter. Interchanging them makes riding the horse tricky, especially if they aren’t used to it.
Western-style horse riding disciplines are a fun and great way to get out and enjoy the beautiful countryside.
It’s not just about sitting in the saddle and taking a tour; there are also competitive events that make them more attractive.
I hope this article has inspired your interest enough to attend an upcoming competition or take lessons at a local clinic or stable.
- Dennis Moreland Tack. 2017. “Split Reins, Roping Reins, 2 Rein & Romals: Which Reins Are Right for You? – Quarter Horse News.” Quarter Horse News. October 21, 2017. https://www.quarterhorsenews.com/2017/10/split-reins-roping-reins-2-rein-romals-reins-right/.
- “How Do You Judge Reining?” 2016. MSU Extension. May 3, 2016. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/how_do_you_judge_reining.
- Jennifer Forsberg Meyer. 2016. “7 Must-Know Horse-Safety Principles.” Horse&Rider. Horse&Rider. July 11, 2016. https://horseandrider.com/western-horse-training-tips/bestever-horse-safety-guidelines.
- Prokop, Danielle. 2021. “A Look at the Female-Dominated Sport of Barrel Racing.” The Texas Observer. March 22, 2021. https://www.texasobserver.org/on-a-dime/.
- “Story Map Journal.” 2021. Arcgis.com. 2021. https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=68285ea5918f4307a2b5943971ced893.
What Western riding principles do you practice? Please share your experiences with us below!
Siun is an all-around animal lover, with a passion for horses. She grew up in the United States, competing in the hunters, equitation, and jumpers. Now living in Ireland, she competes with her own showjumping horses. She is experienced in the care and training of horses, as well as teaching riding lessons. She loves to combine her love for horses with her work. When not working, Siun will be found at the stables, rain or shine.
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