English Vs Western Saddles

horse wearing western saddle

If you love horses, you’re probably interested in spending more time with them. Maybe you’re thinking about taking horseback riding lessons and want to learn about the different riding styles. Or maybe you’re wondering why there is even a difference between riding styles at all?

We’re going to take an in-depth look at English versus Western horseback riding so you can understand why their saddles are so different. This can help you decide which riding style is right for you. Maybe you’ll choose to try both!

Side by Side Comparison of English vs Western Saddles

First, let’s look at the features of English vs Western saddles so you can get an overview of what each saddle class offers.

English saddle features:

  • Lighter, lower profile saddle
  • Designed for greater mobility
  • Less leather between you and the horse, which lets you feel closer to your horse’s movements
  • No horn for hauling things or space to attach saddle bags 

Western saddle features:

  • Larger, heavier saddle
  • Designed for comfort and utility
  • High cantle and pommel create a deep seat to keep you secure during long journeys
  • Has a horn for tying up cattle and hauling things, and space to tie saddle bags for carrying supplies

As you can see, English and Western saddles have very different features, which could make one more desirable than the other for your personal interests. Next we’ll take a closer look at each of the riding styles so you can see the history behind why English and Western saddles are so different from one another.

Here’s a three minute video explaining the key differences between English and Western saddles:

Differences between English and Western saddles

The English Saddle, Riding Style, and Disciplines

The English saddle was originally used as a hunting saddle. In Europe during the 1700s, people used horses and hounds to hunt foxes. They needed a small, lightweight saddle that wouldn’t hinder a horse’s movements too much. Fox hunting required riding fast while jumping over streams, fences, and fallen trees. The lower profile of the saddle lets the rider feel like they are one with the horse because they can feel more of the horse’s movements. Jumping and polo are both sports that require English saddles, because the shallow seats let riders move around freely and stay agile.

Diagram of an English saddle and its parts
Parts of an English saddle

English riding is viewed as the more traditional riding style. Riders dress more formally which is a nod to the centuries-old mounted military of Europe. For example, you’ll often see English riders wearing navy blue coats and nicely fitted clothing. Dressing sharply is a sign of both respect and having a well-mannered upbringing. English riders hold the horse’s reins in both hands to communicate desired speed and direction to the horse.

Popular English riding disciplines:

  • Dressage: from the French word meaning “training”. The horse performs precise movements in response to subtle cues from the rider. It looks like the rider is riding a dancing or prancing horse. The horse is judged on its gaits and execution of moves.
  • Equitation / Hunt seat: riders are evaluated on their horseback riding skills over flat terrain and natural jumping setups that mimic jumping which would occur while hunting foxes.
  • Eventing: typically a three day competition where the horse and rider are evaluated in dressage, cross-country, and show jumping.
  • Jumping: horse and rider jump over a variety of obstacles.
  • Trail riding: basic, leisurely riding in an English saddle, just for fun!

The Western Saddle, Riding Style, and Disciplines

The Western saddle is a “working saddle”. For centuries, cowboys in the old Western plains of the United States would round up cattle and carry supplies across long stretches of terrain. This is why Western saddles are so much bigger than English saddles. They needed to be comfortable for long journeys, and have extra size and weight to be able to secure equipment and cargo. 

Diagram of a Western saddle and its parts
Parts of a Western saddle

Western riding took place on ranches as well as over the open land. Rider attire also fit in with the demands of the job and the landscape. For example, wide-brimmed hats protected skin and eyes from the blistering sun. Leather chaps are worn to protect the riders’ legs from thorny plants such as tumbleweeds, cacti, and brush. In Western riding, the horse’s reins are held with one hand so that the other hand is free for throwing ropes and other tasks. Riders shift their weight and use neck reining movements to communicate speed and direction.

Popular Western riding disciplines:

  • Barrel racing: a rodeo event where the horse and rider race around a cloverleaf pattern made out of barrels in the fastest time possible.
  • Pole bending: another timed rodeo event. The horse and rider weave through a line of six poles, then turn around and weave back as fast as possible.
  • Reining: horse and rider go through a series of circles, spins, and stops. This event is often compared to figure skating, and riders are evaluated on how well they control their horse.
  • Roping: riders use ropes to catch cattle, which is based on the work that cowboys did while herding and ranching.
  • Trail riding: general, recreational riding in a Western saddle, exploring trails and mountains.

What To Consider When Choosing a Riding Style

English and Western riding are like apples and oranges – both popular and desirable, but with very different tastes and textures.

-Smith Worthington

There are several factors you may consider when thinking about which riding style would be best for you. Let’s begin with any disciplines you may be interested in. For example if you’re drawn to jumping or barrel racing, then you’ll want to start with a riding stable that teaches you the appropriate riding style. This way as you gain your foundational riding skills, you can progress naturally into your discipline of choice.

Next is your personality, goals, and what type of person you want to be. Maybe you love the way Western riders dress and would have more fun if you got to dress and ride horses that way too. Or maybe you prefer English attire and want to attend an English equestrian college. There really is no right or wrong – it’s just personal preference!

A final thing to consider is your location and the people you know. If you live on the East coast and know people who practice English riding, maybe you want to be able to ride along with them. Or maybe you’re planning to move out West and want to ride your horse through the desert mountains. While you can practice either riding style no matter your location, it helps to think about what specifically draws you into the sport of horseback riding.

Final Thoughts

Now that you understand the differences between English and Western saddles and how they’re used, you may have a better idea of which style is more attractive to you. In general, people like Western saddles because of the feeling of security they get from them. Others prefer English saddles because they let you feel the horse more.

Overall, the most important thing to remember is that you are never tied to just one way of riding. You can learn and master both styles if you want to. Just be sure to use the right saddle for the type of riding or discipline you’re practicing.

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