There is more to horseback riding disciplines than english versus western.
The first thing someone asks an equestrian (if they have any equine knowledge at all) is, “Do you ride english or western?” But this question is misleading.
It’s true that when you boil it down to the basics, almost every type of riding can be considered either english or western, but the question is much better viewed from a different perspective — the perspective of the four main disciplines, or seats.
Western is a broad term that encompasses any type of riding that involves western tack, or, in other words, a saddle with a horn and a bridle with a curb bit the rider operates with just one hand.
As the name implies, it is a style of riding that evolved on ranches in the American West, when ranchers needed one hand free to work a lasso. The cowboys of today still ride western, but western riding is also seen at rodeo events such as barrel racing, cutting, calf roping, and in the show arena, where riders compete with their western pleasure horses demonstrating how mannered their horses are while performing the different required gaits (the walk, jog and lope).
Hunt seat is a type of english riding where the horses are taught to jump fences. Riders ride in a forward seat saddle with two hands on the reins.
There are two main types of hunt seat riding: those who compete with hunters and those who compete with jumpers. Hunter horses are all about the style in which they take the fences. They should be mannered and jump with correct form. Jumpers are all about speed and accuracy. All that matters for a jumper is how fast the horse can jump the course without knocking down any fences.
There are a number of different events for hunt seat riders and their horses. One timed event, called cross country, takes place outside over natural obstacles.
Dressage is a type of english riding in which the horse is asked to demonstrate its level of training, willingness, and athleticism by performing various maneuvers or “tests.”
Horses complete the tests individually at the walk, trot and canter, as well as the extended gaits. They perform difficult maneuvers such as the passage, a highly elevated trot, and the piaffe, a trot that is almost performed in place.
It takes many years to train a great dressage horse, and there are levels for horses and riders at all stages of training, from Introductory to Grand Prix. Riders ride in a special, deep-seated dressage saddle that is made to maximize the connection between horse and rider. They use two hands on the reins, and while horses start out in just one bit, higher level horses compete in a double bridle that contains both a snaffle and a curb bit.
The least common of the main riding disciplines, saddle seat is also a type of english riding, and it is all about style. Rather than the other disciplines that tend to penalize a show of exuberance from the horse, saddle seat riders want their horses to be bright and full of expression.
Riders ride in a cut-back saddle that allows the horse to hold its head high, and sit much further back in the saddle to help shift the horse’s weigh to its hindquarters. They ride with two hands on the reins in a double bridle, with both snaffle and curb bit. Horses are asked to perform the gaits both directions of the ring; most horses walk, trot, and canter, but certain classes for American Saddlebreds riding in saddle seat also call for the slow-gait and rack, four-beat gaits that are unique to the breed.
True, some equestrian activities don’t fit under these four main disciplines, such as horse racing, vaulting, and endurance riding, but most do. If you want to sound knowledgeable next time you talk to a horse person, get more specific. Ask if they ride dressage.