What is Western Riding?

western-ridingMost of us have an idea of western riding, at least in part based on watching Hollywood movies. As with all types of horseback riding, there is a fascinating history behind the western style of riding. But, most importantly it is born out of the need to get a job done and that was to move cattle and horses over distances on varied terrain. While you might imagine this is fast-paced work, for the most part, it is slow and careful, to maintain the value of cattle they must arrive in good condition.

While the work is slow and considered the horse and rider need to be quick and agile to keep the herd together, to sort cattle, catch them using ropes etc. From this need for fast agility, we see the various western disciplines today.

Western horses need to be comfortable to ride and reliable, if the rancher needs to jump off to deal with something he needs his horse to stand and wait, a rancher will use his horse to rope a cow etc. For this work based riding, a cowboy can not 'micro manage' his horse and needs to have free hands for other tasks. Neck reining to free up the roping arm is essential, using a neck rein is riding on a loose rein with one hand, where the rein touches the horse's neck to signal direction, the horse mostly takes his cues from the riders body weight and leg aids.

While there are many similarities with English riding, western style riding is much more than a change of tack and clothing.



Western Gaits

The terminology and form for the horse's gaits are different, as we want them to travel low and very consistently for it to be comfortable over many hours and different terrains.

Jog: this is a slow, relaxed and smooth gait perfect for cattle work. A rider will typically to sit to this and not rise. There are of course extended trots and working trots where the rider would rise or unlike rising trot, they will post staying just out of the saddle.

Lope: as with the jog this is slower and smoother than the canter, for the same reasons. The lope can become quite exaggerated in some competition settings.

Many western riders own a quarter horse that has been bred for his ability to achieve these paces, but any breed of horse can learn western.

Western Tack

By now you will be sensing a theme - comfort! This also applies to western tack. The Western saddle distributes weight more evenly to allow horse and rider to balance the weight of a roped cow. The position and seat also support a working rider to remain comfortable on long hard days.

The saddle horn exists for a practical purpose to anchor a lariat when roping cattle and there are various strings and rings to allow the cowboy to attach all of his gear. Saddles have evolved to support specific western riding disciplines, a barrel racing saddle would be quite different from an equitation saddle while still being easily recognisable as a western saddle.


  • Horn - The saddle horn their purpose is to secure one end of a rope while the other end is on a cow, or calf but also handy when getting on or off or for attaching saddlebags.
  • Pommel - the same terminology as an English saddle though also known as fork or swells.
  • Seat - Where the rider sits when riding.
  • Cantle - The back of the seat.
  • Latigo Keeper - this is to tidy away the end of the latigo.
  • Latigo - used to secure the front cinch to the horse.
  • Cinch - equivalent to the girth but attaches to the latigo.
  • Fenders - the leather piece that attaches the saddle to the stirrup
  • Stirrup hobble - an important safety feature to prevent the stirrup from flipping over
  • Stirrup - provide security and help with rider balance


Western Bits and Bridles


Western style riding is mostly associated with the curb bit, of which there are various designs, whatever the design the principle is that these are a leverage bit rather than direct pressure as a snaffle would be. Western horses will start in a snaffle bit before progressing to a curb or leverage bit.

The bridle is quite different too, quite often without a throatlatch or noseband or browband. Bridle designs vary but quite often the aim is to get your horse so well trained that he needs very little fuss on his head or the horse's mouth.

Another iconic piece of equipment associated with western is the hackamore, the hackamore is a signal tool meaning that it has no leverage. With no leverage, the horse is looking to your body position and rein cue to perform.



Western Horse Shows

As previously mentioned western riding has evolved into the competitions that we see today (though there are still plenty of people still using this method of riding to manage cattle today).

Cutting, working cow horse, Barrel Racing and reining demonstrate the agility, athleticism and quick thinking needed of a western rider and horse. Trail riding shows how these horses can navigate obstacles with ease. Rodeo has very obvious roots in cow and ranch work. Showmanship highlights the partnership between horse and handler on the ground.

Western Pleasure evolved from taking your finest horse into town or to get you to church on Sunday in your fanciest outfit, if you find English style riding fashion limiting, you'll love western fashion.

In recent years western dressage, cowboy dressage and ranch classes have become popular in an effort to get back to the roots of this riding style.

Take a look at our Western Riding 101 articles to learn more about each class.

Western Riding 101

What should I wear for western horseback riding?

For leisure riding you will need a pair of cowboy boots (there is a difference between boots for dancing and boots for riding!), a comfortable pair of jeans and shirt. While we love cowboy hats, be aware these are not safety hats. Chaps are useful for trail rides where you may need protection from prickly bushes.

If you are taking part in a western competition then the outfits vary by the type of class. Boots are always a must and chaps will complete the look. Shirts are good for reining, cutting, ranch classes and trail. Fancy classes such as western pleasure or showmanship call for a little (or a lot) of bling, these include sparkling blouses, vests and jackets.

If you are competing and want to wear a cowboy hat then get the best one you can afford, there are a lot of cheap ones out there but they won't look in the show ring.

Where can you learn western riding?

We are fortunate in the UK to have western trainers located throughout the country who can teach you western on your own horse, if there isn't one local you will find that some horse trainers travel so it's worth reaching out to them even if they seem to far away.

To have western riding lessons on a school horse you should look for a registered riding school, there are fewer of these around the country, so you may need to travel but it is worth it.

Below you can find our directory of trainers, coaches and tack stores 👇

 UK Directory here.

UK Community

The UK western community is very supportive and welcoming. Alongside the amateur and professional riders are coaches, horse trainers and member associations. Between them, they organise a variety of clinics and shows, ensure that trainers meet specific standards and provide other support to riders.