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By Hardy Oelke

To ride "western" has really little to do with the equipment you use, but it's a different approach to riding, and - as far as horse show events are concerned - the ultimate goals are different.

Often the expression "western style riding" is being used, but again, it's not just a style - style implies more that the difference lies in the outfit, but to ride western means a different way, a different method, a different philosophy, means somewhat different aids and cues.

Pleasure Riding
Western Pleasure is one of the most popular western classes, especially for beginners, as showing in a group isn't as nerve-wrecking as showing solo can be. However, top level western pleasure is as demanding as any other event
Having said that, the differences between western riding and the riding that's traditional and established throughout most of Europe (called "English" by western riders) aren't all that significant.
After all, horses are horses, and they all respond in the same way.

The horse doesn't know whether it's a "western" horse or not. It will either move away from pressure or against it, depending on how it was taught, it will wring its tail if you annoy it sufficiently, it will gap its mouth if you pull too much on the rein, etc. etc. This is why good "English" riders have little difficulty in adjusting to a well-trained western horse.

In my experience as a western riding trainer and instructor, all too often novice western riders who don't want to appear to be green-as-grass beginners come up with the excuse that they so far had been riding "English" only. Like that were an explanation for their weak balance, timing, their ignorance regarding leg cues and collection, or for their bad posture and rough hands. A correct posture or seat, good balance, timing, subtle cues, and soft hands, as well as a general understanding how the coordination of all your cues result in bringing this horse at your disposal, are essential for all riding, no matter where or what. A rider who has all that, and wanted to go into riding western, would only have to learn a few secondary details, and if he/she wanted to show western, then a study of the rules would be necessary as well.

Western riding as we know it today evolved in the American West, mostly on cattle ranches. The Spanish conquistadores laid a foundation in bringing their way of riding and working cattle to the New World, which developed further in Mexico and especially California. That was tempered by an influence of North Europeans when they migrated west across the continent. While the Texas cowboy was usually a crude rider and a craftsman at best, the California vaquero was a master, if not an artist in the saddle. With western horse shows become increasingly popular earlier in the 20th century, this kind of riding matured into a standardized sport, a sport which in the last quarter of that century really blossomed and produced some truly outstanding performances in a number of events. The sport of western riding consists of a remarkable variety of events, which make vastly different demands on horse and rider - reining, cutting, reined cow horse, western pleasure, western riding, trail, barrel racing, pole bending, to name the most popular ones.

Western riding can be roughly divided into two categories, those who just want to trail ride and have a good time, and those who want to show (and have a good time). Those who want to trail ride western should be just as concerned about doing it right as those have to be who present themselves to the scrutinizing eyes of horse show judges, because they owe it to their horses.

The most obvious difference between "English" and western is that the reins are held in one hand only, at least with mature horses. Horse show rules offer classes for junior horses in which they may be ridden with two hands, but the finished western horse is ridden with just one hand on the reins. Show rules also request the reins to be held in such a way that not more than one finger is between the reins. Good western horses are also ridden with slack in the reins - you just can't impress a judge riding a tight rein. This calls for a training program designed to work more on your horse's mind than on his mouth.

A common mistake would-be western riders make is pitching the horse the slack. This can work if you just amble through the countryside, not wanting to bother your horse much, and that's most likely how the slack-rein style developed. However, to execute precisely sophisticated maneuvers, it just doesn't work. You'll have to ride your horse according to the age-old principles of dressage, which means you need to ride him from the rear forward, push him into the bridle, and have him give to your hand. That way, the horse is providing himself the slack by tucking in his chin. Only you need him so light on your hands that he'll do that long before your reins actually make contact. The weight of the rein is felt by a horse in his mouth long before it forms a straight line between your hand and the horse's mouth - if he's been trained to be that sensitive! And if your horse works on a really slack rein, he is even working on a "mental rein". He is tuned to where he respects a rein that exists mainly in his memory.

Leg cues are largely the same as in "English", but a good rider/horse team needs less of it. Normally, the western rider doesn't use the legs just to maintain a gait. Weight cues are applied differently by most top western trainers, though. The western dressage horse (reining horse) is taught to move away from pressure, including weight. This means that the rider's weight is rather on the outside of the horse in a turn-around or a circle, pushing the horse in. If it's a well-tuned team, the rider would be sitting pretty much in the middle, but the principle of steering is one of pushing/driving the horse into the direction it is supposed to go, in contrast to putting your weight there and expect the horse to follow (move underneath it).
One could express it by saying the rider is behind the horse, not leading the horse. There are exceptions, as there is no universally accepted western riding doctrine; in the final analysis, everything goes that works. No judge will mark you down because he disagreed with your cues - he'll mark you down if your cues were too obvious for his taste, or, more important, if the execution of the required maneuvers were substandard.
A Trail Riding Class
In trail, an obstacle course must be navigated through, demanding a lot of patience, precision, and skills

If it is typical for the western rider to ride one-handed, it is also typical to use some kind of a curb bit (leverage bit). There is a huge variety of western bits on the market, many of them useful, quite a few of them ought to be forbidden. One can sure enough find a bit that really fits a horse. However, there are a few standard bits that work on almost every horse, and its usually lack of training/riding skills if people keep trying out different bits all the time.

In showing, there are strict regulations as to which bits are legal and which are illegal, as well as what other equipment is prohibited. Outside horse shows, western riders can use whatever they or they horses are comfortable with, of course. Breed associations' rules (AQHA, APHA, ApHC) allow for junior horses to be ridden two-handed as long as a regular O-ring or D-ring snaffle bit or a hackamore is being used. If any kind of curb bit is used, only one hand on the reins is allowed, and only one finger between reins. If closed reins are used (West Coast romal-type), the rules request no finger between reins, and the finger around the reins so that the reins enter the hand at the bottom and come out on top, between index finger and thumb.

What horse should I ride?

One doesn't have to stick with the western horse breeds in order to ride western. Many horses of other breeds, and crossbreds, have done well in one phase of western riding or another. However, the western breeds have been bred for this for many generations, and generally speaking, they are suited best for this type of riding. Which means that your chances to find a suitable horse are better if you look among Quarter Horses, Paint Horses, and Appaloosa Horses. If picking a horse of different lineage, you should be looking for a more compact, yet refined horse of medium size (around 14,2 to 15,1 hands). Good balance, good movements, and a neck and throatlatch which allow easy flexing at the poll are essential. The most important ingredient is, of course, a good mind. The horse needs to be cooperative, wanting to please. You'll never get to where you ride your horse wherever you want, at whatever speed is called for, on a slack rein if he is not naturally willing to please.

The Stop.
One of the most spectacular maneuvers in the western riding world is the sliding stop, seen in reining and reined cow horse classes. The horse runs at full gallop and then sits down on his rear legs and slides to a halt, while he maintains his balance and his front legs stay loose

What basic equipment do I need?

If you don't want to show, you can use whatever you're comfortable with. It's not the equipment that makes the western rider, it's how his/her horse performs. If you want to show, you need a western stock saddle, a blanket or saddle pad, a western bridle and bit (and you should also have an O-ring or D-ring snaffle bit), western boots, and - well, yes - a western hat.

The rule books don't specify what you wear other than that it has to be a long-sleeved shirt or blouse, long pants, the hat and the boots. Everything else, material, colors, etc. is up to the individual taste of the rider. Or, is it? Technically, it is. However, if you show above a certain level, be aware that there is a specific and large market for western gear and apparel, with its own fashions. What you're wearing, and the style of your hat and how you shaped (or deformed) it, and what equipment you're using on your horse, can be a dead give-away for a judge and cry out to him: I'M A BEGINNER! I DON'T HAVE A CLUE! Judges are used to these fashions, and if they find you looking odd, you'll have to work twice as hard, and your horse has to be extra sharp, to convince him that you're not a greenhorn. The name of the game in showing is to make it easy for the judges to plus you, not to make it hard for them.

Other useful but optional equipment are leg boots, spurs, and chaps, and in case you want to barrel race, a running martingale or/and a tie down.

This article and the accompanying illustrations are courtesy of Hardy Oelke, a highly renowned trainer of Western horses and riders. Please choose this link to learn more.
Back to the Western Index