top of page

Horseback Riding Disciplines

western horseback riding cutting horse

Horseback riding can be divided into English and Western riding. The main difference between these general riding styles is the saddle. The Western saddle is usually bigger and spreads the rider's weight over the horseback, making it highly comfortable for very long hours or days on horseback.

On the other hand, the English saddles are comparatively lighter & offer more close contact between the horse and the rider. There are incredible benefits and some possible drawbacks to each type. While these are two main types of horseback riding, many different styles are also there, each with its unique nuances to explore.

western riding saddle parts and English saddle parts
Photo credit: Horse Journals

English Style Riding Disciplines

Below are some most popular and common types of English horseback riding disciplines from which you can decide which style is the best suitable for you & your horse. English riding is a popular style in European countries and has now became a favorite in the USA as well.

Today, many of the English riding style are used for sport. The history of using horses for military use lead to some English disciplines. Let's take dressage for example. Dressage horses are scored on accuracy, obedience, and submission; this would have been important for military riders.

English riding requires more contact with the horses mouth to aid in the direction they are going. This is called direct reining. The riders can also use leg pressure to help guide the horse in a direction or ask them to extend their gait.

English rider in dressage horseback riding


An Olympic Sport, dressage, is governed by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports best known as the FEI. Equestrian sports are the only ones where both men and women can compete easily in similar events. A rider and horse, in dressage, are judged depending on the suppleness, balance, form, and obedience of the horse and how well that pair actually executes all the movements and actions in the program.

Additionally, there are some difficult levels in it as well, ranging from specific programs that involve stop, trot, and walk at Grand Prix Level, where complicated actions like pirouettes and piaffes are also incorporated. And yes, every movement sequence is perfectly graded by different judges.

English horseback riding show jumping

Show Jumping

Show Jumping, an Olympic sport by FEI, is when a rider and the horse jump fences made of lightweight rails placed in a pattern in the arena. The difficulty increases with the boosting of the obstacles' height. It also increases in difficulty with the obstacle layout, shape, speed and width of space. For instance, the abrupt turns demand huge obedience and flexibility of the horse & oddly shaped or brightly coloured obstacles can be intimidating to your horse potentially.

English horseback riding cross country

Cross Country

This is an extremely physically demanding and high-end discipline for both rider and horse because it's generally performed in the gallop. Also, cross country includes a long course of 4 miles in different terrain along with already fixed fences and natural obstacles such as ponds, deep ditches, and sandbanks. Penalties are given for some refusals and when the rider just exceeds the course time. This is also the most dangerous equestrian sport because of the fixed fences nature, which can also cause riders to fall off and horses to stumble at high speeds.

Western Style Riding Disciplines

Western riding is a staple in the United States because it's very versatile in the ranch life. The discipline and saddle style came from the Spanish Conquistadors. Many of the Western riding disciplines are used in real life situations every day for the working ranch life. It's not only a sport but a lifestyle.

Western riders needed an easy way to rope/lasso without using much hand on the horse to steer. So, they developed a method called neck reining. This is the ability for the horse to turn directions with a little touch to the neck with the reins. That means the reins can be "loose" because the touch to the next can direct the horse in the direction the rider wants to go. The Western riders also use leg pressure and hip movement to direct the horse.

Below are the most popular Western riding disciplines.

western pleasure riding style
Photo credit: AQHA

Western Pleasure

The rider competes with other riders in the show ring at a walk, trot, and lope. They are instructed when to change speeds and directions as the judge watches the transitions. The horse must be able to respond to cues that are nearly invisible to the judge. This is where neck reining comes in handy. The rider can also use hip or leg movements to encourage the horse to move quicker or slower. The horse needs to show it is a "pleasure" to ride.

Usually, the horse has tack is very showy and "shiny". The conchos are big, bold and often times silver in color. The rider also wears a lot of bling on their clothing. Some show jackets can even cost in the upper hundreds!

Most horse owners that choose this discipline own American Quarter Horses. But that is not a requirement. It is just the typical breed that is used.

western dressage rider
Photo credit: Dressage Radio Show

Western Dressage

Western Dressage actually bears lots of similarities to the classic dressage. The arena measurements are also the same and the judging occurs in a similar manner. The goal is to display the overall obedience, suppleness and balance of the horse & fine interplay between rider and horse.

However, Western riding has distinct tack and the outfit of the rider is in line with a specific Western style. The Western dressage discipline also concentrates more on exercises and movements that are essential for a Western horse.

horseback riding reining discipline sliding horse
Photo credit: Cowgirl Magazine


Now a FEI recognized sport, reining has become popular among many people. Riders have an assigned pattern that shows what is asked of the rider and horse. The judge looks at the horse and riders ability to perform maneuvers in this assigned pattern. The most famous maneuver is the sliding stop. This is where the horse stops on its haunches from a running speed. The horse then slides for several feet before the horse is then asked to start back at a canter for its next task. Another maneuver that many people recognize in reining is the spin. The horse pivots on one of his hind hooves in a quick spin. Competitive programs are widely completed at a straight lope.

It has its roots as a cattle ranch necessity. The horses need to be nimble, fast, and responsive for a wrangler to her sort and move cattle.

Barrel racing is a western horseback discipline

Barrel Racing

Barrel racing is actually a rodeo discipline. In it, three barrels are placed in usually a clover pattern in the arena where the rider and horse need to ride around the barrels as quickly as possible. While the game is quite simple, its execution usually demands both the speed and strength of the horse. Plus, the interplay between rider and horse should also be perfect in order to round all the barrels within the time limits. Knocking down a barrel usually results in a "no time" or penalty time added to the overall completion time.

Most horses in this discipline are trained to know the pattern of barrels. Some horses can even run the pattern without much help from the rider. This is a speed game, so be prepared to ride your horse fast and remember not to hit a barrel!

Other Major Horseback Disciplines

There are so many types of riding styles and disciplines. Let's look at a few more!

woman trail riding in a field for fun

Trail Riding/Hacking

This one can be used with both English or Western tack. This is going to be your most relaxing and easy going ride. This type of riding lets the rider decide what is next. No patterns to follow, no judges, and just the open space for you and your horse to enjoy.

Horses get bored too! It's a good way to break up the same boring routine with your horse. Take time to relax and connect with your horse during a hack. Most riders take their horse out on the trail or away from the arena. It helps stimulate the horses mind when there are new smells, sounds, and sights to see. This type of riding is healthy for you and your horse.

This is also the most popular type of riding because it is easily accessible to people who don't have a horse! You can find a place to ride anywhere in the world that offers trail riding. If you choose to use a horseback riding company, don't forget to tip your guide!

horses race in a game of polo horseback riding


It is believed to be one of the oldest sports out there & is played widely between two teams (4 players each). The game is played on big grass fields, usually of about 300 x 160 yards and is efficiently split into around 7 ½ minutes long chukkers. Based on its location, this game will have almost 4 to 6 chukkers (periods). All the riders, during each chukker, will change for the next fresh horse, which clearly means that each rider needs to contain as many available horses as possible because the game itself contains many chukkers.

Experienced horses even begin to play the game! They can be known for kicking the ball with their hooves. Horses are also very competitive!

equestrians playing Horseball a British horseback riding discipline
Photo credit: Horse and Rider Living


Horseball is another sport played by 4 teams. In this game, all the players pass the balls to each other & score by simply throwing them into a particular hoop a bit larger and vertically placed rather than horizontally like a basketball hoop. In addition, the players can also tackle one another by utilizing the weight of their horse to push the opponent or try to steal that specific ball but just as long as they are seated in their saddles during the play. If the ball drops, any of the players can easily pick it up again as long as they are in the right direction. The team with the best high points wins in the end.

Horse Racing

Horse racing is the most basic form, which includes the competition of two or more horses to get from specific point A to B as fast as possible. It is one of the ancient equine sports and are usually linked with gambling as many people bet on their horses. This sport has some variations relying on traditions and locations, types of horses, the gait, whether obstacles are just incorporated and the sort of surface the particular horses compete on. However, racing faces often stark criticism for being a quiet dangerous or risky sport that pushes both horses and jockeys beyond their restrictions, sometimes with bad or even fatal consequences.


Did you decide which type of discipline you want to ride or try? If not, that is okay too because we did not go over every possible riding style. There are so many other disciplines out there for you and your horse to learn! We could go on an on with the list of possibilities, but alas, we must stop here for now.

The horse has come a long way from being used for just farming or pulling a wagon. Today, we can even spoil them with therapeutic sessions for exercise recovery. Therapies such as acupressure, red light therapy, massage therapy, PEMF, chiropractic care and more! Horses have the same structural tissues: muscles, tendons and ligaments. Just like when we enjoy going to the spa, they enjoy relaxing therapy sessions too! Be sure you take care of them so they can continue to preform their best for you in any sport you choose!

#equine #equestrian #horseowner #horsebackriding #horseback #ridingdisciplines #dressage #westernrider #englishrider #barrelracing #polo #trailriding #showjumping #reining #crosscountry #westerndressage #horseracing #horse #equinebodywork #horses

210 views0 comments
bottom of page