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The tack room

What's the deal with western riding?

11 replies

alienbaby · 13/12/2021 22:19

I'm not a rider although I did a bit as a kid. This afternoon I saw a quick TV segment (5 min) about western riding and thought this looks amazing. I'm not sure what about it appealed to me so much. Maybe that it looks more "natural" than standard riding? I've just become really curious about it. So the horses are trained to respond to voice, not the bridle? Why put a bridle on them in the first place then? This woman on the segment was talking about how western horses have a more unflappable steady nature.

I found an old MN thread about western riding though where some posters were saying its "harder" on the horse. Does that mean you would class it as cruel?

When you learn western riding I'm guessing you dont start off in a ring like with standard riding?
Could a horse be trained to do western and non-western, or is that just too confusing for them?

For some reason this subject has just really captured my imagination and I'm quite surprised, being a non horsey person! I guess I see it as quite romantic. Just interested in reading your knowledge on the subject.

OP posts:
CaptainThe95thRifles · 13/12/2021 22:43

Western riding - like English riding - comes in many different forms, and the horses and training for different disciplines is pretty varied. As a general rule, the horses aren't usually trained purely to voice commands. Different western disciplines want different types of contact with the bit - most horses are trained to respond to very light pressure and steer from the feel of the rein against their neck (and weight / leg aids as in English riding). Sometimes there is more consistent contact, or curb bits are used so that when the bit is applied it has more effect, depending on what you're trying to achieve with the horse.

Some western disciplines are pretty hard on horses (again, this is also true of English riding). Trail riding in western tack with basic western style riding is no harder on the horse than a similar level of English riding. The tack is heavier and designed to sit on the horse differently, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I certainly don't class it as cruel. Like most things with horses, if done badly, it has the potential to be cruel, but when done well, it's tremendous.

Some horses are ridden English and Western, in multiple disciplines with different expectations. It works well for some, probably not for all.

Learning to ride western probably happens in a ring just as much as when learning to ride English, certainly over here. A lot of the western disciplines do take place in an arena - western pleasure, reining, barrel racing - and others like working cattle can be learned or practiced in an arena. Trail riding, just riding off into the sunset, obviously you need to escape from the ring and get out there...

As for the horses, they say there's no such thing as a hot quarter horse, but the way one of mine behaved today, I'm pretty sure they're wrong there Grin People ride western disciplines on all sorts of horses from ex-racer horses to native ponies. The major advantage is that when your horse decides to blow its tiny mind all over the trail, you can cling onto the horn and try not to die!

maxelly · 14/12/2021 13:19

I'm clearly not as much as an expert as Captain, I'm an 'English' style rider and have only given western a go at a few times, but for what my two pennys are worth.... Western riding isn't particularly 'natural' IMO, but then if we are being honest with ourselves, nothing about riding horses is natural at all (if by natural we mean similar to what horses would do in the wild). But what modern competition western riding is, is very closely related to how real-life working farmers/cowboys use their horses for working cattle and other lifestock, a lay person can see far more easily how the tricks and skills they show like neck reining, sliding stops, pivots etc relate to practical real-life work, far more closely than say dressage which evolved from high-school cavalry riding but these days is hard for many to trace that link back and it can all just look a bit fiddly and silly.

In terms of training of the horses, as Captain says it's a different system to 'English' riding but fundamentally based off the same aids which are legs, reins, seat (riders use of their weight) and voice. Just like in English style, a well trained Western horse will respond to the subtlest of signals, be 'in tune' with their rider, know what is expected of them and will enjoy their work. I'm not aware of the voice being particularly more important in western riding than English, use of audible voice aids is penalised in competition dressage as its meant to look effortless and unless you are a ventriloquist it kind of spoils the illusion if you are yelling 'gerrrt on yer gert lazy lump' or 'wooooaah there' at intervals in your performance Grin. But all 'English' riders will use voice aids in some form, in the training of the young horse for instance or if you turn on Badminton XC or showjumping and they have a mic near the riders you will certainly hear them encouraging their horses using the voice and praising them when they do well.

As I say I haven't ridden quarter horses very often as they aren't common in Europe but when I have they are certainly lovely animals, you can very much tell they are bred to do a working farm job as they combine being able to sprint fast from a standing start and turn on a sixpence with the strength and endurance to cover a lot of miles at a steady pace, all alongside a calm and willing demeanour. But then again we have some lovely european breeds too, for pure speed the thoroughbred is undisputedly the best, for sports horse european warmbloods and for hardiness the northern european native pony breeds are king, so it depends what you are looking for really.

Western tack is also really comfortable (much more so than an English saddle) and it's easier for total beginners to pick up a western style as you don't have to rise/post to the trot and when you canter/lope you just sort of lean back in your comfy seat and let the horse swing you along so beginners in a Western school although they would probably start in an arena same as over here, can very quickly master the basics and get out of the arena onto hacks/trails. There's a school of thought (amongst English riders primarily Wink ) that the Western style is less good for the horse's back and anatomy long term as there can be a tendency for the weight of the rider and saddle to be carried back towards the loins in western style and the rider doesn't do as much to carry/balance their own weight compared to how we are taught over here, but then again there are an awful lot of things that don't help the horse about how we tend to ride either, and to be honest I think a well balanced rider, not too heavy for their horse and the horse being fit enough and working correctly for its job (e.g, not being allowed to go along with a hollow back and upside down neck) is the most important thing regardless of style.

One question I'd have for Captain and others more familiar, why do Western riders not wear hats? I can understand for competition purposes, same as dressage, that its about the look, and the risk of falling from a very well trained competition horse is minimal. But your average rider heading out on a hack/trail ride, do they really just wear a cowboy hat and does this not result in nasty accidents? On the 'dude' ranches I've visited it def didn't seem to be the norm to have a helmet (and TBH it was very hot and sweaty wearing one in the southern summer heat!) and I could see how with the more secure saddle and convenient handle it's harder to fall but even so over here we are so fanatical about hats in all circumstances, including any time you are leading or handling horses and the message is so firmly drilled in that even with a reliable horse anything can happen that I was a bit Shock at all the people including the kids wandering around just in their stetsons!

CaptainThe95thRifles · 14/12/2021 14:01

why do Western riders not wear hats?

Well, why do so many European dressage riders not wear them - it's only very recently that the tide seems to have turned on that. People think accidents won't happen to them because they're young and stupid, or older and think their luck to date is actually skill Grin To be honest, I'm based in the UK, so I can't really answer that other than to say that it seems to be a cultural expectation, and possibly understandable for ranch work given the weather and length of time in the saddle, but in other areas, maybe just that the expectation is that people don't wear them. And, to be honest, outside of BHS / RS environments I've never known any English riders who wear hats for handling / leading unless with a known knobber of a horse. I also know a lot of English riders who regard hats as optional for riding, so I guess it varies a lot.

There's a school of thought (amongst English riders primarily wink ) that the Western style is less good for the horse's back and anatomy long term as there can be a tendency for the weight of the rider and saddle to be carried back towards the loins in western style and the rider doesn't do as much to carry/balance their own weight compared to how we are taught over here

I'd say this is probably largely ignorance on the part of those who claim it, or judging the whole of western riders by the standards of the lower end of the sport - i.e. that one person on their yard who rode in western tack for a bit and it hurt their horse's back because the saddle wasn't fitted to the horse, or a video on youtube or something. There are pros and cons to both English and western tack, and the major determinant of whether it's bad for the horse or not is the quality and fit. As for balancing / carrying their own weight, again, it's different, but a good western rider is as fit, balanced and "light" in the saddle as a good English rider.

That said, I'm not an expert in all aspects of western riding and there are certainly aspects that I'm uncomfortable with - but that's true of English riding too. I do both, I'm a jack of all trades and a master of none Grin

Polkadotties · 14/12/2021 14:23

Both have good and bad aspects. I reckon there is a lot of hock arthritis in barrel racers. Starfishing needs to be banned.
With English riding you get a saddle which fits yourself and your horse. I believe a lot of western riders have their own saddle and it gets used on many different horses.

AlfonsoTheUnrepentant · 14/12/2021 14:43

What a fascinating thread.

Minorissue · 14/12/2021 15:23

Not sure voice is particularly relevant- no more so than in English.

A lovely western pleasure equitation horse/reining horse is a total joy to ride. They are incredibly supple like dressage horses and so light in the mouth. Neck reining also just makes you feel like you’re in a western film. Lots of top AQHA horses in America compete in both English and western pleasure. The jog/lope is quite different to what you’d be used to in English and doesn’t feel particularly natural- there is a style of high end western rising where a ‘collected’ horse carries its head very low. I wouldnt buy a western pleasure horse with a view to having a total all arounder and expect it to go eventing etc, but if you want a flat horse/low hunter equitation horse then it wouldn’t be an issue.

Minorissue · 14/12/2021 15:27

And where I grew up in America we absolutely learnt to ride Western in a ring. There is a shit ton of money in western riding in America and it’s a very serious discipline whether you’re doing equitation, ‘trail’(the discipline’, cutting or reining . Some of the top quarter horse stables rival the showjumping yards in Florida.

CaptainThe95thRifles · 14/12/2021 19:25

With English riding you get a saddle which fits yourself and your horse. I believe a lot of western riders have their own saddle and it gets used on many different horses.

This is also something that varies hugely with region, discipline and individuals. Various English disciplines aren't great for fitting saddles to fit individual horses - I've known a lot of polo people who swap saddles around indiscriminately, polocrosse riders who throw Aussie stock saddles on all their horses with no regard for fit, and eventers / SJers who pad out their preferred saddle to fit most of their horses. Sometimes these have terrible consequences for the horses, sometimes it's done with skill, a good eye and professional input sought when the horse / saddle combination just won't work. That's no different to serious western riders using certain saddles on all their QHs.

In the UK, at the lowest levels, I reckon it's pretty even between English and western in terms of using badly fitting saddles and not seeking professional advice. There aren't as many western saddle fitters in the UK as there are English saddle fitters, but they certainly exist and the sort of riders who would use an English saddler also use western ones.

In the states, I've been told that some regions have an absolute dearth of decent English saddle fitters so things may be worse there, and I've also been led to believe that the practice of taking your own saddle for random horses exists in English riding as well as western. I can't comment for the accuracy of those statements - I'm sure it's just as variable as it is here. Good horsemen are good horsemen, whatever the discipline.

alienbaby · 14/12/2021 19:37

Thanks for all these detailed replies, much of it sounds foreign to me but I'm really enjoying reading it. Does anyone have a recommendation for a good place to try this out in the UK?

I really love animals and I just dont want to feel like I'm hurting the horse or making it uncomfortable, those western saddles look bloody heavy? I am light though. What does a curved bit do, why do they use that kind of bit specifically in this style? What does it achieve that a different bit doesnt?

By the way, a more general question for you riders- do horses ever display a "cant be bothered" attitude when you are tacking them up, something that let's you know they just arent feeling it that day? Or are they more mechanical than that and are just trained to get on with it and go for a ride? And if they DO display that they are having an off day and are feeling lazy, do you ever cancel your plans or do you just make them buckle up and get on with it?

OP posts:
CaptainThe95thRifles · 14/12/2021 20:03

those western saddles look bloody heavy?

They are, but so are the horses - a strong QH won't notice the weight of the saddle much, but obviously a big rider in a heavy saddle would be a problem.

What does a curved bit do, why do they use that kind of bit specifically in this style? What does it achieve that a different bit doesnt?

In very simply terms, the two standard styles of bit are snaffles and curb bits. Novice horses and riders tend to use snaffle bits which act directly on the mouth. Curb bits act as levers which amplify the pressure, so are supposed to be used very lightly and only by advanced riders on educated horses. There's loads of bits out there which work in subtly different ways so it's hard to generalise as what suits one horse may be unbearable for another. You can also ride without a bit, using various types of bitless bridle - this is increasingly common in both English and Western riding, although not always at high levels of competition because some disciplines don't allow it.

And if they DO display that they are having an off day and are feeling lazy, do you ever cancel your plans or do you just make them buckle up and get on with it?

This is a really individual question. Lots of riders will subscribe to a "suck it up" attitude - the horse only has to work for a short period of the day and if it's a competition horse, the rider won't want to encourage it to perform badly because it's a bit idle and would rather not bother that day. Many, maybe most riders will listen to their horses when they're really not up for it, and try to moderate what they ask for, give them an easier day or try to find something more fun to do with the horse that day.

Personally, I want my horses to be willing partners, so I do listen when they tell me they're not up for it, but I do also expect them to work willingly when they're fit and well and doing a job that suits them. This is mostly because work is good for horses - they're designed to travel many miles in a day, and work is generally pretty important to keeping them fit and healthy if you don't have huge amounts of land and a herd for them to live with. I don't always want to work out at the gym, but if I want to remain fit, it's a necessary evil. That said, if a horse is telling me it's uncomfortable or finding an exercise difficult or tedious, I won't ignore that and I'll do everything I can to fix it. It's a judgement call that no rider gets right all the time, but if you're trying to listen to the horse, you're half way there.

maxelly · 14/12/2021 21:56

Oh I can absolutely tell if my current boy is having an 'off day' as soon as I walk into his stable, to be fair he's a connemara pony, a breed known for having their own opinions, but even so he's an unusually expressive horse. My now-retired mare was much harder to read, god bless her she was a trier and even when she was carrying a fairly significant injury several experienced professionals didn't believe it until they saw the scans because she was still giving whatever was asked of her a good go and never saying no Sad

Basically my view on it is I'm the boss (horse sometimes disagrees Grin ) and get the final say on what we do, he certainly doesn't get to opt out of work altogether, unfortunately (but not uncommonly in the UK) we have somewhat restricted grazing for at least 3-4 months a year and even in summer when he's out in the field 24/7 he needs to do at least some work 5 - 6 days a week to keep his waistline in check and his joints from seizing up. He also absolutely loves to whizz around a SJ course or go out on a long fast hack but to stay fit and well schooled enough for those things he needs to do his 'normal' work most days at home so unless he's really sick or injured he doesn't get to say no entirely. However if he's tired, stiff or is struggling or bored with certain exercises he does let me know in no uncertain terms (he literally stamps his feet) and if this happens I give whatever we were doing a few more goes, if he makes some improvement then we end on a good note, if not then we try something different (his favourite exercise is charging down the long side in a medium canter snorting and huffing like a dragon Grin so that usually perks him up if nothing else does) and if I don't think he's already done enough for the day we then go for a little potter around the lanes or he goes on the horse walker on the yard. I think most horsey people work in this way (the good ones anyway!), you get some that are more forceful in style than others but ultimately there has to be give and take, if you just push all the time with no reward for or empathy with the animal you will either break it physically (my mare never really recovered from her injury but she's field sound now, if I'd ignored her subtle hints and pushed her through she would doubtless be even more broken) or mentally and then you won't get any results at all...

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