English rider at mounted games competition

Does Your Horse Really Care If You Ride English or Western?

March 26, 2021

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Howdy, human! You will probably only ever see photos of me in an English saddle, or no saddle at all, but did you know I started my riding career as a Western horse?

I was a barrel racer as a young mare, which gave me the turn and burn skills I needed to become one of the first mounted games ponies in the American Southeast.

And one of the BEST mounted games ponies, if you ask me.

I’ve been ridden English since then because the Girl likes primarily English sports: mounted games, jumping and dressage. 

young student in English tack riding pony around barrel
Truth? Now I'm just barrel-shaped!

My students are also taught English first, since many riders are more comfortable switching from English to Western than vice versa.

But I hear students chatter sometimes about which discipline they like best, and wonder what would happen if they tried a different kind of saddle on their horse.

I thought you might like to hear a horse’s perspective.

I’ve also got barrel racing on the brain lately, since the #StayatHomeHorsemanship Challenge for March is the #ShamrockBarrels, a great exercise for horses and riders no matter WHAT tack you use.

Try out your own variation on the barrel pattern — and let us know how it goes!

Let’s start with a common misconception, that an English-trained horse can’t be ridden Western, or vice versa. There are slight differences, sure, but at a basic level, it’s not quite true, because…

A horse doesn’t really care what kind of saddle is on his back

What we DO care about is that the tack fits well and is comfortable, especially when we’re asked to perform.

There are a few variations in how English and Western saddles are constructed, but the principles of saddle fit are the same: the saddle should make even contact with the horse’s back on either side of the spine, without bridging or pinching, allowing free movement of the horse’s shoulders.

If you’re trying a new type of saddle on, your best bet is to ask someone experienced in that discipline — or a qualified saddle fitter — to check out the fit.

A horse does care about the type of bit in his mouth — and that you use that bit appropriately

There are hundreds of different types of bits, and just like you probably have favorite shoes, your horse will have some preferences.

The kind of bit he likes will depend on his facial structure, the thickness of his tongue, his past experiences with bits, and his level of training.

Some horses like snaffles, a few horses prefer curbs, and some are happier with no bit at all.

To bit or not to bit is often debated in the horse world, and like most things, it’s not as easy as black and white! Look for an upcoming post on this topic, as well as a post designed to help you make sense of controversial topics.

line drawing of English rider
©Rhonda Hagy

Most bits fit into one of two categories.

They can be snaffle bits, which means they operate using direct pressure. If you put an ounce of pressure on the ring of a snaffle bit, that’s roughly how much the horse feels in his mouth.

Other bits are leveraged bits. This includes most curbs, gags, and combination bits designed to be used with two reins. When pressure is applied to the end of a leverage bit — usually identifiable by the shanks or bars between the horse’s mouth and the rein attachment — the rotating bit acts as a lever, increasing the pressure on the horse’s mouth and poll.

Mythbusting time: the term snaffle is often used to refer to any bit with a joint. This is incorrect — snaffles can be unjointed, and leverage bits can be jointed! When you see gag snaffles and Tom Thumb snaffles advertised in catalogs, just imagine some air quotes around the word “snaffle.”

line drawing of western rider
©Rhonda Hagy

Why is this important? Because many Western horses are ridden in leveraged curb bits, which are designed to be used with looser reins.

If you are used to riding with a steady contact on an English horse wearing a snaffle, you may apply WAY too much pressure to the Western horse’s reins!

You should always check out the bitting setup when you hop on a new horse, regardless of saddle type, and ask the owner how they usually handle the reins. Be prepared to make adjustments to your riding style, and listen to the horse’s feedback. If he’s slinging his head constantly, he’s not being naughty — he’s uncomfortable, and your hands might be the culprit.

Many Western horses also wear snaffles, and are trained to be ridden with two hands just like an English horse. So if your horse is used to a snaffle and you want to ride Western, stick with the bit that keeps his mouth happy!

There’s a lot to learn about bits: how many can you identify in this free Quizlet game?

Speaking of reins, the phrase “neck reining” is a bit misleading

A “finished” Western horse is trained to respond to a neck rein, which means they turn away from the pressure of the outside rein.

This makes a lot of sense when you think about the origins of Western riding. You can’t exactly cue your horse with a direct rein when you’re busy opening a gate or lassoing a cow!

However, a neck rein is supposed to be a light touch, used to support the rider’s weight and leg cues.

Many English riders get preoccupied by riding one-handed and forget about their seat and legs. If you’re trying to muscle the horse around a turn with a tight rein against his neck, you are probably just slowing that horse down and frustrating him instead.

adult student in Western tack with light rein contact at halt

Of course, if you want to cue your horse effectively, you need to be balanced first.

Good news: good equitation is the same no matter which saddle you ride in!

English riders typically have shorter stirrups, allowing them to spend more time off the horse’s back and to close their hip angle when jumping.

But a balanced seat is a balanced seat. English and Western riders should both be able to maintain a straight line through their head, shoulder, hip and heel, and support their own weight with correct posture. The rider’s joints should be soft and springy, with the rider’s toes lifted slightly higher than their heel.

And yes, you can absolutely post in a Western saddle.

I hear frequently hear people say that you can’t, and it drives me a little bit bananas (mmmm, bananas!) because good Western riders post all the time! It’s a great way to help a young horse with unsteady gaits, or to get weight off an unfit horse’s back.

And let’s face it, not all you humans are born with the ability to sit the trot. If the choices are “post” or “bounce,” your horse is going to vote that you post EVERY time, no matter what kind of saddle you’re sitting in.

Don’t forget your helmet

Western rider with helmet practicing barrel racing pattern
©Christine Benton - UNSPLASH

That goes for Western riders, too.

Horseback riders are more likely to experience a traumatic brain injury than motorcyclists, skateboarders, or professional athletes — and Western horses are just as likely as any other to spook, bolt, buck and fall down.

If you break your head, it won’t just be YOUR life that’s affected. It will hurt all your loved ones as well.

Not saying I have personal experience with this, but the hardest fall my Girl ever experienced occurred when cooling me out at the walk… when I MAY have tripped over my own feet…

If you decide to try out a new style of riding, one of the most important things to remember is that one discipline is not better than others

Horses are horses, and the differences are minor. There are bad apples in every sport, but there are also people who truly love horses and want to help them and honor them.

bareback rider practicing mounted archery

Leave your judgments at the gate and get excited instead. By climbing in a different saddle, you get to learn something new, and gain experience that will help you become a better horseman!

It's All About Me

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Fun facts about me: I’m a mounted games ambassador, part-time Dragon, and accomplished artist. Half Arabian, half Quarter Horse, with a whole lot of heart. I’ve never met a cookie I didn’t like.

And most importantly, I’m a veteran school pony – which means I have plenty of horsey wisdom to share with YOU.

I’ve been the star lesson horse at HorseSense Riding Academy for over a decade, beloved by many, even those who’ve tried and failed to catch me. I’m the kind of girl that prefers a little gallop and sass, so it took me a while to realize that teaching horsemanship is a special job. The way I figure it, if I can help even one student learn to think like a horse and become a good partner, I’ve made the world a better place for horses… and the humans who love them.

You can check out the video of me training my Girl on the archives page.

I hope you enjoy my blog and use the links below to share it with your friends – because horsey friends are THE BEST.

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