6 September 2023

Western riding, the joy and freedom – what should you expect and exactly how much fun are you going to have?

Western riding, the joy and freedom – what should you expect and exactly how much fun are you going to have?

By Phillipa

If you have some time under your belt riding horses in the traditional English style, you may be wanting to consider mixing things up a bit by trying some different disciplines such as side saddle, hunting or endurance. But have you thought about trying a completely new style?

Western riding is growing in popularity in the UK with more and more equestrian centers offering lessons and riders wanting to experience the beauty of riding in the breathtaking environments on US dude ranches in places like Wyoming, Texas, Colorado and Montana.

If you feel you’d like to channel your inner cowboy or cowgirl, it’s worth bearing in mind that for the most part if you’ve already been riding traditional English style you are halfway to being competent in Western. You will already understand horses and the effects that changes in contact and in your weight can have and how the use of various aids will allow you to control the speed and direction of your ride.

There are though, quite a few differences in Western style riding that it’s probably worth knowing about before you first jump into one of those huge, ornate saddles and ride off into the sunset. There is also a fascinating history waiting to be discovered about Western horse riding that will probably just make you want to book a dude ranch holiday so that you can be a part of this amazing culture.

  1.  What the horse wears – what you wear.

The tack and apparel is quite different to what you will be used to. Western saddles are generally much heavier than English, and have a larger surface area so that your weight is distributed over the horse’s back. Cowboys will be out on the ranch for many hours a day and need to be comfortable themselves but essentially, the horse will need to be able to carry someone on his back for a long time, be ready to change speed and direction and be fit and healthy enough to do it all again the next day.

The area where the pommel is on an English saddle is more prominent on the Western saddle and is referred to as the horn. Used to hold the lariat (or lasso) when roping it is also a very useful ‘handle’ to grab when things go pear shaped – and I speak from experience here!

There are many other differences between English and Western tack – the girth is known as the cinch in Western and is secured without a buckle. The stirrups are generally a different shape and often made of wood. The reins are two separate pieces and the rider’s own apparel is again, very different. Think of those cowboy boots, Stetsons and fringed jackets and chaps. There are reasons for all of these differences – far too many to describe here but it really is absorbing and worth some more research.

  1. A different way of riding.

You will hear different terminology when you are in the saddle in a Western riding lesson.

Two of the main differences are in the names of the gaits for trot and canter. The Western gait closest to our trot is the jog. This is usually a fairly slow gait and the word jog, I feel, describes it well. Normally the rider will not post to the jog, but from personal experience I would say that sitting in jog is much easier and more comfortable than sitting in trot, English style in an English saddle.

The canter is called the lope. Quite slow, still a three beat gait and may feel a little too slow for some English riders but again, I have always found the lope to be somehow softer and easier to ride.

Another big difference is in the contact (or rather lack of contact) and how you hold the reins. In Western, you will find two rounded ropes that are usually not connected. They are held in one hand only (how else would a cowboy be able to lasso a steer if he didn’t have one hand free?). There is little or no contact when riding Western, with neck reining and movement of body weight being used to give aids to speed and direction. Vocal commands are also more common.

There are many other new words and terminology that you will learn if you decide to try Western riding. It takes a little while to get used to these changes but it will all sink in; and in case you’re wondering, most of the people I’ve spoken to who ride both styles say that it’s easy to swap from one to the other without any problems at all.

  1. The sporting and competing side.

There are lots of ways to enjoy your new riding style once you have learnt the basics. Trail riding in the UK is naturally pretty much the same as hacking, but there is something about being in that glorious saddle and lush cowboy boots, one hand on your thigh, singing a cowboy song and imagining that you are slowly picking your way through the desert, even though you may actually be in East Anglia and the nearest you will get to a cactus is a slightly prickly conifer. Trail riding is very relaxed but if you are looking for more speed and excitement, barrel racing could fit the bill.

You definitely need a well-trained horse to do this properly, capable of fairly tight turns although there is nothing to stop you setting up the course and riding it at your own pace in your own way. Barrel racing as done by the top professionals is incredibly exciting to watch but it can still be great fun to ride around the barrels as well as you can even if it’s at a jog rather than a lope.

The closest thing to our dressage test is Western Pleasure, which is a group discipline where instructions are called out to immaculately turned out riders and horses. There are no obstacles, just you demonstrating that your horse can make the changes of direction and gait as instructed by the caller, whilst showing a great synergy with you, the rider, together with excellent cadence, willingness and great attitude. Always looks easier than it actually is, but a superb way to work with your horse to build a fantastic partnership.

There are other disciplines such as reining, always done in the lope, and great to watch as it can involve the drama of the sliding stop, the flying change and spinning. Again, you would really need a horse who knows what he’s doing and like all riding disciplines whether English or Western, you will never stop learning and it takes hours and hours of practice to get even slightly competent at it.

I can definitely recommend trying Western riding. It won’t be for everyone – like most things in life, it’s a matter of horses for courses, if you’ll excuse the pun. There are a number of equestrian centres that offer Western riding lessons and rides, I’ve listed just a few below but there are more springing up countrywide. Give it a go and let us know what you think.

Suffolk – www.valleyfarm.co.uk
Cambridgeshire – www.soveriegnquarterhorses.co.uk
Surrey – www.wildwoodsriding.co.uk
Kent – www.whiterocksfarm.co.uk
Essex – www.larcomwesternriding-couk.webs.com
Hampshire – www.burleyvilla.co.uk

It’s also worth getting acquainted with the Western Equestrian Society, www.wes-uk.com/