If you’re thinking about learning to ride or want to try a new discipline then it can be difficult to know what’s right for you which is why I decided to write this article. While I’ve talked about the most popular English and Western disciplines in previous articles I’ve never looked at the most popular ones overall (as well as disciplines that don’t fall under either of those styles), until now that is.
In this article, we’ll look at the two main styles of horseback riding as well as the eight most popular disciplines in each style. We’ll also take a look at the five most popular disciplines that can either come under both styles or neither.
What are horse riding disciplines?
If you’re new to the world of horses (and horse riding in particular) you could be forgiven for thinking that horse riding is horse riding but it’s not quite that simple. The term ‘horse riding’ is used to describe any activity that people do while sitting on a horse, but there are two main styles of horse riding (English and Western) both of which have a range of disciplines. There are also a handful of disciplines (such as endurance and gymkhana) that are non-style specific.
Some countries and cultures have their own disciplines but the FEI (the international governing body for all equestrian sports) officially recognizes 9 although there are a lot more that are internationally popular.
Want to know more about the two styles of riding? The differences between English and Western.
The 8 most popular English riding disciplines
The oldest style of riding, English riding originated in Europe when the horse was the only mode of transport (other than by foot of course). While the style is more about pleasure than work, many of the disciplines can be traced back to the battlefield when a horse’s training and agility were vitally important.
Today English riding is the most common style of riding although it’s more popular in Europe than it is in North America.
Considered a classical discipline, dressage is a very technical discipline that requires the rider to train their horse to be sensitive to the slightest of physical cues. It’s a graceful and elegant style of riding that is sometimes referred to as horse ballet.
The goal of dressage is to be at one with your horse but along the way, you’ll learn to improve your balance as well as how to communicate with your horse in an effective way.
Want to know which horses are best for dressage? Best breeds for dressage.
There are three main types of jumping, show jumping, cross country, and hunter, but they all share the same goal which is to get around a course as quickly as possible without the horse hitting any of the fences or refusing to jump them.
Show jumping, which takes place in an enclosed arena, involves fences that are brightly colored, lightweight, and designed to fall if the horse knocks them. Cross country on the other hand takes place in the open and involves fences that are designed to look like natural obstacles. To some extent, hunter jumping is a cross between the two and can take place either on a cross-country course or in an indoor arena. Like show jumping the fences are lightweight but are cross-country in style.
Which breeds are best suited to jumping? Top breeds for jumping at all levels.
Sometimes referred to as an equestrian triathlon, eventing is, as far as English disciplines go the most versatile and to some extent the most demanding of all disciplines. It covers show jumping, dressage, and cross-country jumping and was originally designed as a way for cavalry officers to show off how versatile their horses were.
If you don’t like to be tied down to a single discipline then eventing is for you, especially if you like a challenge.
What makes an idea eventing horse? The world’s top eventing breeds.
If you prefer to ride gaited horses and like the idea of showing then saddle seat is perfect for you. The idea of the discipline is to show off your horse’s high knee action as well as their smooth and graceful way of moving.
The discipline itself evolved on southern US plantations where owners wanted a horse that would be comfortable to ride all day but elegant enough to impress people.
Some people think of English pleasure as describing somebody who rides purely for pleasure but while this can be the case, when it comes to disciplines it isn’t. Instead English pleasure is a show discipline that’s designed to demonstrate how comfortable a horse is to ride, in other words, that it’s a pleasure to ride.
As you can imagine the main objective of racing is to beat other horses to the finish line, but there are a number of different types of racing. Harness and saddle trot races are only open to horses that trot or pace, a type of horse that’s known as a trotter. Flat and steeplechase races on the other hand are galloping races and happen on flat ground or over fences (as is the case with steeplechase races).
While professional races may be limited to certain breeds, amateur events are often open to all breeds.
Hunting is one of those disciplines that is often misunderstood and confused with the now-banned (in the United Kingdom at least) pastime of fox hunting. Hunting as an activity can involve a group of riders following a scent (known as a drag) laid down by a runner the day before. As a discipline though it focuses on a horse’s natural ability to jump obstacles and cover ground as quickly and smoothly as possible.
Probably one of the oldest riding disciplines in the world, polo originated in Central Asia at around 250 BC when it was played by royalty and used to train cavalry horses. Today the sport consists of two teams of four riders trying to score goals by using a wooden mallet to hit a ball through their opponent’s goal.
Polo is an extremely high-speed sport with the horse being at a full gallop for most of the time, this is one of the main reasons why polo matches are split into quarters lasting no more than seven and a half minutes.
The 8 most popular Western riding disciplines
Unlike English riding, Western riding evolved on working cattle ranches rather than on the battlefield but many of the same qualities were still required, although speed and nimbleness were also key. Due to the long hours spent in the saddle comfort was also important.
Western riding is more popular in North America although it’s growing in popularity in other countries too. Western riding is also more casual in terms of its dress code.
If you like speed and adrenaline sports then barrel racing is for you, it’s a timed event where the horse and rider race around barrels set up in a three-leaf clover pattern. Considered a rodeo event, the idea is to complete the pattern as quickly as possible without knocking any of the barrels over.
While it’s not known where the sport originated from it is known that some Native American Indians (such as the Nez Perce’s Camas Prairie stump race) have held their own version of barrel racing for hundreds of years.
What makes a good barrel racer? The best barrel racing breeds in the world.
While dressage is generally considered to be an English discipline it can actually fall into both camps which is why I decided to include it here as well. Just as with English dressage, the idea is to show how well the horse is trained.
There are two styles of western dressage that have slightly different focuses. The goal of western dressage is to achieve harmony and lightness of touch between horse and rider. Whereas cowboy dressage requires a horse that is a pleasure to ride but is also functional and capable of carrying out many ‘ranch tasks’.
Often confused with riding purely for enjoyment, western pleasure is actually a discipline in its own right and is designed to show just how good a horse is to ride, in other words, what a pleasure it is. Because the sport is all about pleasure the idea is to show how comfortable a horse is, this is why it’s the horse that’s judged rather than the rider.
In western pleasure, horses are judged on their condition and confirmation as well as how well and how smoothly they move.
Like so many western disciplines, cutting is a working discipline that evolved on the ranch. The idea is for the horse and rider to work together to separate a cow from the herd, keeping it away for a set period of time. Like barrel racing, cutting is all about speed and agility, although stamina is also needed.
The sport originated from the need for cows to be inspected and branded individually on the range rather than in a corral.
Roping is probably one of the most well-known western disciplines (especially with fans of Wild West films) and involves the horse and rider working together to select a calf from a herd and before lassoing and restraining it. The horse needs to be able to work independently from the rider, allowing them to lasso the calf.
There are a number of different types of roping, team, calf, and breakaway with both team and calf roping being very similar. The only difference is the number of riders, as you can imagine team roping is a team sport (involving two riders) while calf roping is an individual event. Breakaway roping, which is also an individual event, uses a rope that’s designed to break and is purely a rodeo event.
Just like roping, team penning involves cows being separated from the rest of the herd but when it comes to team penning the idea is to remove between three and five cows and then drive them into a small pen. Being a timed event each team of three riders needs to work together to select the cows, remove them from the herd and then drive them into the pen before closing the gate as quickly as possible.
Ranch sorting is a variation of team penning where the teams (this time with only two riders) need to move a group of cows from one pen to another within 60 seconds. This is harder than it sounds though because the cows are all numbered and need to be moved one at a time (in numerical order).
Want to know more about team penning? Check out our beginner’s guide to getting started.
While it’s no longer an FEI discipline, reining is the only western discipline to have been officially recognized by the Fédération Equestre Internationale and is designed to showcase a horse’s maneuverability while working cattle. The goal is to make a horse look easy to ride and handle and involves the horse and rider carrying out a series of patterns.
Sometimes called high-speed dressage, all maneuvers in a reining competition are carried out at either a lope or gallop.
While trail riding is often used to describe a pleasure ride away from the yard it is actually a discipline in its own right that differs from ‘pleasure riding’ but still contains many of the obstacles riders may find on the trail.
The idea is to show how well both you and your horse work together and will involve you having to negotiate a series of obstacles such as bridges, gates, and logs. You’ll also be asked to perform tasks such as side passes and 90 and 180 degrees turns.
5 other popular riding disciplines
Most horse riding disciplines will fall under the English or Western style of riding but there are a few that can be in both camps. There are also some that don’t come under a particular style at all.
Unlike a lot of other disciplines endurance evolved out of necessity and can be traced back to the nomadic desert tribes of the Middle East. The lack of water and scarcity of food meant that the tribes had to travel vast distances purely to survive. This is why desert breeds such as the Akhal Teke and the Arabian are amongst the best endurance breeds in the world.
While endurance is often referred to as a race it’s not about speed but instead focuses on stamina, something that really comes into play at the top level with horses covering up to 100 miles a day.
Interested to know which horses are most suited to endurance? The world’s best breeds for endurance.
To some extent side saddle is more of a way of riding rather than a discipline but because it requires special tack (and a different way of riding) I decided to include it in the article. Being a style it’s possible to ride side saddle in a range of other disciplines such as jumping, dressage, trail riding, and even Western pleasure.
While the side saddle was made popular during the 14th century there is evidence that Ancient Greek women rode side saddle. [source]
Meaning an equestrian day event comprising of races and other competitions, gymkhana is a hugely popular discipline regardless of riding style. More popular with children it gives the rider a chance to experience a range of disciplines and even to ride a number of different horses.
English gymkhana events include things like mounted egg and spoon races, relay races, and jumping competitions. On the other hand, Western gymkhanas can involve events such as barrel racing and pole bending and are sometimes called O-Mok-See, an Algonquian word meaning games on horseback.
Some people argue that vaulting can’t be classed as a discipline because you’re not actually riding the horse but I personally think it is. It’s true that you’re not riding but it still requires a lot of skill as well as a good knowledge of horses, surprisingly it does help if you can ride.
Recognized by the FEI, vaulting involves a team of a lunger and one or more vaulters. The idea is that while the lunger is controlling the horse the vaulters perform a number of different maneuvers. This is one of the reasons why vaulting is often described as gymnastics on horseback.
Want to know more about vaulting? Everything you need to know about gymnastics on horseback.
I know you might be thinking that trick riding and vaulting are the same thing but there is one big difference and that’s the tricks that are performed. While vaulting has rules on which exercises can be performed, trick riding doesn’t have any restrictions and is a real test of a rider’s ability and the horse’s trust.
Probably the most famous trick riders are the Cossacks as you can see in this video of the Ukrainian Cossacks.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉