Comparing English and Western Saddles: Which is Right for You?
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Dec 13, 2023
What is the difference between English and Western riding? While many horse owners have been exposed to numerous disciplines, you might not know the history and "why" behind their chosen discipline. English saddles and riding are more formal, while Western tends to be more geared toward work. In this article, we've outlined the history, tack, and methods of both of these classic disciplines.
History of English vs. Western Riding
Humans have ridden horses for over 5,000 years. During that time, the techniques, saddles, and relationships with horses have changed drastically! Initially, riders rode bareback. The first saddle was introduced in 365 AD by the Sarmatians. The English riding style originated in Europe much later and was considered the "traditional" style of riding with a lightweight, flat seated saddle. This riding style was brought to the United States during the 1700s.
Western riding is based on the equipment and style used by the Spanish and Portuguese Conquistadors in the 16th century. The Conquistadors developed a riding technique using a sturdy saddle with a high cantle to keep them secure while riding in armor. However, the saddle used then does not closely reflect the saddle used in Western riding today. Spanish and Mexican riders working livestock around 1848 evolved the method and saddle. They discovered the saddle was ideal for working with livestock and holding a rope. The western saddle was also very comfortable to ride in for hours. The comfort and functionality of the western saddle continue to make it a popular option for many horse owners!
Riding Style Comparison
Aside from the saddle differences, English and Western riding vary in the riding style, the rider's placement, and how aids are used.
Inspired by the Spanish, the Western style of riding was used by riders who spent long periods in the saddle. Western saddles were designed for comfort and practicality. Horses in the Western disciplines are ridden with direct and indirect rein depending on the rider's needs. For example, while roping, a rider needed one free hand to swing the rope, leaving only one hand free to steer. Western bits also vary considerably compared to English bits. Many Western bits feature a shank, or long cheek pieces, which enable subtle cues to be given one-handed.
English riding has now emerged with a drastically different purpose than Western. Although its roots began in military maneuvers, English horseback riding now focuses more on style and form, as seen in dressage and show jumping. It is sometimes considered the more "proper" of the two riding styles. Unlike Western riders, English riders almost always traditionally ride with concentrated reins (in two hands). While some English bits feature a shank, it is rare and only seen at higher levels.
Western vs. English Saddle
With such different functionality, it makes sense that the designs of English and Western saddles are very different.
- Heavier and Larger
- Saddle Horn (there are hornless versions)
- High Cantle
- Typically Wooden Tree Base
- Ornate Leather Tooling and Decorations
Western saddles are made with thicker materials and are larger and heavier. These saddles cover more area on the horse's back, evenly distributing the rider's weight. This weight distribution is ideal for riding long distances, benefiting both the horse and the rider. The fenders, stirrups, and contour of the cantle and seat also help reduce leg and back fatigue for the rider. While some Western saddles are hornless, the traditional version sports a horn for securing a rope. Built on a wooden or fiberglass tree, western saddles have two distinct arches connected by wooden rails which run parallel to the horse's spin. Rawhide covering and padding finish the saddle before ornate tooling and decorations are added. Remember, Western saddles have many variations, from roping saddles, to trail saddles, to event specific versions such as barrel racing saddles. Each variation has been customized to suit the specific sport or job.
Pros of Western Saddles
- Made from durable materials designed to withstand long rides
- Designed for comfort, making them ideal for trail rides, and long days in the saddle
- Can be more secure in the seat than English saddles because of the cantle and seat contouring.
Cons of Western Saddles
- They weigh more than English saddles.
- They have less leg support than some English saddles.
- The decorations and detailing can be time-consuming to clean.
English saddles are made from lightweight materials and are smaller and lighter. These lightweight materials keep the riders closer to the horse, allowing the rider to detect subtle movements easily. English saddles are used in dressage, show jumping, eventing, hunt seat, foxhunting, and other English-style disciplines.
- Lighter and easier to carry
- Synthetic Tree Base
- Panel Padding
Pros of English Saddles
- Easier to carry and tack up because they are lighter
- Closer contact with the horse
- Provide more leg support, which can help novice riders learn to balance from their seat
Cons of English Saddles
- Less stable than Western saddles
- Not as comfortable for longer rides
- Made from softer materials which are not as durable
Picking the Best Saddle for Your Horse
English and Western saddles have distinct purposes, styles, and histories. Each style evolved from specific activities, leading to its defining features and the unique variations we still see and use today. Both types have pros and cons, and selecting the right option for your horse depends on your preferred riding discipline, time in the saddle, and your horse.