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The Real Difference Between English and Western Done Naturally

difference between english and western riding parelli

By Pat Parelli

So, what is the difference between and English and Western riding foundations with horses? Well, I have been saying for the last four decades that the only real difference between English and Western riding done naturally is the same difference between a fiddle and a violin. In other words, horsemanship is a foundation based on psychology. It’s based on more scope than depth—more lateral thinking and less linear thinking. Regardless of whether we have a horse that is bred to be English or Western, we give them the same foundation. The Seven Games in the Four Savvys to Level Four is a great start for a horse.

The History of English and Western Riding

Now, let's go back in history a little bit. Five hundred years ago, horses were used for transportation, farming, and general use. The type of horse required for that kind of work was a pretty “de rigueur”—or “average”—kind of horse. But then, people started using horses for high-level maneuvers for warfare and for bullfighting. Those things required a horse that was bred and trained to do high-level maneuvers.

We all know the word dressage. It's a French word that essentially means high-level animal training. Most people think it only has to do with horses, but that's not true. In Spain, the word for dressage is doma. Doma Vaquera means advanced training in preparation for cattle work. Doma Clásica is high-level training for warfare.

As you can see, that’s where the fork in the road between Western and English riding originated. Society would prepare horses one way for cattle work, which then became Western riding; and then prepare horses for warfare, which then became English riding. Within English riding, there are two different styles: Germanic and Latin (that is typical in Spain, Portugal, and their derivative countries).

Saddle making throughout the centuries has reflected the same progression. If you study saddles from a long time ago, the most common saddles had a high front and a back. And if you look now, the English saddle has a low front and back. The Western saddle has a high front—the saddle horn. So, as we see it today, the original saddle design has developed into two predominant saddle styles that are designed according to their respective functions.

Why Put Foundation Before Specialization in Horsemanship?

In the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program, we have three immutable laws:

  1. Put the relationship first.
  2. Foundation for before specialization.
  3. Never ending self-improvement.

If we look at those three immutable laws, our first conclusion is that we will do things with and for our horse (not to our horse), because we're putting the relationship first. In application, we will put the principle before the purpose, and allow the horse the timeline that he to develop into the best horse he can possibly be.

The second conclusion we arrive at is the understanding that the higher our goals are, the wider and broader the foundation needs to be. So, all the sudden, the Seven Games and Four Savvys to Level Four becomes imperative. But alongside that, the horses should get to live outside and be ridden outside. We want horses that have a general purpose in their foundation so that they're not just hothouse flowers (i.e., horses trained for the arena only).  

If it’s really that simple, why is there such an emphasis on the differences of training from the very beginning? Firstly, adults are human beings who practice making simple things difficult and are often addicted to linear thinking. We want our process to look like our product, which complicates their foundation.

The problem then arises of not giving every horse a wide scope of learning early on, and we end up with horses that are only taught skills according to what they are bred to do. The solution must start with the human being. Philosophically and conceptually, we all have to agree that no matter what the goals are or what the pedigree is designed for, that we give all horses a great foundation.

Creating Well-Rounded Horses in Any Discipline

Every riding discipline has its own set of specific maneuvers and skills for the horse. For example: in Western riding, backing ten to twenty feet is a very common request. That is not so common in many English sports.

Most Western riding disciplines require a horse to make rotations over the hind quarters, whereas most English riding requires horses to either rotate over the forehand or that all ends travel equally.

Despite these differences, whatever we ask our horses to do, they should be able to do the opposite. In other words, Western horses should be able to make round turns as well as square turns, and English horses should be able to make square turns as well as well as round turns.

My favorite story that illustrates this perfectly is when David O’Connor was set to win the Olympics in Three-Day Eventing in Sydney Australia. He was about to get to the last part of the turn. He said, “I need to go right,” then, “Oh no! I need to go to the left,” so he set his horse on his hindquarters to turn left. Immediately he realized, “Oh no, I was right the first time!”, set his horse on his hindquarters again and turned right, and ended up getting under the time needed and ended up with a gold medal.

What would have happened had he not been able to make these kinds of square turns like Western horses make? It would have taken way too long, and he would have probably ended up with silver or bronze.

If we really want to learn something as Western riders need to really look at high quality English riders. And those of those that ride English need study the high-level Western performance riders. But it all comes back to foundation before specialization. If we want our horses to be well-rounded in any discipline, we need to allow our horses the opportunity to learn a wide foundation with us. The Parelli Levels Program does just that.

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