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How to Choose a Horseback Riding Style

Updated on April 22, 2013

Throughout history, many cultures have employed horses in a variety of jobs. However, during the industrial revolution, the vast majority of these horse's jobs were been taken over by machines. Where, now, is the horse's place in our world?

Many people choose to own and ride horses because they enjoy the horse and the sport of riding the horse. But even though there is no longer a need to hunt on horseback, or ride for long distances, or pull carts, these traditions are still practiced today, as demonstrated in the many styles of riding.

No discipline is better than another. Below, I will discuss each of the major disciplines, and then some of the factors that will influence your choice of riding style. It should be said that there is no reason to commit to one discipline, you could take lessons at two different barns if you were so inclined, but the difference in philosophies, posture, and training methods can be confusing, especially for beginners.

I would recommend dressage riding as the best starting point for a riding career in any style. Even if you decide that dressage isn't for you, it will lay the foundations for good posture, a quiet and strong seat, and good communication between you and the horse.

Factors that may Determine your Riding Style

Location-- One of the biggest factors that will affect your decision is where you live.

  • Certain styles are more popular in some areas of the country; for example: Western Riding is more popular in the south and west than in the Northeast where I live. It is more difficult for me to find quality instruction in Western riding than it is for me to find quality instruction in Hunt Seat and English riding styles.
  • Access to trail systems will play a large part in how often you trail ride. As a child, my mother and I trail rode almost exclusively because we did not have a riding ring at home and we had access to a large network of trails. However, as I grew up, my neighborhood also grew, making the trails more difficult to get to.

Personality-- Your personality will play a huge role in your decision.

  • For example: in most cases, I am timid and hesitant to take risks. I did not enjoy jumping, especially cross country riding. However, I do enjoy a challenge and I have a lot of patience and attention to detail, so I became a dressage rider, which involved little risk, but tremendous amounts of discipline.
  • If you enjoy team sports, polocrosse might be your sport, and if you enjoy hiking and enjoying nature, trail riding might be your thing.

Personal Connections-- Ultimately, the discipline you choose will probably based on with whom you make personal connections with trainers or other riders.

Trail Riding

Trail riding is not a specific discipline; most any rider can go out on a hack with any equipment. However, some riders take trail riding more seriously than others, and some even participate in competitive trail riding.

  • Trail riders often travel in pairs or groups.
  • That trail riding is easy is a common misconception. On the trail, horses encounter many things that may cause them to spook or misbehave. The rider must gain exceptional trust from the horse, so that the horse will move through mud, water, and past scary objects.

Endurance Riding

Endurance riders are competitive trail riders.

  • Rides are 50-100 miles long with mandatory vet checks along the ride.


"English" riding actually encompasses a number of very different disciplines. Many of the "english" styles of riding date back to the ancient greeks, which traveled with the spread of Western Civilization. We know the styles as "english" because these customs came to the U.S. with the colonists.

A dressage rider in formal attire.
A dressage rider in formal attire. | Source


  • Dressage is the ballet of the horse world; horse and rider are judged on precision and obedience as they complete a prescribed pattern. The discipline developed out of military training drills, and is perhaps one of the oldest styles of riding.
  • Dressage focuses not only on the posture of the rider, but also on the posture of the horse, often referred to as the "frame." When done correctly (as in any other discipline, there are many bad dressage instructors and riders), the rider encourages the horse to develop the appropriate muscles and to carry his weight in a healthy way, that is beneficial to every horse. However, the most competitive dressage horses are often, but not always, warmbloods, whose gait is best suited for certain high level dressage moves.
  • Dressage saddles have a deeper seat than other english saddles, and a longer, more vertical saddle flap.

Show Jumping

  • In show jumping, horse and rider follow a predetermined pattern of obstacles in the controlled environment of a riding arena.
  • Jumps are easily adjusted for height, width, and placement. They are also easily knocked down, for the safety of the horse and rider.
  • Penalties are incurred for jump refusals and for going off course.
  • The rider's responsibilities are to control the horse's stride, set the horse up for the jump, stay balanced over the jump, and to help the horse rebalance and head in the direction of the next jump.


Dressage, show jumping, and cross country jumping make up the sport of eventing, previously known as combined training. In lower level eventing, all three events are finished on one day. However, traditional eventing competitions take place over three days, and each horse and rider pair compete in one event per day.

  • Eventing dressage is essentially the same as regular dressage, but the scoring is different.
  • Cross country jumping takes place in an open field, and sometimes on trails. The horse and rider must jump a pattern of obstacles varying from ditches, to water features, to hay bales, to drops, to banks, to solid logs and telephone poles, within a time frame.
  • Cross country jumping is more dangerous than show jumping because many of the jumps will not break, creating the potential for serious injuries to horse and rider.

Hunt Seat

Hunt seat is a style of riding for both the flat and fences.

  • Hunt seat riders have a more forward seat, suited for jumping.
  • Many hunt seat riders compete in show jumping competitions.

This rider is in the warm up arena, and has not yet put on her riding skirt. As you can see, the two horns cradle the rider's legs and she is very secure.
This rider is in the warm up arena, and has not yet put on her riding skirt. As you can see, the two horns cradle the rider's legs and she is very secure. | Source

Side Saddle

"Side saddle" is not considered a discipline, but just a different saddle and riding position. Women can jump, trail ride, fox hunt, etc., in their side saddles.

  • The side saddle was the first saddle developed for women to ride independently without sitting astride the horse, which was considered immodest.
  • Side saddles are not widely produced, so often side saddles must be custom made to fit both horse and rider. They can be much more expensive than other saddles.


Polocrosse is a team sport; a mash up of polo and lacrosse.

  • Players have a long stick with a round, loose net on the end, similar to a lacrosse stick.
  • The ball is a spongey rubber material.
  • There are three to six players on a team.
  • The goal is to score as many goals against the other team as possible.


Fox Hunting

Fox hunting originated during the 16th century in the United Kingdom, and although it has spread to many other countries, it still carries much of the tradition it accumulated over the past 5 centuries.

  • In the UK, the red fox (referred to as the "quarry") was considered a nuisance, and the members of the hunt would follow the hounds, who would sniff out the fox and ultimately kill it.
  • However, in contemporary fox hunting, it is not often the intent to kill the fox. Often, the hounds aren't even following a real fox; the member of the hunt goes out earlier in the day to drag a bag of fox urine along the ground, leaving a scent trail for the hounds to follow.

Western Riding

The Western riding style developed on American ranches. Neck reining allowed the cowboy to use his other hand for roping livestock, and the saddle horn on the western saddle is for securing the rope.

  • The three gaits in western riding are the walk, jog (slow, controlled trot), and lope (slow controlled canter).
  • Western riding attire is generally more colorful and flashy than English attire.


  • Similar to dressage, reining consists of a pattern of gait changes and other compulsory movements.
  • Western riders practice the sliding stop, which is when the horse plants both back feet and literally slide to a stop, and spins, where the horse plants one back leg and spins, fast.


Barrel Racing

Barrel racing is a fast and fun sport, all about speed and balance.

  • Horse and rider teams race to complete a pattern around 3 barrels.
  • A tipped barrel adds 5 seconds to the rider's time.


The rider chooses one cow out of the herd. They separate the cow and then the rider essentially gives away the reins and lets the horse keep the cow from joining the rest of the herd.

Horse Racing

Harness Racing

  • Standardbreds are the staple breed of harness racing.
  • In harness racing, the horse pulls a two-wheeled cart called a sulky.
  • The horse must stay within the trot, or within a pace. The pace is a special gait in which the legs move laterally, instead of diagonally.

Thoroughbred Racing

  • Thoroughbred racing is a high stakes sport, with a very long and prestigious history.
  • Professional jockeys are short and lightweight, as well as extremely talented riders.
  • According to Wikipedia, thoroughbred races are "usually somewhere between five and twelve furlongs. A furlong is a distance measurement equal to one eighth of a mile, 220 yards[12] or 201.168 metres."

Steeplechasers. | Source

Quarter Horse Racing

The quarter horse was a tough, intelligent horse, bred for hard work on American colonial farms. Like a gymnast, a quarter horse's fast twitch muscles are perfect for powerful bursts of speed. A quarter horse race is a quarter of a mile long, and the horses can reach speeds of 55 miles an hour.


  • Steeplechasing is not as popular in the U.S. as it is in European countries. It is similar to cross country, in the the horse and rider navigate terrain and jump varied obstacles for long distances, but steeplechasers all ride at once, even jumping the same obstacle simultaneously.
  • The sport began in Ireland, and before there were courses, the race was to the nearest steeple, which was the highest point in the town.


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    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Thank you for tips on using horses. I'm continuing my research for my Weston Wagons West story series, in colonial times, right now. Horses played a vital role in life then. Each hub provides distinctive insights. Thanks, again. Hope you can stop by and follow me, as well. ;-)