Horseback Riding - What to Choose, the English or Western Way?

Horseback Riding - What to Choose, the English or Western Way?

By Nancy Fitzgibbons        

Want to go horseback riding, yet prefer not to ride bareback? does not want you to show up at a barn facility uninformed. Here are some basic facts about saddle types that may help you make a decision. There are horseback riders who have owned so many of both styles they could open their saddle shop! So realize at some point you will probably ride in each. There are basically two types of saddles you will find when you go to a barn for a horseback riding experience, the English Saddle or the Western Saddle.

English Saddles - Designed to be lightweight and to promote uninhibited movement

Let's start with the English saddle.This type of saddle design keeps simplicity in mind. The design is to minimize the size and parts so the rider is uninhibited by equipment and is lightweight for the horse. The saddle is made of leather with metal stirrups (the things you put your feet in.) The stirrup leather is narrow for ease of leg movement, but can cause rubbing so leg protection is good. On the bottom side of the saddle are leather pads stuffed with wool for the horses comfort. The average weight of an English saddle is 17lbs. This saddle was designed for the horse and rider who may be jumping over a fence, racing around a track, swinging a Polo Mallet or even a nice hack (the English word for riding out about, outside of an arena.) Although the saddle may not appear to have much security, a well-trained rider will have no problem staying in this saddle, even at a full gallop!

Western Saddles - Heavier with more coverage & horn for roping and balance

The Western saddle is a very different design from the English saddle. These saddles have much more leather parts as the saddle was used on the farm and cattle ranches. It has heavy leather covered stirrups with very wide stirrup leathers or fenders, which are less likely to cause rubbing on your calf. On the underside of the saddle is typically wool or synthetic fleece. Western saddles were meant for security of the rider and was a favorite of the cowboy.  The saddle horn and fork can be used as a safety handle and the cantle adds support for the back. These saddles are heavier than English and can start at 25+ lbs. If you have any concerns about balance or security, this is a great choice.


So how do you make a decision between which style of riding you may want to try?

There are other differences between Western and English horseback riding styles. Generally, Western style riding involves loose reins with minimal contact in the horse's mouth, English riding requires constant light contact from the human using the reins that connect with the bit in the horse’s mouth.

What you will most likely encounter at a Dude Ranch in the West or East United States will be a Western saddle. Although bulkier than the English flat saddle, it does offer a novice rider more security and a saddle horn to hold onto. If you decide to take a horseback riding adventure to Ireland or other European countries, you will most likely encounter an English saddle and riding style.

It doesn't stop with the saddle though, what do you wear if you are going to ride English or Western? Your fashion statement will need to match the equipment as it is just as functional as the type of saddle you ride.

Western & English Clothing Options ( * photos courtesy of Pinterest)                                         

Western clothing includes ankle or calf high boots with one inch or more heel height for security in the leather stirrups. Snap up shirts are preferred just in case your shirt gets caught on the saddle horn. Blue jeans will protect your legs from scrub brush scratches on the trail and will not touch the side of the horse due to the Western fenders on the saddle.


English clothing is designed for less bulk (just like the saddle). Knee high leather boots protect your legs as English saddles do not have leather fenders and your boots will be touching the horse’s side. Button up or pull over shirts are typical and stretch fabric riding breeches with leather patches helps with security in the saddle.



More Important Than English or Western - Work on how you sit in any saddle 

The best thing you can do to help you in either a Western or English saddle is to learn the basic riding position. The goal is to learn to stay in a balanced position from shoulder to hip to heel. That is the most balanced and effective way to ride no matter what shape the saddle is that you are riding in. There are stories of an instructor threatening to slide a yardstick down the students shirt back if they didn’t sit straight! Do you think that would get the point across!


Correct Seat Balance                                                Incorrect Seat Balance



There are a number of exercises that riders can use to help themselves develop the “muscle memory” they need to stay in balance on a horse. You can practice before you are on the horse by using a large exercise ball. This is a great article on 5 Swiss ball Moves To Improve Your Riding Posture  Pilates is also helpful in development of core strength and balance. You will still probably be sore after your first few horseback rides as muscles that have never been utilized begin to take action! The saying of “I never knew I had muscles there before” will resonate loud and clear after your first ride.

No matter what type of horseback riding style you choose, please wear a safety helmet. Accidents can occur, either Western or English and the head is the most vulnerable body part in an accident. According to sources on on equestrian safety, the most frequent cause of death and serious injury for mounted and unmounted horse activities is head injury and only 20% of equestrians wear protective headgear every time they ride. encourages you to explore both types of riding styles. The most important part of the fun is being safe and prepared. Go Western or Go English…..just go horseback riding!