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Horseback Riding: A History of Style

Horseback riding is not only a sport, but a style and a culture as well. When you mount a horse, do you think about the style of horseback riding you perform, or where this style originated? Understanding these styles and how they developed can enrich the riding experience and help create an even deeper relationship between horse and rider. In addition, how these styles of riding affect the horse physically can be a critical part of caring for your horse.

It is important to remember that horseback riding originated from a culture very different from the one we live in today. In the modern world of speed traveling and technology we sometimes forget that there was a time where horses were not only the primary mode of transportation, but an integral part of everyday life. If a horse became ill it meant days or even weeks of lost work and an inability to function in what was then a modern society. This “ancient” culture (as it is viewed today) produced styles of riding that are still recognized in our current society, Western and English. The basic elements of the two styles are very similar even though the purpose and style of equipment is different.

The Western riding style comes from the “Wild West” where horses were used for work. This style originated with the Spanish ranches of the 1600’s and 1700’s in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Cowboys and Cowgirls spent hours and even days riding, sometimes never dismounting. For this reason the type of clothes worn and the structure of the saddle is very different from the English style. The clothes were meant to be comfortable and rugged to sustain the rigorous workload. The saddle was built with strong leather stitching so that it would not come apart while in the field. The Western saddle also has a horn on the front to assist the rider when lassoing cattle. The rider attaches the rope to the horn and uses the horse’s strength rather than their own.

Western riders need to be ready for any surprise that comes their way. At the same time, the horse needs to be alert and be able react to any situation. There is little time for communication between rider and horse while working in the field. The horse must know what to do without being told. This is one of the major differences between the Western and English riding styles.

English riding developed in England and was brought to America. It has always been thought of as the “proper” or “traditional” way of horseback riding. Communication between rider and horse is essential in English riding. The rider controls every move of the horse through use of the reins and the rider’s legs. The saddle is lightweight and made to fit close to the horse’s body to make it easier for the rider to control the horse. There is no horn on the front of the saddle and the stirrups and bridal are small and simple. The English style of dress is very different than the Western style. A lot of emphasis is placed on appearance in English riding. The clothes tend to be very old fashioned, and formality is key when riding in an English competition.

Whether you are riding in the Western or English style, it is important to give attention to the horse’s physique. The rider many times considers their safety when working with horses, but what about the safety of the horse? Even though a horse is a large and very strong animal, carrying a rider for long periods of time, whether it is the Western or English style, can have an affect on the horse’s skeletal and muscular structure. It is important to know how to care for the horse’s back, neck and legs, where tension normally builds. The Western rider, who may spend hours gathering cattle by horseback may not realize the strain there are placing on the horse’s neck when lassoing cattle. An English rider may think that this style has less risk to the horse, but simple things like not using the proper equipment or not holding the reins correctly can have damaging affects.

Thankfully there are precautions a horse owner can take to help maintain the horse’s physical health, like using draw reins, side reins and double bridles to help keep the horse’s head and neck in the correct position. It is also possible to use chiropractic techniques on the horse to prevent and correct problems in the horse’s skeletal system. Whether the rider is trail riding, showing or jumping, there are different techniques a trained professional can use to release tension in the horse’s neck and help relieve soreness in the horse’s back. The development of this type of treatment has made it even more important to not only maintain a proper nutritional balance for the horse, but an even more detailed physical balance as well.

Even though horseback riding has changed over the years, understanding the style and culture of riding is an essential part of becoming a well-rounded rider. Learning the culture and the details of style will not only produce a greater appreciation of horseback riding, but provide greater insight into the development of style and culture. Paying attention to the needs of the horse and maintaining the horse’s physical health is an integral part of horse ownership. The combination of these elements will not only enrich the riding experience but also help develop a strong and lasting relationship between the rider and their horse.


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