The differences and similarities between English and Western riding are numerous. Western riding principles can be traced back to about 400 B.C. A Greek solider and historian, Xenophon is accepted as being the founder of modern horsemanship. English riding is done all over the world, and has been for centuries, with some variations. It is considered the formal or traditional form of horseback riding.
The tack used for the different techniques is very different. The Western saddle is much larger, heavier and has a horn in front. It is also more comfortable to spend long periods of time sitting in. The larger Western saddle provides more stability, particularly in rough terrain. The English saddle is much smaller, lighter and flatter with metal stirrups. The English saddle was designed for unimpeded horse movement. There is a large variety of bits in Western equipment. Some of these are called curb bits, some are harmful to the horse. Snaffle bits and hackamores are also common options. The reins are split in Western riding, traditionally from Texas and held with one hand. English reins are buckled at the end and held with both hands. Bits for English riding are usually the Weymouth bridle or Pelham bit. The English bridle has a snaffle bit and a curb bit with a headstall for each and a double set of reins.
Western riding evolved in the American West mostly on cattle ranches. There are differences in equipment and style of riding between the Western States. The Western rider uses one hand to handle the reins, and uses his and neck reining to control the horse. Riders should sit tall and relaxed and move with the horse. Western riding is easier to learn than English riding, and it is more difficult to switch to English riding from Western. Events for Western riding include barrel racing, Western pleasure riding, roping and endurance riding. Gymkhana events are available too, and include barrel racing, pole bending and flag races. Adults and children are allowed to compete in Gymkhana. Any breed of horse can be used for Western riding, although some are specifically bred for Western riding, such as Quarter Horses, Appaloosas or Paint Horses.
English riding has many styles throughout the world. The rider uses both hands to handle the reins and uses them to directly instruct the horse through the mouth. Riders should sit tall and straight. The rider must use balance and coordination in order to stand aboard. This can take time to learn and become second nature. English riding is considered more difficult to learn, but once learned is easier to transfer to the Western style. Events for English riding include dressage, hunter, jumper and combined training. English riding also has endurance riding. Children in England compete in Gymkhana events, which are games on horseback, such as grabbing potatoes, holding eggs in spoons or weaving through poles. Thoroughbred horses are often used for English riding, along with many of the other horse breeds around the world. (See References 1, 2, 3)
Both techniques of riding have their purposes. To choose which one is for you, you need to know what type of riding you want to do. If you want to barrel race, you will learn to ride Western. If you want to jump, you will learn to ride English. One is not better than the other. They evolved for different purposes. English is more formal, Western more casual. It would be difficult to ride English while working cattle; there’s no horn to wrap a rope around. Jumping with a Western saddle would not work well either, as the saddle would be too heavy. Some people opt to learn to ride both ways. There are advantages and disadvantages of both. The ultimate choice is up to you.