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By Martina Hable

Part 1
A general introduction to western riding, disciplines and possibilities

Western riding – A general introduction

The western style was - in contrast to the classic way of riding – developed for working. Therefore, the western horse of the past was mainly a “working ranch horse” which was trained to work most of the time on it’s own as partner of his rider. It had to be guided by the rider with a minimum of signals, because the cowboys had to concentrate on their work and didn’t have much time to think about horsemanship. But nevertheless the horse had to stay under absolute control all the time. As they had to work a lot on tough ground, the horses had to be very balanced, cool minded and awake with a safe stride.

These features and characteristics of the old ranch horses are still considered in the breeding of today’s western horses and in the rules and regulations of the modern western competitions, even though the horses aren’t used for real work any more.

The typical characteristics of a western horse

Affability and reliability are two key words which best explain the fascination of the western style . And both are not possible if the horse has no confidence in his rider and handler. The horse has to stay calm in tricky and dangerous situations and may not react hectic and nervous. Therefore, great importance is attached to a cool mind and a balanced temper. These qualities make a horse suitable both for leisure time riding and the competitive sport of western riding.

In general, the western riding style can be taught to every horse, no matter which breed it belongs to. There are many different breeds which show excellent performance. A western horse has to be intelligent, sensitive and willing to learn, characteristics that can also be found in many Arabian horses!


Competitions & disciplines

The competitive sport of western riding contains a wide range of different disciplines, which offers due to their variety something for each taste, each temper, each level of training and each horse. All disciplines have developed from the origin demands that were set on a good working ranch horses. For certain, all these competitions have become an end in itself, but nevertheless the basic working demands on a ranch horse can still be found in most of the patterns and exercises.

Usually all disciplines are offered at different levels: from beginner classes, to non-pro and open / professional riders classes.
Horses between the ages 3 – 5 are allowed to be shown two-handed in a snaffle bit or bosal, from 6yrs on they have to be shown one-handed in a bit.


Reining has been likened to a western form of dressage – both disciplines requiring a competitor to ride a set pattern, demonstrating the unity of horse and rider.

Reining is a judged event designed to show the athletic ability of a ranch type horse within the confines of a show arena. Contestants are required to run one of the ten approved patterns. Each pattern includes small slow circles, large fast circles, flying lead changes, roll-backs over the hocks, 360 degree spins done in place, and exciting sliding stops that are the hallmark of the reining horse. Despite the very quick succession of all manoeuvres and the high speed (the whole pattern is ridden in gallop) the horse may never loose its nerves and calmness. The ideal reining horse should be willingly guided and controlled with little or no apparent resistance. The performance should be ridden with smoothness, finesse, attitude and quickness, while using controlled speed which raises the difficulty level.

The phenomenal growth of this sport worldwide has led to it becoming the first western discipline to gain full F.E.I. recognition with the result that reining is now part of the World Equestrian Games and European Equestrian Games programmes. Price money in this discipline can raise up to150.000 USD and more.


Sliding Stops: the horse should come from a fast lope to a stop position by bringing the hind legs under his body, lock into position and slide on the hind feet. The front feet should maintain ground contact, forward motion, and cadence.


A spin is a series of 360° turns executed around the pivot (inside) hind leg. The hindquarters should maintain their position whilst the front legs and outside rear leg provide cadenced propulsion.

Western Riding

In this disciplines a large number of flying lead changes are asked to be performed in an exact defined area within a specific pattern. It is a test for a well ridden ranch horse, which shows its manoeuvrability, free and easy movement and constant stride during the whole pattern while it should always be willingly guided.
The main criteria are: the quality of the gaits, the exact and correct flying changes of lead, the response to the rider, the manners and the disposition. Credit is given for smoothness, cadence of gaits, and the horse’s ability to change leads precisely and easily rear and front at the centre point between markers.


A trail horse is one that can manoeuvre through a course of obstacles with physical skill, expression and a good mental attitude. It should travel through and between obstacles with an inquisitive desire to go forward without compromising its calm, relaxed attitude and way of going. It should approach each obstacle squarely with authority and correct form, with its own style, yet maintaining its willingness to be dictated completely by the rider with no apparent resistance. Maximum credit is given to the trail horse that negotiates its way through an entire course efficiently, without sacrificing carefulness, control, and / or attitude. Ultimately, the trail horse is skilful, eye appealing, confident, and leaves one with the impression of being sure, safe and a pleasure to ride over a course of obstacles.

Photo: foto4u
Walk over logs, opening and walking through a gait

Photo: foto4u

Western Pleasure

The good western pleasure horse has a comfortable free flowing stride of reasonable length in keeping with the individual’s conformation. It should cover a reasonable amount of ground with little effort. Ideally, the horse should have a balanced, sweeping motion that requires no more than light contact by the rider. The head and neck serve a balance arm and are carried in a relaxed, natural position appropriate for each individual’s own conformation. Maximum credit is given to the responsive, confident, willingly guided horse that performs all the required gaits correctly with strength and finesse. The horse should be balanced in all aspects - conformation, gait and disposition and it should give the appearance of being a pleasure to ride. Light contact should be measured by a horse’s response to the rider’s hands, seat and legs and not merely by the tension in the reins. However, an excessively draped rein is just as undesirable as extremely tight reins. Subtle cues are desirable, while an absence of cues is not.
Walk: flat-footed and ground covering, Jog: two beat, free, square, slow, easy, Lope: a true tree-beat gait, smooth, slow, easy and straight on both leads
In this discipline all competitors are judged together, the horses have to be shown on the rail in all 3 gaits on both hands on announcement of the judges. Extensions in jog and lope upon request of the judge.
Judged are the quality of the gaits, the overall attitude and the conformation of the horse. For a too fast tempo or a wrong lead penalties are given.

Western Pleasure

Western Pleasure

Western Horsemanship

In this discipline the performance of the rider is judged. Criteria are the seat and the cues the rider gives to the horse during all parts of the pattern. The pattern has to be ridden as exact as possible, which also requires a high level of control over the horse.
This event consists of two parts: the first part (which counts to 80%) is a single ridden pattern where the exact performance and the style of the rider are judged. The second part (which counts to 20%) is the rail work – a western pleasure where still the style of the rider (seat, way of giving cues to the horse) is judged.

Barrel Racing & Pole Bending

Both are racing / speed disciplines which are very rarely offered.
In Barrel Racing 3 barrels positioned in a triangle have to be rounded as fast as possible, while Pole Bending is a slalom race through 6 poles.


Cutting is a discipline, where living cattle have to be worked – it is one of the few classes, where one can see what western riding was originally concepted for.
The rider has to cut a cow from its herd and block it from running back. During the 2 ½ minutes of the performance, at least 2 different cows have to be worked. From the time the cow is separated from the herd, the horse has to work completely on its own by synchronizing all of the cow’s moves and moving with it always keeping it on a distance to the herd. For this discipline the horse has to have a lot of “cow-sense” – it has to have the ability to “read” the cow to know to which direction it will move.


Working Cow Horse

Working cowhorse consists of two parts: the first one is a reining pattern, also called "dry work“, the second one is the cow work, also called “fence work”. Here one single cow has to be controlled. First the cow has to be turned several times on the short side of the arena, then the horse has to drive the cow down the fence on the long side of the arena and turn it twice against the fence. Finally the cow has to be driven to run a figure 8 in the middle of the arena. This all has to happen within 2 minutes.

Working Cowhorse

Lots of more information on this and other events you can find at:

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