For millennia, man and horse have been partners and horseback riding is just as popular today. While relatively few horses are used for basic transportation or farm work today, millions of equestrians keep equines for sport and pleasure riding.

When it comes to horseback riding, there is no one-size-fits-all. There are various disciplines and myriad activities within the sport. There is also no reason a rider must stick to one particular form of riding. You can learn something from every type of riding style and horse sport, and become a better horseman or horsewoman because of it.

Western Riding

Usually, the first thing a new rider must decide is whether they want to start learning to ride English or Western. While Western saddles are heavier, the primary difference between English and Western riding is that the latter uses an indirect rein to guide the horse, holding the reins in one hand to neck rein.

English Riding

One of the first differences you will find between English and Western saddles is that English saddles are lighter and smaller than Western saddles, and offer closer contact with the horse. English riding use direct reins to a certain degree, with a rein in each hand. However, as with Western riding, as riders improve they learn to guide the horse primarily through seat and leg pressure rather than depend on the reins.


Dressage, which means “training” in French, is the basis of classical horsemanship, and every student can benefit from it no matter what their preferred riding discipline. The dressage saddle is deeper than the typical English hunt seat saddle.

Higher levels of dressage are dominated by warmbloods, who are bred specifically for dressage purposes. They are well suited to perform the more intricate dressage movements, such as passage or piaffe. However, dressage instruction gives every rider a better seat while aiding the horse in gaining impulsion and collection.


Rodeo events are an immensely popular American tradition. Based off the skills needed by cowboys on the American and Mexican ranges, many rodeo events pair horse and rider in an impressive test of athleticism and skill.


Until the early 20th century, women did not ride astride. Instead, when they went horseback riding, they rode sidesaddle, with the right leg fitting over a pommel known as a “leaping horn.”

The result was a very secure seat. As it became more acceptable for women to ride astride, the sidesaddle fell out of fashion, but women fond of history and elegant sidesaddle costumes still ride aside in special divisions at major English horse shows.


A gymkhana consists of various games and competitions for horses and riders, including barrel racing, egg-and-spoon races, ride a buck, keyhole and other activities. Gymkhanas are often designed for young competitors and those just wanting to have fun.


Olympic Riding

The Olympic riding disciplines include dressage, show jumping and eventing. Showjumping consists of timed classes in which horse and rider compete over a course of jumps. Winners have the fastest time and the fewest rails or obstacles knocked down.

Eventing is best described as “extreme horseback riding” and consists of three phases: Dressage, show jumping and cross-country. The latter involves jumping large obstacles over a 2.75 to 4- mile course. It is a true test of horse and rider.

Horse Racing

The words “horse racing” usually conjure up images of thoroughbreds heading toward the finish line, but this is not the only type of horse racing available. Harness racing involves drivers in sulkies racing against each other with Standardbreds.

Other breeds that compete in flat racing include quarter horses – for quarter-mile competitions – Arabians and even Appaloosas. Once their racing days are over, many former racehorses go on to second careers as show and pleasure mounts.

The thoroughbred is a very athletic animal who can excel in most disciplines, while Standardbreds are easily trained to ride and make good trail and pleasure horses.

Mounted Shooting

This competition requires riding a horse while negotiating a shooting pattern. The guns used in these events are filled with blanks, not live ammo. Participants must possess strong riding and shooting skills.


Endurance Riding

If you like horseback riding for many miles and hours and keeping your horse in fit condition, being an endurance riding equestrian is the sport for you. These rides are timed, and are set up for distances of 25, 50 and 100 miles.

Just getting first to the finish line doesn’t necessarily mean the person is the winner – it all depends on the condition of the horse. Endurance riders have a saying, “To finish is to win.”

While any horse may compete in endurance riding, Arabians are the breed of choice. Other breeds that do well in this sport include Morgans, Standardbreds and mustangs.

Polo Riding

Fast-paced and exciting, polo has been described as “Hockey, soccer and basketball on a horse traveling at 35 miles an hour trying to hit a baseball with a stretched -out croquet mallet.”

This team sport is played on a 300 x 160-yard grass field, with four players and their horses – known as polo ponies – on each team. The best players hail from South America, and the breed of choice for polo ponies is the Argentine thoroughbred.

Horseback Riding Vacations

Even if you choose not to own your own horse, there are many great opportunities available to ride as a weekend warrior. Whether it’s in the mountains or on the beach, there are tons of great horse riding vacations available.