A style developed for herding and sorting cattle on ranches, Western riding derives its name from its popularity in the Western region of the United States. This is the riding style of the classic American cowboy.
At its most basic, the Western rider sits upright in the saddle with a leg hanging down on either side of the horse and each foot placed in a stirrup. Traditionally, the rider holds both reins in one hand (usually the left), with very loose or minimal contact. Western horses are trained to neck rein with just that one hand holding both reins. This means they are guided using a combination of the rider’s weight and the light pressure of a rein rested against one side of the horse’s neck or the other. This frees the rider’s other hand (usually the dominant right hand) to open gates, lasso (rope) cattle, etc.
There are many competitive disciplines that fall under the category of Western riding, but all have their roots in the centuries-old working ranch horse traditions of the Latin American vaqueros. A working Western horse is trained to function with a degree of independence and ideally possesses some “cow sense” (instinctive knowledge of how a cow will move) to aid the rider’s work. American Quarter Horses, Paints and Appaloosas are among the traditional breeds used in Western riding.
Much larger and heavier than the English saddle, the modern Western saddle features a distinctive saddle horn projecting upward from the pommel or swell (front) of the saddle. After roping a cow, the rider’s end of the rope (or lariat) is traditionally “dallied” (wrapped) around the saddle horn to keep the cow from running away with the rope. The saddle’s seat is very deep, and the cantle (the back of the seat) is raised for added rider security. A flat leather skirt extends out behind the seat and down the horse’s sides. Wooden stirrups topped by stirrup hobbles hang from the ends of wide leather fenders on either side of the saddle. The fenders extend from underneath flaps called seat jockeys on both sides of the seat.
The saddle is strapped to the horse using a system of metal cinch rings, one or two cinches (girth straps), billets and straps called latigos—all in various arrangements called riggings. The type of rigging used—as well as the overall design of the saddle—will depend largely on the specific Western discipline (roping, reining, barrel racing, pleasure riding, etc.).
Like its English counterpart, a Western bridle has a crownpiece behind the ears and adjustable cheekpieces that hold the bit in the horse’s mouth. A Western bridle also has a throatlatch, a buckled strap that runs from under each cheekpiece and around the horse’s jaw at the point where it connects to the neck. Unlike an English bridle, however, a Western bridle can have either a browband or a shaped earpiece with a slot that goes over one ear. Nor does it need to have a noseband or cavesson. The bits used can vary, but are often some form of curb bit with a curb strap connected from side to side under the horse’s chin. The reins are available in several different styles that can generally be categorized as either continuous-loop or split.
Both a Western bridle and saddle can be either plain for working use or elaborately decorated for the show ring, often with tooled leather and silver ornamentation.