The 15 Most Popular English Riding Disciplines Explained (with videos)

You might think that horse riding is horse riding and that all sports come under that umbrella but, while this is of course true to some extent, it’s a bit like saying badminton and tennis are the same sport. Yes, you have to hit an object over a net but that’s where the similarities end, and the different riding styles (English and western) are very much the same. 

Referring to the style of riding, English riding is the predominant style in most European countries but is also growing in popularity in North America too. While its roots come from a time when horseback was the main (if not only) mode of transport, many of the sports we know and love today evolved from the battlefield when it was crucial to have a well-trained, agile, and capable horse. 

If you’re thinking about learning to ride or want to try your hand at a new discipline then it can be difficult to know which one’s right for you which is why I decided to write this article. I wanted to explain the different disciplines and hopefully help you decide which of them are right for you.

In this article, we’ll cover the most popular English disciplines which are:

  • Show Jumping
  • Cross-Country Jumping
  • Eventing
  • Dressage
  • Equitation
  • Saddle seat
  • Hunt Seat
  • English Pleasure
  • Show Hack
  • Working Hunter
  • Side saddle
  • Endurance
  • Tent Pegging
  • Polo
  • Gymkhana

Show Jumping

You might think that jumping and show jumping are the same thing, but jumping is in fact a term covering a variety of different disciplines with show jumping being just one of those.

As the name suggests, ‘show’ jumping is very much a visual discipline with the horse and rider being expected to jump a series of bright-colored fences (known as a round) within a set period of time. The idea is for the horse and rider to jump every fence without knocking any of them over or the horse refusing to jump any of them, this is known as a clear round.

Each rider will take it in turn to jump the fences with those that don’t have a clear round being eliminated. Once every rider has jumped the course those left will go onto jump another round, often with the fences being raised slightly in height. This is repeated until only one rider is left after the fences have reached their maximum height. If this doesn’t happen then the remaining riders are joint winners.

There are also timed rounds where penalties are added for every fence knocked down or every second over the allotted time. In timed events, a horse and rider are eliminated if they have four separate faults (either refusals or fences knocked down) or a certain percentage over the specified time.

The ideal show jumping horse should be athletic, brave, and nimble. If you’re interested in knowing more about which breeds are suitable for jumping then check this article out.

Show jumping is ideal for you if you have a trusting relationship with your horse, have good balance, and aren’t scared of heights.


Cross-Country Jumping

Cross-country jumping has often been described as show jumping in the countryside but while there are some similarities they are both very different disciplines, in most cases at least. While some cross-country jumping competitions do take place in an outdoor arena this is rare.

The sport itself can be traced back to a time when fox hunting was a popular pastime in Great Britain but while the popularity of hunting has dwindled the desire to show off a horse’s ability to jump a natural course has grown. This has made cross-country jumping a popular sport with amateur and professional riders alike.

Most cross-country courses comprise a mixture of natural and man-made jumps that are set out over a course involving both open fields and wooded areas. Unlike show jumping, the artificial fences are painted in dark green and brown colors to make them look more natural. Generally, the jumps are also solid and won’t fall if the horse (or rider) hits them. This adds an extra level of danger to the sport which highlights the importance of jumping well.

The goal of cross-country jumping is to get around the course as quickly as possible without the horse refusing any of the jumps. Before getting a chance to jump, every rider is expected to walk the course, memorizing the order of the fences as well as deciding which of the two routes over the fence is best. The easiest route is usually the slowest while the fastest route is more challenging.

The ideal cross-country jumping horse should be able to jump well but also have good speed between fences. If you’re interested in knowing more about which breeds are suitable for jumping then check this article out.

Cross-Country jumping is ideal for you if you’re good at remembering your way around a course and deciding which route is better for your horse.


Eventing

A combination of three separate sports (show jumping, dressage, and cross-country jumping), eventing is by far the most versatile of all English disciplines and is a real test of both horse and rider. While the sport’s history may go back many centuries it wasn’t until 1912 that it was officially recognized by the FEI as an Olympic sport.

Like a lot of other English disciplines, eventing has a military history and was originally a cavalry test designed to demonstrate that both horse and rider were able to cope with any of the challenges or situations they may find on the battlefield. Today, however, the idea of eventing is to show a horse’s versatility. The dressage stage shows their obedience while the cross-country stage demonstrates their bravery and the show jumping stage calls upon the horse’s focus and precision.

Often said to be the ultimate test of horse and rider, an eventing competition can be held over one, two, or three days. Each discipline is scored separately but they’re combined to give an overall score.

The ideal eventing horse should be brave, confident, and focused. If you’re interested in knowing more about which breeds are suitable for eventing then check this article out.

Eventing is ideal for you if you like to try your hand at a variety of different disciplines while also pushing yourself and your horse.

https://youtu.be/0oSGRHhVLS4

Dressage

A corruption of the French word for training, dressage is often described as a highly choreographed rhythmic dance that appears effortless to the observer.

Dressage is the most technical of all disciplines and requires a rider to train their horse to be incredibly sensitive to the lightest of physical cues. Like a lot of other disciplines, it has military origins and was once used by cavalry riders to train their horses to the highest of standards.

Sometimes called horse ballet, dressage is a graceful and elegant sport but it requires a lot of patience and time to train a horse. Each dressage test is designed to assess a horse’s natural athletic ability as well as the communication between the horse and rider. Some tests can be performed to music so the ability to move with rhythm is also important.

The goal of any dressage test is to perform a series of set movements with almost no obvious cues from the rider. At the highest level of dressage, there is also a freestyle test where the rider choreographs their own routine and has a set amount of time to do it in. Each movement (regardless of whether it’s freestyle or not) is scored from zero to ten, with ten being the best. 

The ideal dressage horse should be nimble, have rhythm, and be well trained. If you’re interested in knowing more about which breeds are suitable for dressage then check this article out.

Dressage is ideal for you if you like learning routines and enjoy training your horse to the highest level.


Equitation

Sometimes called horsemanship, equitation focuses on a rider’s position in the saddle as well as their ability to ride properly and use effective aids. This means that equitation classes can be found in a variety of other disciplines such as hunt seat, saddle seat, and even dressage.

Unlike a lot of other disciplines, in equitation competitions, it’s the rider that’s judged rather than the horse. They’re judged on their performance and control as well as their use of aids and proper riding attire. The rider’s balance and position are judged in every gait as well as over fences.

While the horse isn’t judged per se if they perform badly then it’s regarded as a negative reflection of the rider and their ability to train and control their horse, this means that the rider will lose marks.

The ideal equitation horse should be well trained and smartly turned out. They should also be smooth to ride because any bouncing in the saddle can result in a lower score. 

Equitation is ideal for you if you enjoy showing your skill as a rider and like you and your horse to be turned out well.


Saddle seat

You might think that, given the name saddle seat, the discipline is like equitation in that it focuses solely on the rider but this isn’t quite true. Yes, how the rider is turned out is important, as is their position in the saddle (which incidentally is much further back than any other discipline), but it’s the horse’s gait that is being judged.

Originating in the southern US where plantation owners wanted a comfortable way of riding around the estates and would regularly ’show off’ their mounts at gatherings. This has understandably led to the discipline being far more popular in America than it is in other countries. That said though the sport is growing in popularity throughout the rest of the world with a strong following in Europe.

Saddle seat is all about energy and animated movements that are both smooth and graceful. Horses are judged on their high stepping gaits which make the sport an impressive sight.

There are a number of different classes, some are specific to a particular breed while others will have a particular gait requirement such as three-gaited, five-gaited, plantation walker (only for Tennessee Walkers), park (for Saddlebreds, Arabians, and Morgans), pleasure (sometimes called classic) and rail walk.

Depending on the class most riders are expected to dress in informal attire, wearing dark-colored jodhpurs, a white collared shirt with a tie, black or brown jodhpur boots, and a derby or soft hat. Classes taking part after 6 pm though have a more formal dress code and include a tuxedo-style jacket with a bow tie and top hat.

The ideal saddle seat horse should have a smooth and graceful gait. If you’re interested in knowing more about gaited breeds then check this article out.

Saddle seat is ideal for you if like riding gaited horses and take pride in how you and your horse are turned out.


Hunt Seat

Like saddle seat, hunt seat is more popular in the US but unlike saddle seat riders sit forward in the saddle.

Also known as hunter seat the discipline has its origins in fox hunting but isn’t exclusively a jumping discipline. Hunt seat is a forward riding style (where the rider sits further forward in the saddle than most other disciplines) that involves both jumping and flatwork.

In flat classes, the rider is judged with and without stirrups in both directions in walk, trot, and canter. They may also be asked to perform other tests or patterns such as figures of eight or serpentines. Classes that involve jumping require the rider to clear a course of six or more fences that rarely exceed 3 ft 6 in. Like flat classes, riders may also be asked to perform other tests such as flying changes.

The sport has its origins in fox hunting which is one of the reasons why the jumps are always very natural looking and are painted in natural colors. They often have some form of flora or fauna at their base to mimic the hunting scene.

Regardless of the type of class, the judges are looking for routines that are smooth and have natural movements. The goal is to demonstrate proper riding techniques as well as good style in every gait. 

The ideal hunt seat horse should be comfortable to ride and have good conformation and natural gaits. 

Hunt seat is ideal for you if you want to perfect your riding style and strive to be a better rider.


English Pleasure

As you can probably guess, English pleasure is all about just that – how pleasurable a horse is to ride. Unlike equitation though it focuses mainly on the horse’s performance rather than the rider. It can be traced back to a time when riding was the main mode of transport and people prided themselves on having the nicest ride in town. 

Today English pleasure focuses on the smoothness of a horse (in every gait), how easy they move, and how willing they are to do what’s asked of them. Saddle seat and hunt seat can, sometimes, come under the umbrella of English pleasure but they are different disciplines with their own rules and judging standards.

The English pleasure seat horse should be comfortable to ride and willing to listen to the rider’s instructions. 

English pleasure is ideal for you if you enjoy riding smooth comfortable horses and have a desire to bring out your horse’s style.


Show Hack

First established in England, show hack is a sport that’s becoming more and more popular throughout the rest of the world. Rules vary from country to country but the idea behind the sport is to display a horse’s elegant appearance as well as their graceful way of moving. In the US, however, horses with a dressage-type frame are preferred.

UK classes are always split into two classes depending on height, small hacks are anything between 14.2hh (58 inches) to 15hh (60 inches) while large hacks must stand between 15hh (60 inches) and 15.3hh (63 inches).

In the US, show hack is normally referred to as hunter hack, but it more closely resembles hunt seat classes than the show hack classes held in other countries.

Canada, on the other hand, is often incorporated into English pleasure events and has three or four classes depending on the requirements of the event organizer. There is always one pony class that allows ponies under 14.2hh (58 inches), but there can be two or three horse divisions. If there are two horse classes then the height requirements are 14.2 (58 inches) to 15.3hh (63 inches) and 15.3hh (63 inches) and over. Whereas if there are three horse classes then they are 14.2hh (58 inches) to 15.2hh (62 inches), 15.2hh (62 inches) to 16hh (64 inches), and over 16hh (64 inches).

Like the UK and Canada, Australia also has specific requirements for each class but it also has separate classes for ladies, men as well as for children. The Australian classes include pony which covers anything under 14hh (56 inches), Galloway for horses between 14hh (56 inches) and 15hh (60 inches), and hacks which must be over 15hh (60 inches). Both Galloway and hack classes have subclasses that are gender-specific.

The ideal show hack horse should be lighter in build than a riding horse and also have a smooth way of moving. 

Show hack is ideal for you if you like to show off your horse’s style and elegant appearance.


Working Hunter

Sometimes called hunter jumping or show hunter, working hunter is often described as eventing in a show ring with riders being expected to jump a course of rustic fences. 

In working hunter classes the horse is judged on how they jump as well as their presence and conformation. 60% of the overall score is attributed to how they jump with the rest coming from their rideability and their conformation. In most working hunter classes the judge will ride your horse to assess their way of going as well as how easy they are to ride so it’s important your horse doesn’t mind being ridden by strangers.

The ideal working hunter horse should have a good jump, smooth movement, and be happy to be ridden by strangers. 

Working hunter is ideal for you if you want to try your hand at eventing or cross-country jumping but like the thought of jumping in a show ring instead.


Side saddle

I know that side saddle is more of a way of riding rather than an actual discipline but I decided to include it in this article because it has very definite English origins. Being a style rather than anything else it’s possible to ride side saddle in a number of other disciplines, such as jumping, dressage, English pleasure, and even western riding (although that’s for another article).

The sport itself was made popular in England during the 14th century when Anne of Bohemia (Queen of England) rode side saddle on the way to marry King Richard II. It was believed that riding like this would protect her virginity, a belief that soon caught on with it becoming widely considered indecent and vulgar for women to ride sitting astride a horse. While these may seem like ancient origins, the practice of riding side saddle is far older than that with both Ancient Greek vases and Celtic stone carvings depicting women riding side saddle behind men.

The ideal side saddle horse should have a good center of gravity and be able to understand leg commands from just one side. 

Side saddle is ideal for you if you fancy trying something completely different but don’t want to settle on any particular discipline just yet.


Endurance

Endurance riding is an odd discipline that doesn’t really fall into any one style of riding (indeed it’s popular with both English and western riders) but I decided to include it here because, while the FEI allows either style, on the international scene the English style of riding is favored.

As a sport, endurance riding is as old as horse riding itself and can be traced back to many of the nomadic tribes of the Middle East. Evolving in deserts where there was little or no water and food was often hard to find, many of these horses learned to adapt to their challenging environment and developed an ability to not only survive but to also thrive.

As well as being a test of a horse’s endurance, it also puts a horse’s stamina to the test with riders at some events having to cover up to 100 miles a day. This is one of the main reasons why today most successful endurance horses are either desert breeds or those that have been heavily influenced by those breeds. This is even more evident.

The ideal endurance horse should be healthy and fast but should also have the ability to work hard with little food and water. If you’re interested in knowing more about trail breeds then check this article out.

Endurance is ideal for you if you like the challenge of pushing both yourself and your horse to the extreme.


Tent Pegging

Like many other English disciplines, tent pegging was originally developed as a cavalry sport that was designed as a training exercise. Originating in India during the Middle Ages, the goal was to develop a rider’s prowess with a weapon while on horseback. Indian mounted fighters would often have to contend with troops mounted on elephants so needed a way of improving their skills at hitting a target on the ground (it was believed that if an elephant was hit in the delicate area behind their toenail they’d rear and throw their rider off).

While tent pegging can (and often does) refer to any mounted game involving pointed or edged weapons (such as lances or swords), as a discipline it refers to a mounted game with ground targets. Nobody knows for sure where the name comes from but it’s widely accepted that it originates from the practice of attacking enemy camps at dawn and uprooting or cutting the tent pegs of the sleeping soldiers.

Today tent pegging is a popular sport that’s officially recognized by the FEI and even held its first World Cup in 2014 [source]. Competitions involve both individual classes as well as group ones.

The ideal tent pegging horse should be fast, nimble, and not be afraid of a lot of loud noises. 

Tent pegging is ideal for you if you love adrenaline and your horse is fast.


Polo

Dating from around 250BC polo has to be one of the oldest equestrian team sports in the world. Originating in Central Asia it was once played by royalty, it was also considered an important training exercise for cavalry horses.

Polo is a team sport that consists of two teams for four riders competing to score a goal by hitting a small hard ball (with a wooden mallet they carry in their right hand) through their opponent’s goal. The horses spend most of their time at a full gallop which is why each polo match is split into four seven and a half minute sessions, down as chukkas.

Riders have to not only have good balance but also need to be able to control their horse with just one hand.

The ideal polo horse should be fast, nimble, and not too big. 

Polo is ideal for you if you love fast-paced action and enjoy being part of a team.


Gymkhana

Described as ‘an equestrian day event comprising of a variety of horseback competitions and races’ gymkhana is extremely popular with children and is a regular fixture at many 4-H and Pony Club events. 

The general idea of a gymkhana (aside from just being great fun) is to compete in races, games, and various exercises. Some involve serious riding while others, such as mounted egg and spoon races or sack races, are just plain fun.

The ideal gymkhana horse should be calm but also have plenty of speed. 

Gymkhana is ideal for you if you like teamwork and have no fear at all, either in or out of the saddle.


Horseball

Often described as a mix of polo, rugby, netball, and basketball, horseball can be traced back to 1700’s Argentina when it was originally known as Pato. Instead of using a six-handled ball, Pato used a live duck and due to a high mortality rate was banned in 1790. In an attempt to make the sport safer changes were made and by the mid-1900’s horseball was officially recognized by the FEI.

The objective of the sport is to score as many goals as you can within a set period of time. To do this the six-handled ball needs to be passed at least three times, between three different riders, before being thrown through a vertical hoop goal. If the ball hits the ground then anybody (regardless of which team they’re on) can pick the ball up as long as they’re traveling in the same direction the ball was going in when before it was dropped. This rule was introduced to prevent horses from crashing into each other.

The ideal horseball horse should be agile, fast, and not affected by loud noises and fast-paced action. 

Horseball is ideal for you if you like being part of a team and have a need for speed.

https://youtu.be/ynoBpwhl2fQ

What should I wear when English riding?

While every discipline will have its own set of rules about what you can and can’t wear most do require you to wear an approved riding helmet. Some, such as cross-country jumping and eventing, also expect you to wear a level 3 body protector.

Outdoor events normally allow riders to wear polo shirts and matching jodhpurs while indoor events often require you to wear a particular colored jacket (depending on the discipline and sometimes even the rider’s gender), necktie, and gloves.

Further reading

Recommended products 

Over the years I use have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
  • Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horses well being to be able to check theit temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.

Shopping lists

I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essentials items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

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