The 14 Most Popular Western Riding Disciplines Explained (with videos)

Evolving from working cattle ranches where horses needed to be fast and nimble as well as intelligent and capable of thinking (and even working) on their own. Due to the long hours spent in the saddle, it was also important that both the horse and rider remained comfortable. Today, however, most western riding takes place away from the ranch but many of the qualities that are highly prized in working horses are still evident in today’s western horses, this can be seen in most western disciplines.

If you’re just learning to ride or are looking to try a different discipline then it can be difficult to know which ones are right for you which is why I thought I’d write this article. I wanted to not only explain the most popular disciplines but also help you find the one (or ones) that suit you best.

Trail Riding

Probably one of the most popular forms of western riding, trail riding can be a general term used to refer to any ride away from the yard and through the countryside (whether open fields, mountains, deserts, or a mix of different terrains) or it can also mean a particular class or event where you compete against other riders and are judged on your performance.

When it comes to trail riding classes and events the idea is to show how well you and your horse work together, you’ll be judged on your teamwork over a series of obstacles. The obstacles can either be in an enclosed ring or outside on an open course and will consist of a variety of different challenges. These can include things such as crossing a bridge, stepping over a series of logs, side passes (typically with the horse’s feet on either side of a rail), or 90° and 180° turns as well as backing the horse up while opening and closing gates. The horse’s calmness can also be tested with distractions such as having the rider waving noisy objects around. While speed isn’t judged you’ll have a limited amount of time to negotiate each obstacle and will be penalized if you take too long.

Trail riding is ideal for you if you consider yourself and your horse equal partners and also enjoy planning and navigating the best route around a course. 


Western Pleasure

Some people wrongly refer to western pleasure as trail riding (after all you’re riding for fun and enjoyment) but the western pleasure discipline is actually a competitive event where all participants ride at the same time and perform at a variety of paces such as walk, jog, and lope, although some breed-specific events will also ask for the horses to perform an extended jog and lope. 

It’s a pleasure event so the horse should be easy going as well as appear to be easy to ride. You should ride with a loose rein and allow the horse’s head carriage to be low yet still be in full control of the horse, your instruction should be almost invisible.

The goal is to help your horse to stand out as the best in the group, he’ll be judged on his condition and conformation as well as the regularity of his paces and fluidity of movement. 

Western pleasure is ideal for you if you enjoy training your horse and can make even the most uncomfortable, bouncy horse look like it offers a smooth ride.


Barrel Racing

Regarded as a rodeo event, barrel racing is a high-speed competition where the horse and rider have to negotiate a three-leaf clover pattern around a set of three barrels as fast as they can. The layout of the barrels doesn’t change but the size of the arena can vary and will also play a large part in how quickly the race can be run. The record time for a race is 13.46 seconds but anything between 15 and 20 seconds is considered a good time.

Barrel racing is a real test of a horse and rider’s ability to work together, it combines the horse’s athleticism with the rider’s balance and skill, but unlike most other disciplines which are open to both men and women, professional barrel racing is only open to women. Men are only allowed to compete at youth events and at local competitions.

Camas Prairie Stump Race – Recognized by the Appaloosa Horse Club, the Camas Prairie Stump Race is run head to head. Unlike a standard barrel racing course though it’s not timed, and the winner is the rider who finishes first.

Barrel racing is ideal for you if you’re a fan of speed and like adrenaline, it also helps if you have a light seat and good balance.


Pole Bending

A kind of slalom event, pole bending involves the horse and rider weaving a serpentine pattern around a set of six poles that are all spaced 21 feet (6.4 meters) apart. The idea is that the horse and rider enter the arena, ride as fast as possible to the last pole before turning sharply to the left around the pole. They’ll then twist their way through the poles before turning around and weaving back through them again, after the final pole they’ll turn sharply and gallop to the end. The winner is the horse and rider team that completes the course in the quickest time without occurring any faults.

Nez Percé Stake Race – Like Camas Prairie Stump Racing, this is also recognized by the Appaloosa Horse Club and has two riders competing head to head on identical courses that have been laid outside by side. There’s no set time that the riders have to complete the course in but instead, the winner is the first rider to cross the finish line.

Pole bending is ideal for you if you like speed and your horse is nimble.


Reining

Sometimes referred to as high-speed dressage, reigning, which is recognized by the FEI, is considered by many to be the western equivalent of dressage. Reining is designed to showcase many of the maneuvers that originated from working cattle and includes maneuvers such as:

  • Sliding stops – The horse’s front is mobile but their hind legs slide and they lower their head and neck.
  • Spins – This is where the horse pivots at high speed around one of his back feet.
  • Rollbacks – These involve the horse coming to a stop, turning 180° to the outside before immediately loping off.
  • Circles – Small circles are done at a slow lope while larger circles are done at a faster lope.
  • Lead changes – This is where the horse changes lead in the middle of the arena.

Accuracy is the most important part of any reining event but the horse should also look like it’s easy to handle and is happy. A good reining horse will also be able to quickly change their speed and have good strong haunches.

Reining is ideal for you if you like to perform at high speed while still retaining accuracy.


Cutting

Originating from the need for working ranchers to isolate a cow (for branding, inspection, etc) from the rest of the herd, cutting is a great demonstration of a horse’s natural ‘cow sense’ – a trait that’s highly prized amongst western horses. Unlike a lot of other western disciplines, cutting is all about the horse instead of the rider with lower marks being awarded if the rider is deemed to have interfered with the horse.

The horse and rider have two minutes to select, and cut (or separate), two animals from a herd of between 10 and 20 cows (one cow must be cut from the middle of the herd with the other can being from the edge). Once a cow is removed from the herd it’s the job of the horse to use his cow sense and prevent it from returning to the rest of the herd. Although they’re not judged there are also four other riders in cutting competitions, two of them will prevent the cut cow from running off while the other two will help to keep the rest of the herd together. 

Cutting is ideal for you if you’ve got good balance and can trust your horse to do what he’s got to do.


Working Cow Horse

Sometimes called reined cow horse, it’s a cross between reining and cutting and requires the horse and rider to work together to ‘direct’ a cow through a series of maneuvers. There are three parts to any working cow horse event, reining, a cutting section, and then fence work.

It’s a judged event rather than a timed one and you’ll need to perform a set of maneuvers such as holding a cow at one end of the arena, running it along the outside edge as well as bringing the cow into the middle of the arena. You may also have to turn the cow in both clockwise and counterclockwise circles.

Working cow horse is ideal for you if you like to be fast yet precise when riding. 


Team Penning

If you’ve ever seen sheepdog trials you’ll have an idea of what team penning is all about. It’s a timed event where a team of three riders must select between three and five steers from a herd and then drive them into a small pen within a set amount of time (typically 60 seconds). Once all of the selected steers are inside the pen the gate can be shut and the fastest team is declared the winner.

Ranch Sorting – This is a variation of team penning where a team of two riders have to move a herd of cows from one pen to another. It might sound simple but all of the cows are numbered and must be moved one by one in numerical order, again within 60 seconds.

Team penning is ideal for you if you like working in a team, can multitask, and think strategically, having a love of adrenaline is a bonus too.


Roping 

If you’ve ever seen a western movie with cowboys throwing lassos around a steer’s horns you’ll have a good idea of what roping is about. It’s a real test of teamwork with the horse tracking a free-running calf or steer while the rider lassos the animal, jumps off, and then restrains it. There are different events depending on whether you and your horse are working alone or in a team.

Team Roping – Each team consists of two riders, a header (whose job it is to rope the calf or steer’s head) and a healer (who has to rope the animal’s heels). Starting on either side of the cattle chute (where the calf or steer enters the ring), the header (who starts on the left) will rope the calf first before turning it to the left so that the heeler (starting on the right) can lasso the heels. The team that does this in the quickest time is the overall winner.

Calf Roping – Also known as individual roping it involves a single rider roping a calf, dismounting and tying three of its legs together as quickly as possible. The calf gets a head start with the rider not allowed to give chase until the rope in front of the rider breaks and like team roping, the quickest time wins.

Breakaway Roping – Another individual event, breakaway roping differs from calf roping in that the rope is designed to break and the rider never dismounts. Once the calf is lassoed the horse stops immediately, the calf continues to run which causes the rope to break. Once the rope breaks the timer is stopped with the fastest time being declared the winner.

Roping is ideal for you if you can multitask, have great balance and a good aim with the lasso.


Versatility Ranch Riding

Also known as western ranch riding, it’s designed to test a horse’s versatility when it comes to ranch work and western riding in general. It takes elements from western horsemanship, reining, and working cow horse competitions as well as including a variety of trail obstacles and an unmounted conformation class.

It’s also a good demonstration of a horse’s natural movement and conformation but can also help to illustrate how well trained they are.

Versatility ranch riding is ideal for you if you like to try lots of different disciplines and like a challenge.


Western Horsemanship/Showmanship

Whether you choose to call it western equitation, stock seat equitation, reining seat equitation, or just western horsemanship it’s an event that is designed to assess you as a rider rather than how well trained your horse is.

You’ll need to perform a series of tests and/or patterns at a walk, jog, and lope in both directions. You may be asked to do simple circles, back ups, or more complicated reining patterns such as transitioning from a lope to halt and vice versa as well as 360° (or greater) spins at speed. When asked to jog though you must remain seated and will lose marks if you post.

Western horsemanship/showmanship is ideal for you if you like to show your skill as a rider and are happy holding the reins with one hand (although you can use both hands if you’re riding in a junior class and using a snaffle bit).


Cowboy Mounted Shooting

Sometimes called western mounted shooting or mounted shooting, despite its name, it’s open to both men and women and requires them to gallop around an arena as fast as they can, shooting balloons with blanks that have been certified to break a balloon from a distance of 20 feet (6 meters). The balloons, which are often brightly colored, are positioned so that the rider has to ride around obstacles such as barrels and poles. There’s also a straight-line of balloons at the end, called the run down, allowing the rider to ride straight and shoot at they leave the arena.

Reminiscent of the old western activities, cowboy mounted shooting is often performed at many reenactment shows where the rider is judged for their accuracy as well as how quickly you can shoot all of the balloons.

As well as wearing traditional western attire (see below) you’ll also have to wear a double revolver gun holster.

Cowboy mounted shooting is ideal for you if you enjoy reenactments, don’t mind loud noises and your horse is desensitized to gun shots and is happy with noisy crowds.


Mounted Drill

A common sight at many horse fairs and parades, mounted drill teams (usually ranging from 4 to 20 horses/riders) perform carefully choreographed maneuvers to music, often while carrying flags. Each team will design their own pattern and will be judged for accuracy in their formation, timing, horsemanship, and coordination as well as how original their performance is and how the crowd responds.

All riders should have matching clothing while the horse’s tack should match too, some events may even require the horses to all be the same color or breed.

Mounted drill is ideal for you if you like being part of a team and enjoy being creative in your riding.


Gymkhana

The dictionary definition of a gymkhana is ‘an equestrian day event that comprises of races and other competitions on horseback‘ which perfectly describes what the discipline is about. Events can include barrel racing, pole bending, flag racing, stake racing, and other speed relays. 

More common amongst children and at 4-H events, teams often compete at the same time but in separate lanes.

Gymkhana is ideal for you if you like working in a team and are fearless in (and out) of the saddle.


What should I wear when western riding?

When it comes western attire, it can be very different from the ‘formal’ look of many English disciplines, most western events require the rider to wear a colorful (either solid colored, patterned, or decorated) long sleeve western shirt, western show pants, or jeans with chinks or chaps, square or pointed cowboy boots and a cowboy hat or riding helmet.

Many online stores have an extensive range of western show clothing but I prefer to buy from Rod’s True Western because their prices are very responsible and they offer free shipping if you spend more than $100 and will even shipping internationally. They also have a great selection of boots, chaps, chinks, and show clothing, as well as some fantastic accessories such as scarves, earrings, and belts.

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.

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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