Getting Your Modern Horse Disciplines Right

russellrodeocowgirlonabuckinghorse_bvcWe’ve talked before about getting your horse terms right–parts of the horse and his equipment and so on–and a little about the different riding disciplines. Here’s a bit more on the subject, for use when you have to have your character involved with some kind of equestrian sport or occupation. This is the riding-sport division; later on we’ll talk about different types of horse-drawn vehicles and driving.

In the United States, the two basic divisions of riding are known generally as Western and English. Western is the old cowboy style. Jeans, cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats. Big ole saddle with its signature horn. Horse of choice is the stock horse: Quarter Horse or one of its more colorful relatives (Appaloosa, Paint). In shows, this means lots of bright colors, liberal application of silver to the equipment, tooling of the leather, even fringe and tassels, though those are out of style at the moment.

All Western riders are not the same. There are the show riders and the recreational riders, and of course the true cowboys–the working riders who still use horses for ranch work including rounding up cattle. Show riders divide into “rail class” riders, riding very very slowly and in a very very stylized manner, and “working class” or “performance” riders, who will be cutting or roping cattle, performing reining patterns, racing around barrrels, and so on.

Then there’s rodeo, which is a major event in the West, with its own distinctive sets of events and styles, from saddle-bronc riding to bull riding to cattle roping.

“English” riding implies a much smaller, flatter saddle with no horn, and may include racing and endurance as well as various types of jumping and dressage. Racing is most familiar. Endurance is the marathon: long-distance rides through challenging country, in which the horse is checked frequently by a veterinarian to make sure his physical condition is optimal. The major endurance races are 100 miles long, and winners will complete the course with the horse in good condition in under 16 hours.

A relative of endurance is competitive trail riding, in which fitness and condition are key as well, but sartorial standards are a little stricter and the distances are shorter, generally up to 25 miles.

Jumping is one of the most spectacular things a human can do on a horse–both to watch and to participate in. Old-fashioned foxhunting always makes sure to include plenty of fences, though there are usually ride-arounds for those who aren’t inclined to risk their necks going over obstacles. Modern “hunter” shows are based loosely on foxhunting, minus the hounds and the fox; the clothes are approximately the same (blazer-type jacket, tight, light-colored breeches, tall boots) but the emphasis is on appearance and form more than strict function, and the shows take place in arenas and on groomed and carefully constructed, small-field-sized courses of fairly low fences. At most levels, four feet is about as high as hunters go.

Show jumpers are all about the fences, much less about the outfits and the position. The object is to get over a course of high fences in the shortest time; the higher the level, the higher the fences. We’re talking seven feet and more at Olympic level–and the fences keep getting higher with each successive round.

eventing-olympics_bvcThis is not technically a show jumper. You can tell because the rider is wearing a shirt and a safety vest instead of a formal coat–but it gives you an idea as to how high these guys will jump. This a three-day eventer, performing in what’s also called a “three-phase” or a horse trial. Eventing is the ultimate English riding sport, in that it contains all the elements of the discipline: dressage (more on that below), cross-country riding/jumping, and show jumping. Dressage and show jumping take place in an arena and showcase the horse’s training, obedience, and physical agility and balance. Cross-country is all about speed, fitness, and ability to clear difficult obstacles without either refusing or falling. Eventers don’t do any of these things to the level of the specialists in dressage, show jumping, or steeplechasing, but they are splendid (and highly physically fit) generalists.

Dressage is the equine version of a full formal dance–riders at its highest levels actually ride in top hat and tails. It takes years to train the horses and the riders, because all of those different “tricks” and elaborate variations¬† on the gaits and movements require an enormous amount of strength and obedience from the horses, and precision from both horses and riders. Olympic-level dressage is not actually the highest level; it’s the height of what used to be called in old military terms the “campaign school,” or basic training for equestrian specialists. Above that you get the “high school,” the specialist achievements of the Airs Above the Ground, which were supposedly designed as maneuvers in war–though there is a school of thought that says nobody is going to waste ten years of training by taking said highly trained horse out on a battlefield to get killed. I tend to agree with that.

These aren’t the only disciplines of riding that there are–there are all the variations on polo, just for example (from buzkashi to Prince Charles’ favorite sport)–but there’s enough here to work with if you’re writing a contemporary, and enough guidance for googling a historical setting. The main thing to remember is that riders, like aficionados of everything else, care deeply about their terms and their fine points, and they will write to you if you get it wrong.


cairo_bvcJudith writes fiction about horses, too. Read the first chapter of A Wind in Cairo free right here on Book View Cafe. The rest is available at as a trade paperback or a PDF download.




Getting Your Modern Horse Disciplines Right — 3 Comments

  1. That’s what I always tell authors who want to write about guns — gun aficionados are maniacs about detail. -And-, they’re armed!

  2. The supposed origins of the airs above the ground and the point you make about wasting such an investment on a battlefield is very interesting. I’ve tended to buy into that explanation, but yes, it clearly has its problems.

    How long would it take, though, to train a horse to execute such maneuvers in a fashion that might be useful on a battlefield, but hardly up to standard for a formalized display? I am guessing you’d still be talking several years for a horse to gain the strength needed, but with a somewhat reduced time investment it might still have been seen as worth it for certain high-status individuals.

    It is, after all, not like people with lots of money and prestige to uphold tend to be generally known for their good sense and frugal approach to doing thing.

  3. Just another point to help out the googling — Judith has not mentionned Saddleseat Equitation, which is a whole other kettle of fish (American Saddle Horses, Arabs, Tennessee Walking Horses and Saddlebreds all tend to be shown in VERY flat english “cutback” saddles with the rider sitting quite far back on the horse’s back. The idea is to show of the horse’s very animated gaits, pretty headset and fancy looks (a tail carried high — often helped to be so through artificial means — is part of this).

    And there is a whole show world that tends to be strongly culturally influenced. Judy pointed to the arab show world last week, and gaited horses like paso finos and peruvian pasos are also shown in traditional cultural attire, and judged on their ability to perform their specific “gait” in a prescribed manner.

    Then there are all the in-hand /conformation classes for the various breeds and types of horses — these are a bit like fashion shows for the horsey set.