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Can You Switch a Horse From English to Western?

Both aspiring riders and experienced riders often discourse on switching their horse from English to Western-style riding. Some people want to know what the difference is. Other people ask which is easier. Is the one or the other better?

It is possible to switch your horse from English to Western-style riding. Many horses easily perform well in both Western and English tack. Not all horses can, though.  Those unable to adapt are hampered mainly by years of intensive training.

As a novice rider, I also wanted to know the answer to these questions – and a few others. Fortunately, these questions are not hard to answer, but it took up more time than I thought it would discover what I wanted to know. I can spare you that! That is if you are interested to know?

1. The Difference Between English and Western

There are similarities between English and Western, such as the rider’s position (which is essentially the same in both). There are also differences. Western riding involves little or no contact. The rider uses his seat, his weight, and neck-reining to give aids to the horse.

Against this background, it is helpful to briefly compare English and Western-styles terms for equipment, the types of horse best suited for each (in case your horse wants to have none of it!), and the attire that goes with each – all of which will be affected if you do decide to switch.

Looking at the origin of the two styles, one can readily discern why they are so different in some ways. The Western style has its origin in the needs of the cattle working cowboys, while the English style comes from the military traditions of Europe.

Accordingly, the Western saddle distributes weight more evenly over the horse’s back – which makes it easier for the rider to counterbalance the weight of a roped cow. It is also made for comfort – think of the long hours of riding over uneven terrain!

The saddle horn anchors a lariat when roping cattle, while the saddle strings were used to tie up various types of cowboy gear. Today, saddle styles are mainly designed to accommodate the needs of specific sports codes (e.g., speed games, equitation, roping). 

The English saddle – on the other hand – is smaller and lighter. There are also saddle design variations for specific disciplines, but an all-purpose saddle for us novices will do! 

It is important to know that all English saddles are designed with two particular things in mind: to avoid interfering with the horse’s movement while providing a secure seat for the rider.

As for the differences between the horses: Western horses tend to be compact and capable of steady travel – with the occasional burst of speed, English style horses are leggier, taller, and capable of varied speed over long distances.

The gaits in Western and English are labeled differently and approached differently (except the walk, which is the same in both disciples).

If you also consider switching, the attire is another thing that has a (minor) bearing on costs. Western riding requires the traditional Western hat, a comfortable shirt, jeans, and Western-style boots – with a sporty helmet.

English style riders wear a helmet (or hunting cap), a fitted jacket, shirt, jodhpurs or breeches, and jodhpur boots or tall boots.

Proficiency in the Western-style gives you access to various sports, such as team penning, cutting, reining, speed games, trail classes, pleasure and equitation classes, roping, and trail riding.

Proficiency in the English style gives you access to dressage, English country pleasure, jumping, hunting, mounted games, polo, hunter pace, and more.

Some sports allow for either riding style. These are trail riding, endurance races, competitive mounted orienteering, and similar sports.

2. What About Riding?

If you switch, you will have to change your mindset and riding position – and teach your horse several things as far as the riding style itself goes. Bear in mind that some horses won’t have it – they may become moody, sullen, confused, or show other forms of unwanted behavior.

The main difference between English and Western riding is that the rider takes direct contact with the horse’s mouth via the reins in English riding. The reins are used as part of the “aids” (along with the seat and the leg).

For speed and direction, most Western riding horses are ridden on little or no contact. The rider uses his seat, his weight, and neck-reining to give aids to the horse.

Other differences are:

  • The position of the rider is similar in both English and Western.
  • The rider should sit tall and straight. No leaning forward or backward.
  • The rider’s legs should hang naturally against the horse’s sides and the arms should be relaxed and against the rider’s sides.
  • Flapping elbows are deemed unacceptable in both disciplines.

Yet another question that is often asked is: “Which discipline is easier?”

If you think back to our discussion of the different saddles above, you have half the answer already. The larger, more secure Western-style saddle with its design for counterbalancing makes this style easier.

The smaller English-style saddle is more difficult to master. But more things make this style more difficult to learn.

In English riding, the rider has to learn to post to the trot. The trot is a bouncy gait in which the horse springs from one diagonal pair of legs to the other diagonal pair, with a period of suspension in between.

In Western riding, horses go at a slower gait (called the jog). The jog doesn’t dislodge the rider as much as the trot.

In general, English riding involves the coordination of multiple factors. Legs, reins, and balance are all coordinated to maintain control of the horse. This can be difficult to master.

Another difference between the two styles is that the English style rider takes a rein in each hand, whereas Western riders take both reins in one hand, allowing the other hand to fall naturally at their side or lay on their thigh.

Starting with the more complicated English style makes it easier to convert to the more comfortable Western style. If you switch the other way around, it will be like starting to ride all over again.

3. Making the Switch

What follows in this section is primarily based on information from:

More detail on the various topics can be gleaned by visiting their website.

Step 1: Buy a Western-style saddle. The sooner your horse gets the feel of it, the better. Be sure to use your Western-style saddle if you are riding a trail of longer than four hours. You will be more comfortable that way.

Step 2: Place the Western saddle on your horse to prepare your ride. Be sure that you place a saddle pad on your horse’s back.

Secure all loose straps before attaching the saddle itself. The distance between your horse’s elbow and the front cinch should be the width of three fingers to ensure proper placement. Connect the cinches and breast collar (if used) to secure your saddle.

Step 3: Use a Western bridle – it is less complicated than an English bridle and has fewer components. Western bridles often do not have a noseband. Instead, they have a component that fits around the horse’s ears or underneath the chin.

Western reins can be split or connected with a handkerchief, but all Western reins can be held with a single hand. (English bridles generally use a snaffle bit, whereas Western bridles can involve either a snaffle bit or a curb bit).

Step 4: When you mount the horse, sit deeply on the saddle – immediately in front of the cantle (the back of the saddle that curves upward) but not pressed tightly against it.

Sit up straight. Let your legs hang freely down the sides of the horse. (A Western saddle should have the bottom of the stirrups hitting your ankle bone).

It might feel more secure to sit on the cantle. Do not do that: this is uncomfortable for your horse. You should move up a couple of inches.

Step 5: Sit up straight. Relax your arms.  A good Western riding posture is necessary 

for your horse to be comfortable and able to interpret your signals.

A good Western riding posture means (among other things) the following:

  • Sit up straight with your legs securely in the stirrups. (Cowboy boots can help you remain in the stirrups properly).
  • Keep your legs hanging straight down from your hips–do not push them forward too far.
  • Hold your reins with the non-dominant hand and keep your other arm loose at your side. Both arms should be at lap height or so. Do not raise your arms too high.

Trained Western horses

Step 6: Hold the reins in your non-dominant hand.  Trained Western horses work without much contact, unlike your English-style horse. This is one of the things you must be patient with – it might take time for your horse to grow accustomed to it.

Your horse will also need to get used to the Western-style bits. They come with longer shanks, which put pressure on the polls rather than the horse’s mouth.

Use them for short periods initially – as your horse grows comfortable with them, you can extend the time.

You steer with light touches from the reins with your non-dominant hand.

Step 7: Use neck reining to steer. Neck reining guides your horse to move in the direction you want using a gentle touch instead of a pulling motion.

The motion represents a gentle push (in the opposite direction) instead of a pull. (in the same direction). This means that if you want the horse to turn left, gently touch the right rein to the horse’s neck.

Step 8: Give steering signals with your hips and seat. This is another area you’re your horse will need to get accustomed to.

Western-trained horses interpret even the subtlest of signals from a rider. A trained Western horse will follow suit and turn left if you look to your left and shift your hips accordingly.

(For Western, you have to rely more on shifting your weight and carrying your body. Do not lean your body – you have to remain upright and centered at all times. Use gentle shifts in your body weight to guide the horse. English horses are steered more actively with their reins).

Step 9: Know the difference between English and Western gaits. Both English and Western-trained horses have four gaits, two of which overlap.

The English gaits (from slowest to fastest) are the walk, trot, canter, and gallop. The Western gaits (from slowest to fastest) are the walk, jog, lope, and gallop. A jog is a slightly slower version of the trot, and the lope is a looser form of the canter.

Here you will have to spend much time getting your horse to understand what you want. Pushing too fast may confuse your horse – once a bad habit is ingrained, it may never be erased again without causing difficulties.

Step 10: Use noise signals to change speeds. Some Western-trained horses can speed up and slow down using noise signals. Many riders use the “kiss and click method.” Other horses might recognize voice commands.

You can train your horse to respond to any simple sound as long as you remain consistent and ensure that the sounds do not resemble one another.

Step 11: Stop your horse with a gentle rein motion. Pull gently back on the reins while giving a voice command for the stop; usually, drag-out “Whoa.”

At the same time, apply gentle leg pressure and sit deeply in your seat to encourage your horse to slow down. Do not ever yank on the reins. That can hurt the horse’s mouth, especially with a Western-style bit.


You can switch a horse from the English discipline to the Western style.

Apart from getting your horse accustomed to the typical Western-style gear (saddle, bit, and similar), the most critical challenge is getting it to learn the different gaits and being steered with reins, bodyweight, and posture, and the use of sounds.

It may require much patience and dedication from you, but it has been done before – and can be done again.

Are you up for the challenge?

Anrie Diedericks

I've been around horses since I was 6 years old and started competing at the age of 9. Horses are my greatest passion and I am thrilled to be able to share my 23 (and counting) years of experience and knowledge with you.

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