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Varations of Western Riding Disciplines

Western Riding Styles Disciplines Western Riding Disciplines Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

Western Riding Disciplines compose a colorful equestrian world, and in the tradition of the Americans and Canadians who ventured westward, settled the land, and established ranches.


Today’s shows offer a full slate of classes for western riding disciplines, most of which derive from the work which the cowboy did from horseback, or from general riding across country back when the West was won. Like herdsmen everywhere in the world, the American vaquero and cowboy controlled his mount with one hand, because he needed the other to do things with: swinging and throwing a rope, opening and closing a gate, shooting, leading another animal, etc.

The American vaquero directly inherited this one-handed style from his Iberian forerunner, who held in his working arm a type of lance.


In all western ridning disciplines, the rider’s attire is only marginally regulated, and leaves lots of room for individual tastes, and for ever-changing trends. A hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and cowboy boots is about the extent of the regulations.

When it comes to the equipment used in western riding disciplines however, everything is outlined in minute detail, and using an illegal piece of equipment automatically results in disqualification, which is necessary to ensure a level playing field.

Today’s classes for western riding disciplines include the sub-group of roping, where the free arm and hand is actually needed, but in most other classes it is just a matter of tradition that reins are held in one hand. There are also classes for junior mounts in which they may be shown two-handed in a snaffle bit or hackamore. Seniors must be shown one-handed

Roping, barrel racing and pole bending are not only part of shows, but also of rodeos. Although roping is also often put on as a single event.

Barrel racers have their own associations, which govern approved barrel racings.

Reining, cutting, and reined cowhorse have their own governing bodies/associations, as does pleasure.

So all of these western riding disciplines can be part of shows, and breed shows (of stock breeds such as the Quarter Horse, Appaloosa and the American Paint.)

The highest level of competition is usually found at shows put on by the respective governing association. Some other breed associations, such as the Morgan and Arabian, also offer classes for various western riding disciplines.


Reining - The most popular event, or class, at shows is reining, which is a western-dressage class that became recognized as an official discipline by the F.E.I., the world-wide governing organization for equestrian sports. It is so far the only one of all the  western riding disciplines that is  F.E.I.-recognized.

Other classes are highly popular, such as pleasure and trail.

Pleasure - All entries of a class ride together as a group, or, in case there are too many, the class may be split into several go-rounds, with a final go for the best ones. This class is a typical one for beginners, because they feel safer in a group.

Trail - This is a another that beginners feel encouraged to try although all entries perform separately, they nevertheless feel they can handle it because it is a matter of slow negotiation, without the speed involved in other western riding disciplines. They often feel confident that they can learn to manage these obstacles if they only work at it diligently. Typically, opening, passing through, and closing a gate, jogging and loping over poles, going over a bridge, backing up through parallel poles, and side passing are among the many obstacles and tasks one can find in a trail class course. 

Horsemanship - One of the more gratifying of western riding disciplines for Amateurs and youth riders is horsemanship or equitation. The skills of the rider, their general ability to communicate with their mount by way of subtle and effective aids is the main focus, not just the correct execution of the pattern the judge posted. Correct seat and posture are judged as well, and rail work is added, like in a pleasure class.

Western Riding - The name can be rather confusing, as western riding sounds like an all-encompassing term for the style of riding in general. But it is indeed the name for a class at shows that consists for the most part of a series of flying lead changes at pre-described points. It is a very advanced dressage-type class within the western style riding disciplines, which appears to be too demanding as far as the rider’s skills and the talent of the animal is concerned to ever enjoy a huge following of active performers. However, the crowd very much appreciates the hugely competent performances of the top riders in this event. Pylons mark a slalom-like course which has to be mastered, with the flying lead changes always placed right in the middle between the markers.

An array of classes that are related to the working of cattle can also be found in the fascinating world of competition.

Cutting - One of the most popular of all western riding disciplines, and is the one awarding the highest prize moneys in all equestrian sports, if we disregard flat racing. It derives directly from ranch work, and is still close enough to it that cutting winners can still be useful on ranches, in spite of the specialization of the sport since the National Cutting Horse Association was formed. To cut a cow is to sort her out, bring her out of the herd, and keep her separated from the herd which the cutter does on his own!

Reined Cow Horse - Another of the  western riding disciplines that is every bit as spectacular as cutting. It is known as working cowhorse at breed shows. It consists of two parts, the reined work, or dry work, and the fence work, or cow work. The fence work is one of the most dynamic and thrilling performances in all of equestrian sports, and is also rather dangerous. It takes a lot of guts to chase a cow down the fence and then block her with one’s mount against the fence, forcing that cow to stop and turn.

Roping - All ropings are timed events. In this group of western riding disciplines, what counts is the skill with a rope and the fastest time, although at breed show ropings, the manners displayed while working is also being judged. Roping classes include calf roping, team roping (heading and heeling), and single steer roping.

Barrel Racing - Yet another, separate branch of the timed events,  is the most popular barrel racing. In barrel racing, a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels is run against the clock.

Pole Bending - This is another of the popular, timed western riding disciplines, but one that seems to be too demanding to be embraced by very many riders. A slalom-like course is marked by upright poles, through which one must weave, before racing for home.

Cow Pony Race - This is a short distance flat race (no official distances exist), ridden with a stock saddle.

Article © Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos ©Oelke or Oelke Archive. Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action


Cow HorseCow Horse
The term implies a horse that is used for working and herding catter, or one is specifically bred for the work, or simple as a title for one that is very good at cow work. AQHA or Paints are tops today in competitions.
Western HorsemanshipWestern Horsemanship
This is the only competition class in which the rider’s seat, position, posture, position and action of hands and legs are being judged, as well as his or her ability to effectively cue the horse with cues as invisible as possible.
Western PleasureWestern Pleasure
In this discipline, the name of the game is not, like some seem to believe, to find out who can move the slowest (or hold his head the lowest), but to find the best-moving, best-behaving, cleanest-performer of the class.
Western RidingWestern Riding
Competition classes are judged on the quality of gaits, on flying lead changes, and manners and on response to the rider’s aids.
Western Trail ClassWestern Trail Class
In showing, zero faults is not the whole story. Judges want to see a horse that displays brains and skill, and the capability to negotiate obstacles on his own!
Cutting HorseCutting Horse
The cutter has 2.5 minutes to show his stuff. He may peel off a cow from the fringes of the herd, but must show at least one so-called deep cut, bringing out the cow he wants to work, without disturbing the herd.
Finished reiners must be shown with only one hand holding the reins, with only one finger between loose reins. Plus, The reiner’s patterns also include high-speed circles and run-downs.
Reined Cow HorseReined Cow Horse
California reinsmen and vaqueros were the apex of mounted herdsmen and their way of training with the rawhide hackamore and the results they got were unique and incomparable.
Ranch Horse CompetitionRanch Horse Competition
A certain slate of classes have emerged which are collectively named versatility, and all are discussed here. However, to win the title, once must compete in all five clases.
As it is known in today’s world, roping develped in the Americas. Competition includes calf, team, single steer roping, steer stopping and breakaway.
Calf RopingCalf Roping
Because the rider needs to focus on the calf, rating (speeding up or slowing down to maintain his position behind the calf) is a primary skill of his mount.
Team RopingTeam Roping
Also called heading and heeling, in this sport the header and heelers are judged spearately during a terrific display of partnership betwen riders and their mounts, with one minute to rope!
Team PenningTeam Penning
Against the clock, three team penners cut out the three cows assigned to them, and drive them to the other end of the arena and drive them into the pen. This really takes a team effort to accomplish.
Barrel RacingBarrel Racing
Time is everything and every knock-down costs dearly. Tight turns, change leads or direction without loss or stride, moving forward at all times -- because there is a time penalty of five seconds if a barrel is knocked down.
Pole BendingPole Bending
A slalom-like course around six poles, performed at a gallop, then blasting speed heading for home! Easy and natural flying lead lead changes are a must along with sheer speed.
Halter HorsesHalter Horses
Led towards, by, and away from the judge in all classes, at the walk and the trot, then stood up squarely to be judged for conformation and eye appeal!
Showmanship at HalterShowmanship at Halter
Not the animal at all, but the ability of the exhibitor is what is judged and the judge will design and post a pattern for the exhibitor to follow.
Trail RidingTrail Riding
Taking a trail ride, alone or along with others, is one of the healthiest activities both for yourself and for your mount. It is often the best activity for your horse’s mental well-being!

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