Switch It Up—Shifting from English to Western Pleasure

By Jane Carlton

English and western riding may sound diametrically—and geographically—opposed, but many riders are tempted to try riding on the other side of the ring. But it’s not as easy as simply swapping saddles. Careful thought and consideration goes into every discipline switch—for both horse and rider. Can the horse handle different maneuvers safely and comfortably? Do you need to re-learn the basics? While the two disciplines are different in many ways—you get a horn to hold you in!—they also have a surprising amount in common.

So, you’ve decided to make the big switch. You’ve bought (or borrowed) the saddle and show outfit combinations are on the mind—it’s time to cowboy boot-up. While you may look the part, it’s easy to fear the transition. Western pleasure, however, ties in fairly seamlessly to some key English principles. “Western is [a lot] like a dressage leg or seat—those people tend to have no problem switching over at all,” says Chuck Patti, head trainer at Chuck Patti Training Center in Merrimac, MA. The similarities between dressage and western pleasure are nearly parallel: Riders backs are straight, they have a long leg, the cues are almost identical, and they have their leg on all the time in both. “It’s remarkably similar in that aspect,” Patti says. It can be trickier, though definitely possible, to switch from hunt seat to western, simply because of the short stirrup length and forward seat required in the former.

Happen to be switching from English pleasure? The transition should be an easy one. Aside from the difference in gaits—the English pleasure horse is going to trot and canter while the western pleasure horse will jog and lope—the rider’s position is very similar. “Everybody who rides English has at some time or another done a sitting trot,” says Bill Ritchie of Bill Ritchie Training Stables in Rochester, MA. “So if you’re doing your sitting trot, you’re sitting up straight, just like you would western.” Western riders tend to have a longer leg in the pleasure classes versus an over fences rider, but there are other similarities between the two. “You know when you have your direct line from the bit to your elbow? Well, you’re looking for the same thing when riding western,” says Ritchie. It is one hand versus two, however, which is a common trip-up for riders. (Take a look at the sidebar to see what to do with that ever-roaming free hand!)

No matter the discipline, a foundation of solid basics will set a rider up for success, especially when switching to another style of riding. Each discipline, however, has a set of specific skills to master, and for western pleasure, the big one is neck reining. “That’s the part that takes a while to get the feel [of],” says Ritchie.

In concept, neck reining is inherently simple—bring the rein to one side or the other to get the horse to turn. And it can be that easy, though there are tricks to neck rein like the pros.

To start, it’s important to not apply too much force with the neck rein, or there will be an opposite effect, says Ritchie. For example, if you’re right handed and turning to the left, you’re going to bring the rein over to the horse’s neck to get him to turn to the left. “If you put too much pressure on that right rein, you’re going to actually pull the horse’s head to the right,” Ritchie says. “The whole idea is that the horse has to follow his nose.” There’s no need for a death grip—to accomplish neck reining that looks effortless, you have to have a fairly loose rein so the rein just comes on their neck, Ritchie says.

The rider’s leg should support the (single) hand through the turn, not unlike when using two hands. “Let’s just say you’re doing a simple turn. You would place the right rein on the horse’s right side of his neck, and use your right leg to get him to turn to the left, and vice versa,” says Ritchie.

It would be pretty hard to ride without an equine counterpart, so don’t forget to consider your partner during the switch. Don’t want to part with your English-inclined friend? Horses trained in English can find success in western pleasure, though it takes a fair amount of retraining. “The horse has the basics—they know how to walk, trot, and canter—but now you are not doing direct reining,” Ritchie says.

Even with training, some English horses just won’t cut it in the western world. If a shopping trip is in order, be sure to bring a friend or trainer who is knowledgeable in what to look for in a western pleasure horse—riders new to the discipline have a tendency to buy horses that aren’t aptly suited. “For most people that turn over, they kind of want [a horse] that’s got a bit more life to them, because they think that, ‘Oh, this horse is a little too quiet for me,’” Patti says. Many people will go out and buy a horse that’s just a little bit too forward before realizing that they need a quiet, easygoing horse. “With a dressage horse, it should have a little bit of energy to it,” Patti says. “The western pleasure horses should have energy as far as moving, but should be laid back.”

One big difference between English trained horses and those aimed at western pleasure is temperament. “The horses are really so much quieter [in western pleasure],” Patti says. While the discipline tends to get a rap for that, Patti notes that they’re really just even-tempered horses.

But that seems to be exactly what draws riders from English disciplines to western pleasure. “It’s relaxing,” says Patti. “There’s not so much drama to it. The horses are just quiet and really good-minded.” So sit back and enjoy the ride—we think you’ll be there a while. 

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