FAQ Riding

20 Different Types of Western Riding (With Video Examples)

different-types-western-riding
Written by Horse Rookie

There’s no shortage of western horseback riding disciplines to choose from. Which ones are right for you?

A western saddle was designed for the rigors of ranch work. It’s meant to keep you and your horse comfortable for hours, give you plenty of space for attaching saddle bags and rigging, be strong enough to dally a steer, and help prevent you from slipping off during rapid maneuvers or over rugged terrain.

Today, most western riding doesn’t happen on an actual ranch. Ready to learn about all the disciplines that require a western saddle? In this article, we introduce you to 20 popular types of western riding.

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Look the part with footwear from our 9 Best Boots for Western Horseback Riding.

Different Types of Western Riding

What is Western Pleasure?

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Western Pleasure

In a nutshell: Western Pleasure is an arena sport in which competitors ride in a group and ask their horses to walk, jog and lope both directors at the announcer’s command.

Your goal is to help your horse stand out as the best mover in the group, and since it’s a pleasure class, easy-going, easy-looking-to-ride, and natural gaits place high.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Enjoy fine-tuning their horse’s performance
  • Don’t want to memorize patterns
  • Can make even a bumpy horse look very comfortable

Best suited to horses who:

  • Naturally don’t want to get anywhere in a hurry but remain responsive to aids
  • Use their bodies well to push from behind and lift their shoulders
  • Stay calm even when strange horses are in the mix

What to wear:

  • Crisp and colorful long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Western show pants (like these comfy show pants from Hobby Horse) or jeans and chaps
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

Click to shop for show apparel at Rod’s Western PalaceSee it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

Comfortable Cowboy Boots

What is Western Horsemanship?

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Western Horsemanship

In a nutshell: Your ability as a western rider is under the microscope in Western Horsemanship classes.

In fact, there are two parts: a rail class that operates just like a Western Pleasure class but in which the judge focuses on you, and a pattern that you must learn beforehand.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Have correct posture in the saddle
  • Can use their aids imperceptibly
  • Manage to make a bouncy horse look smooth as glass
  • Can remember a pattern

Best suited to horses who:

  • Respond promptly to all aids
  • Know a little more than just walk, jog and lope, since the pattern requires additional maneuvers
  • Stays slow, since these patterns are often on the small side

What to wear:

  • Fun long sleeve western show shirt, jacket, or vest (Bling encouraged!)
  • Western show pants or jeans and chaps
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots (check out our 16 best cowboy boots)
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

Click to shop for show apparel at Rod’s Western PalaceSee it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

Check out our 16 Best Cowboy Boots for Men, Women, Riding, Work, and More.

What is Reining?

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Reining

In a nutshell: Reining is a pattern class in which the horse and rider showcase certain movements that originated from working cattle.

The entire pattern is carried out at a lope or a gallop, and the goal is to make the horse look easy to ride and to handle, and for the horse to look quite happy to do what’s asked of him. Accuracy is key!

Best suited to riders who:

  • Aren’t afraid to go fast
  • Like to perform accurate patterns
  • Strive to be as in-tune with their horse as possible

Best suited to horses who:

  • Can speed up and slow down without breaking gait
  • Know how to do flying lead changes
  • Have strong haunches for sliding stops, spins, rein-backs and roll-backs

What to wear:

  • Solid color or subtle print long sleeve western collared shirt (our favorite is the Ariat Kirby shirt available at Amazon)
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps — plus a belt
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

Click to see Tough 1 chinks at Amazon

See it in action:

Return to list of western disciplines

Check out our 5 Weird Reining Stop Tips That Actually Work, or visit Matt Mills Reining in our Media Guide.

What is Cutting?

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Cutting

In a nutshell: The sport of cutting originates from the ability of a horse and rider to isolate cows from the herd in order to have them doctored, branded or otherwise inspected.

Amazingly, much of the work is performed by the horse, and in fact a cutting competition aims to show off a horse’s own ability to prevent a cut cow from returning to its herd.

A rider has two-and-a-half minutes to select and cut two cows from the herd.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Can sit balanced in the saddle no matter what the horse is doing
  • Know how to trust their horse, because interfering with the horse earns low marks

Best suited to horses who:

  • Are bred for “cow instinct
  • Have a sense of independence and are willing to do their job

What to wear:

  • Solid color or subtle print long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps — plus a belt
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

Comfortable Cowboy Boots

online horse courses

What is Team Penning?

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Team Penning

In a nutshell: Team penning is a timed event that involves teams of three horses and riders.

The herd of cows all have a different number on them, and teams are given certain numbers to separate from the herd and move to another pen … all within 60 seconds.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Love a bit of adrenaline
  • Can multi-task and think ahead
  • Know how to move their horse’s shoulders and hindquarters

Best suited to horses who:

  • Can respond quickly to aids
  • Are brave and confident around cattle
  • Have the athleticism to start, stop and turn on a dime.

What to wear:

  • Solid color or subtle print long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps — plus a belt
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

Choosing a discipline you and your horse enjoy is key. Learn more in our blog about Do Horses Like Being Ridden?

What is Breakaway Roping?

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Breakaway Roping

In a nutshell: In breakaway roping, your goal is to rope a calf as fast as possible. The calf gets a head start, and you and your horse can launch after him once the rope in front of you breaks.

You then lasso the calf around the neck, dally the rope and tell your horse to stop. The rope is designed to pop off the calf’s neck, and when this happens, the timer stops.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Have really good aim with a lasso
  • Possess good reflexes for starting and stopping
  • Are strong enough to dally the rope

Best suited to horses who:

  • Know how to do halt to canter/gallop transitions better than a racehorse
  • Stop promptly and strongly when asked
  • Aren’t afraid of calves or ropes

What to wear:

  • Solid color or subtle print long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps — plus a belt
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

Look the part with footwear from our 9 Best Boots for Western Horseback Riding.

What is Team Roping?

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Team Roping

In a nutshell: Team roping has two horses and riders who start on either side of the cattle chute. One rider is known as the header, and it’s this rider’s job to rope the steer’s head, dally the rope, and turn the steer to the left.

This exposes the steer’s hind legs to the second rider, the heeler, whose goal is to rope both back legs. The fastest team wins!

Best suited to riders who:

  • Have really good aim with a lasso
  • Like to go fast
  • Are strong enough to dally the rope

Best suited to horses who:

  • Know how to do halt to canter/gallop transitions better than a racehorse
  • Stop promptly and strongly when asked
  • Aren’t afraid of calves or ropes

What to wear:

  • Solid color or subtle print long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps — plus a belt
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

What is Working Equitation?

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Working Equitation

In a nutshell: Designed to showcase your horse’s ease of handling, ability to navigate obstacles, and perform tasks at speed, working equitation is quickly growing in popularity around the world.

It typically includes four phases—working dressage, ease of handling with obstacles, speed with obstacles, and, at the upper levels, cattle handling.

*Note: Working Equitation can be performed in western, english, Australian, etc. tack and apparel (as long as they match).

Best suited to riders who:

  • Want to master obstacles, speed and precision, and dressage
  • Can remember a pattern and execute it accurately
  • Have a high degree of control over their horse’s speed, path, and hip/shoulder
  • Enjoy a fun and inclusive competition atmosphere

Best suited to horses who:

  • Are very responsive to leg, seat, and hand cues
  • Tackle various obstacles with bravery, composure, and (when asked) speed
  • Can perform a dressage test with precision
  • (Depends on event) Can execute basic maneuvers with a cow

Click to see the Troxel Sierra helmet at Amazon

What to wear:

  • Solid color or subtle print long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Helmet (the Troxel Sierra is our top pick for western riders)

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplinesComfortable Cowboy Boots

What is Ranch Sorting?

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Ranch Sorting

In a nutshell: Ranch sorting is the cousin of team penning … and perhaps the crazier cousin at that! Teams of two horses and riders have to move cows from one pen to another. But that’s just too easy, right?

Here’s the twist that makes ranch sorting so much fun to do and nail-biting to watch: the cows all have numbers and have to be moved in numerical order with no stray cows jumping their turn!

And this feat has to be accomplished in 60 seconds.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Don’t lose their nerve in the face of pressure
  • Work well with their teammate
  • Can ask their horse to move all over the place and at different speeds while staying secure in the saddle

Best suited to horses who:

  • Can respond quickly to aids
  • Are brave and confident around cattle
  • Have the athleticism to start, stop, and turn on a dime

What to wear:

  • Solid color or subtle print long sleeve western collared shirt (our favorite is the Ariat Kirby shirt available at Amazon)
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

online horse courses

What is Working / Reined Cow Horse?

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Reined Cow Horse

In a nutshell: You show your horse in three parts during a reined cow horse competition: a reining pattern, a cutting portion, and fence work. It’s just you, your horse, and a cow in the arena during the fence work portion.

Your job is to “work” the cow according to specified maneuvers in the arena, including holding the cow at one end, running the cow along the wall, and bringing the cow to the middle to turn in a circle both directions.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Are accurate and quiet in the saddle
  • Like to go fast, but steadily
  • Enjoy patterns as much as they enjoy the unpredictability of cow work

Best suited to horses who:

  • Can accelerate and slow down as soon as they’re asked
  • Have a natural cow instinct
  • Are athletic enough to lope or gallop for several minutes at a time

What to wear:

  • Solid color or subtle print long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

What is Western Trail Riding?

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Trail Riding

In a nutshell: This sport evaluates how well you and your horse work together with obstacles, such as over logs, across bridges and through gates. The goal is to make horse and rider look like a team and to conquer each obstacle with a happy, willing attitude.

Trail competitions can occur in an arena or out in the countryside on a miles-long course with set obstacles and judges at each one.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Can strategize how to best tackle each obstacle
  • Don’t mind memorizing a pattern
  • Like to be precise in their riding

Best suited to horses who:

  • Will pick up their feet over logs
  • Can move forward, backward, sideways, shoulders, haunches, etc. when asked
  • Stay slow at the jog and lope

What to wear:

  • Solid color, print, or “bling” long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

Click to shop for show apparel at Rod’s Western PalaceSee it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

Check out our Happy Trails Gear Guide: What to Wear Horseback Trail Riding for fashion-meets-function advice.

What is Cowboy Mounted Shooting?

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Cowboy Mounted Shooting

In a nutshell: Contrary to the name, this sport welcomes men and women riders who love horses and–you guessed it–shooting!

Competitors gallop around an arena shooting blanks into colored balloons and are judged on time and accuracy. Targets are combined with riding maneuvers (e.g. turns, barrels) and include a straight line of balloons called the “run down” at the end.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Feel the need for speed
  • Enjoy sports reminiscent of old western activities
  • Are a good shot (from horseback!)

Best suited to horses who:

  • Are desensitized to loud noises (e.g. gunshots, balloons popping) and smoke.
  • Can kick it into high gear, while still paying attention to their rider’s instructions

What to wear:

  • Solid color or print long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Double revolver gun holster
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

What is Pole Bending?

Pole Bending

In a nutshell: It’s one horse and rider against six poles and a timer in the sport of pole bending.

First, you run your horse as fast as possible past the six poles and turn sharply to the left around the last one, weaving your way to the end, turning again at the final pole to repeat the serpentine pattern.

Then, you make one final turn and race for home. The fastest horse and rider combination, without faults, wins!

Best suited to riders who:

  • Love going fast
  • Can stick with their horse despite quick changes in direction
  • Perform well with adrenaline

Best suited to horses who:

  • Listen well even when they’re performing at speed
  • Have no problem sprinting as soon as they’re asked
  • Can automatically change leads in order to stay balanced

What to wear:

  • Long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Jeans (chinks or chaps optional)
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

What is Barrel Racing?

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Photo provided by Angie Misaghi (@angisaghi)

In a nutshell: Barrel racing is over within seconds but is exciting to participate in and watch.

Three barrels are set up in a triangle shape and riders move their horses in a clover leaf pattern around each of the barrels as fast as possible, then race back to the start line.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Like to go fast
  • Can stay balanced around sharp turns
  • Know how to stay light in the saddle to free up the horse’s back

Best suited to horses who:

  • Like to go fast too!
  • Can learn the pattern and understand what’s expected of them
  • Know how to do auto lead changes

Click to see barrel racing champion Fallon Taylor’s line of helmets at Amazon

What to wear:

  • “Loud” patterned long sleeve western collared shirt are common (Bling encouraged!)
  • Jeans (click to browse riding jeans at Amazon)
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

Click to shop for show apparel at Rod’s Western PalaceSee it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

Learn more about World Champion Barrel Racer Fallon Taylor in her Horse Rookie Equestrian Media Guide Profile.

online horse courses

What is Goat Tying?

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Goat Tying

In a nutshell: In this rodeo sport, riders race to a goat tethered on a 10 foot line, dismount, flip the goat onto its side and tie three of its legs together.

Then, the rider backs away from the goat and waits for six seconds before untying the goat. If the goat frees itself, the rider is disqualified, and points will be deducted for unnecessary rough handling of the goat.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Are acrobatic, because the dismount happens on the run!
  • Have enough strength to flip a goat
  • Don’t mind going fast

Best suited to horses who:

  • Will continue going fast even while their rider prepares to dismount
  • Won’t wander off or do anything silly while their rider is preoccupied with the goat
  • Aren’t afraid of goats

What to wear:

  • Long sleeve western collared shirt
  • Jeans (chinks or chaps optional)
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

What is Mounted Drill?

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Mounted Drill

In a nutshell: Mounted drill teams create art on horseback. They ride a pattern of their own creation set to music and often carry flags during their performance.

Judges look for accuracy in spacing, timing, horsemanship, coordination, polite horses, originality of the pattern, and even crowd response.

All ages and breeds participate, but it’s especially popular among collegiate teams.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Don’t mind teamwork
  • Enjoy being as accurate as possible with their horse
  • Can memorize choreography

Best suited to horses who:

  • Respond quickly and willingly to aids
  • Won’t act cranky squished next to another horse
  • Move at a steady pace

What to wear:

  • Teams coordinate their outfits, so this depends!

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

What is Western Dressage?

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Western Dressage

In a nutshell: Western dressage is similar to “regular” dressage in that you perform a pattern to showcase your horse’s movement, self-carriage, and lightness to the aids.

Harmony between horse and rider is also emphasized, as is suppleness and naturalness in the gaits. The goal of western dressage is to ultimately show off a well-trained horse that can perform traditional western disciplines with dignity and ease.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Always strive for improvement
  • Enjoy the more technical aspects of training and riding
  • Don’t mind memorizing patterns

Best suited to horses who:

  • All horses can benefit from dressage training!
  • Are eager to learn and please their riders
  • Easy natural movement is certainly a plus

What to wear:

  • Long sleeve western collared shirt (solid color)
  • Jeans (chinks or chaps optional)
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Helmet

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

What is Versatility / Western Ranch Riding?

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Western Ranch Riding

In a nutshell: As the name implies, a versatility ranch riding class aims to show how versatile your horse is when it comes to western riding and ranch work.

If you like western horsemanship, reining, trail obstacles, and working cow horse competitions, versatility ranch riding involves all four, plus an unmounted conformation class. If you just can’t choose one, this is the discipline for you!

Best suited to riders who:

  • Always expect the best from their horse
  • Are willing to put in the work to perform well in multiple disciplines
  • Aim for finesse

Best suited to horses who:

  • Aren’t afraid of cows
  • Respond to their rider calmly and promptly
  • Have natural movement and good conformation

What to wear:

  • Long sleeve western collared shirt in solid color or subtle print (vest optional)
  • Jeans with chinks or chaps
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

What is Western Showmanship / Halter Class

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Western Showmanship

In a nutshell: Competing in a western discipline doesn’t necessarily mean being in the saddle. Showmanship (i.e. In-Hand, Halter) classes are performed from the ground leading your horse through a pattern.

Judges are looking for a beautiful presentation of horse and handler and precision during each of the pattern movements.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Love to be on display and looking their best
  • Enjoy a slower pace and attention to detail
  • Want to show their horses from the ground vs. riding

Best suited to horses who:

  • Follow your lead vs. getting distracted by their surroundings
  • Are calm and exhibit courteous ground manners
  • May not have the best confirmation (not judged)

What to wear:

  • Fun long sleeve western show shirt, jacket, or vest (Bling encouraged!)
  • Western show pants
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Cowboy hat

Click to shop for show apparel at Rod’s Western PalaceSee it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

Though we wish everyone did, learn Why (Many) Western Riders Don’t Wear Helmets.

online horse courses

What is Gymkhana?

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Gymkhana

In a nutshell: Gymkhana is a collection of mounted games, and there are no hard-and-fast rules about which games are officially included in a gymkhana competition.

Barrel racing, pole bending, rescue riding, flag racing, keyhole racing, and other speed relay competitions are most common.

Teams often perform their races at the same time in different “lanes” in a large open space.

Best suited to riders who:

  • Work well as part of a team
  • Are brave enough to mount and dismount at speed
  • Have good hand-eye coordination and balance

Best suited to horses who:

  • Are on the smaller side, especially for dismounting and mounting relay games
  • Like to go fast but can slow down when asked
  • Won’t act silly when the teams and crowd get really excited!

What to wear:

  • Long sleeve western collared shirt (fun colors and patterns are fine)
  • Jeans (chinks or chaps optional)
  • Square or pointed-toe cowboy boots
  • Most riders wear cowboy hats… but we always recommend a helmet instead

See it in action:Return to list of western disciplines

Something for Everyone

One of the best things about riding western style is the wide range of disciplines you and your horse can try.

Whether you join a mounted drill team, try your hand at team penning, or slide into the sport of reining, there’s plenty of fun waiting for you!

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About the author

Horse Rookie

I began riding horses at age six, and I'm just as infatuated (OK, more!) with the sport decades later. My AQHA gelding exemplifies the versatility of the breed -- reined cow horse, reining, roping, ranch riding, trail, dressage, and jumping. We're also dipping our toes (hooves) into Working Equitation!