WESTERN and ENGLISH
Back in 1859 an American Cavalry officer, a certain General McClellan designed and eventually put into production a saddle for the US Cavalry. The saddle was designed in such a way that it would fit practically any horse. Actually if one looks at a modern day replica, it was no more than the wooden tree of a European saddle, padded up and covered with leather. Thousands were made and distributed to grateful soldiers who used them for years. They are still used by the military for ceremonial purposes and both originals and new replicas can be bought today. Personally I bought and used such a saddle on my English schooled palomino gelding for several years.
The saddle doesn’t look great and it is as hard as iron on one’s butt but it works well enough. What it gives to the rider is the feel of and close contact with the horse. Actually a rider who has been trained on a typical Western saddle could sit on the saddle and using his existing riding skills ride off into the sunset. If at the same time, the bit was exchanged for a snaffle, then just maybe the cavalryman could be shown how to ride the horse collected - ie on a shortened rein and with a gentle contact with the mouth. The US Cavalry school at Fort Riley which closed down in 1946 had for years adopted a “English” system of riding which was and is still very close to the system used by European cavalry units. Now what can be more American than Custer’s 7th Cavalry? The Cavalry Manual of Horsemanship ISBN 0-87980-222-7(edited by Gordon Wright in 1962) describes the standard US Army way of riding - it is essentially the “English” way. A copy can still be bought through Amazon. Any trooper who had mastered this system as formulated would today be seen to be a very competent rider.
So what is the great divide all about. Well fundamentally the difference falls into two parts. The Western saddle is designed to allow initially inexperienced riders to sit and work cows for a day, every day. It has a horn which allows the cowboy to work a rope, an essential tool in herding cattle. The rider’s weight is spread broadly across the horse’s back prolonging the horse’s daily ability to carry the rider. But the western saddle is a substantial tool, built to take the stress of ropework and it weighs a lot, arguably too much. On the other hand, the cavalryman had no use for a horn, he needed a simple saddle which could be swopped over from remount to remount. The saddle had to be light because cavalrymen needed to travel long distances. It should had to be a universal saddle which a soldier could use on any horse available.
Then there is the matter of holding the reins. If a cowboy wants to work a lariat, then he needs one hand to be free. His horse must respond to the rider’s commands with a light touch from one hand only hence the practice of neck reining. But to round up a steer calls for especial ability on the part of the horse. The horse rounds the steer up with supreme agility to a competence comparable with that of a polo pony. The rider doesn’t tell a roping horse what to do, a good horse follows the twists and turns of the steer of its own accord. So the cowboy gives the horse its head with a long rein. From the very beginning of schooling the roping horse carries itself long and low in perfect balance. All the rider has to do is sit still and stay on. When the horse makes a sharp turn, the western rider leans over just like he would riding a motorbike. To lean the horse over when riding “English” is almost heresy.
The English horse expects to be told where to put its feet and a well schooled horse will wait for the command and the close contact that the rider has on an English cut saddle makes this policy workable. To jump a high fence calls for the horse to be placed exactly at the optimum point of take off - a judgement call mostly left to the rider. The horse merely has to make the effort. The secret of success lies in the couple working closely together which calls for good communication between human and equine. The most obvious communication aid lies in the rider’s hands - ie from human hand, through the reins and bit along to the horse’s mouth. The rider can thereby “talk” with his horse. Riding on a loose rein throws that advantage away. Anyone who learns to hold the reins correctly won’t go back to holding the reins one handed. It would be like going deaf. Even if I were lucky enough to own a clever roping horse which would neck rein, I personally would still mostly ride the animal “collected” perhaps even “on the bit”. But when I wanted to round up those steers, I’d give the horse its head and I‘d lean over on the turns.
Every horse rider should be able to ride his/her horse in more than one style. Using the English system a rider can trail ride, race, steeple chase, play polo, compete at dressage & show jump. A three stage eventer will in fact use a different cut of saddle for each stage of the event but the fundamentals of the riding technique utilised are virtually the same at each stage. The two key components of the English way of riding to learn is the seat and the way in which the reins are held. Learn to sit properly from the very beginning and the sport of equitation becomes one’s oyster in any sphere of equestrianism all over the world.
Barry G Aug 2009