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Western riding compared to English riding - are they as different as you think? For many riders, an English saddle is the most comfortable place in the world, but if those who have also tried riding cowboy-style on a dude ranch vacation will know that no English saddle compares to the ‘armchair’ of a western saddle, with its large, comfortable seat and oversized stirrups. How, then, must it feel to go from having always ridden western to trying out English riding? For Top50 Ranches founder and ranch owner Jody Dahl, who has always ridden western, that became reality when a friend challenged her to an English-style jumping lesson at a local Montana equestrian centre…

“As soon as I got into the English saddle, the first thing I felt was a huge lack of security,” remembers Jody. “My normal western saddle really holds me in place, so instinctually I froze up – I didn't know where or how to place my weight, especially when it came to the actual jumping part of the lesson. Initially, it was a bigger challenge for me mentally rather than physically.”

Since dabbling in English riding, Jody has taken a lot of what she learned and applied it to her normal western style of riding. “Riding English definitely helped me understand how best to proportion my weight and it also really boosted my confidence – even in the western saddle,” she explains. “It made me more aware of where I should be placing my feet, legs, and weight through my seatbones, and even though a western saddle sits you back a bit, I realised that actually, you can re-train yourself to sit up straighter and maintain a better posture in the saddle.

“I think it would be a much easier transition to go from a very small saddle to a western saddle as opposed to the other way around,” adds Jody. “A western saddle allows you to be a bit lazier as a rider – to an extent you can let the saddle do some of the work. English saddles, on the other hand, don’t all allow for any laziness in your riding.”

Mel's grew up showjumping and doing dressage English-style

Top50’s Mel Rutherford had the opposite perspective. Having grown up in the UK and ridden English style from a young age, making the transition to western riding was, although more comfortable, still very much a challenge…

“Problem one: lifting the saddle onto the horse’s back!” laughs Mel. “But the sheer size and weight of the saddle also meant I had to compensate with more exaggerated movements when giving aids. Having concentrated on dressage for several years where I relied on subtle leg aids and shifts of weight in my seat, it felt odd not to be able to stop my horse using my seat alone. On the other hand, western bits are that much stronger – usually a curb – so you can’t afford to be at all heavy-handed. I learnt to use voice aids a lot more, and to be very ‘giving’ with my hands – if I did pull back on the reins, I had to be very gentle and release the pressure the instant my horse reacted. But most working ranch horses are very responsive, which makes it easier for the rider.

Mel had to get to grips with western riding in Montana

“Going fast was a learning curve, too!” Mel adds. “Western saddles place you much further back in the saddle and, with long stirrups and a large saddle horn in front of you, it’s hard to adopt a forward seat in lope or gallop as you would in English riding. Initially I was afraid of getting ‘left behind’ in the faster paces, but it’s actually much more comfortable to sit back and let the western saddle hold you in position – and for the horse, too. It also means you’re in a much more stable position should your horse suddenly stop or shoot out to the side – there’s less of a risk of coming out of the side door! Having something to hold on to also makes it easier to negotiate steep, rocky terrain that you encounter in such varied landscapes.”

Jody takes part in reining competitions

For Jody, who has regular reining lessons, riding English has revolutionised the way she looks at western riding. “I really liked being so in contact with the horse,” she explains. “The close-contact saddle allows you to stay out of your horse’s way for the finer manoeuvres, like those I use in my reining training. In that sense, I really like the idea behind the English saddle.”

Jody knows western riding like the back of her hand

For Mel, the more she rode western the more she realised the two styles aren’t so different. “I had a few lessons and the foundations are actually very similar,” she explains. “Not letting the horse fall onto his inside shoulder, getting him sharp off your leg, making sure you have the correct bend through a turn – easier said than done when you’ve just got one hand on the reins! And that stuff really matters out there. When you’re trying to control 2,000 head of cattle on your horse out on cattle drives, you’ve got to be in complete control of his every move, otherwise you could lose the entire herd.”


Fancy trying your hand at western riding and cattle drives on a dude ranch vacation? Find your perfect western horse riding holiday at

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