The confused looks of non-horse owners and even Western style riders at Savannah’s horse shows is evident, as grandparents coming to watch their children ride for the first time ask one another, “What is the difference between hunt seat and dressage: aren’t they all English riding?
English riding is style of riding that developed primarily in Great Britain and spread to the US. English riders have a forward seat style of riding that Westerners often say makes them looked perched on the horse.
This style of riding became popular for fox hunting in Europe, when a rider needed to stay in a forward position to be ready to chase after the fox wherever it might go… over fences, ditches, etc.
If you try to jump while sitting back in the saddle, rather than forward, you will throw your horse off balance and be popped out of the saddle and catapulted forward onto the horse’s neck upon landing.
Hunt seat riding may or may not involve jumping, but when jumping is done, the horse is expected to move smoothly and rhythmically and to obey the rider’s commands.
Jumping is similar to hunt seat, but the jumping horse must move faster, take tighter turns and clear higher jumps at a faster pace.
In the show ring, hunters are judged on their calmness, collectiveness and technical ability to do what is asked of them.
Jumpers are judged more on their speed and ability to clear the jumps in the correct order.
Saddle seat horses can be gaited or non-gaited. The saddles are cut straighter and the riders sit more upright with longer stirrups. Horses are judged on smoothness of gait as well as technical ability. Gaited horses are also judged on their high stepping ability. While some saddle seat horses are jumped and ridden western, most saddle seat classes are on the flat and use cut back saddles which allow gaited horses to hold their heads higher and lift their front legs higher off the ground.
Dressage is also a flat competition, though again, dressage horses can be multi-disciplined and ridden in hunter and jumper classes. Dressage is a French word that means training and is judged on both technical aspects and ease of movement. Riders sit deeper in the saddle and push their horses more with their seats and legs while sitting more upright in the saddle.
Some horse shows combine all or many disciplines in one event. It is fun to go with a horse friend and watch the different styles.
No one style is better than another. It all depends on what you want to do with your horse and what your horse is most athletically designed to do. Many horses can do well in all disciplines and riders can switch between disciplines as well, though it takes some retraining of the brain, sort of like going from driving a stick shift to an automatic car.