The first English riding style was really European in nature, and was a cavalry style of riding that was modified over time to the present, established forms of this style. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the military purposes of the riding style was eventually lost from it, when it became the riding style of the English elite. This was the style of the fox hunt, a favorite pass time of many among the English, both rich and middle-class. This is the discipline seen at the equestrian events at the Olympics, as well. Today, its popularity is robust and thriving among horse riding enthusiasts the world over.
It is very tempting to fantasize about the wealth and sophistication associated with this riding approach, but what practical purposes can it offer horse riding enthusiasts? If you have an interest in competitive riding, you will be attracted to the English riding style. If you dream of flying over fences with your horse, the English style is also your best bet. Even though the emphasis seems to be fancy showing events, many English style riders enjoy riding the trial, which is also known as ‘hacking’.
English riding is done in two types of saddles for two basic riding styles, ‘dressage’ and ‘hunt’. The hunt seat has two alternate names. The ‘all-purpose saddle’ or the ‘forward-seat saddle’. The second type is the dressage saddle. Both types are known as flat saddles, a name which helps distinguish them from deeper western style saddles.
Each of the types of English saddles has a distinct purpose. The one you should choose depends upon whether you wish to train your horse for jumping or riding, that is hunting or dressage. The long-standing English protocol dictates that the horse wears a contoured pad underneath the hunt seat saddle, and a light square pad under the dressage saddle.
The human get up is different for each style, but quite flattering in any case. For hunt seat riding, you will wear breeches, tall boots, and a rat catcher shirt. I recommend the new drilex fabric for this as it very successfully wicks the body moisture to the upper layers of the fabric where it can evaporate. Finish it off with the a good tailored jacket and a helmet, and if you’re new to all of this, be sure to stand straight in the saddle and ask to have your photo taken. There are two kinds of dressage level human apparel. The lower style closely resembles the hunt style, while the upper dressage style sports white breeches, tall boots, a simple white shirt, a dark jacket with tails, and a black derby, all of which has a still more formal appearance.
Many different types of horses can be fit for the English style saddles and disciplines. However, the best horses for English riding are taller and leaner that the western counterparts. Sometimes the word ‘uphill’ is used to describe the build of the English style of horse, meaning that the horse’s withers (the shoulder blades of a horse) are higher than the upper most point of its hip. Most thoroughbreds and warmbloods are suitable for the English tack, but the training of those horses involves teaching them to be collected and on the bit. What does all that mean? ‘On the bit’ refers to the horse’s line of communication from the rider’s hands down through to the bridle. ‘Collected’ means the horse is expected to hold itself along specific behaviors and to emphasize and drive his forward motion from behind him.
Naturally, hunt saddle activities with your horse comes from the tradition of fox hunting. The horse and rider need to keep up with the hounds while successfully clearing obstacles. Therefore, the hunt saddle is designed primarily for jumping. Riders using the hunt seat sit in a slightly forward position, meaning they lean forward at the hips when they ride. This leaning forward puts them into an optimal position for jumping because putting weight over the horse’s withers frees up the horse’s hindquarters. Hunt seat riders also ride with their stirrups shorter than riders in dressage, again to assist in jumping. Both dressage and hunting riders hold the reins with both hands.
Dressage is easily defined as the art of horse training including many methods and theory about horse obedience and precision of movement. Dressage English style will have a more upright position in the saddle than hunt seat riders who sit more deeply into the saddle to drive the horse more fully with their legs. English dressage style has seven levels that represent the different stages of a horse’s training. There are levels for novice, training, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, Prix St. George, and Grand Prix. The novice level is for horses who are just learning dressage and are worked only at the walk and trot stages.
English dressage and hunt style is an excellent way to begin to learn to ride for you and your horse. It is more challenging for the new rider, and it’s much harder work. You may also be attracted to the western style of riding, but if you begin your training and sport as an English novice rider, your training will more quickly develop your balance, riding muscles, timing, and the feel for your horse.