Western Riding History

Western Riding history goes a long way back

I guess we all know that Western Riding history goes back a long way. The horse  has been around as man’s working partner pretty much since the year dot. These days, though, they’re more in evidence as pets. The only real working use they are put to is by North American cowboys, Mexican vaqueros and South American gauchos. And with the possible exception of the gaucho, they all ride “western”.

My guess would be that North and South America combined probably account for 90% of the world’s working horses. Police and Armed forces world wide use them for ceremonial and riot control work. But that’s a relatively small proportion. These days, the rest of the World’s equine population are glorified pets.

So, it’s a fairly obvious statement to observe that Western Riding history has its roots in America. But why is it western riding and not American riding? To get the answer to that you have to trace history back to the Spanish and Portuguese Conquistadors. They arrived in the Americas in the 16th century. As they looted and pillaged their way across the continent they rode horses with saddles that became the Mexican “charro“.

The Mexican Charro
Charro saddle

Mexican charros were the original “cowboys” . At that stage in western riding history, “the West” was still that wild place on the other side of America from Boston. These days we tend to think of traditional Mexican horsemen as Vaqueros. But, with Charro traditions surviving in the Mexican rodeo, Mexicans say there are subtle differences between the charro and vaquero styles.

And, by the by, following our theme that the versatile horse derives from cowboys competing their cow horse on their days off, it was the Mexican charreada or charreria that was the forerunner of the rodeo in America.  But I digress…

It is generally taken that the real forerunner of the Western horse was the arrival in California of the Mexican vaquero after the Mexican/American war of 1848.

Back then, Californians were more concerned with getting gold out of the ground. Then, it was the vaqueros who provided the miners with their beef. There was no logistical prospect of getting beef out of California and a parallel development occurred in Texas. The Mexicans brought their long established cattle/horse management techniques but, here, the Texans had no mining preoccupations. They were happy to get on and develop their own techniques. And so you get the distinction between “Texas style” and “California style” in western riding.

Texas Style and California Style

Most people will tell you that the difference between Texas Style

Texas Style
and California Style
California Style
 exists only in the different ways of holding the reins and the set up of the reins themselves. But it is more subtle than that. Real fans of the vaquero style will tell you that it produces a softer, more responsive western horse. They offer the laid back, manana, approach to life of Mexicans as exemplar of taking the time to let the horse grow into their way of riding. They’ll say that, back then, they let the cattle teach the horse. On the other hand, Texans were less inclined to give the horse the time and would “break” the horse. Of course, that’s not to suggest that a Texas style western horse is any less a western than one trained in the California/Vaquero tradition. But it does explain the development of the two different styles.

That’s probably the reason why the Texas Style has proved to be the more popular. As Western Riding has developed into the various competition classes that identify it these days, no-one seems to have the time. Big buck professional competition has produced an almost “industrial scale” approach to the breeding and training of the Western Horse. Time scales apply that tend not to favour the Vaquero approach. A fully finished California Style horse requires patient attention over a period of years. Sadly, and generally speaking, the realities of professional competition do not favour taking that time.

….and why is it called “Western” and not “American” riding?

Simple really. Back in the days when everything described above was getting started, civilised society in America was on the East Coast. There, they still rode their horses the traditional “English” way that had come across the Atlantic with them from England. To equestrians there, what was happening on the other side of the continent, the West Coast, was the “western” way of riding with the “western horse”.

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