Saddle up: a guide to Western Horseback Riding Competitions


Hadley Leftin

Hadley Leftin is shown riding Charley in the correct posture and the right tack.

     There are three main categories for competition: English, Western, and Driving. These categories have competitions, however, in this article, we will be discussing Western competitions. 

     Western riding roots are in the ranchlands of the American West. This type of competition started at county fairs to show which rancher had the most skills and the best cow horse.

     There are six different specialties in Western competition: Working Cow Horse, Team Penning, Team Sorting, Cutting, Western Pleasure, and Reining. All competitions are judged on training but some have other factors that are more crucial. 

     Working Cow Horse:

     Working cow horse is when a horse works a signal cow in an arena and makes them perform certain maneuvers with the cow. Traditional ranching methods are still practiced, and working cow horse competitions are increasing in their popularity.

     There are two or three types of work involved in Working Cow Horse competitions. The first part includes dry work, which is when the horse and rider perform a difficult pattern. 

     The second part is working with the cow. The rider and horse take the cow to the end of the arena and keep it at the end of the arena. They then take them along the fence and then to the center of the pen keeping the cow in a tight circle. Some of them add herd work into their part of the competition.

     Team Penning:

     Team Penning began in Ventura, California in 1942 on a ranch,  and is now a worldwide western sport, with participants throughout Europe, Australia, and Canada, as well as America. 

     The origins in Team Penning are in cutting cattle to be moved or vaccinated.

     This competition consists of a team of three riders, who have sixty or ninety seconds to separate three specific cattle from a herd of thirty cows and separate these three cows into a separate pen at the opposite end of the arena.

     The cows are identified by numbers zero to nine on collars or are painted on their backs. Riders get called a number from the judges, and once their number is called they start identifying their three cows, cutting them from the herd then taking them down to the pen.

     If more than five cows without the number that was called from them to separate from the herd cross the start line they will be disqualified. If there are any cows with the wrong number in the pen, the rider must take the cow back across the start line before the time is up.

     Team Sorting:

     This event is similar to the event Team Penning, however, the only difference is that it involves a pair of riders taking a herd of cows from one pen to another on the opposite side of the arena.  They have to make sure that none of the herd gets loose while doing this.

     The competition begins with two pens consisting of ten cows numbered from zero to nine. The clock starts once the judge raises the flag, soon the riders start sorting the cows in numerical order, beginning with the random numbers they were assigned.

     Despite the time limit, teams are judged by how many cows they have sorted rather than on how long it took them to sort them. 


     Cutting began on the plains of the American West when a rancher needed a good horse to help separate the cattle in case some of them needed medication or needed to be moved to a different spot. Local competitions soon sprang up and in 1946 it became a true competitive competition.

     This competition is different from other Western competitions due to the horse being in charge of the rider.

     The horse is judged on how well he separates or cuts the cow from its herd in a certain amount of time. The event starts with a small herd of cows at the end of the arena then the rider takes his horse down to the end with the cows and picks out a cow to separate. Once the cow is separated from the herd the rider drops his reins and lets the cow do the work. They have usually two and a half minutes to do all this work.

     Western Pleasure:

     Western pleasure style forms the ideal of what riding a horse western should be: a pleasure under the saddle on the horse’s back. The horses used for western pleasure riding aren’t exactly ideal horses that a rider would ride on a trail

     The horse is judged on its style and way of going. They walk, jog or trot, lope(canter), and are usually relaxed and collected. Collected means when the horse’s center of gravity is shifted backward. They must be able to stop and back up willingly while on a loose rein.

     Not all horses can become competitive in western pleasure: when the horse succeeds they have the correct conformation. Winning horses will have a flowing, balanced way of going and a willing attitude, which gives the appearance of being fit and a pleasure to ride.


     Considered to be the Western version of the English event known as Dressage, has its origins in ranch work. American ranches in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries required the cowboy’s horses to be brave, willing, and agile around their cattle and extra responsive to ques.

     In competition, all work is done at a lope, and horses compete in a difficult pattern of fast and slow circles, flying lead changes, rollbacks spins on the spot, a run down to a sliding spot, backups, and a quiet pause while demonstrating tremendous agility and willingness. 

     They are judged on precision, smoothness, finesse, and degree of difficulty. They are also awarded and deducted points for each maneuver. There is also a freestyle division in which competitors can design their own patterns and set their own music, along with sometimes wearing costumes during the freestyle division.

     From Working Cow Horse, Team Penning, Team Sorting, Cutting, Western Pleasure, and Reining, horses can do just about anything. They might not be the most popular animal or sport but it is valued among their riders, as it takes time and patience just like any other sport does.