What Is Horse Riding Called, And Why?

What is horse riding called


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What is horse riding called?  Horse riding covers a wide range of disciplines and interests.  In many cases, this dictates what horse riding is called in that particular instance.  So – what you call horse riding really depends on where you are, and what you do when you ride your horse. 

That said, common names for horse riding do exist.  They include horse riding, horseback riding, equitation, trekking, hacking, and riding out.  Officially though the sport of horse riding is called equestrianism.  Horse riding events, like those at the Olympic Games, for example, are called equestrian events.  People who ride or use horses are called equestrians (male) and equestriennes (female).

what is horse riding called
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The Rise Of The Term ‘Equestrianism’

Interesting side note: a person who loves horses is a ‘hippophile’.  The term first came into use around 1852.  ‘Hippo’ derives from a Greek word for ‘river or water horse’.  (It’s also how the hippopotamus – not related to the horse – came by its name).  ‘Phile’ refers to someone who loves something.

But back to ‘equestrianism’…  The Latin term for horse is ‘Equus’.  It probably derives from the ancient root stem word ‘ekwo’, meaning horse and also possibly ‘swift’. 

The term ‘equestrianism’ itself appears to have entered the English language in the 1650s, although an earlier version ‘equestrial’ was around in the 1550s. 

As an adjective, ‘equestrianism’ comes from the Latin ‘genitive equestris’ or ‘knightly horseman’, and it’s derivative ‘eques’ (horseman).  When ‘ian’ (related to) is added, we get a word that means ‘relating to or related to horses’.  As a noun, ‘equestrianism’ means ‘someone who rides horses’.

Equestrianism also includes the sports of driving and vaulting.  It may also refer to horse breed (in-hand) showing.

Incidentally, ‘equus’ is also the horse’s genus name.  More completely, it goes thus: Family: Equidae, Genus: Equus, Species: Equus ferus, Subspecies: Equus ferus caballus.

What Is Horse Riding Called – Some Other Common Names

Equestrianism may be the umbrella term but you’ll rarely see it used in everyday parlance.  There are other far more common terms, some of which are specific to a particular area, region, or country.

Horseback riding’: interestingly, ‘horseback’ as a term associated with riding actually dates back to the 1390s (as per the Oxford English Dictionary).  However, it was more commonly used as a noun in phrases like ‘rode upon horseback’. 

Today, ‘horseback riding’ and ‘horseback ride’ tend to be used more by non-horse people, and mostly in the US.  Experienced horse people, including in the US, typically say ‘horse riding’.

Equitation’: this is another name you often hear horse riding called, particularly in Europe.  It comes from the same sources as ‘equestrianism’, ‘equine’, ‘equus’ etc.  It also means ‘horsemanship’.

Hacking’: ‘hack’ derives from ‘hackney’, a common type of carriage horse in the 1800s and earlier.  When these horses were ridden, as they often were, they were referred to as ‘hacks’. 

Hacking, therefore, was what you did when you went for a ride on one of these hacks.  Today, hacking is still used in some countries like the UK to describe an informal pleasure ride.

hacking in the woods
Photo by Jesús Alvarado

Hacking is also a specific equestrian show-riding discipline in several countries.  It may also be called ‘Saddle or Show Horse’ riding.  It is a competition designed to show off the natural paces, education, and quality of the horse.  The horses ridden in these events are also called ‘hacks’, or ‘show hacks’.

Bush’, ‘trail riding’, ‘trekking’: an informal ride, usually through the ‘bush’ or countryside.

What Is Horse Riding Called In Different Types of Horse Riding?

Horse riding covers many different disciplines but can broadly be split into ‘English (Classic)’ and ‘Western’.  These are based on the type of tack used, the style of riding, and the discipline itself. 

What is horse riding called when you compete in these disciplines?

‘English’ Riding

Generally, ‘English’ riding and its associated disciplines originated in Europe.  They may also be called ‘classic riding’.  Many have their foundations in classical horsemanship and traditional equestrian activities. 

What is horse riding called
Photo by Bartosz Bartkowiak

English disciplines include dressage, show jumping, eventing, hunting, and so on.  The type of tack and riding attire used is also typically referred to as ‘English’.  So – English saddle, English bridle, jodhpurs, riding jacket, helmet, long riding boots or short ‘joddie’ boots, etc.

‘Western’ Riding

Western riding per se originated in the United States, although many of the customs and equipment arrived there with the Spanish conquistadors.  It developed on cattle ranches and is commonly associated with American (Western) horse breeds (Quarter Horse, American Paint Horse).  However, any breed can be ‘ridden western’.  Many riders in America do in fact ride this way because they prefer it.

Western riding tack includes the western saddle, western bridle, riding jeans, western boots, and the ubiquitous ‘western hat’.  Some riders also wear chaps to protect their legs whilst in the saddle. 

Stock Work Riding

Horses are also still used to work livestock in many parts of the world.  You could therefore call this a third type of riding.  Style in most cases is neither English nor Western, although it probably has more in common with Western.  In most cases, tack and equipment have evolved to suit specific working conditions.

herding on horse back
Photo by Tuba Karabulut

In Australia for instance, the Australian stock saddle evolved for working stock on the vast cattle stations there.  The American western saddle likewise has its origins in stock work.

Other Popular Types of Horse Riding Activities

Other popular horse riding activities include:

  • Endurance and long-distance riding,
  • Pleasure riding,
  • Trail riding and trekking,
  • Racing and steeple chasing,
  • Hunting,
  • Hacking,
  • Pony club,
  • Mounted games,
  • Campdrafting,
  • Cutting,
  • Reining,
  • Groundwork,
  • Polo and polocrosse, and many more

What Are People Who Ride Horses Called?

People who ride horses are usually referred to by the type of riding they do.  Here are some of the most common types of horse riders:

  • Jockey (profession): rides racehorses.
  • Dressage rider: rides dressage horses.
  • Showjumper: rides show jumpers
  • Eventer: rides eventing horses
  • Cowboy/cowgirl: rides western horses, or works livestock on horseback
  • Stockman/drover: Australian version of the American cowboy/girl
  • Polo player: rides polo ponies
  • Pleasure rider: someone who just rides for pleasure

And so on.

The Modern Domestic Horse And The Origins Of Horse Riding

The modern domestic horse, Equus ferus caballus, is one of only two surviving subspecies of Equus ferus.  The other one, Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii – the Asian or Mongolian wild horse) is a distant genetic cousin. 

A 3rd subspecies, Equus ferus ferus (the Tarpan or European wild horse) did survive into the modern era. 

The Tarpan
Gessner, Conrad; Smith, Charles Hamilton,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the species became extinct as a pure breed in the wild in the mid-1800s and completely extinct in 1909.  However, its genes survive today in many Russian and Eurasian native breeds. 

When We Began Riding Horses

People first began riding horses some 5,500 years ago.  The Botai people in northern Kazakhstan domesticated (and rode) Equus ferus przewalskii around 3,500 BCE.  However, the practice doesn’t appear to have become widespread.  This may have been because Przewalski’s horse doesn’t really have the type of conformation that lends itself well to riding, particularly when compared to Equus ferus caballus. 

Equus ferus caballus was domesticated around 1,000 years later, between 2,600 and 2,200 BCE.  Archaeological finds indicate this first happened on the Western Eurasian Pontic-Caspian steppe, now part of Russia.  This species subsequently went on to dominate the horse world, and horse riding activities.

Horse Riding Allows Humans To Conquer The World

The domestication of Equus ferus caballus almost single-handedly transformed human society.  Mounted on this magnificent athletic animal we could travel further and faster than ever before.  We could go places we’d not otherwise have reached on foot, and do things we couldn’t have done without their strength.  In other words, we owe much of what we take for granted today to horses, and horse riding.

Final Thoughts

So, what is horse riding called?  The official name for horse riding is equestrianism.  However, other names like equitation and just plain old horse riding are also common, and just as acceptable.  More specific names like English, Western, stock, hacking, endurance, etc tend to refer to particular types/styles of horse riding.

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