For most people who don't ride or aren't familiar with horses and their tack, the main difference between the two disciplines is the saddle.
The modern English saddle has padding in the seat for the rider, and underneath for the horse. It's usually made of leather, although synthetic materials are becoming more popular. There are severeal types if English saddle, general purpose, jumping, dressage, endurance, etc., but they all look fairly similar, although the jumping saddle puts the rider further forward, while the dressage saddle is straighter, and the endurance saddle has wider flaps to spread the weight more evenly. They all tend to have padded wedges beneath the top flap, known as 'knee rolls' to encourage the rider's leg to stay in the correct English riding position. The have detachable stirrups and stirrup leathers and there are many different styles of girth.

Being a Brit, I learnt to ride English style, on an English saddle, but I have always been interested in the Western style of riding which is now gaining in popularity in this country.
Today's Western saddle is, of course, derived from the 'cowboy' saddle, with large leather skirts and a horn. The horn is used by the cowboy to tie or wrap his lariat around when roping cattle. Most pleasure saddles only have a 'token' horn which is purely for decoration, and a proper 'roping' saddle has a horn which is thicker and stronger to withstand the strain of holding the rope when it's attached to a large steer. Like the English saddle, there are various types of Western saddle, apart from roping, there are reining (Western dressage) general purpose or 'pleasure' cutting, endurance (which often don't have a horn at all) and show saddles, which usually have a lot of silver trimming the skirts, and the stirrups may be of silver as well. All Western saddles may be plain leather or 'tooled', and the stirrups, unlike those of the English saddle, are attached to large leather flaps called 'fenders' and come complete with the saddle. As with the English saddle there is a huge variety of girths or 'cinches' designed with the horse's comfort in mind. The girthing system is different on the two types of saddle. The English girth buckles directly onto the billet on the near, or left side. A Western saddle has a long strap called a latigo, on the near side. The cinch attaches to the offside billet and the latigo is drawn through the buckle ring of the cinch and through the 'D' ring of the saddle, as many times as necessary, before being tied or buckled securely.

Knotted Latigo.gif

A back cinch is sometimes used to balance the saddle when roping cattle, or for showing, but is not necessary for general pleasure or trail riding. It ishould never be fastened tightly, its purpose only being to prevent the saddle tipping forward.

Wheras with an English saddle, a light saddle pad or numnah may be used mainly to protect the saddle from dirt and stains, a thick saddle pad is always used with a Western saddle to protect the horse, since the nice mock sheepskin lining of the western saddle is purely cosmetic and there is no actual padding to protect the horse. These pads can be as plain or colorful as the rider wishes and also come in a variety of shapes and types.
Although much bigger and heavier than the English saddle, the weight of a Western saddle is spread over a much wider area, so is actually more comfortable for the horse. For a short rider (like me) who finds a full size leather Western saddle difficult to lift onto a horse a synthectic Western saddle can be the answer. They can be purchased in many different colors and styles and have the advantage of being very easy to maintain, needing no oiling and are around 17 pounds in weight versus the 27 - 40 plus pounds of a standard leather saddle.
The one shown here is a cordura Arabian saddle, which has short, rounded skirts and a flared front to fit the wider shoulders and shorter back of Arabian horses.

A synthetic is especially useful for endurance riding, because of the lighter weight and their ability to shrug off mud and water. I use a synthetic Western saddle myself and just love it.

Next time I'll touch on some of the actual differences between Western and English riding.