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As a German horse riding seems to be to the point. Why is it horseback riding in English? Isn't it obvious that you ride on the back of the horse? Is there a difference between British and American English on this point?

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I cannot answer the question... except to say "horseback riding" is a primarily American usage. In British English "horse riding" is the usual expression by far. The word "horseback" is seldom encountered in the UK, except in the stock phrase "on horseback". –  TomH Jul 21 '11 at 23:09
    
It's not necessarily obvious because the Indians used to ride on the horse's neck at times. Not sure why, though. –  ashley Jul 22 '11 at 1:24
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As worded, I don't think this is a good fit for EL&U. Are you asking about something that can be more definitively answered, such as the history of the term? Why it is that way may be a bit too subjective. –  MrHen Jul 22 '11 at 3:59

6 Answers 6

It's probably just a conflation of the phrases "horse riding" and "on horseback". Couple that with the fact that you are, generally, riding on the horse's back, and you've got a recipe for common usage.

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I suspect it's left over from the days when a ride involving a horse could be done on the back of a horse or in a wagon or carriage behind a horse.

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It's a good question. As TomH wrote, horseback riding is a primarily American usage. It's not in English generally.

I have not heard anyone in the UK use it. The only time that I heard it was in American films. I remember it because to me as a British person, it sounds odd and unnecessarily long. I remember thinking to myself, “Why say horseback riding? What other part of a horse do people ride on?”

In the UK, it is obvious that riding a horse means riding on its back.

Use of the word back in this is just an unnecessary extra. Whenever it is talked about here in the UK, people just say horse riding. It is also enough to say riding, because it is obvious what is meant by the context.

The difference between the two ways of saying it depends on the regional flavor of English being used. Horseback riding is used by people speaking American English, and horse riding is used by people who are not speaking American-style English, including English and other British people.

This explains it: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/horse-riding?q=horse+riding

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In BE even the 'horse' part is pretty redundant. Unless you are talking to somebody in leathers and a crash helmet, "do you ride?" pretty much implies a horse –  mgb Apr 30 '12 at 17:18
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@mgb: Obviously, that would be "motorcycle-seat riding" –  ThePopMachine May 1 '12 at 4:49
    
You're right, mgb. –  Tristan May 1 '12 at 10:40
    
@mgb I've been asked a few times if I ride, and while in some cases context made it obvious they meant horses, most of the time it meant motorcycles. Now, I did have a fondness for wearing New Rock Reactor boots at the time, and I still normally wear a leather duster, so it's not a million miles from your exception, but the scope for context is wider than it literally suggests. –  Jon Hanna Feb 1 '13 at 1:10
    
@JonHanna - indeed there are circumstance when saying "do you ride" to somebody wearing certain items of leather apparel could be open to misunderstanding –  mgb Feb 1 '13 at 3:45

What about when one rides on a horse standing up, as in rodeo shows or circus acts? The performer is indeed on horseback, but somehow I wouldn't describe them as riding "on horseback."

In this case, they are definitely "horse riding," but you'd need to specify "standing up."

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Aren’t folks standing atop the horse considered equepedestrians? :) –  tchrist Apr 30 '12 at 17:06

It is interesting to compare the use in British and American English. Here is the NGram for the British English corpus:

British English Horseback riding vs horse riding

Now look at the American English corpus:

American English Horseback riding vs horse riding

In British English the two expressions were roughly equally frequent until 20 or 30 years ago, when the "back" variant rapidly became four times more frequent. In American English it seems to have been consistently four times more frequent. Perhaps this is an indication of the American usage being assimiliated into British English.

So, the answer to "is it British English" seems to be: no, not until recently.

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If you follow the links to "British English" uses of horseback riding then a lot of them lead to magazines which are clearly imported (such as American Cowboy, Boys' Life or Ebony). A lot of the books are American too. Something is going wrong. –  Henry Sep 28 '12 at 20:16

Interesting that Kevinspace brought up the issue of riding standing up. In American English, that is called "bareback riding," so perhaps "horseback riding" implies the difference between riding with or without a saddle.

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Interesting suggestion. Can you provide any evidence for it? –  curiousdannii Jul 22 at 5:24

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