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
    Commented Jul 21, 2011 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
    Commented Jul 22, 2011 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
    Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 3:59
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    Michael McIntyre has thought this through. Horseback riding is mentioned at 1'45
    – Zaz
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 3:58

9 Answers 9


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.


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.


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

  • 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
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 17:18
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    @mgb: Obviously, that would be "motorcycle-seat riding" Commented May 1, 2012 at 4:49
  • You're right, mgb.
    – Tristan
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 10:40
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    @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
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 1:10
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    @JonHanna - indeed there are circumstance when saying "do you ride" to somebody wearing certain items of leather apparel could be open to misunderstanding
    – mgb
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 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."

  • Aren’t folks standing atop the horse considered equepedestrians? :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 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
    Commented Sep 28, 2012 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? Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 5:24

The first horse races I went to, at a county fair back in the 50s, did not have the jockeys sitting on the horses' backs, but rather in sulkies drawn behind the horses. Trotting races. And from the following lines in the Music Man, after comparing the corrupting influence of pool (as compared to wholesome billiards), Harold Hill sings in Ya Got Trouble,

And list'nin to some big out-a-town Jasper
Hearin' him tell about horse-race gamblin'.
Not a wholesome trottin' race, no!
But a race where they set down right on the horse!
Like to see some stuck-up jockey'boy
Sittin' on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil?
Well, I should say. 

I gather there was once considerable feeling against horseback racing. Hence the need to distinguish it, terminologically.

(The song is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI_Oe-jtgdI )

  • Would somebody on a sulky be described as "horse riding"? Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 18:22

Because it was so commonplace before the motor car arrived, you just said "riding" and so do all people today who regularly ride, or who have grown up riding horses. You talk about "going out for a ride" .That is why "do you ride" is usual. If cycling is the alternative, you can say "I'm going out on my bike" or "I'm going for a ride on my bike". Motorcyclists are often called "bikers" so that covers them!

All this horseback stuff is maddening - it is just RIDING!

  • This is more of a comment than an answer to the poster's question about why horseback riding is a common term in English. Do you have an answer to that question?
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 19:20

Surely it's just the USA English love of the more complex expressions "Why have it simple when it can be so beautifully complicated" As "elevator" for "lift" I notice a gentleman above describes himself as wearing a "duster". Another strange USA term. What does he dust with it?

  • Whatever is complicated about "horseback"? I could argue that "sidewalk" and "candy" and "closet" are less ambiguous and simpler to understand than "pavement", "sweets" and "cupboard".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 7:21
  • "Horseback riding" is a perfectly normal phrase in British English, so this seems to be based on a false premise. Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 17:48
  • @Mari-LouA "Horseback riding" isn't very complicated, but it's more complicated than "horse riding" and conveys no extra information, as noted in the question. Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 17:50
  • @DavidRicherby your point being that my comment was uncalled for?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 17:54
  • @Mari-LouA I disagree with your comment but no, it's not uncalled for. Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 17:58

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