Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Quintessential Equitation Handbook

Or not. This is my synopsis, however. ;)

What is the difference between “pleasure” and “equitation”, anyhow? As any seasoned horse show exhibitor can tell you, while pleasure classes are judged on the horse (by marking positives and negatives on such things as how mannerly he is, how well he moves, how much quality he possesses and how well he obediently responds to his rider’s cues), equitation, on the other hand, is all about the rider.

Hopefully, this post will be beneficial to helping you better understand the nuances of how to turn in that perfect equitation ride, or at least gain some insight into what such a class should consist of. Today’s equitation division is divided into several disciplines, based mainly on their pleasure counterparts, with a few exceptions.

English Equitation is, like the class title suggests, for riders outfitted in English attire, and can generally be found at a wide variety of show venues. Some breeds and circuits, however (like Arabian and Morgan, for instance), will divide this category into Hunter Seat Equitation (for exhibitors competing in Hunt attire and riding in a forward seat saddle) and Saddleseat Equitation (for those wearing Saddleseat suits and appointments, and riding in a flat saddle). Within the English divisions are Equitation Over Fences, where riders are judged on their form while jumping a course, and the self-explanatory Dressage Seat Equitation.

For Western riders, options include Horsemanship (which usually requires a basic pattern of maneuvers) and Western Equitation, along with Stock Seat (or Reining Seat) Equitation, where riders compete while executing a Reining pattern.

An education in Equitation generally begins when we start to take riding lessons, and should focus on just the basics of riding and maneuvering the horse to start. But when we want to advance into the show ring, that education must give us more finesse in our riding style, to go along with the practicality we learn in the beginning.

In order to advance and excel in the Equitation arena, a rider must first get those basics down. The essentials of a good seat, good soft hands and the ability to effectively use your legs are an absolute. Equally important, however, is the ability to not only physically and verbally communicate with the horse (getting an immediate, correct response) but to convey to the horse your make it look smooth, effortless and as though horse and rider are one.

Your level of success depends largely on two factors: How talented you are as a rider; and how skilled your instructor is in getting to the heart of that talent. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those with lesser natural talent cannot excel, it just means they have to work a lot harder.

Now let’s dissect the three basic seats -- Stock Seat, Hunter Seat and Saddleseat.

In the Western world, nothing eclipses the importance of a rider’s seat. It just isn’t possible to succeed without being able to sit deep and push the horse into a good, solid stop. Getting the horse to learn pivoting on the haunches, turning on the forehand and even performing pretty loping circles (let alone flying lead changes) cannot happen without learning how to develop a good seat. As a judge and riding instructor, I also want to see very light hands, meaning a rider must learn to control the horse more with seat and leg pressure than through direct reining, and please keep your foot and leg position where it's effective instead of pointing your toes too perfectly straight ~ this is a common mistake I often see. Maintaining balance, sitting with your hips well set down in the saddle (“on your pockets”) and keeping your shoulders square are also paramount. What I look for most is effortless communication with the horse.

Keep your arms at your side, my personal preference is to use romal reins, however split reins are perfectly fine. My main issue with kids who show in splits is that balled up hand held in the air, as though they’re getting ready to punch someone and generally with the elbow too bent for my liking. Remember the rule of shoulder to hip to back of heel, and ride accordingly. I frequently see riders with their legs too bent and their legs too far forward. That may be fine for a nice relaxing trail ride, but it’s not good Equitation!

Be sure your saddle fits you. I find this to be more common in a Western saddle than in English ones, and often in the leg department. If the fenders do not allow you to ride with a long leg comfortably, then it isn’t the right saddle for you.

When venturing into the Hunter Seat Eq arena, the use of legs almost eclipses the importance of a good deep seat, as using those legs is vital to maintaining a correct, balanced seat and proper position. There is a reason we know the Hunt Seat saddle as “forward seat”, though to be sure that does not mean the rider should remain in the two point position, perched forward at all times! This is a personal pet peeve of mine, particularly in over fences classes where I routinely see riders do this (stunningly often at their instructor’s command) and too many of them become unseated because of it.

A rider should be ever so slightly tipped forward, with shoulders back and head up, looking ahead. This does not, however, mean you lean forward! Slightly elevate yourself over the pommel of your saddle and, when posting, rise with the saddle in a sweeping forward motion. Sitting square, using your hips effectively and keeping your lower leg quiet while posting are of the essence.

Our final area of discussion is Saddleseat, where finesse and grace are of utmost importance. Somewhat similar to a combination of what’s correct in both Stock Seat and Hunter Seat, the accomplished Saddleseat Equitation rider can sit atop one of the peacocks of the show ring at close to Mach 5 while giving the appearance of being the guest of honor at a child’s tea party.

Remembering that vitality and presence coupled with animation are what’s expected out of a flat saddle English horse, maintaining poise yet showing strength will win every time. Seat position mirrors that of Western, as well as a longer leg, though the rider will sit a little taller and a little bit further back with raised hands from the elbows forward to assist with keeping the horse’s head properly elevated.

While riding an English horse, the rider’s lower legs should ideally be slightly off the horse, unlike Hunt seat, where they should be using the knees to post and only engage their calves if necessary to extend the horse’s gaits. A smooth, rocking seat moving effortlessly with the horse is very important as well. Posting is also not at all alike, but more in an up and down fashion, tucking and engaging the seat as opposed to posting forward to back as on a Hunter.

In the future I’ll go into more detail and give some in depth tips on patterns. Until then, eat~sleep~RIDE!



  1. Hi

    I have beenreading your blog for a little while now andhabe never posted before tonight.

    Reading what you said about posting I find it very interesting that you tell people to use their knees. We never teach our students that because it makes them frog kick when they post and it also tends to force their heels to go up.

    When it comes to the western horses stopping we prefer they sit down on their pockets but not too deep.

  2. Thanks for commenting. :)

    What I try to avoid in my Hunter-seat riders is the tendency to grip with the calf and ankle so much as to shove the knees outward from the horse. Thus, utilizing knee when you post. Also, this helps keep the lower leg more quiet and therefore the rider more effective.

    On stopping a Western horse, I want my students to be able to drop their hips deep into the saddle, in order to minimize bumping contact with the mouth. The last thing I want to see is excessive bumping!


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