Why Equitation is an essential skill for all riders, regardless of discipline …
[Part 1 of our Equitation Series – First posted in Issue No. 9, Training]
When people think equitation, they often think of flat work. The dictionary defines equitation as the study and practice of riding and horsemanship or the art of riding, but what does that really mean? In a way all equestrians are students of equitation because we study riding, but at the same time not everyone has (or knows) good equitation.
So what is equitation in practice?
Equitation has a range of definitions and is used in a range of contexts. It’s used to define specific show classes or disciplines such as Hunt Seat or Saddle Seat Equitation, but is also more loosely used to define the very art of riding a horse. The focus of equitation classes and clinics is usually on the skills and position of the rider, and less on the horse. While many riders start their careers in equitation, to build a good foundation, other sometimes find themselves drawn back to the skill later on in their career.
If nothing else, equitation is about the rider, including how they are positioned, how they use aids, and how they connect with their horse. Good equitation riders have a strong relationship with their horse and know how to work as a team. Equitation riders are confident in the tack, and know how to anticipate the needs of their horses and correct as (or before) required.
Regardless of your riding level or discipline of choice, good equitation will keep you shining in the saddle, both in and out of the show ring.
Position, Position, Position
When it comes to equitation, position is everything. Your position in the saddle plays a major role in the amount of access you have to your horse, and the connection you can achieve. A good position helps you to gain ownership of your horse’s body, and activate it as you need to during a ride. A good position makes you a more effective rider. Bad position unbalances your horse, affects your ability to relay clear and correct aids, and affects rhythm and movement of the gaits.
Ideally a rider should be positioned at the horse’s center of gravity. While the exact location varies by horse depending on conformation, the centre of gravity is usually located a few inches behind the front shoulder and around a third of the distance up from the base of the barrel. It will generally fall in the spot that your girth sits. Sitting positioned at the center of gravity isn’t just good for your horse, but you as well. It will help keep you balanced and better aligned with your horse’s movement.
When sitting at the center of gravity your body, as a rider, should be in alignment from shoulder to hip to heel. When riding Dressage or on the flat (Hunters, Jumpers, Eventers), your elbows should also fall into this invisible line that runs from your shoulder to your heel. When jumping this position will naturally need to shift to make room for your horse’s movement. Your shoulders, hips, and heels should remain in alignment, but your elbows will move forward through the movement of the jump. When in contact with the saddle on the flat, your weight should be balanced evenly across both of your seat bones.
Part of position isn’t just how you’re seated in the saddle though, but how you position your horse as you ride. In order to be successful in developing good equitation, your horse needs to remain aligned and properly framed. A horse that is in frame and aligned will be properly engaging his back and stomach muscles. Proper position of the horse ensures that he is able to flawlessly execute whatever you ask of him, and that he stays sound in the process.
The most important part of position is balance and alignment. Riding unbalanced or out of alignment can have detrimental effects on your horse long term. Unequal pressure on the horse’s back, due to lack of rider balance, riding unaligned, or an ill-fitting saddle, can cause muscle and joint issues, back issues, and even lameness. So always pay close attention to how your tack fits and how you sit and move in the saddle while riding.
The square and riding inside the box
While circles have their benefits in training, when it comes to equitation, squares are the thing. When working on circles, it’s all about maintaining consistent bend; when working on squares it’s all about straightness. Riding squares helps the rider to become more aware of the outside side of your horse. To ride a square properly you need to maintain contact on the bit, especially with the outside rein.
Outside rein contact is the key tool to keeping your horse balanced as you make the turn. Your horse needs to be on “four wheels” through the turn, not two. It’s about being balanced, and not feeling like your horse is racing around the corner about to topple over at any instant.
To ride a square corner your horse needs to keep his body much straighter than when on the curve of a circle, and alignment becomes even more essential. Your horse needs to keep his neck in front of him, the hips must move to the outside and the front end must come “around the back end” through the corner. The key to a good square, much like any other training exercise, is maintaining control over your horse’s body at all times. You need to be able to ask for the movement, maintain balance and straightness, and keep your horse supple and moving forward.
While practicing your squares (and your equitation), forget thinking outside the box, think in it – at all times. Keeping your horse “in the box” is essential to perfecting your equitation. So what does “in the box” really mean? A horse that is inside the box is balanced and aligned (always “on four wheels”). It takes time to learn how to put your horse “in the box” properly, and it’s a skill you’ll only master after mastering position, contact, and balance.
The Outside Rein
While you’re thinking inside the box and executing some excellent squares, you can’t forget about your outside rein. The outside rein is often one of the most underused and easily forgotten aids, but one of the most essential to equitation, and good riding in general. Many riders suffer from outside rein amnesia, they forget it’s there and rely on the inside rein for steering and other directional ques. Yes the horse will turn with just the inside rein, but it won’t be a properly balanced turn. Turns using only the inside rein are generally turns taken on “two wheels”, good turns engage your whole horse and keep him on “all four wheels”.
Maintaining contact on the outside rein is not just about directional steering though, it’s about balance, suppleness, and straightness – key tenants of good equitation (sensing a theme?). The outside rein serves a range of functions depending on the situation, it can “block” a horse from moving too far sideways, it can keep your horse straight on the rail and through turns, and it is essential to maintain good collection and frame.
Know your Stuff – Just what is your coach shouting at you?
So you’re starting to understand the basics of good equitation, excellent! There are some key terms and concepts you should understand. Here’s some essential equine equitation terminology:
- Diagonal Pairs – otherwise known as diagonally paired aids. Commonly heard in riding as “inside leg to outside rein” or “outside rein to inside leg”.
- Half Halt – an aid that both drives the horse forward while restraining him back, it balances the horse back on the hindquarters while in movement. It is a split second movement that encourages the horse to bring the hindquarters under the body
- Straightness – how straight your horse is during riding
- Lateral Flexion – slight bend to the left or right, in the pole, while the neck and body remain straight
- Longitudinal Flexion – when the poll softens, allowing the nose to come closer to the vertical (in a straight line); encouraging and developing roundness in the horse through the topline
Putting it all together
Like many things, perfect equitation won’t happen instantaneously. It’ll take time and practice to pull the pieces together, and we’ve thrown a lot of information your way. In the end, to achieve good equitation you need to consider a number of factors that affect your riding:
- alignment, and
- rein use.
All of it goes hand in hand to enhance your riding, it just takes time, practice, and a good coach to help you understand how to achieve it, and how to apply that knowledge to your horse and riding.
Stephanie Jensen is an EC Level 2 certified coach and Grand Prix Dressage rider. She specializes in teaching Hunter riders how to enhance their equitation skills. You can learn more about Stephanie and her upcoming clinics by visiting her site, Stephanie Jensen Equestrian or Facebook page (@StephanieJensenEquestrian)