I’ve noticed an disturbing trend on Facebook lately. I am seeing more and more posts where riders are claiming that great equitation doesn’t make great riders. On the surface, I would agree with that, since you may very well see an exceptional, professional rider sacrifice her equitation to get a better performance out of her horse. Unfortunately, many of the riders claiming great equitation doesn’t make great riders are using this as an excuse not to improve their equitation or worse as an excuse not to demand better equitation from their students. I’ve also found an alarming number of this arguments on the same feed as shots of people laying on the horse’s neck over a fence–a very bad and dangerous habit that puts too much weight on a horse’s front end over the fence!
When learning how to write, you at one point or another point out to your professor that great writers like E. E. Cummings broke all the rules. Their response is that those great writers learned the rules before breaking them. Equitation is not unlike grammar. The great riders spent many, many, many hours perfecting their equitation before rising to a level where getting the best performance out of a horse might require sacrificing their equitation. While I certainly am not a great rider, I too spent many hours working on my equitation, riding without stirrups or doing the same boring exercise over and over until I got it right.
You know what happened when I started winning my equitation classes? I started winning my under saddle and over fences classes too. Why? Because equitation is the grammar of good riding. Watch any of the greats teaching their students. They insist on correct riding. Only after seeing correct riding do they begin to allow those students to ride green or difficult horses. Despite the popular belief that equitation is about “pretty” riding, equitation is about being a balanced partner for your horse. At the lower levels, equitation teaches you to stay out of your horse’s way and let her do her job. At the upper levels, equitation teaches you how to use your body to support your horse.
At my daughter’s first show as a Hunter, she rolled her eyes at me when I reminded her to let her horse close her hip angle and to focus on (1) keeping her leg strong and steady and (2) providing a good release. She went into her over fences class and did neither, so when her horse slowed before the last fence and mule jumped it at the last minute, she ended up losing a stirrup and landing on the horses neck. Nice horsey hug, but not what we were shooting for. Better equitation would have allowed her to have more leg available to drive her horse to the base of the fence and to keep her position despite her horse’s silliness. Thankfully, her horse was wise enough to give her the time to get her stirrup back and get upright before leaving the area. One a green horse, that could have gotten very ugly very quickly.
After 33 years of riding, I know from experience that you can’t be a good rider with out mastering equitation. Once you do, you can move on to using your whole body as an aid for your horse, but you have to start with a great foundation. I think if you really study the great riders, you’ll find that 90% of the time, their equitation is excellent. If it isn’t, there’s a reason for it, and they can usually articulate that reason. You’ll also find that the greats never stop learning. Every trainer I’ve ever worked with is still taking lessons from someone who is knows something she doesn’t. To this day, I take a lesson any chance I get. When I train at home, I focus on my horses, but my lessons are a chance for someone to focus on me and make me better, which benefits my horses too!
Riding is a sport. More important, it’s a team sport. Your horse counts on you to be a balanced partner, who understands how your body effects her movement. For me, I strive every day to be the best partner I can be. Yes, it requires hard work and commitment, but anything worth having does.