Updated: Nov 19, 2022
Equitation is the base for all of our riding. When there is a solid foundation to your body and position, it allows you to interact and work with the horse with greater freedom and safety.
In Storey's Horse-Lover's Encyclopedia, equitation is defined as, "The formal art and practice of riding horses. Skilled equitation involves maintaining the body position that is considered to be correct for the type of riding involved; making appropriate use of "body aids," meaning the hands, legs, seat and upper torso; and demonstrating the mental composure necessary to control the horse and correct mistakes he may make. It is an art that typically take a number of years to master."
We are going to take a look at how our bodies should be positioned in the saddle for the most secure foundation of riding.
Our arms and hands are the first connection to the horse's bit and mouth. Even if the rider uses a hackamore, side pull, halter or bitless bridle, the arms and hands are the first
connection to the horse's face. As such, how the rider's arms are positioned and used are crucial to communication with the horse. Think back to an "old fashioned" corded telephone.
Rider - telephone base - origin of communication
Rider's arms, elbows, and hands- telephone cord - transferring communication
Horse - telephone handset - receiving communication
If the cord is in good working order, then the communication is clear. If the cord is twisted or broken, then the communication is spotty and incomplete.
Again, we are back to that pesky little thing - too much tension. Just as with every other body part that has been covered, elbows and arms set the tone the rider’s hands use to communicate with the horse’s mouth. If the arms are held tight, it will inhibit their use and communication with the horse will be spotty. Tension can be held in the arms whether the arms are too straight, held too far back or sitting just right. Any time there is one area of the body holding tension, this tension will radiate to other parts of the body. It is impossible to have tight arms, but maintain soft shoulders and torso, just as it's impossible to have a tight shoulder or torso and soft arms.
The biggest reason that riders arms are too straight is usually their reins are too short. Reins that are too short keep constant contact with the horse's mouth and gives no or very little room for a release. Horses that consistently have too much pressure on their mouths learn avoidance techniques such as rooting in the bridle (jerking their noses down and forward), keeping their head too high (which hollows out their back and leads to no engagement of the hind end), refusal to go forward, breaking at the neck instead of the poll, and keeping their head behind the vertical, among other techniques.
Elbows that are held too far back usually result from reins that are too long. Imagine trying to reel in a person on a life buoy. If you throw the line past the person that needs saving, you need to pull it in as fast as you can, either trying to get it to the person or back to you so you can try to throw it again. Reins that are too long leave the rider at the end of the "line."
When the elbows are held too far back, they have no where else to go with their arms, besides up or trying to flex through the wrist, to take up the slack in the reins. They have to scrabble in order to shorten the reins enough to make contact with the horse. When the reins are too long, there can be no smooth communication with the horse.
When the rider's arms are held too high, the reins will usually track in an upward motion when the rider engages the reins. This upward pressure will be uncomfortable to the horse and cause them to find ways to avoid the pressure. Similar to when reins are held too short, the horse may root in the bridle or bring their head up even higher, in an effort to escape.
Arms held too high will likewise affect the balance and stability of a rider by expanding the amount of space we take up in the saddle. Ideally, we use as small of an area as possible while in the saddle. This compaction allows us have more control over our movements and there is less area for inertia to move our body.
** (If the horse you are riding has a natural high headset (Morgans, Saddlebreds, Arabians, etc), then this hand position can be correct)
Arms that are held too low can also create problems. When the arms are too long, the rider will have a tendency to lean forward. Leaning forward is never a desired position for equitation. Also, when riders keep their hands this low on the horse's neck, the riders cues usually end up down towards their thighs or knees. Riders never want to force their horse into a headset (when the horse's face is on the vertical) or their head down - the horse will naturally bring their head down and to the vertical when the horse engages from the hind end.
Correct arm position is when the elbows are in line with the sides of the torso or just in front of the torso. This places the hands a couple of inches above the horse's withers/neck. The angle at the elbow is roughly a 100-110 degree angle. By keeping the elbows soft and fluid, this allows for the rider to move their arms along an imaginary track, think drawer slides, along their torso. Be careful to not bring your hands into your belly when cueing your horse. You will be able to know if you are pulling your hands into your belly if your elbows push away from your sides, like chicken wings.
Often, the length of a rider's reins affect where the rider's arms are. When a rider's reins are too long, this forces their arms up or buried in their torso in order to take up the slack in the reins before making contact with the horse's bit. If the reins are held too short, the rider's arms and hands are too low, which may also cause the rider to lean forward. It is important to remember to adjust the rein length to your arms, and not your arms to the rein length.
One way to adjust the reins is to "spaghetti" them through your fingers. To "spaghetti", use your fingers to "walk" the reins through your hands, using your thumb and fingers to push the reins into the palm and slide the hands down the reins. The rider can also reach across with the right hand, above the left hand, slide the reins through the left hand and visa versa to shorten the reins. In order to lengthen the reins, simply slightly open the fingers and allow the reins to slide through until they are the desired length.
Hands and Wrists
The position of the hands is very important. But, the amount of pressure that is exerted by the fingers on the reins is equally as important. Riders want to be careful that they do not squeeze or clamp down on the reins. While clamping down on the reins is undesirable, having fingers that are open can be down right dangerous. If the horse makes an unexpected movement, e.g., trips, spooks, or tosses their head, the reins can be very easily pulled from the riders grasp. If this happens, the rider is without a way to stop the horse.
There are a number of different images that you can use to help achieve the correct pressure on the reins. These include: holding an egg (not hard-boiled) without cracking it, holding a baby bird so it cannot escape while not harming it, holding the hand of an elderly loved one, etc. Please remember that in all of these scenarios, the item you are holding is the width of your reins. You want to have contact with your reins through your palm and with all of your fingers.
It's important to be aware of how to run the reins through your hands. The three pictures below all depict incorrect ways for holding the reins. Neither palms up or palms down are smooth ways to use the reins. Reference the pictures below and look at the line created by the reins, hands, wrists, forearms, elbows. It becomes apparent by holding the reins in this way that it places undue strain on the forearms and elbows. Holding the reins in the ways shown below will also interrupt smooth communication with the horse - think back to the telephone cord.
From Left to Right: Thumbs facing each other/ Tops of hands facing upwards (incorrect); Thumbs facing out/Palms facing upwards (incorrect); Thumbs on top of reins/pinkies facing rider (incorrect)
The pictures below show the correct way to hold the reins. The rein should come from the bottom of the hand, through the palm, with the thumb on top. This allows for a smooth flow from the reins to the riders arms. As stated below, I, personally, do not mind a slight angle to the hands, as long as the wrists are held firm.
From Left to Right: Thumbs facing upwards/Palms facing each other (correct); Thumbs at a slight angle with palms slightly towards the horse's neck (correct*)
*This a personal preference. In my opinion, this allows for a more natural, comfortable flow through the arms, wrist, into the hands and to the bit.
There are two correct ways to hold the reins. This is a completely personal preference for the rider. It depends on which way is more comfortable for the rider and the material and thickness of the reins. One caveat - there are some instances where the communication with the horse can be improved by running the reins between the ring and pinky finger. In this case, all that may be needed is a small "wiggle" of the ring finger to communicate with the horse's bit and mouth.
From Left to Right: Reins running through ring finger and pinky (correct); Reins running through whole hand (correct)
There should be no flex through the wrist of the rider. The rider wants to imagine they are wearing wrist splints; the wrist does not flex. A clean line is desired from the fingers, through the wrist to the elbow. Like stated above, any movements with the reins should be made through the arms.