Updated: Nov 19, 2022
Did you miss Equitation - Arms and Hands (Part 4 of 5)? Read now.
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.
Many riders, myself included, find themselves guilty of looking down at their horse instead of keeping their chin up and looking where they are going. If you are old enough to drive, imagine looking at the steering wheel while driving instead of through the windshield. The outcome would probably not be pretty. The same applies to looking at the horse while riding instead of looking up and where you are going. If you are used to riding by yourself, the habit of looking down can be dangerous if and when you start riding with other people and horses.
The human head weights an amazing 10-11 pounds and when that weight is shifted by looking down it can change our position and the movements of our horses. The picture below is in relation to the tilt of our head while looking at our devices, but it is very relevant to looking down while riding. If we replace "Force on the Neck" with "Weight added to the horse's forehand" you can see how it shows the increase of weight on our bodies and our horse's movements while riding.
Most riders probably fall within the 15 to 30 degree range while riding. That means that while you are looking down, you are adding an additional 27-40 pounds to the forehand of your horse. When looking at the weight distribution of the horse, you can see that the horse has 60% of it's weight on the forehand already. If a rider looks down while riding, they are adding unwelcome and unnecessary weight to an already overweighted front end.
Humans are a very visual species. Out of our 5 senses, our eyes see, filter and process about 75% of the information we take in. Hearing makes up 13% and 12% is left for smell, taste, and touch. The biggest reason riders look down is because they need or want to see what their horse is doing. While looking at the horse can be rewarding in the short term, in the long run, riders are doing themselves a disservice. Learning how to ride with feel - feeling what the horse is doing instead of seeing it - is a big part of equitation and horsemanship in general but also a big part of keeping our eyes and chin up.
Riding with feel means that the rider can react almost instantaneously to a movement or reaction from the horse. When the rider needs to see the horse react, it is almost too late to give the appropriate response. There is a difference in the amount of time it takes for our eyes to process what is being seen and our bodies to process the horse's movement. By the time the horse creates enough movement to be detected by the eyes, the movement has already surpassed the point of reward or correction in many cases. Our bodies can feel the movement to a much smaller degree and the reward or correction can be applied quicker and cleaner.
From Left to Right: Eyes looking down/Head tilted forward (incorrect); Eyes looking up/Head balanced over the shoulders (correct)
Keeping the head straight is another important aspect to riding correctly. Tilting the head may make the rider lean off to the side or add extra weight to one side of their body. Many times, tilting the head is an unconscious movement. This usually happens when riding a circle and can be related to the rider collapsing through the torso and/or dropping the shoulder. This equitation fault is not very common, but it is always something to be aware of while riding.
From Left to Right: Head tilted to the side (incorrect); Head straight (correct)