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.
The torso is a large, solid mass which connects our hips and legs to our shoulders and head. The position and movement of the torso can have a multiplying effect, good or bad, on the rest of our body and sets the tone for our equitation. This connection makes correct torso position crucial.
Riders with an unsupported or collapsed torso may find themselves unbalanced when the horse makes any unexpected movements, such as shying, spooking, or transitioning to a faster gait without being asked. The lack of support through the torso and the forward roll of the shoulders will cause the seat to rise out of the saddle. This loss of contact with the saddle will cause the rider to bounce in the saddle, making the rider unstable and causing discomfort to the horse and the rider.
Additionally, without enough support through the torso, the movement of the horse will create excess movement through the riders body. This excess movement will broadcast loudly to the horse. For some horses, this excess "noise" can be too much and may cause the horse to become excitable and/or uncomfortable. While our torso needs fluidity in order to move with the motion of the horse, there also needs to be support from a sturdy torso.
A straightforward fix to the unsupported position requires that the rider lift through their upper chest (imagine lifting through the top of the breast bone/collar bones) and allow their shoulders to set back and rest softly in line with their sides. The rider also needs to allow the horse to gently move their body but not be so soft that the torso is making unnecessary movements.
Another equitation fault is riding with an arched back. The arched back position causes the rider to be overly stiff and tight. This stiffness and tightness will radiate from the torso to every other part of the rider's body. The torso needs to hold good posture but not tense posture. The horse may read this tension as fear on the riders part and become scared as well, waiting for whatever is "frightening" the rider. This will put the horse on edge. Simply put, if you are stiff and tense, your horse will be stiff and tense. If you relax and flow with your horse, your horse will relax and flow. When a rider relaxes, the change in the horse is immediately visible as the horse softens underneath them.
Riders need to use their body to communicate with the horse. This communication will be interrupted when a rider holds a stiff posture. Imagine trying to type on your computer keyboard with completely straight, locked fingers. It is nearly impossible. It is equally impossible to communicate with the horse in a stiff/staccato fashion.
In addition, this position affects the rider's arms. If the arched back is pronounced enough, this will cause the arms to stretch longer and affect communication with the bit and the horse's mouth.
An arched back position can put the rider behind the motion of the horse. Being behind the motion of the horse may cause two outcomes. First, the horse may sense that the rider is using it as a driving aid, meaning it may make the horse go faster. Second, the horse may slow down or possibly stop, because the horse is uncomfortable with the rider's weight being behind their center of gravity.
Moreover, the stiffness and tension required to hold this position for long periods of time while in the saddle can quickly fatigue the rider.
In order to fix this position, the rider needs to bring their shoulders forward, making sure they are in line with their hips, and the belly button back to their spine. Imagine how your back would feel if you were laying flat on the ground.
The correct equitation for the torso is a clean, straight line down the back, with the shoulders balanced over the hips. The torso must be fluid enough to allow the horse's movement to move through their body and yet must hold good posture to keep from making the horse unbalanced. Imagine your upper body is a tree. The tree is sturdy and able to stand tall (good posture) but is also flexible/fluid enough to blow and sway with the wind. Trees that have a good root system hold up against the wind (the horse's movements) and do not topple. Your seat is the root system of your position and your torso the trunk of the tree.
If we want our horses to carry themselves in a correct frame, we need to carry ourselves in the correct frame.
While we want to ride with our shoulders open, over exaggerating by driving the shoulders back and pinching the shoulder blades creates tension within our bodies. As the picture (left) below shows, pinching the shoulder back also causes the arms to lengthen which interferes with communication to the horse's bit.
Rounded shoulders may happen in conjunction with or may cause a rider to assume a slouched torso. As with the slouched torso, rounded shoulders may cause the rider to lean or fall forward causing the rider to be unbalanced. Rounded shoulders may also cause the rider's arms to be pressed against their side and unable to move and flow with the horse's movement.
From Left to Right: Shoulder blades pinched (incorrect); Shoulders rounded (incorrect)
The three pictures below all portray incorrect shoulder positions that can affect our balance and the balance of the horse.
From Left to Right: Torso Twisted/Uneven Shoulders (incorrect); Shoulder dropped (incorrect); Shoulders shrugged (incorrect)
Riders need to be mindful that their shoulders should mirror the shoulders of the horse. When a horse is turning, either to the left or right, the rider's shoulders should turn in the direction of travel with the horse. The amount of turn is dependent on how tight of a turn the horse is performing. Soft turn = slight turn of the shoulders. Hard turn = more turn of the shoulders. Straight line = no turn in the shoulders.
The turn in the shoulders should come through the whole torso. Imagine there is a lazy susan at the rider's waist and the torso and shoulders sit on the lazy susan. When the rider turns to the left, the turn comes from the waist, and does not lean. It is important to remember that if the rider collapses or tips, "items" will fall off of the lazy susan. Don't lean through the turn, as you would while riding a motorcycle or snowmobile. The rider needs to keep their torso straight.
Additionally, horses will mirror the shoulders of their riders. If a rider drops a shoulder on a circle, it is more than likely that the horse will also. When a horse drops it's shoulder or falls into a circle, this may unbalance the horse. An unbalanced horse, over time, will become uncomfortable.
The position of a rider's shoulders will affect their balance in the saddle and the balance of the horse underneath.