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.
All of my riders learn to do a "pre-flight checklist" when they start lessons.
Heels down or level
Legs are long and loose
Right Bum Cheek on the Right side of the horse's spine
Left Bum Cheek on the Left side of the horse's spine
Shoulders straight and over the hips
In the beginning, the checklist can be overwhelming. Patience with and persistence to the checklist will pay off in the long run. As your muscle memory takes over, the checklist will get shorter and shorter and need to be referenced less and less. The definition of muscle memory "is the ability to repeat a specific muscular movement with improved efficiency and accuracy that is acquired through practice and repetition." Muscle memory is your best friend. As you progress in your riding and equitation, muscle memory will make things progressively easier as you have to focus on individual points less and less.
When working on improving your equitation, if you can, find an equitation instructor to help you. Their eyes are trained to pick out and help adjust your body. If you cannot find an instructor to assist in your equitation journey, pick only one or two things to focus on at once. Do not overwhelm yourself with trying to get it ALL right ALL the time in the beginning. Teach your muscles how and where they should lay, then allow muscle memory to take over and move on to the next one or two things to focus on.
Above and beyond the benefits the rider will experience in comfort and security of correct equitation, the horse will appreciate the balance from the rider and will relax.
The most important part of equitation, which cannot be emphasized enough, is to have a strong but fluid position. Whether you ride a non-gaited or a gaited horse, tension is the rider's enemy in the saddle. A rider can have 110% perfect equitation and if they are tight, tense and rigid, no equitation in the world will help them. The same can be said for a rider that is too loose, too fluid, or ride with a collapsed position.
The strong comes from keeping the muscles ready to use, but not keeping them constantly engaged. I relate this to the phrase "Stand at ease" from the military. The person told to stand at ease doesn't flop down into a chair, cock out a hip or slouch forward. They are standing with good posture, but not tense, on alert posture.
The second most important part of equitation is the line made from the heel to hip to shoulder to ear. This line allows our body to have the best balance available while sitting on an 800-1000 lb animal that moves and thinks on their own. Reference the picture below. If the rider's shoulders and head are in front of line, the rider will have a tendency to fall forward and their seat will roll up and out of the saddle. When a rider's shoulder and head are balance above the their hips, the shoulders help the seat maintain contact with the saddle. This allows the rider to have more security and move more freely when needed.
The last thing I want to discuss in this article is rider's bracing in the stirrup. The stirrups are a helpmate to your riding position but not an absolutely necessity. Putting too much pressure on the stirrups will create a snowball effect on the rest of the equitation position. A rider who puts too much pressure on their stirrups will raise their seat out of the saddle. The means the rider will lose contact with the saddle. Also, by placing a lot of weight on the stirrups, the rider will added unneeded tension and tightness to their leg. This will make it hard to use the leg in a clear and concise method with our horse.
Use these visualizations for how much pressure to place on the stirrups.
1. Imagine that the stirrup is an one inch board with a crack in it. If there is too much pressure placed on the board, it will crack even more and eventually break. Your goal is to keep the board intact and not make the crack any worse.
2. Imagine how your feet feel when riding a bike. If you are just coasting on the bike and not pushing the pedals, your feet are lightly resting on the pedal. If you push too hard on the pedals, you will push the pedal down. You're not looking to push the pedal, just let your feet rest on the pedals and coast.
Small improvements in your equitation can make large improvements in your comfort as a rider and your horse's comfort. There may be moments when a part of your equitation clicks and you feel an "AH HA" moment and then poof, it's gone. Don't despair. That moment will come back again and come back more often until it is there all the time.