Equitation: Improving Your Skill and Scores Part Two

Equitation: Improving Your Skill and Scores Part Two
Renee Swanepoel N Dip Equine Science SANEF Level 1 Instructor

In this part of the article, we will be taking a look at an example of a Novice equitation test with pointers on how to ride, what the judge is looking for and how you can improve, plus I will include a video of the test being ridden at an actual event so that you can see what it should look like. The test we will be using as our example will be the SANEF 2011 EQUITATION NOVICE TEST 8, as ridden at the 2011 Gauteng Finals in July of this year. The test is as follows:

The first thing that I do with a pupil when we look at a new test is to break it down into its movements and discuss what we think is being tested with each question. In this test we start with a walk, no stirrups. What the judge would like to see is the walk and the position of the rider without stirrups – heels down, quiet leg and steady contact. The test commences the second the rider takes the feet out of the stirrups. The walk should be athletic and marching and the horse should at all times be between hand and leg, ready for the next instruction. Important too is that the walk is shown in a place where the judge can see the movement. Remember, a judge can only mark a movement that they have actually seen, so make sure that you never work towards or right in front of the judge. The walk needs to be 10m, so make sure that you have paced out the distance and are sure of how much you need to show. At this venue we realised that the brick posts were 10m apart after pacing them so we planned to start and end at a pillar and in that way the walk was accurate. From the walk movement we proceed into the trot 15m circle without stirrups. Again, the judge is checking position – keeping the body quiet, keeping the leg relaxed and the heel steady and low. The circle is very important – when we walk the course, I have the rider pick a start/finish point on the circle so that we ensure that the dimensions are correct and that the circle starts and ends neatly into the next movement. In this test we used the brick pillar again as a marker to make sure the circles were accurate.

Our next movement is a 20m canter on the circle with stirrups. There are a few things that need to happen into this movement – firstly the circle size increases by 5m. When walking the course I have the rider walk 5m away from the far point of the 15m circle we have just paced. In that way they know where to increase to. The biggest problem you will see with riders in this test is that they do not show a difference in size in the two circles. The first circle is often a little too big; they then proceed to canter the second circle exactly where they have just ridden the first. The judge is looking for a difference in size on the circles. Another problem is that the start and finish of the circles needs to be in exactly the same place, hence the marker you have chosen as your start. This often happens when riders do a figure of eight in their tests as well – they forget to start and finish on the same point and often don’t close the figure. At the exact start point of the 20m circle, the rider puts the feet neatly back into the stirrup and asks for canter. This is a movement that has to be practised as it should be smooth, effortless and instant. There should be no looking down, hesitation or legs moving around when finding the stirrup. My one criticism on this movement was that the pony was a little above the hand and was not bent in the direction of the circle all the way through.

Our next movement now that we are in canter is to show a change of leg through trot. Again, never do your change coming towards the judge if there is only one as they cannot see you or your horse properly and you will lose marks because they cannot judge the movement. A change across the diagonal ensures the judge sees you and gives you time to prepare the change. I also feel that a change on a straight line shows more riding ability than a change on a figure of eight or bend, so we practise changes of leg on straight lines with all our equitation horses. They also need to be able to lead off on any leg on a straight line which tells us that they understand the aid and are not using the bend to decide what leg to strike off on. Important in the change is maintaining rhythm – not letting the horse run in to the change but keeping it slow, balanced and straight.

From the change we ride the gymnastic. In the course walk, we would have paced the distance, discussed how we should ride it on that particular horse and decided how we would like to approach. In equitation, we are always looking for a rhythmical balanced approach in the centre of the fence. We want the horse to maintain rhythm throughout the gymnastic, as many will tend to speed up as they go through. Important also to note the going and riding surface on the approach – harder surfaces tend to ride a little shorter than the deeper sand going, so you will need to check for that. Also this particular gymnastic was on a slight uphill, so care was taken to make sure we did not push too hard going through as the pony would already be opening the stride since it was uphill. On this particular course we had to change the rein when going on to jump the course as the gymnastic was on one rein and fence 1 on the other. Again, a neat balanced change on a planned route is much better than coming round the corner on an incorrect lead, breaking a mad trot and kicking on again. We planned the change on a convenient spot and kept it sort and balanced. This particular pony is quite adept at flying changes and you will note in the change that she in fact did the flying change before Gerdi asked for the trot. We decided before the time that we would do the trot irrespective of whether she did the flying change as firstly it was directly away from the judge which meant seeing what was happening was unlikely and secondly in case she misunderstood the aid for the change, we rather wanted to be sure she did it. This pair is a relatively new combination, having only been riding and competing at equitation this year, so as she gets to know the pony, so the risks they take can get bigger.

The course was quite straightforward for this class, however there were many turns where riders had to be careful to come in straight in the centre of the fences. Also important which many riders struggle with is picking up the correct lead after a fence – this is something we drill at home from the very beginner riders. Although not marked as strictly in the lower welcome classes, I feel the horse and rider should ride the correct leads from the start of their training as it is very difficult to try to fix a horse that has learned to ignore the canter leads than teach it correctly from scratch. Teaching the flying change is also done early as it is vital when riding equitation that the horse understands how to stay in balance and be correct around a course of fences. Important too to use the whole arena – often the younger riders will try to squeeze their test into a small area of the arena – use the space you have so that your test looks neat and polished and that the judge can see you. Vital in the course is keeping the rhythm. This is where a good horse with a steady rhythm makes it so much easier for the rider in a class. The judge is looking for a horse that goes around the course without speeding up or slowing down or needing to be checked every few strides by the rider. The ride must look effortless, calm and polished. Position is vital – maintaining a good foundation that has been drilled at home is so important. The riders who go far are the ones who are willing to do endless hours of sitting trot, jumping without stirrups and learning tests and doing the homework I give them every week. There is a lot of hard work that goes into the sport and the good riders are the ones who put in the time and the effort – not always the ones with the best horses. Feel for the track is important – riding steady corners and looking ahead to the next fence is vital. Meeting every fence on a good stride in the middle and out of a rhythmical canter is key.

A short word on turnout for competition. Do not forget that you make a certain impression on the judge in the way you are turned out for your test. While there are fashions that will come and go, a classical approach to your turnout will achieve the polished look you are aiming for. Tack should be clean, polished and not too bling. (while a little bit of sparkle here and there is fine, don’t go overboard on the fairy dust – you will end up looking like a Disney character, not a rider to be taken seriously!) Make sure that martingales, boots etc fit well and are fitting with the entire look you are presenting. A fitted numnuh is more correct, although at School level most numnuhs have the school logo on and are square. Sheepskin numnuhs present well providing they fit well and are clean and in good condition. Plaits are important. If you are not able to plait well, find a friend who can help you or practise as much as you can. There is nothing worse than a lovely little rider coming in to do a great test but the pony they are riding has bits of hair sticking out all over the place with plaits that are falling out, a scratched up tail and dirty tack. Hairnets are another bugbear of mine – I cannot abide bits of rider hair all over the place or riders who have messy ponytails hanging out behind. Hair should be neatly pinned up and in a proper net. Gloves are a must - in any show ring! Your turnout is vital in the overall presentation of your test and should not be underestimated.

In conclusion, if you are not scoring those extra few points that mean the difference between a good test and a brilliant one, you may need to look at the following:

- Have you planned your test well to flow from one movement to the next without extra bits in between or interruptions in the movement?

- Are you showing the movement that is required?

- Are your movements accurate according to the test being asked?

- Is your technique over a fence perhaps lacking? (Video yourself over some fences and have a look for yourself – be critical – the only way to improve is to understand what you are doing wrong!)

- Is your rhythm exact and flowing?

- How was your turnout?

- Did you enjoy yourself?

Equitation is a wonderful sport for bringing along talented youngsters and teaching them to ride correctly. Many of our top Showjumpers today came through the ranks as talented junior equitation riders. It is possible to achieve great heights with lots of work and focused schooling at home. Get out there and go ride!

Improve Your Equitation Part One

Equitation: Improving Your Skill and Scores
Renee Swanepoel N Dip Equine Science SANEF Level 1 Instructor

Equitation can be defined as the art and practise of horse riding, or may be called the skill and technique of riding and jumping any horse correctly and with effective aids. I like to think of it as Dressage for Showjumping – not only a rider being tested over a set of jumps but also being able to show a correct position, understanding of showjumping technique and being able to ride various horses at a proficient level. Although the way in which the horse goes will ultimately be an indication of how well the rider has schooled at home, ultimately it is the rider being judged and not the horse. This makes Equitation an ideal chance for any rider, who may not have access to an expensive and highly schooled horse, to still ride well and take part in competition.

Often riders will achieve average marks at a competition, but never quite crack the good scores that are achieving the high placings. I will attempt in this article to explain not only the principles of the sport, but the details that will often be a deciding factor when placing at shows. I will also include a few exercises that the rider can try at home when schooling that will improve position, skill and will ultimately be the difference in riding a good test, and a winning test!

“Introduced into SA in 1970 by Mrs Charlotte Stubbs after a visit to the USA and in consultation with Mr George Morris, American coach and Olympic rider; the goal of equitation has always been to educate, set a standard of correct horsemanship nationally and to give exposure at a grass roots level to as many instructors and young riders as possible. This goal is achieved by continuing to encourage the improvement of effective and correct riding by means of seminars, novice competitions, capacity building clinics, equitation rallies and so on. Regional equitation committees hold competitions from Pre Novice upwards each month and the SA Pony Club holds its own equitation competitions annually in every region.
The most important thing about equitation is that you don’t need a pony or horse that excels at jumping or dressage!

Equitation remains committed to GOOD RIDING. You, the rider are judged and when you ride well, your mount performs better and you are doubly rewarded with a good performance for your effective riding ability!” SANEF Website (www.horsesport.org.za)


When I work with any new rider, I like to spend a good deal of time during the first few sessions focused only on position before we even look at the horse and any more technical aspects of jumping. A correct position is vital and not only means the rider can progress through the levels unhindered, but also makes it easier for any horse to excel at jumping and do what is being asked of him. Position can be divided further into two aspects – the rider’s position on the flat as well as the position over a fence.

On the flat, we expect the rider to maintain the correct basic position, as illustrated below:

When looked at from the side, there should be a straight line running from the ear, through the shoulder and hip and touching the heel. This has the effect of balancing the rider over his center of gravity, and places him in the best possible position to absorb the horse’s movement and enable the horse to maintain his own balance and center of gravity under the rider. It allows the rider’s body and hands to function independently of one another and one will not hinder or impede the use of the other.
The second line we look for is the line that runs from the rider’s elbow, through the hand, to the bit. This line is important because it allows the rein aid, via the hand and arm to be applied correctly and effectively. When this line is interrupted, the pressure applied to the bit and mouth is changed, and the horse’s acceptance of the bit and rein aids will be influenced.

When looking at the rider from behind, there should be a straight line running down the spine, bisecting another line running from one hip to the other. The line running from hip to hip should be parallel to the ground. In this position, there is equal weight bearing by the horse on both sides and the seat aids can be used most efficiently. It also means that the horse is balanced across his body and is not trying to compensate for a crooked rider. A very common rider fault is to drop one hip or twist to one side. When that happens, this line is interrupted. (see rht)
Some of the most common faults we see in equitation riders are:

When viewed from the side, the rider’s body can be divided into the arms of a “W”, as pictured left.

The angles found in this shape influence the weight bearing properties of the seat. In Dressage and Western Riding, where great emphasis is placed on the seat in contact with the saddle and minimal body movement, the stirrups are carried in such a way that the angles are opened up. This allows the maximum amount of weight to be carried in the seat. The weight/seat aid becomes vital in imparting cues and aids to the horse. In Western riding, where the rein is held very loosely and a neck rein aid is used more than a cue in the mouth and where the seat is just as vitally important, a longer leg is also encouraged.

In a forward seat (as above) the stirrup is shortened so that most of the weight bearing surface is now the thigh and knee. The weight of the seat is then transferred slightly off the horse’s back, but note that the rider does not stand in the saddle – that would open the angles of the ‘W’ instead of close them, causing the rider to become most unstable in the saddle. More weight is simply borne in the leg. This position is useful when schooling young horses, to encourage them to lift and round their backs and to allow them more freedom of movement under the saddle. In the forward seat, the ear-shoulder-hip-heel line now becomes an ear-shoulder-knee-toe line, as the shoulder is brought slightly forward and more weight is placed on the knees, not the fleshy part of the buttock. The forward seat becomes even more so when the horse moves over a jump, where the rider wishes to allow him freedom of the spine and back and must not impede the horse by being behind the movement. Important in the forward seat is the independence of the lower leg – it should be able to maintain its position regardless of the position of the upper body and seat. The most extreme version of the forward seat is that adopted by the jockey. Stirrups shortened to maintain only a single point of contact with the horse in order to free up his movement and enable the horse to move underneath the rider, using the back and extending himself fully.

We often see riders that either shorten the stirrup too much, forcing the seat out of the saddle and often turning the entire leg outward in an attempt to stay in the saddle, or they do not shorten enough, which makes the lower leg unstable and it will tend to swing around when jumping. By not shortening the stirrup to a correct length, the shock absorbing effect of the knee and ankle is reduced, creating a stability problem in the seat which will mostly manifest itself over fences.

When we look at a jumping seat, there is an allowance made for the toe to turn out slightly away from the horse. This allows the back of the calf to be placed more against the horse and means that the leg is anchored. The toe should never turn out more than 45° though – we often talk about the ‘ten to two’ foot position. The problem that we often see with this leg position is that the rider, instead of securing with the calf, rotates the entire leg outward from the hip joint and sits on the thigh, with minimal contact by the knee.

The effect of this is a very insecure leg with the knee open which means that the rider grips with the calf to maintain position over a fence instead of using the knee as a soft pivot around which the horse bascules. Often the leg will swing forwards and backwards because the rider does not have the strength to hold the position with the calves. Aids to the horse are then often confusing because the rider is in a constant state of gripping and squeezing and is unable to relax the leg and give a correct aid when required.

I have also found that sometimes the saddle encourages this type of position – especially if it is very flat in the knee roll or has the stirrup bar very forward. Synthetic saddles can become slippery over time and they too will cause the rider to turn the leg out and grip for fear of slipping around.

An exercise we use in every lesson to teach the rider to turn the leg forward from the hip and secure the calf is to pick up the canter and then stand in the saddle. When standing, the leg is then rotated in and the foot should turn in a little too. In this position, the rider will be able to bring the knee against the saddle and create a proper point of contact. This exercise is a great warm up tool, as it also allows the horse to round his back and stretch which in turn warms up the muscles for work. When standing, make sure that the rein is loose and that the rider is not pulling himself up with the arms but is using the leg instead.

This is very commonly seen in competition – the rider being tense has allowed the leg to grip slightly which causes it to rise and the stirrup slides up the foot. This means that weight is now not going down into a relaxed low heel. One of the first things the judge will look at and comment on in a test is often the position of the foot in relation to the stirrup and the heel position. This can also be due to incorrect stirrup length, so care should be taken to make sure it is correct. Standing in the saddle at all gaits will again be beneficial to the rider in this case. Sometimes we see riders with very strong leg muscles that grip – especially the hamstring group. The effect of this too strong leg is often that the rider locks the leg into a position and the foot never rests down properly into the stirrup. That makes the foot slide through the stirrup and this is often paired with a very stiff hip that will not fold softly. Interestingly, these riders are quite able to jump without stirrups because their legs are so strong they keep the rider clamped into the saddle. (often causing the horse to buck after a fence!)


This is a very common fault we see in riders over a fence. Instead of folding over a secure center of balance, the rider stands up in the saddle and usually hovers over the shoulder when the horse jumps. Combined with this, the hand will usually stay fixed on the neck and the lower leg may or may not swing back over the fence. To illustrate to riders how insecure this position is, I have them take up a “jumping two point seat” and show them how to stay down in the saddle, with a secure lower leg and hands off the wither. I then push them over from the side and they feel how difficult it is for me to push them off! I then tell them to stand up in the saddle and again push them over and they easily realise that when standing it is much easier for me to push them over. A standing seat opens the angles of the knee and hip joint and loses the absorption of the flow of movement over a fence of horse and rider. Combined with set hands, the rider is in no control of the horse and often it will take two or three strides for the rider to regain a position after a fence. Work over fences without stirrups is of benefit to these riders, as it helps them keep their seats lower in the saddle and prevents the standing. Combine the work without stirrups with jumping lanes with no reins as well, and getting the rider to put the arms in various positions – this has the effect of loosening the upper body and encouraging the rider to not use the hands as a base of support. I also instruct my riders that when they fold over a fence, they should ‘poke out the back door’ – that is to say they should feel for the back of the cantle with their seats. This encourages the centre of gravity to stay over the horse’s back.

I tend to get raised eyebrows from other trainers when I talk about crest release, as it is not a concept officially taught here, however I feel that it is nomenclature for something we do teach parts of here and I have adapted the theory behind crest release when training my equitation riders as it gives them an awareness of where their hands are over fences – a fact often neglected by some trainers. The crest release was a concept campaigned by George Morris in the US, although it had been in existence long before that. There is much controversy about using the system, many feel that it encourages poor riding and poor position, however I see it merely as a tool in achieving the final goal, which is an aware, soft hand that gives with the horse and stays balanced and quiet. Basically put, the rider would place the hands on the sides of the neck of the horse depending on their level of proficiency – long, short and automatic releases. What I do like about the release, is that it keeps the hand neatly against the neck, still giving but is tidy and presents a good picture. We teach the rider an automatic release, which means that the rider follows the head with the hand against the neck – this means the horse is not given too much rein or pulled in the mouth. The way in which we make the rider aware of hand position is by tying a brightly coloured ribbon to the mane and having the rider touch the ribbon as they go over the fence. We also move the ribbon around a little up and down the neck which makes the rider more aware of what the hand is doing and also helps them become aware of the hand position without having to look down. One of the most common problems we see with riders is a fixed hand. Riders don’t know how to follow the movement of the horse’s head with the arm and so either fix the hand at the horse’s wither or they throw their hands wildly forwards in an attempt to give and end up losing contact completely.

This one is a little tricky to pin down and explain with examples and exercises but I wanted to include it because very often a rider has a good basic position and a fantastic horse but somehow the picture still just does not look right! What makes a really good equitation rider is feel – feel for the track, the fence and the striding and knowing how much to push and how much to hold back and an understanding of the principles behind the test they are riding. It is not only important that riders learn how to jump a fence, they need to understand what tests are being asked of them and how to put all the elements together to present a neat test and show the judges they understand what is being asked. This kind of feel comes with time and practise and show experience. There are some things that you only learn in the show-ring – no amount of practise at home can drill show savvy into a rider! The often forgotten part of equitation training is the tests themselves. I expect my riders to not only learn their tests, but understand how to lay them out in the arena and what elements are being tested. Once they lay out a test, we change the elements such as direction, first fence or move the arena completely. In that way they quickly learn to adapt their test accordingly and still keep it correct and neat. Courses are practised regularly – striding, approaches, pace and impulsion and smoothness are important. My riders are expected to be able to stride distances, and at home we practise striding plus altering strides – knowing how many strides your own horse is comfortable with over a certain walked distance and how you would have to adapt your approach depending on the course builder’s distance between fences. We practise dog’s legs and related distances so that it becomes second nature and to train the rider’s eye so that fitting in a 5 stride, for example, becomes second nature to both horse and rider. This is one area where a good coach is invaluable – equitation training is not about jumping fences day in and day out – we train technical aspects of the sport and educate riders on the principles of the tests which makes them better riders.


I want to include a short piece about the horse. The goal of equitation is to give any good rider a chance to compete on any horse or pony – not just an expensive one! While this is true, as the rider progresses up the ranks, the horse does become important. A better quality equitation horse will make the rider’s task easier and will also influence rider position and the quality of the test. A good rider should by all accounts be able to ride any horse well and make it look its best and in the higher levels of equitation riders swop horses and are scored on their ability to ride a strange horse over a course of jumps. When choosing a horse for equitation, however, pay special attention to things such as temperament, rhythm of the horse (all important) and conformation as well as the jumping ability. A good horse need not always be the most expensive one but needs to be one that will make the rider’s job easier. A special note as well about children that progress to junior ranks – often parents will choose a horse for their child that is still in need of schooling up the ranks or they buy a mount that is very advanced for the level their child is currently competing at. What then happens is the child who has a mount that needs a year or two of schooling will run out of time by the end of juniors and the horse will perhaps only start showing the best tests right at the end of its junior career, often the rider will lose interest or become disheartened, especially if they have had a very successful career in the pony rider division. Alternatively, with a horse that is above the child’s level of riding, especially when not under careful guidance and instruction, will become bored or pick up poor habits, or the child will just not physically be able to ride the horse correctly and then horses become naughty or playful and children become scared. This is especially true if the child has gone from riding a small pony, and moves to a very large horse without having the actual physicality that is sometimes required to ride the bigger jumpers. In time they grow into the horse, but it can happen that they lose their confidence along the way. Choosing a junior horse is a very important process that should be done slowly and carefully – as mentioned before – the most expensive horse is not always the correct horse.

In the next part of this article, I will use a set test as an example of what to look out for and how to approach and ride a test that will give you insight into what judges are looking for in a test.

Coming Soon! Equitation - Improving Your Scores!

Often riders will obtain average marks at a competition but never quite crack the good scores that are achieving the higher placings. I will attempt to explain, not only the principles of the sport but also the details that will often be the deciding factor when placing at shows. I will also include a few exercises that riders can try at home when schooling that will improve position, skill and ultimately, will be the difference between a good test and a winning test!

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