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)
1. RIDER POSITION
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:
TOO LONG/TOO SHORT STIRRUPS
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.
RIDER SITTING ON THE THIGH
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.
FOOT TOO DEEP IN STIRRUP
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!)
STANDING UP OVER 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.
INCORRECT HAND AND ARM POSITION
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.
FEEL FOR THE COURSE
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.
2. THE HORSE
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.