The Greatest Gift

What do you have your horse for? A pasture pet? A fine choice, but what I have to say here will not apply to you. Do you plan to drive him? Another wonderful choice, but if that is all then you can likely use the next few minutes in other pursuits than this. Pleasure riding? Jumping? Dressage? Western riding? This is for anyone whose plans include sitting on their horse. Aside from his care, which may or may not be under your control, there is something you can give your horse that will make his job much easier, and both of your lives much more pleasant … well, eventually. The astute among you may already be on the right trail. That gift? Learn to ride!

By learning to ride, I do not mean learning to stay on. Nor do I mean how to ride a spin, or a jump, or a shoulder-in. No, I mean that dreadful word so many hate to hear – equitation!

equitation (noun): the act or art of riding on horseback

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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This is not about a specific position – although certain aspects of position are required for success. True equitation is about a general posture that leads to balance and harmony with your horse. Horses were not created to be ridden – we are lucky they are up to the task. Although their size may lead us to believe otherwise, the addition of a rider adds a significant burden to which they have to adapt. The quality of that burden can mean the difference between health and injury – for both of you!

The word ‘equitation’ sadly conjures visions of classes where riders all pose as they go round and round in a group, or over a course of fences, hoping that their ‘perfect position’ will catch the judge’s eye. In some circles it is spoken of derogatorily, as referring to a rider with lovely form but no real ability. For others, the word conjures hours of “head up, heels down!” instruction, posting without stirrups while keeping your leg perfectly still, or running a check list in your mind over every fence – look up, arch your back, heels down, etc. But equitation is both more and less than all of that.

What most of us may think of when we hear the word ‘equitation’

Equitation is first about being a good passenger – a light and easy burden for your horse. By ‘light’ I do not mean your weight. I once knew a petite five foot tall rider, whose horse was a stout 16.3 hands. She needed her hands for balance, and was too tight in her seat to stay with his large stride, so she bounced a good bit. In order to keep him sound enough to ride, she had a chiropractor out monthly, and they advised that she give him several days off after each of his adjustments. He was not an aged horse, being about nine at the time. Meanwhile, I had quite a few pounds on her, and my horse was a medium built 16.1 hands. We did Dressage and jumping (up to five feet) and he had an extraordinarily sound life. Being a light burden means that you are balanced, move easily with your horse, and don’t create any ‘noise’ with legs, seat, or hands.

A “normal” seat on the horse, even if in the majority of cases this means only a posture that is correct, does not exist at all because the rider sits the horse correctly only if his center of gravity, or rather the line of the center of gravity of the body, coincides with that of the horse. Only then is he in complete harmony with his horse and only then does he become one with it.

The Gymnasium of the Horse (Gustav Steinbrecht), Page 1-2 (2011 Edition)

Equitation is also about guarding your health. I am always shocked to hear about riders having back problems. Outside of an old fracture, as I have, riding should be good for your back – never harmful. My over-80 mother has had lower back pain her whole adult life – but it goes away when she is on the horse, and the more she rides the less it bothers her at other times. There is very good reason why riding is such good therapy for many physical ailments! Additional issues I’ve heard with modern riders include arthritis in their hands, or other hand/wrist issues. Anyone want to guess what riding flaw that reflects?

So, how do you know if you are being an easy burden to carry? Here are a few tests you can try that might indicate that you still need to learn to ride (only try these if you have confidence that your horse is safe enough to do so):

  • Hold the reins on the buckle and sit quietly while your horse walks around the arena – does your horse march confidently on in a swinging walk? Or does he seem to be weaving, stilted, or acting at all puzzled at what you are doing?
Photo by Alexander Dummer on
  • Are you able to trot around the ring, still just holding the buckle of the reins in one hand, and feel balanced? Again, does your horse move confidently forward in a swinging trot? Or does he seem to have trouble maintaining a line or rhythm?
  • Can you sit the trot without holding the reins in both hands? What about if you drop your stirrups?
  • If you’re feeling really confident, can you canter holding the buckle of the reins? Or without stirrups?
  • When you ride a turn or a circle, do you struggle to stay upright?

If you can ride at all three gaits, without aid of reins or stirrups, you have at least the basics of what we call an “independent seat” – and that is quite an accomplishment all on its own! Too many riders you see today would not be able to function without the reins, stirrups, and saddle blocks intended to keep them stuck in place. While those may keep you from falling off, they make you a rather stiff, sometimes rough, burden for your horse.

People are often in error as to what is meant by a rider’s ‘seat’. This has less to do with relative limb position than with the way a rider

1 keeps a position in the saddle by balance alone

2 sits with relaxation and

3 has learnt to follow his horse’s movements.

Riding Logic (W. Museler), Page 11 (Fifth Edition, 1983)

The questions about your horse’s reaction to you riding without reins (or stirrups, for that matter) reflect something else about being a “good burden” for your horse – how quiet are you? If you have recent video of yourself, take a look at how many parts bobble, wobble, bump, poke, and just generally create “noise”? Have you ever tried to focus on a task without a lot of noise all around you? That is what a horse is experiencing when there is a lot of movement in their rider. A classically correct rider appears to sit completely still, with no parts moving. We cannot all ride at the Spanish Riding School or Cadre Noir, but we can work to sit quietly enough for our horses to hear the movements that do have meaning.

The so-called “normal” seat becomes a beautiful and elegant seat only if the horse, after having been put into the correct balance, puts its rider into the seat itself. Such a picture is then truly one of harmony ….

The Gymnasium of the Horse (Gustav Steinbrecht), Page 2 (2011 Edition)

An unspoiled horse can literally feel every single movement that you make when you are sitting on them. Every bobble, wobble, poke, jiggle, etc., will register and they will seek meaning in it. Watching an unspoiled horse react to all of that ‘noise’ can be quite an astonishing experience – they may go in seemingly random directions, or frequently change gait and/or speed for no apparent reason. His head may toss, his tail swish. In some cases I’ve even seen a horse slam on the breaks out of frustration with all of the confusion caused by the rider’s excess activity.

… at the withers, a horse can detect 3/10,000 of an ounce of pressure from one nylon filament – the weight of about three grains of sand. Poke the same filament into a human fingertip, and we have no idea it’s there.

With this level of sensitivity, horses notice the difference between 1 inch of shoulder movement and 2 inches. And they’re trying to figure out what it means. If we fail to train our brains proprioceptively, our horses suffer confusion in the face of mixed messages.

Horse Brain, Human Brain (Janet L. Jones PhD), Page 112

Sadly, too many horses have been desensitized to the ‘noise’ to the point where their brains fail to even register it – but that also means they don’t ‘hear’ the meaningful ‘sounds’ either. That is why a rider who wears spurs with an unquiet leg will soon have to resort to sharper spurs and, as rumor now has it, electrified spurs. If your horse is not sensitive enough to respond to the lightest of aids, it is the fault of humans. No horse is born with dull sides or a hard mouth! The quieter a burden you are, the more likely your horse will hear you ‘whisper’ your aids.

The path to becoming a lighter burden can be easier than it seems. Sadly, too many are told that it’s about fitness, and they try to build muscle – especially abdominal muscles. Unfortunately this all too often leads to tightening of the trunk, followed by tension in other muscles. The actual solution is more relaxation, not tension. Select groups of muscles should be toned just enough to maintain some stillness, but gravity is also your friend in securing your position, when joints are relaxed enough to let it work. The best improvement is made by focusing on balance, relaxation, and feel – not through worrying about the placement of your ‘parts’.

Of course there is the classically correct seat – head up, heels down, the alignment of ears/shoulder/hip/heel. There are good reasons for that position, but one must always remember that it is a final goal. It is often forgotten, in our modern era, that those classically trained riders who that position back in the day had an advantage on most of us – they grew up in an era when horses were transportation. When I was learning to ride, it was still common for young people everywhere to spend some time hopping on their ponies to gallop the fields and ford streams. Even that did not provide the in depth experience of sitting on a horse who was your sole transportation. Most modern riders come to riding later in life; and even if they ride as kids, it’s all too often under prescribed conditions. The education of just riding from point to point, for hours on end, is difficult to replace – it gave them balance, ease, and relaxation. It is easy to then refine the position; but focusing on position first often gets in the way of those other qualities.

The ultimate classic seat, but even he had to start somewhere!

Complete harmony between horse and rider can be said to exist when the trot is so comfortable that rising if for the rider an unnecessary expenditure of energy; when the reins can be safely surrendered completely at the gallop; when the horse can be ridden confidently either between hands and legs or without reins, with the sole aids of seat and legs.

The Way to Perfect Horsemanship (Udo Burger), Page 29 (2012 Edition)

There is so much attention given to how to improve your relationship with your horse, which is certainly a worthy goal! There is also a fair amount of attention on how to do things with your horse – transitions, shoulder-in, flying changes, etc. But all too often the rider’s position gets little attention. I was once told by an international clinician that he’d given up trying to teach Americans a better position, because they just weren’t interested in working on that – they just wanted to do the “fun stuff”. Hopefully I’ve sowed the seed of convincing you that making yourself a better rider can be the greatest gift you can give your horse. My next several posts, in between book reviews, will focus on things you can do to become a better ‘burden’ for your horse. Happy riding!

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