Confessions of a Nitpicker

Bill Steinkraus, 1968 Olympic individual gold medalist, describes five equestrian terms that rankle him.

© Reflections of Riding and Jumping/

Being a word lover, a seasoned nitpicker and something of a curmudgeon, it is not surprising that I find certain present-day usages of equestrian terminology mildly rankling. I will pass on five of them just to get them off my chest and not expect any sudden adoption of my preferred terms.

To start with, I’ve never liked the “two-point” and the “three-point” to describe the half-seat and the full-seat. What are the two “points”—my knees? They’re not pointed, and in the half-seat, the calves are also very much involved. As for the “three-point”—presumably my seat bones and my sacroiliac—they’re not pointed either, and the full seat also involves the thighs and the back very conspicuously. I rest my case.

Next I would like to consider the “crest release,” whether long or short. They might well be included in every good rider’s range of choices, but the idea of an obligatory release, in general, is false in itself. The term “following hand” is better. (I don’t care for “automatic release” because it’s not truly automatic—you have to arrange for it to happen by relaxing your elbows—and not necessarily a release.) All that’s required is what Bertalan de Némethy referred to as “no loosing [he meant losing] the connection.” As long as you maintain a connection with the horse’s mouth, you can influence the arc of his jump with your hands in the air and in the landing stride. You cannot do this if you are pressing down into his neck with your hands in order to support your upper body, for there can be no true independence of aids if you are stabilizing your position with your hands. It is important for the rider to retain all his options, from zero to 100, and deploy them as appropriate to the circumstances. If you watched the Rio Olympics carefully, you will have noticed that Nick Skelton never “lost the connection” at any point in the jump-off and was rewarded with a gold medal, not to mention all the free pints in his pub.

The above discussion leads to a consideration of the word “contact” as an alternative to “connection” in de Némethy’s sense. “Contact” is simply the touching of two bodies and is not so bad, but we really don’t have an ideal word for what François Baucher referred to as “the reciprocal sentiment between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth.” The French call it the “appui,” which actually means support, but the hand is not always supporting; it must be capable of sometimes subtly resisting, sometimes loose-reining. (Of course, you can still maintain the connection just by the weight of the rein.) However, I concede that “contact” has been in use for a century or more, so it’s likely to hang around for quite a time longer.

Next we come to the “Order of Go” instead of “Start List.” Strange; we don’t call a restaurant a “place of eat” and the “Order of Go” sounds more like a Chinese secret society than anything else. “Start List” or “Starting Order” still deserves a place at the table.

Finally, we arrive at “pulling a rail.” “Pull” is a strange word with literally dozens of ordinary or slang meanings, according to the dictionary. “Knocked down” is not one of them. In its ordinary sense, “pull” means to draw or drag something in the direction of the force applied to it, which is certainly not what happens when a horse knocks down a rail. What’s proven so inadequate about the word “knockdown” that we have to call it something else? It’s been good enough to last for well over a century, too.

So there.

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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