When you say "equitation," some people think of a division. They think about looking good and about all the classes leading up to the year-end finals.
To me, however, equitation is about the position and skills that allow you to be a good rider, no matter where you want to go with your riding. I don't think of equitation so much as a division as basic riding, the starting-off point and the learning tool. That's what's critical about it, and we're lucky to have a division that showcases the elements of that foundation: style, discipline, pride and respect.
On the other hand, the disadvantage in having a division dedicated to equitation is that success in the division sometimes becomes an end in itself. That attitude is not healthy, in my opinion. If you learn equitation only in hopes of winning the finals and then never ride again, that does a disservice to the whole concept of equitation. To the riders whom I hope the division rewards (and for whom I look when I'm judging), equitation is a means to becoming better--whether their ultimate sport is hunter/jumper, riding cross-country, pleasure riding or something else.
At the top levels, a few successful riders perform so well and so consistently over time, it seems as if they come into the ring with a halo effect. They develop "momentum" that gives them an automatic edge when they ride in the ring. As a result, judges who are not confident in their own evaluations may try to build confidence by demonstrating that they know Rider X is really good by placing Rider X high, perhaps overlooking the fact that X found a really deep spot at one jump, while lesser-known Rider Y had a better round.
Creating more confident judges is obviously a goal of the new Judge's Mentor Program. I have my own system for creating a "clean slate" among riders, especially if one is better known than the other. I mentally switch them and imagine that Rider X had Rider Y's round and vice versa. This way I make sure that I'm picking the rider who had the best ride in that particular class.
As a trainer and coach, Geoff Teall has produced winning horses and riders and numerous major shows and championships, including the Devon Horse Show, the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, the Washington International Horse Show, the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals and the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final. He is an "R" judge for both hunters and equitation and a sought-after clinician who travels extensively in North America and Europe. His Montoga, Inc. hunter barn is located in West Palm Beach, Florida. He is co-founder of the American Hunter Jumper Foundation, which recently merged with the US Hunter Jumper Association, and is the author of Geoff Teall on Riding Hunters, Jumpers and Equitation: Develop a Winning Style.
To read more about how an equitation class is judged, read "Inside an Equitation Judge's Mind" by Geoff Teall in the October 2010 issue of Practical Horseman.