Reinventing Equitation

To better understand our system of riding, imagine you need to figure it out for yourself—from square one.

What if you were the first person ever to ride a horse? Attracted to his grace and power, you wondered how it would feel if you could get the horse to share his movement with you. 

If you were the first person ever to ride a horse, you would need to invent a system of equitation based on the most humane and efficient way to interact with horses. This can give you a new and more sophisticated understanding of how and why we apply our system to horses. Great horsemen have studied horses for centuries, writing down much of what they observed. If you read books on equitation written hundreds of years ago, such as the Duke of Newcastle William Cavendish’s A General System of Horsemanship, you will find good descriptions of a sensation you have in the saddle today. The terminology may have changed, but the principles have not. | Courtesy, National Sporting Library & Museum

To ride, you would need to invent a system of equitation, defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “the act or art of riding on horseback.” Of course, excellent horsemen have studied horses for centuries, writing down much of what they observed. If you read books on equitation written hundreds of years ago, you will find good descriptions of a sensation you had in the saddle today. The terminology may have changed, but the principles have not.

So why am I suggesting you reinvent equitation? Because approaching it as if you were the first rider will enable you to take a fresh look at the system currently in use around the world. The fact that it has been in use for several centuries should not deter you. The more firmly we believe in certain principles, the more willing we should be to examine and debate them. 

To help you—the first human to decide to ride a horse, remember—I will put forward the principles you should use as you invent a logical, effective system of equitation. Your First Principles:

  • You intend to deal with your horse in a humane fashion.
  • You will not ask your horse to do anything that he does not do when he is at liberty.

To achieve your goal, you need to develop a means of communication with your horse in order to train and enhance certain traits and responses. As you begin to interact with him, you observe that he responds to your attempts to communicate. You also note that while he has limited intelligence, he has a willing disposition and highly developed powers of memory. He responds well to basic positive–negative stimulus training methods and humane repetition. When you are mounted, certain pressures of your legs and hands produce predictable reactions, which you can use to teach your horse various tasks. (I am obviously referring here to your aids, but I am intentionally avoiding familiar terminology in order to take a fresh look at the subject.) So far, this new system of equitation satisfies your First Principles.

In addition, your system will be of little use if it serves only riders with superior athletic abilities or extraordinary intuition where horses are concerned. The average rider must be able to use your system. One of our greatest horsemen, Gen. Harry D. Chamberlin, designed his system for people with average athletic ability, an inquiring mind, an understanding of theory and the ability to practice. You should do no less. 

The Effect of Motion

Because you will be mounted upon your horse, you need to study the effect of his motion on your position. You must find ways to maintain your physical attachment with him, both for reasons of safety and for ease and efficiency of communication. The language you use to train him must be clear, simple and consistent. Obviously, the more efficient your signals, the more consistently your horse will respond. For example, it will be difficult to exert consistent pressure with your hands or legs if your horse’s motion causes you to bounce erratically on his back. 

Utilized correctly, however, your position has the effect of removing any static from your communication. You appear to be still even while in motion—not because you are fixed but rather because you move at the same speed and in the same direction as your horse. One of the hallmarks of a horse completely trained according to this system is that he will remain perfectly balanced between both legs and both hands of the rider at all times.

The balance of your signals is specific to this system you are inventing, not a universal requirement. For example, show hunters and reining horses both compete on a loose rein with spectacular and admirable results. However, for your new system of equitation to become fully realized, you must be closely connected with your horse at all times. When training horses according to your system, you can no more produce a trained response from your horse with a loose rein than you can play music on a Stradivarius with a broken violin string.

The ability to maintain your position while your horse is in motion implies that you can maintain contact with both your legs and your hands during that motion. Consider the effect of both the walk and the gallop on your actions in the saddle. Because both of these gaits have four beats, your horse’s neck will oscillate forward and back. If you want to maintain a consistent connection with your horse’s mouth, then your elbow must harmoniously duplicate the range of your horse’s motion. Obviously, while the motion in your elbow is slight at the walk, it can be quite pronounced at the gallop. The need for this poised relaxation of the elbow pervades your system due to the need for a quiet and sympathetic contact with your horse’s mouth.

Indeed, you must include this concept of poised relaxation throughout your system of riding. The reason is simple: Rigidity on your part will invariably produce tension in your horse, and tension paralyzes your horse’s muscles and prevents the full use of his body. 

Upper-Body Options

Consider for a moment that at the halt it would be theoretically possible to balance something as straight and rigid as a broomstick in the saddle. So long as your horse is perfectly still, the broomstick could remain upright. However, as soon as your horse moves forward, the stick topples backward out of the saddle. If we substitute your upper body for the broomstick, your instinctive reaction when your horse moves forward will be the same as every other novice rider from time immemorial: You will grip with your knees, thighs and reins in order to keep from falling backward. Obviously, this is not what you want from your position because grip in the saddle produces tension and tension is the enemy of your new system. 

Experimentation shows that you have three basic options for your upper body in the saddle: a flat, rigid back, sitting on your tailbone by “slumping” at your waist or, finally, slightly arching your back at the waist. You have already tried to flatten your back and disliked the rigidity it causes. Your experiments with a slumped back are equally unsatisfactory because when you slump in the saddle, your horse takes your seat and lower legs forward with him while your upper body continues to fall backward.

Further experimentation reveals the benefits of a slightly arched lower back. First of all, that is the natural shape of the human spine, which means it is the most comfortable for you to maintain. In addition, when you sit with a slight arch in the small of your back, your horse’s motion pushes your hips forward. Eureka! You have designed a way to stay connected with your horse’s motion without gripping or pulling. 

Satisfied that your core is stabilized, you now turn your attention to your extremities. You have already learned that leg pressure is the most efficient signal to create motion. This means leg signals are paramount in importance, so you decide to next examine your leg position.

Just as with your upper body, it takes experimentation to determine the optimal position for your legs. You soon find that if you lengthen your stirrup leathers until your legs hang straight down from your hip, you resemble a tuning fork on a toothpick and cannot maintain your position. If you shorten your stirrup leathers until you have an acute angle behind your knee, you find that in order to stay with the motion of your horse you must close your hip angle and keep your shoulders above your knees rather than above your hips. You finally decide that an approximate angle of 90 degrees behind your knee provides your leg position with an elegant compromise between stability and sensitivity.

Now you use the same procedure with your reins, first shortening them until your arm forms a straight line from your shoulder to your horse’s mouth. You immediately notice that your connection is stiff and lacks sensitivity. Dissatisfied, you lengthen your reins until your elbow is behind your hip. Again, you are not satisfied; you can gently squeeze your hands, but any further increase in rein pressure requires you to lean backward from the hip and confront your horse’s mouth with the weight of your body. This is a powerful aid, but it lacks sensitivity. It also causes your horse to hollow his back and lean against your hand rather than yield to the pressure. Once again, you compromise between the extremes of straight arms in front of you and locked arms behind you. A 135-degree angle at your elbow produces an elastic connection with your horse’s mouth and provides the greatest-possible range of motion in your arms without changing the placement of your upper body.

By now, you realize that the system you have just “invented” was waiting for you all along. These considerations and experimentations that you have undertaken have been going on for centuries as mankind has learned the most humane and efficient way to interact with horses. I hope that this simple procedure has given you a new and more sophisticated understanding of how and why we apply our system to horses. You will have increased your expertise and your horse will flourish under the precepts of this system.

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