|We have all sat and watched Saddle Seat Equitation classes and marveled over the skill and grace of the riders. With the addition of the Adult Saddle Seat Equitation classes, this division is no longer limited to Junior Exhibitors. Equitation tests not only horsemanship but also poise and intelligence; anyone who has performed workouts after a lesson on a school horse or has taken a lunge lesson knows that it is not as easy as the top riders make it look.
Equitation riders must keep track of their horse's positions and their own as well as navigate traffic and perform any additional work required. They put hours and hours of saddle time in every week, often earning blisters on their knees or other badges of honor, in
addition to watching videos of themselves and others perform. I have seen huge file folders of workouts that have been collected from shows over the years, which are all fair game for a lesson or practice ride. These Equitation riders must not only look pretty and talented, they must also think quickly on their feet, especially when workouts are not posted before the class.
Let's start with a brief overview of the ideal position for the rider and other general concerns before moving on to the nitty gritty details that many of us never think about. We have all seen Equitation riders over the years that look posed and exaggerated. Their position might be strong and remain solid during the entire class, but that is not quite what the USEF Rule Book stipulates. In general, "Judges should note that the required Equitation Seat should in no way be exaggerated but be thoroughly efficient and most comfortable for riding the type of horse called for at any gait and for any length of time." (EQ 115.1). The general rules also state that "riders should convey impression of effective and easy control" and that ring generalship is also to be taken into consideration (EQ 115.1). After all, this is horsemanship not just looking pretty.
The riders' hands "should show sympathy, adaptability, and control" (EQ 115.2), and they should be wherever the horse needs them (higher or lower depending on the horse). The basic position at a standstill is familiar to all of us, sitting straight in the center of the saddle with a slight bend in the knees and the stirrup iron on the ball of the foot with heels down, "Foot position should be natural (neither extremely in nor out)" (EQ 115.3). However, how should this position translate while in movement? The USEF Rule Book states that at the walk there should be slight motion in the saddle (EQ 115.4). The word "slight" is key in that the "slight" motion should be moving with the horse. At the trot the rider should show "slight elevation in saddle posting; hips under body not mechanical up-and down nor swinging forward and backward" (EQ 115.4). Here "not mechanical" is the key; this phrase means the rider should be moving with the horse. This movement with the horse ensures that the horse and rider act as a team; the horse is not merely a statue for the rider to show off on, it is an integral part of the team. This movement of the rider with the horse is emphasized in the description of the rider's position at the canter, "close seat, going with horse" (EQ 115.4) as well as the descriptions at the slow gait and rack.
As far as the class routine goes, we all know the riders must work on the rail at all gaits, both ways of the ring. We also all know that individual tests can be called for, but what tests can be called for riders of what age? Competitors in Equitation classes for riders 11 and Under can only be asked to perform Tests 1-7 (the Tests can be found in EQ 119). For 13 and Under classes, the exhibitors can be asked to perform tests 1-12. Riders in 14 to 17 Years of Age classes and Adult classes can be asked to perform all tests. Keep in mind that if a younger rider is in an "open" (17 and Under) Championship, they may be asked to perform all tests; it is determined by the ages of riders eligible for the class. In Championships the rail and individual work is weighted 50-50. In specific classes, such as the UPHA Challenge Cup and NHS Good Hands Event, the workout is mandatory and the division of rail and individual work is stipulated in the USEF Rule Book in section EQ 118.
There are a few finer points, as far as the tests go, that many of us are not aware of. For example, if a rider is asked to perform a figure eight at the trot or canter, they may have to stop to identify the center point. If the figure eight is to be performed facing the center of the ring, the rider must stop to identify the center point, "If started facing the center, it must be commenced from a halt" (EQ 119.9 and 119.12). By stopping in the center, the figure eight looks much cleaner and polished, and the center point is clearly defined. Also, Test 15, the demonstration ride, can only be called for in Championship and/or Medal classes.
Saddle Seat Equitation is much more than looking elegant on a horse; it requires skill, intelligence, lots of hard work, and ambition to be the best. I highly recommend that everyone open their USEF Rule Books (either online at www.usef.org or in hard copy) and brush up on what is expected of these talented riders. Knowing the rules is not only essential for the classes that each one of us shows in, it can also enhance the experience as a spectator.