Growing up, I was always taught to have good form when on a horse. This stemmed from the idea that being balanced, and independent with all of your parts to have good form will lead to being an efficient and functional rider. At its core, Equitation classes are meant to instill this same principle; that is, equitation is not about creating a pretty picture, but if you are doing everything exactly right, the pretty picture will happen.
Over the years I’ve worked very hard to maintain and improve upon the good habits and equitation instilled in me from a young age. Sometimes things have slipped, such as my lower leg swinging behind me a bit, or my back getting a little round on the landing of a jump as a result of trying to be soft, but not having enough core strength. Practicing these principles is a good thing in my opinion. Being balanced in the correct point over a fence will mean you are not interfering with your horse’s ability to lift his front end over the jump, and it will ensure that he does not pull a rail because you were making it hard to snap his hind end up. If you are sitting up too early, you may force his hind end down and take a rail with it, but if you land too forward, it will take a while to get your horse back together after the jump. Obviously, the list goes on, as each nitpicky detail has a purpose.
But it seems that often these days, form is about creating a nice picture, and not about learning to ride in the most effective way possible. While this equitation rider looks very nicely balanced and relaxed, and like she will not get in her horse’s way while preparing for the next obstacle on course, she seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.
Many equitation riders these days seem to have their hands planted near their horse’s withers, while they lean over their hands rather than folding at the hip and following the horse with their release–I’ve even heard trainers telling their students to ride this way, to make it seem like there is “less movement” over the jump.
On the other end of the spectrum, we also see people who throw form to the wind and say that whatever gets the job done is good enough. That’s all fine and dandy if it works for them, but I somehow think that this is perhaps not the most effective or efficient way to ride:
Certainly he is balanced over his horse, and he has given a generous release, but this rider also fell back early on his horse after every fence, and had to take a stride to re-balance himself after every one because he was landing very far back in his saddle. While this may work for this guy and John Whitaker, I personally don’t think that as riders we should settle for whatever gets the job done.
Of course, different styles work better for different disciplines. In the Jumpers, you are moving fast, and you need to be able to recover quickly. Often your horse is jumping hard, and jamming your heel down can mean ending up behind the motion. In the Hunters, you need to be as light as possible and stay out of your horse’s way so that he can best display his own athletic ability and style. In an ideal world, we would all ride like Maclain Ward, but sometimes we are limited by our horse’s style of jumping, our own physique, or we simply don’t ride 8 horses a day to perfect our seat and riding ability.
Sometimes, near perfect form is good enough, and if our heel comes up a little, or we are a little ahead of the motion, it is likely not interfering too much with our horse, and he hopefully has the athletic ability to compensate. While this Junior doesn’t have flawless equitation, he looks very solid, and like he will not interfere with his horse who as a result has given a lovely effort over this fence:
Do I think we should ever say “That is good enough. I do not need to be perfect, because this is working.” and ignore our flaws? Certainly not. I think that since as we as riders are always looking to improve, this includes improving our own form. I do think however, that we should understand the purpose of each part of good form, and why it is important to work on these pieces, rather than doing it just to be pretty. I also think that it is ok for things not to be perfect, as long as you are constantly trying to be aware and improve. Did your leg swing back over that oxer? Maybe. But you landed and kept going, and the jump stayed up, so move past it, and file it away as something to work on. If you keep working, one day you too might ride like Bryn Sadler, amateur extraordinaire (who also is not perfect, but is pretty darn close).
What do you think readers? When did form become important as an aesthetic rather than a product of function? Am I focusing too hard on equitation and form and worrying too much about a pretty picture? Are you more in the “if it’s working, let it alone” camp, or have you been letting things slip, and telling yourself that as long as things are working it will be alright?