When does Form no longer Function?

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.

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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:

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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:

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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).

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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?

12 thoughts on “When does Form no longer Function?

  1. my equitation over fences has never been picture-perfect, but luckily in eventing form only matters if it’s effective. if i throw us dangerously off balance going down a drop or disrupt my horse’s efforts such that we drop a lot of rails… well, that needs work.

    otherwise i try not to get too bogged down in the details (esp as they can turn into a vicious cycle of self-criticism) and prefer to think of it as a question of rider fitness and balance rather than form for the sake of form

  2. I’ve always been in the “whatever gets the job done” camp, but I think that relatively good form follows function. If you’re setting your horse up correctly, staying out of his way in the air, and navigating between jumps effectively, your equitation is probably pretty okay. Efforts to improve are always a good thing! Like Emma, I try not to get bogged down in the details.

    1. I think it’s definitely different from the H/J world to Eventing as well. Some of those cross country tracks and questions require so much focus, that it’s pretty easy to let little things slip that don’t have a big effect on the overall ride. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but I can see where getting through the course safely is more important than looking nice doing it.

  3. I actually don’t like to “work on my equitation.” I agree with all of your points, but I think that one of the biggest challenges of a trainer is figuring out what to work on, when and what to allow riders to “get away with” so to speak. For example, I have a much more upright two-point then we see typically in hunters or equitation. It’s certainly not perfect, and I do hope to continue to improve my breakover, but for now, it is efficient. So I don’t worry about it much. On the other hand, my legs tend to slip back and I AM working to be more stable through my lower leg.

    1. Great points! I think there’s definitely a difference between working on your equitation just to like nice, and noticing that you don’t have great eq. because of X which affects your horse in such and such way.

    1. I’m certainly not a dressage rider, but I think the theory is about the same. You always want your position to be effective at helping the horse do its job, and you never want your horse to have to overcome or compensate for a flaw.

  4. The focus on equitation is a highly American thing, and while I definitely agree that textbook form puts you in a place to be well balanced with your horse while remaining out of the way, it’s not the defining factor of a good rider (as some seem to believe). Of course, the issue with letting one piece of your form go means that other areas have to compensate in order for you to stay with your horse. On the flip side, holding your body in a rigid form is one way to end up on the ground. I am anal about my own equitation because arguably the most important part of good equitation is having a solid but soft leg as your base, and I feel much much safer and stable when my leg sits in place. Granted, I, like many others, do a turtle impression from time to time, but, whatever, it happens. Denny Emerson’s opinions on equitation are great to read.

    1. That’s a great point! The focus in America seems to have gone way beyond the original point of the equitation classes, which was to teach riders how to be prepared for and how to ride bigger tracks in the jumpers, without the pressure of a timer.

  5. I’ve always ridden horses where “function over form” was king in the jumper/eventing ring. I try to have as good equitation as I can, and used to be quite lovely, but a bad shoulder + strong horses= a bit of slouching. I think focusing on form is important as long as it’s not a rigid “one size fits all” approach; for me, good form is shoulders back, weight in the heels, and soft hands, which are all fundamentals of a solid rider.

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