Heads up! Heels down! The line between equitation poise and pose.

Beautifully turned out equitation riders head up the placings at the top horse shows each summer. Riding lessons devoted to arena laps without stirrups and in 2-point position pay dividends in the show ring. Head up! Heels down!

But have you ever considered the line between equitation poise and pose?

Dignity, effectiveness, calm and confidence describe a rider with poise. There’s an air of assurance that marks an educated and experienced horseman (or woman).

“Hands still. Look up. More leg. Half halt. Use your seat!”  When coaching majors on  WHAT to do and minors on exactly HOW and WHY to do it, equitation can amount to pose. A rider who poses may have the veneer of correct riding, without the underlying foundation of horsemanship.

This was a missing piece in my education as a young rider.  Like many young riders I figured that a horse is like a machine, pre-programmed with all the buttons in place. “He’s not doing what I want!” “He should know better!”

As a coach, I teach riders early how to communicate effectively with a horse – a non-English-speaking 1000 lb., social grazing, prey animal –  even as priority to finding correct diagonals, keeping shoulders back and heels down.

No question, riders must master balance and stability to use their aids effectively.  I’m thankful for the equitation stability I gained early – I needed it. We rode by the motto “Seven falls makes a rider!”

Yet, it wasn’t until I began training horses myself that I learned how to think through horse training snags and communication gaps.

Riders with poise are:

  1. Problem solvers. When things go wrong in the schooling ring or show ring, these riders recover quickly and with tact, minimizing the negative effect of the snag.  They are ready with a plan B instead of giving up when plan A fails. When they get stuck, rather than blaming the horse, they take the responsibility to devise a different way of presenting a lesson to the horse.
  2. Conversational Riding effectively can be boiled down to a signal/response or pressure/release conversation between horse and human.  Your hands send the signals such as slow, turn and flex to your horse. The legs create pressures –move  forward, move laterally. Each signal is precise and distinct. As the horse responds, the rider responds in turn by relaxing the pressure.
  3. Still but not stiff.  Judges expect to see subtle communication between horse and human. Riders with pose are fluid with elastic joints, following the motion of the horse.
    Dressage judges mark a box for rider position (stability, alignment and posture) AND rider effectiveness (clarity and independence of aids).
    AQHA equitation and western horsemanship judges give a score for rider form AND effectiveness.

I’ve found that when novice riders are taught earlier not only how sit on a horse but how to think like a horse, there are far fewer falls. When coached to consider how horses think and learn, there are fewer frustrations. Posture and position refined after the principles of equitation science.