Written by: Jessica Lefroy

When the equitation ring becomes a springboard to professional careers

Thumbnail for Equitation: Style, Form and Function

Bob Langrish photo

Over the years, the jumping equitation ring in Canada has produced many riders who have achieved great success in the professional ranks. There are currently a large variety of equitation classes available nationwide for all ages and abilities: the CET Medal, Jump Canada Medal, Good Hands & Seat, Riders Habit Medal series, EMG Mini-Medal, Ariat National Adult Medal, and many others. The Canadian equitation classes are succeeding in preparing ridbers that are stylish and effective – the trademark of North American hunt seat riding. The skillset necessary for competing in these classes provides a solid foundation for riders preparing to enter the grand prix ranks, acting as a stepping stone for future success.

Laura Tidball-Balisky, who made history by becoming the first Canadian and youngest female to win both the prestigious ASPCA Maclay Finals and AHSA Medal Finals, believes that her equitation training did more than teach the technical skills which prepared her for a career in the industry. Out of their Thunderbird Show Stables in Langley, BC, she and husband Brent have produced 11 CET Finals winners. “The equitation prepares you for intense pressure situations,” she says. “It’s hard to find that pressure in a regular class at a horse show there’s not the buildup like there is in the equitation. It prepared me for being able to handle high-pressure situations like being on a Nations’ Cup team. Equitation taught me that calm, cool nerves get you a long way.”

In addition to developing a certain mental sharpness, the technical skills perfected for the equitation classes translate well to the jumper ring. “From a skill training and technical point of view, you should be able to take what you’ve learned in the equitation and transfer it exactly into the jumper ring,” explains Laura. “If you look at the world of show jumping today, technique is huge. The really good riders could step into the equitation ring and win. Proper technique – hand, leg, seat, balance – creates the better jump and the winning ride. There is a reason for good technique.”

A former student of Brent and Laura, Melanie Ellickson (nee Walters), experienced great success in the equitation ring both in Canada and the United States, winning the 1994 CET Finals and the 1993 CEF and AHSA Medal Finals. Ellickson now owns and operates Showcase Farms in Langley, BC. “The equitation ring creates better riders,” believes Melanie. “It creates better horsemen who have a better understanding of their horses and how to answer the questions asked from a demanding course with finesse.”

Style that never goes out of style

One of Canada’s most successful equitation ring graduates, Ainsley Vince, was named the 2010 OHJA Jumper Trainer of the Year and now operates her own training and sales business, Linden Ridge in Burlington, ON. Winner of the 1994 CEF Finals at the Royal Winter Fair, Ainsley “fluked” her way into qualifying for the AHSA Medal Finals in 1994, where she catch-rode a grand prix sales horse of Beezie and John Madden’s to a second-place finish. “One of the reasons equitation is great is because it teaches valuable tools that combine both hunter and jumper aspects of the sport,” she attests. Traditional equitation tests such as broken lines, rollbacks, and stride adjustability are elements that are found in both the hunter and jumper ring. She explains that equitation teaches the discipline of being able to use your skills across the board and to do it with style. “You need to present not only the horse well, but yourself well,” explains Ainsley. “It teaches you to be smooth, to discipline your eye, control balance, manipulate the horse’s jump, and jump well from a variety of distances. What is in fashion will change, but a good rider now could go head-to-head with a good rider from 25 years ago.”

Living and operating his business stateside, Wellington, FL-based Brian Walker is another Canadian who made his mark on the American equitation scene before becoming a thriving professional. Walker won both the 2000 CET and CEF Finals, and in 2001 was the winner of the ASPCA Maclay Finals and Ronnie Mutch Equitation Championship. He explains the importance of introducing equitation training early in a young rider’s education: “The fundamentals of equitation are the fundamentals of good riding,” he says. “Perfecting line, track, rhythm, and straightness will help any rider at any level be smooth and fluid around the course. Whether they’ve done equitation or not, the best riders become great because they have talent and experience, but all the most successful ones are the smoothest. For kids learning to ride, the equitation classes force you to be smooth, and that’s something that carries over into all divisions.”

Winner of the 1998 ASPCA Maclay Finals at Madison Square Garden, Erynn Ballard of Tottenham, ON, catapulted herself into a professional career by capping off her junior years with a 1999 individual gold medal at the North American Junior & Young Rider Championships. Erynn appreciates the focus that training for the equitation classes gives to riders. “To be in top form,” she believes, “great basics and a solid position make the best riders. The structure of the equitation classes teaches huge discipline. Riders learn attention to detail in their position, dedication to following a plan on course, and there’s a huge mental factor to handling the pressure of both the regional and national finals.” Being able to precisely execute a plan on course is a skill that Erynn learned early in her training, and one that has remained necessary in her navigation of huge grand prix tracks. “When you are walking a huge Nations’ Cup course, you have to be committed to following a plan in order to jump clear and within the time allowed,” explains Erynn. “You need mental focus to handle the stress and pressure that is required to stay on top of the game. The equitation divisions teach all of these things at an early stage of riding.”

Practice makes perfect

In terms of horsepower, a competitive jumping equitation mount needs to be a horse that isn’t hot or temperamental, and on which you can spend hours in the tack perfecting repetitive exercises. An ideal equitation horse has smooth gaits, is rideable, and has a jump that is easy to stay with.

The key to developing good equitation – riding position that is not only visually appealing, but also effective – is to establish a good foundation. A winner on the Ontario ‘A’ circuit since the age of seven, Rachel Schnurr used the equitation classes to finesse her skills for the jumper ring. Her junior career ended with a bang, winning the CET Finals at the Royal Winter Fair in 2010. Rachel now offers advice to her students about the importance of equitation and the skills that should be practiced at home. “The equitation division really teaches you to focus on properly flatting your horse,’ believes Rachel. ‘Flatwork is a huge part of riding in the show ring. There are only a few jumps in the course, but what you do between those jumps, and how well your horse is broken and responds to you, is what will make the jumps good.”

Skills that create polished, thinking, and effective riders need to be honed at home before being tested in the ring. “Exercises that finesse the rider’s eye and patience include riding jumps off a short turn and work with poles,” explains Rachel. “There is no better exercise than no-stirrups work to fine tune a rider’s legs and seat. I like to use a lot of grids; they teach you to be slow with your body and not get in front of your horse. I also think exercises that practice adjustability, such as lines which are set on a half-stride, teach you how to either package your horse or lengthen the stride. Many times you will come across a line in the course that may be a forward four to a packaging five and you need to be able to ride it properly – with the horse’s rhythm never changing.”

It is the goal of any trainer to create thinking, independent riders who do not require the constant supervision of an instructor on the ground. Equitation classes often test riders by having them make up their own courses, walk the course without a trainer, or warm-up without help. “The equitations really teach riders to think for themselves, as often in a ride-off situation there isn’t an opportunity to confer with a trainer,” says Rachel. “I think it helped me transition into the role of a professional because I became less reliant on my coach to constantly be there and to go over the courses and plans before I went in the ring. I began to trust my instincts. Not having someone on the ground, helping me walk the course or telling me what I did wrong, helped me think for myself, which helped me to analyze what I did wrong and learn how to fix it the next time.”

Lessons learned

An equitation finals win alone is not a guarantee of future professional success. “There is always something new to be learned in this sport,” says Melanie. “There are new challenges every day and an equitation finals win doesn’t automatically land you a big business with multiple clients. Although some doors open due to success as a junior, it is still an uphill battle trying to survive in this industry. There is always something you can learn from another professional who has been in this business longer.”

These valuable lessons can be applied to almost any equestrian discipline. “You learn patience, camaraderie, and humility,” says Laura, “which are incredible qualities to have when you work in horses.” Particularly in the CET Finals, where riders often have to switch horses, Laura applauds what she has witnessed. “What I’ve seen of our junior equitation riders is incredible. These kids work together, not against each other,” she says. “From a sportsmanship level that’s huge. Every rider is trading spurs, giving tips, and rooting for each other.”

The jumping equitation division in Canada is doing its job, believes Laura, producing a depth of riders capable of answering the questions demanded by the biggest grand prix. “The equitation classes exist to skill train and get riders ready to move on in the industry. If you look to the high end of the sport, you see the result of good technical riders. You train better, the horses like you better, and you get further.”