This past weekend I was happy to lend a hand to the University of Ontario & Institute of Technology and Durham College Equestrian Team for a ‘Rider Mechanics’ workshop. The Triple Crown Equestrian Team competes on the Ontario University Equestrian Association (OUEA)circuit. The team competitions are structured somewhat differently from traditional shows in that they are judged primarily on their equitation skills and abilities. Riders compete in two phases: on the flat and over fences. Points are awarded and accumulated for individual and team efforts. This year the OUEA Finals are being held indoors at the Caledon Equestrian Park, so as you might imagine everyone is bringing their “A” game to each and every show in order to qualify.
OUEA horse shows deviate from a standard horse show in a couple of fundamental ways. Firstly, the riders are primarily judged on their equitation skills with no Hunter O/F or Hunter U/S classes, secondly all of the horses used in these competitions are generously donated by owners and are randomly drawn by the riders. Equitation is a great way to level a playing field and since I have a deep and abiding love of all things equitation, I was happy to help the team hone their skills.
For many the word ‘Equitation’ conjures up images of perfectly poised riders who are more concerned with absolute ‘correctness’ than their resulting effectiveness, and that’s too bad!
Equitation, when executed correctly, enhances a rider’s ability to use his or her position to gain control, compliance, and precision from their horse. Unfortunately, I’ve found that too often riders think of equitation, if they think of it at all, as a rigidity manufactured position which has nothing whatsoever to do with highly effective riding, especially if they’re too old to participate in equitation classes. This adversity to equitation proper is part of the reason I’ve started using the title ‘Rider Mechanics’ instead of ‘Equitation’ when talking about the importance of a correct foundation and correct riding in relation to overall performance.
The challenge for a rider competing at an OUEA show stems from the fact that their horse is drawn at random and riders are only permitted to WATCH an advanced rider warm the horse up for them before they are allowed to mount up and head directly into the ring. Impressing the judges in this environment takes some luck but it’s helpful if a rider has a complete understanding about how their body and positions can positively influence their communication with their horse quickly and effectively.
But sometimes, when show nerves surface, or a rider tries a little too hard to impress a judge, or when the horse decides it’s no longer going to play nice, a rider will attempt to create the illusion of a “correct” equitation ride by locking, stiffening, or bracing. This misguided attempt to force themselves into stillness actually produces the exact opposite affect and makes staying with the motion of the horse next to impossible.
This is where ‘Rider Mechanics’ comes in. Riders need to be shown. Yes, I take hold of legs, arms, and any other relevant body parts and move them around to demonstrate how the angle of their leg affects their upper body position, why maintaining soft elastic joints increases stability, and how their core strength helps to keep their upper body balanced over their horse’s movement. Rider’s bodies need to be moved and manipulated to help them recognize that a shift of half an inch can dramatically change the way their bodies respond to their horses movement and most importantly they need to be shown why forcing themselves into manufactures equitation position is counter-productive in producing a winning ride.
The most effective equitation riders strive to maintain a supple, elastic body position from which they create a soft fluid feel that allows them to correctly follow their horse’s motion. From this balanced and elastic position they are able to feel any subtle indicators like bracing, leaning, hollowing etc. that can alert them to potential changes in their horses way of going that might jeopardize that winning round. In short, it allows them to catch potential problems before they happen.
Rider mechanics, like mechanics of any kind, involves a lot of tinkering. Playing around with a rider’s position by actually pushing, prodding, and pestering them in the saddle can show them how stiffness is their enemy and why keeping their lower leg elastic and attached to the horse can actually increase their ability to stay steady when someone is trying to push them out of the saddle.
If nothing else, teaching the concept of ‘Rider Mechanics’ to a group of dedicated young riders who are eager to represent their University to the best of their abilities was a great use of a sunny February day!