Part 1: Introduction

I.        What is Functional Equitation?

Equitation is the rider’s position on the horse. Good Functional Equitation gives the horse the
freedom to move and balance without hindrance from the rider, and gives the rider a solid base
from which they can give clear and concise aids to the horse. Functional equitation should not be
confused with show ring equitation; what wins in Equitation classes in the show ring is based on
fashion and what looks nice to the judge, which may not be the most effective position for all
horses and riders.

A rider interested in learning Functional Equitation must take into consideration how their position
and actions affects their horse, and must be empathetic to the needs of the horse, as well as
respectful of their own body and its limitations. The concept of “no pain no gain” does not belong in
Functional Equitation as the body will not learn to be fluid and responsive when in pain.

II.        Why is Equitation Important?

Proper equitation allows the rider to be most effective in giving aids. It gives the rider both strength
and precision. A rider whose position is correct will be easier for the horse to carry, and allow the
horse to move with maximum freedom and prevent stiffness issues in the horse. For the rider,
proper equitation can prevent/minimize muscle soreness, injury and back pain. It can also greatly
increase a rider’s mental confidence.

Learning to how to sit properly also allows the rider to feel the horse’s movement and to time their
aids in a precise manner.
You will often see riders on 'lazy' horses, trying to urge the horse forwards by pushing their pelvis
forward strongly but this often has the opposite effect, particularly on a sensitive or green horse, as
it stops the movement from being able to happen. By pushing both seat bones forward and back
together, the rider depresses one side of the horse's back as it rises and blocks the travel forward
of the hind leg on that side. This causes the horse to get slower and slower, and in the case of
sensitive trained horses, will stop them dead in their tracks. The usual response from the rider is to
think that the horse is being lazy and therefore give them a kick when it is really the horse reacting
to restricting movement by the rider.
Studying Functional Equitation will give you the tools to know when your position might be the
cause for your horse’s behaviour issues, and also how to fix them and make you a better, more
subtle rider.

III.        Why Riding Seems Easier for Some People.

I was definitely not a Natural Rider and it frustrated me when learning…I had the desire and the
commitment yet I just was not able to ride the way I wanted to! It was very frustrating, but as my
trainer WAS a natural rider she was unable to understand or help with this problem. Most coaches
are natural riders which is why it can be difficult to find help correcting this type of issue.

What primarily separates so called Natural Riders from the rest of us is that their bodies were/are
better able to adapt effectively to the movement of the horse. They may have increased flexibility in
crucial parts of their body, or just may be better able to adapt mentally and physically. Positive early
learning experiences and developing good habits from the start makes progressing much easier.
Body type and general fitness level also influences how easy it is for someone to learn to ride.

Younger riders face the additional challenge of still growing. They may find that riding becomes
easier or more difficult as their body develops and grows. Some youths can go from being very
confident at ease on a horse, only to get frustrated and unconfident when a growth spurt drastically
changes their balance on a horse.

Outside influences such as the horse you learn on, the saddle you use, your riding clothing, the
instructor and so on, also have a large effect on the rider’s ability to improve. As well outside factors
such as daily stress, pain and riding conditions can affect your ability to learn and ride properly. Try
to limit the outside influences as much as possible by using the right equipment for the task!

IV.        Difficulties Teaching and Learning Equitation.

When a rider first gets on a horse, their seat and muscles are expected to adapt to a foreign
movement. Typically the body’s first reaction is one of protection and tension, with the body trying to
adapt to being in the saddle by reverting to a more familiar position; such as sitting in a chair or the
foetal position.

As well as trying to learn to balance on the horse, new riders also have to concentrate on learning
how to control their mount, with the idea of being in control usually number one on the list of
priorities when first riding. By focusing on control before being able to adapt to the movement of the
horse, the rider usually develops some tension and ineffective positioning which soon becomes
“natural” to that rider, and that must later be untaught.

Riders also often try to mimic what they see before understanding the why behind it and end up
with a posed position that may look good to the instructor, but is not effective, nor pleasant for the
horse. Without an understanding of how things should FEEL it would be difficult for this type of rider
to advance beyond their posed position. As well, a good rider adapts their position to their horse;
an advanced dressage horse is going to be ridden best with an upright seat, whereas a
young/green horse would find such a seat much to severe on their developing back.

Just like an extremely skilled rider can influence a horse in ways that spectators can’t see, there
will be motion and tension in your body when you ride that the instructor can’t see. By having a
theoretical understanding of functional equitation you will be better able to know how things should
feel and how you should be using your body which will make it easier for you to verbalize issues to
your instructor.

Keep in mind that not all people learn the same way; some learn better by watching, some by
listing, and some by doing.  As well, body type, weight, gender, age and such will also affect what
your most functional position will be and what exercises will work best for you to achieve it.  It can
be difficult as an instructor to take these things into consideration without feedback from the
Functional Equitation:
Understanding the Mechanics of Riding
By Karen Nelson
October 2008
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