Equitation is about learning to ride well--whatever your sport. It's that simple. And riding well is having the horse go well and showing a nice style while you're doing it.
I don't think of equitation as a different sport. To me, it's a complement and a stepping-stone to what occurs every day in good jumper riding and hunter riding, dressage, eventing, trail and saddle seat. So in equitation, just as in any of those disciplines, you need to be riding with your horse's particular abilities and limitations and talents in mind and (as invisibly as possible) adjusting your ride accordingly. That's all part of horsemanship, which is the most important thing any trainer can teach.
To me, equitation classes are about finding great riders. Talent certainly plays a part in great riding; still, a rider who isn't as talented but has the desire and works hard may end up surpassing one who's naturally talented. In any case, what the judges--and all of us--should be looking for is the end result: a horse performing beautifully, being ridden in a classical, correct style. And we need to remember that the specifics of that style can vary greatly from rider to rider. An Anne Kursinski, a Todd Minikus, a Peter Wylde--they're all totally different stylists, yet they're all completely accurate and functional, and they get the job done.
What an Equitation Round Should Have
Here's what I'm looking for, and what judges are asking for, in an equitation class.
The horse is moving forward from behind, pushing off well, hind legs coming well under him with each stride. He's happy. He's light off the inside aids. Going into a corner, he isn't locked on the inside rein or falling into his rider's inside leg. He's relaxed, bent a little around that inside leg and rein through the turn, not overbent; his rider feels lightness off her inside lateral aids through the turn.
Approaching a jump, the premise is the same. The horse is moving at a pace that's forward and balanced. He's carrying the rider, she's not having to push or pull; and both have a relaxed expression. She places him at a reasonable distance, preferably with minimal aids so you don't see the placement happening. (Invisible aids are a prime factor for good equitation.) The rider's position is classical, yet her own; each person has her own style, and I'd hate to take that away.
In the air, the rider releases the horse's mouth and follows the motion. On landing, she's still truly centered and balanced, so her position stays secure and solid--an effortless kind of effort. Horse and rider move as one, so seamlessly that you almost don't notice.
The pace is smoother from beginning to end, even during adjustments. For a forward line, the rider begins to ready her horse's pace before they get there so she doesn't have to make a big change between fences. For a collected line, she starts pulling him together a littler earlier to accommodate the shorter distance.
When good equitation is not happening successfully, the signs are crystal clear. On the flat, the horse is not forward; he's maybe a little fussy; he's heavy on the inside rein or cutting in through a turn. Over jumps, he's inverted, with no "break"--no round arc--over the top of the fence, and his expression is unhappy.
Sure, there are many equitation horses whose style is to "step" over the jump: They're flat in the air, they don't crack their backs, and they don't move their riders around a lot. But even with them, I want to see some roundness: some stretching forward and down a little before the jumping effort itself.
The basis for your horse going well is your classical position: heels down; base of support centered and with the motion; legs correct; upper body in balance, neither jumping ahead nor falling back. Whatever your conformation, you can accomplish that. And when you do, you'll help your horse go well, whatever his purchase price and breeding.
Excerpted from "Just What Is Equitation, Anyway?" in the July 1999 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. For more about Missy's influential program and her Warren, Vt., facility, read "Go In Like You're the Winner" in the October 2007 issue.