Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023

Equitation-Past, Present And Future

Several months ago while teaching in Middleburg, Va., I stopped at The Chronicle of The Horse and the National Sporting Library (a beautiful complex by the way) to browse through back Chronicles. Of course, I thought I'd get through 30 years of Chronicles in two short afternoons. I got through 1 1/2 years. I was simply so fascinated by the editorials, articles, photos, show results and advertisements that I couldn't go any faster.


Several months ago while teaching in Middleburg, Va., I stopped at The Chronicle of The Horse and the National Sporting Library (a beautiful complex by the way) to browse through back Chronicles. Of course, I thought I’d get through 30 years of Chronicles in two short afternoons. I got through 1 1/2 years. I was simply so fascinated by the editorials, articles, photos, show results and advertisements that I couldn’t go any faster.

Looking at those old, old photos and ancient articles really reinforced what I’d already remembered and knew. All the people, horses, horse shows and ideas were just a blink away in my memories.

In the early days, well before World War II, equitation classes were born in order to improve the standard of riding and the schooling of horses. They were also called horsemanship classes and “seat and hands” classes. The equitation division was originally meant to be a means to an end, not an end in itself, which in many instances it’s become today.


The equitation division in its original concept is a fabulous idea and, without question, has produced our standard of excellent riding. No other country in the world, much as some might try, has the division in the same way we do. However, in many ways our equitation division has turned in on itself and is producing a negative result today.


Is the equitation division improving all-around horsemanship, the standard of riding, style and the schooling of horses?


Any and every aspect of riding should be for the betterment of the horse. That’s all horsemanship is, no matter what activity, discipline or competition. Whether it’s mounting correctly, heels down, eyes up, shoulder-in, a cross-rail, or a five-stride line.


I’m a very lucky man. I’m looking at my seventh decade of riding, training and horse shows. To watch our sport evolve, grow and change since the late 1940s until today is an exciting experience.


In the evolution of the equitation division, one must never forget the proximity of form and function.


I remember the junior riders of the late 1940s and early 1950s winning ASPCA Maclay classes riding in the position of the old English hunting seat. Their stirrup was “home,” their leg cocked a bit forward, deep in the saddle often with little release of their horse’s mouth. The kids in those days rode out in the country and foxhunted most of the time. It was the way they were taught (often by their groom) to ride a horse. They carried it into the show ring. We of the new-forged forward seat school looked down on this style and called it, “Riding by the seat of your pants.”


By the early to mid 1950s, the forward seat reigned supreme. All of the Maclay and AHSA Medal finals winners rode this style’Victor Hugo Vidal, Ronnie Mutch, myself, Mike Page, Mike Plumb, Wilson Dennehy, Mary Chapot, Bernie Traurig, etc.


Our stirrups were short, with often offset irons. We placed the stirrup on the ball of the foot, and our foot was on the inside of the stirrup. Our heels were driven down, our ankles cocked, and our toes forced quite far out. Unlike the hunting seat of the 1940s, we learned forward riding in our crotch rather than our buttocks. Our posture was good, with our eyes up. And we jumped a horse in light contact, what we then called “jumping out of hand.” Of course, this forward seat position is how people all over the world jump today.



Some of the more unpleasant changes, fashions and trends that one sees today’violating the principles of the forward seat’include stirrups too long, riding on the buttocks, roach backs, jumping ahead of a horse and the long, throw-away crest release.


It’s us, the trainers, who are responsible for teaching our students how to properly manage, develop and school a horse. As we all know, there’s an enormous difference between proper preparation for a class, “drilling,” and horse killing. Longing until quiet (LTQ) and longing until dead (LTD) are disgusting phrases that should be abandoned. It’s very difficult to legislate good horsemanship!


Remember first and foremost this is a sport. Yes, I’m a professional horseman and pay my bills by way of the horse business. Yet I must never forget the sport or, more importantly, my art. Yes, horsemanship should be an art. Just watch David O’Connor, McLain Ward or Debbie McDonald. Those who use horses just for the business are crass, classless horsemen.

Many of the equitation riders are nice kids and do remember to congratulate the winner and say, “Thank you.” The instructors must teach good manners today because often the parents don’t.


Equitation riders should learn some history about their sport. Learn tradition, horsemen’s etiquette, and the rules of the game. Reading is the best supplement to improve your understanding of riding and horse training. Know your rulebooks.


Learn general horsemanship, not just your own discipline. Bill Steinkraus, Jimmy Lee and the late Sallie Wheeler are prime examples of those appreciating and being interested in many breeds, many disciplines’hunters, jumpers, equitation, eventing, dressage, driving, western, etc.


I want to see the young equitation riders at all the rings, especially watching the professionals school, flat and warm-up their horses.


I’ve heard some shocking stories this year about bad sportsmanship. Bad sportsmanship is simply lack of class. As my mother used to say, “No upbringing!” Those kinds of people almost can’t help it; it’s where they come from.


When I hear trainers refer to the kids today and say, ” ‘They’ do this. ‘They’ do that.” No! It’s us who are to blame. Whatever the young people are doing, right or wrong, is due to us. If they’re weak riders, it’s our fault. If they’re throwing their hands, it’s our fault. If they don’t know how to groom a horse, or trim or braid a horse’s mane, it’s our fault.


Horsemanship is an ever-evolving challenge. Now the stirrup is on the ball of the foot nearer the toe with the foot touching the outside branch of the iron. Real flat work is mandatory in order to ride these very technical courses. Riding with and behind the motion are accepted as well as the different releases of the hands.



I stay active, traveling to clinics and horse shows all over the world and read to keep up with the times. Yet I’m very strong about sticking to my basic beliefs and principles about riding and training.


Most trainers world-wide have a system today. Most of these systems are quite similar. I call it a universal system, a universal style. Whether they’re better or worse depends on the horsemanship, the horseman and the well-being of the horse. Many equitation horses have become useless robots, over flexed, behind the leg, flat-jumping “steppers” who rub fences. Years ago our equitation horses were also our junior hunter champions.


Showmanship is a bit lost today. Most people are on a treadmill, and there’s a “sheep” mentality today. If one goes off the cliff the others follow. We used to show off, try to be different, gallop, to do it better than the other guy.


Style is for you and your horse to be as impeccably groomed and turned out as possible. Fashions come and go, style never changes. No, girls, I’m not impressed by the new European look, the ponytail!


Learn from judges; don’t always knock judges. Read the prize list and know who’s judging. Trainers, it’s your job to know a judge’s background and what they like and don’t like. When Ronnie, Victor, and I were young teenagers we knew every judge’s likes and dislikes. We didn’t even have to ask our trainer.


Remember to thank everybody’your groom, vet, blacksmith, trainer, parent, grandparent, sponsor, in-gate workers, announcer, steward, judge and show manager. Look at the people who win the most. Usually they’re liked by almost everybody. That’s not just a coincidence.


Every rider, no matter how young or how old (to a point), should be able to get his or her own horse to the ring, if need be. This includes body clipping, trimming and braiding. Yes, braiding takes time and is expensive. There’s no excuse. Get up early and braid your own horse. The old professionals always braided their own conformation horses’ tails themselves. I believe in braiding. It’s called a “Horse Show” for a reason. There are a couple of trainers out there who turn their horses out better than the others. They receive bonus points!


Where is the equitation division going? It’s become too artificial. Position for position’s sake, bending for the sake of bending. Joe Dotoli had a good slant with his New England Medal Finals. It’s an all-around horsemanship final. I think we’ll see some new classes and new finals in the future where the emphasis will be on what’s good for the horse. After all, that’s how the equitation division started in the first place if you know your history.








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