It is hard to watch the big equitation classes these days. The riding has changed so much over the years, and although the riders are so accurate and beautiful from the shoulders back, the part that turns my stomach is the action from the shoulders forward. It is certainly not the fault of the riders, they are just extremely good listeners and students. This action comes directly from the instruction they are receiving. The trainers of today are telling the riders to do this.

What are the main factors behind the new system of no release and elbows out? There are so many theories, but the main one, that is so obvious to me, is that the horseflesh has changed in this millenium compared to 40 years ago when the horses had loads more blood and carried the riders with more pace. Today, the scope that is needed for the actual courses has evolved to using horses that are bigger, heavier, slower, and stronger. Ironically, the initial purpose of using Equitation classes was to develop riders for the Olympics, yet we are not using Olympic type horses for the Equitation, so I am not exactly sure what we are teaching, other than maybe rewarding an accurate eye, and good leg position.  The horses used today are so much heavier, that if you actually were able to let go of their heads, they would probably all be landing on their noses. Harsher equipment would be necessary. Lord knows there is enough harshness in the life of an Equitation horse these days, so probably best to avoid any more punishing equipment.

It is almost like the Big Eq is the end game, no longer the stepping stone. If we are still to believe that the riders today are going to be at the top level sport, maybe it would be better to copy the riders ACTUALLY RIDING in the top level of sport.

I like this guy’s position…. (he may or may not be a Pessoa)


The Big Eq is a highly lucrative business in this millennium. There is SO much money to be made on the actual good horses, it has skyrocketed to unbelievable proportions that even the Europeans are banking on it. Selling a good Equitation horse in Europe is about ten years of show fees for them. Who wouldn’t want to do that?? Here, the highly competitive schedule means more shows to attend, more lease fees to pay, more lessons, more of everything to get to the finals, that trainers can probably just run a business entirely around those classes alone. A small portion of trainers in the industry make really, really good money.

Sadly, there is little point of turnaround now. You need the big picture for change, not the short term goal. If these riders are thinking that the release of the Equitation ring is going to work in the World Cup, they won’t get very far, but most of them going that direction are good enough to figure it out, so who really cares if what we watch at 3’6’ is wrong? No horse in their right mind would jump like that at 4’6”, so it doesn’t really matter, right? Why suggest change now?

Well, I think it does matter when you think of how the other trainers in America are going to teach their students in the future. Where do you think they are getting their information? It is on TV! We are actually televising hundreds of riders putting their elbows out and a backwards release. People watching at home could be seeing this and developing riders at lower levels to do the exact same thing, which is the domino effect in our industry. That domino effect is exactly how we got here in the first place, and now that we are in a more technically advanced world, it will manifest even quicker. There are only a few trainers left really pushing for a correct release, but their voices are getting quieter every year, while the Equitation Mafia is winning at the gate, cashing in on that end game.

The course at the USEF Finals this year was beautiful and brilliant, it absolutely honored the outdoorsy hunt field type fences we are all supposed to have been exposed to growing up. It had technical lines to promote forward gaits to collected gaits, sweeping turns and roll backs, and great questions were asked. The horses against the course were a stark contrast to what we might have seen 40 years ago, however, and it was funny to see them try to look like field hunters. This may or may not have been intentional, a hint, maybe.  All year long these horses are probably seeing jumper courses, poles, planks, liver pools, and whatever else in Ring 6 at WEF, that some of them even protested the brush at the end of the ring, ‘wtf is that greenery?? heart attack!’ funny.

By no means do I mean to take anything away from the tremendously beautiful riding that we are witnessing of today’s junior riders, it is really not their fault at all what we are seeing, but maybe if enough of us question what happened to the influence of Gordon Wright, the future will bring us a release that follows the mouth of the horse and brings the elbows in……

I wish we had video feed of the classes from decades ago, instead of relying heavily on folklore and pictures, but we don’t, we have to trust, that the riding was indeed different, it has indeed evolved.


1980 winner of AHSA Medal, Joan Scharffenburger.

Outstanding photo here, I could stare at this all day.


1985 Winner of AHSA Medal Jenno Topping


9 thoughts on “Equitation

  1. I believe the biggest reason for the perpetuation of trends is the judging. Trainers have to teach what wins. So the question is, why are the judges saying they prefer the new style?


  2. I agree wholeheartedly, but let’s not forget the leg. How many pinching knees and lifted heels did we see this year? Tons! Legs were swinging over fences in the Maclay finals left and right.


  3. I totally agree with Allison’s comment. I am horrified at the pinched knees, heels flying, and the falling on the horse’s neck with reins too long and too close to the body and elbows out like wings To me, neither attractive nor safe. If the horse stops a lot of these riders are going straight over their horse’s head to the ground.


  4. It’s all of one piece. Leaping forward, crotch in front of the pommel makes you pinch your knee, which makes your leg swing back, and then if you don’t want to fling yourself over the horse’s head, your hands need to stay at the withers and hold you back. That said, today’s top riders can find a rhythm and a spot and lay down a smooth trip. But I’d like to see one of them on a hot, green, spooky horse with no ‘prep’.


  5. I show, train and instruct in the stock horse world because that is what is in my area (se Ia). I grew up riding hunters and love and miss it. I was drilled in equitation and for that won many medals. I do the same for my students and have lost several because I don’t focus on what wins. That’s okay, the compliments from others are better than the ribbons. Just glad to see that I’m not alone in this struggle. It seems that the horsemen of yesterday have been forgotten and it’s the horses who suffer.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s