lesson 2Standing at the sidelines of a dressage show, I was watching riders as they warmed up their horses for their next classes. They were riding at all different levels - from the most basic level, Training, up to the higher levels. Through it all, I could see a common thread, regardless of riding or training level. Some riders just looked good.

I turned to my friend (and mentor of all things horse), and said, "I wish I could look that good," indicating to one of the riders that seemed to have it all together - heels in line with hip and ears, strong upper body, seat following the horse.

She looked at me and asked, "WHY?"

The rider looked simply elegant - spectacular vertical line from ear to heel, strong upper body with light rein contact, almost floating above her saddle while her trusty steed carried along virtually unaided. I expressed my perception to my friend.

She told me to look again.

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Although I had been looking at the rider, I had failed to recognize the lack of correct movement in the horse.

With some prompting and a more discerning eye, I began to notice some missing parts in the overall picture.

The horse appeared to be labouring. The movement was  heavy on the forehand, and the hind end was long and flat. Short, choppy strides and an almost too quick rhythm caused an inconsistent contact, resulting in head tossing and ear pinning.

The rider had developed the correct "look", but the horse was telling a different story. The horse's tale showed a lack of effectiveness and correct aiding.

In many athletic pursuits, form means function.

In some sports, athletes spend their entire lifetimes working toward developing the ideal "outline" for good performance. You could spot the best athlete simply by the picture they can draw with their body. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in horseback riding.

Yes, it is true that some people can develop both form AND function over their riding careers. "Looking good" on our horses is always part of our aspiration in equitation. Developing the correct body posture through the movement of the horse can be achieved over many years of practice, particularly if we start riding at a young age when the body is malleable and easy to manipulate.

But looking good should not be our only goal.

In the case of equestrians, our athletic pursuit involves a living, breathing animal that depends on us for his health and quality of life. Therefore it is imperative that we take our responsibility for improving the well-being of the horse through riding seriously.

Being an effective rider means:

- riding in a way that is therapeutic for the horses, suppling and strengthening both sides of the horse

- teaching the horse to find his "happy place" while moving, so that his work may become more like play

- strengthening the horse so he can carry his rider more comfortably

- teaching the aids in a patient but clear manner so the horse can develop trust

- carrying yourself in a way that is least obtrusive to the horse, while at the same time, most helpful

- riding with a generous attitude, always giving the horse the benefit of the doubt, but also responding in the most responsible manner when it is necessary

- making changes in the horse's way of going, always seeking for stronger and improved weight bearing

I looked at the story the horse was communicating through his body language. My friend was surely correct with her interpretation of the scene.

It was then that I realized that it doesn't really matter how a rider looks.

The most important part of riding is what you are doing to the horse. Some riders have a physical conformation that is entirely contrary to the 'ideal'. But you will find many who can compromise for their physical appearance by using their aids in a way that always makes the horse they are riding move better and with a more content expression.

My friend turned to me with a glint in her eye and said, "You can even ride backwards, but if you can ride effectively, you know you are on the right track!"

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If you enjoyed the above post, you might also like to check these out:

Too Good to be True? Finding Your Horse’s “Happy Place”: Did you know that through riding, you can help your horse achieve a happy, content outlook on life? Sounds ridiculously far-fetched? Too good to be true?

Stepping “Forward” in Horse Riding: The term ‘forward’ is used liberally in horse riding but is often misunderstood.

A Cautionary Horse Tale: Once you decide to ride horses, you put into place a domino effect of consequences, which will occur whether you are conscious of them or not. It’s like a rule of nature.

How Do You Develop “Feel” in Horseback Riding?  Developing ‘feel’ in horseback riding doesn’t have to be an impossible dream! If you can ride with feel, you will be able to respond immediately to your horse’s needs.


  1. Good perspective! Ride effectively in order to restore and improve function of the movement, therefore the form of the horse. This is often lacking or overseen by coaches when teaching. Riders bodies come in all shapes and sizes and so do horses.

  2. I love that idea of form vs. function. I am not naturally athletically gifted and clumsy as all get-out. I am no means the best looking rider in the ring, but I know I can ride effectively. And how do I know that? Because I have the most sensitive chestnut gelding ever who gets stressed out very easily and every time we get down the centerline and through the whole test without a blowup, it’s a good ride.

  3. I think it is important to note that riders will look different (and probably not ideal) in different stages of the process of improving both form and function. I also agree what you said in that some may never have the “ideal” look and still be effective. As you stated, that dressage rider “looked” perfect to you even though the horse was obviously giving different feedback.

    The process often doesn’t look like the product we are trying to achieve when changing our bodies and the way we ride. Muscle memory from many hours in the saddle done a certain way is not always easy to change.

    I know I have seen this in my own riding as I tried to get rid of some good looking equitation that was not functional for my horse or that didn’t allow for fluidity in my body. Perhaps I have been a bit exaggerated in what I was trying to “fix” until getting it looking at least respectable in good form AND function!

    But then I guess it is always a process of some sort. Otherwise we wouldn’t be trying to improve our riding.

  4. I agree that effectiveness, tact, feel, timing…all combine to make a great horse person. I do feel like people tend to focus on one or the other but I think we have to be careful to send the impression that the other factor is unimportant. (I understand that this was not the intent or tone of the article) As an instructor I sometimes tell my students to “look pretty”. This is done with an explanation that correct position AIDS effectiveness. You are not looking up to impress the judge, you are looking up to plan where you are going, you are not really stretching tall to be a princess, you are doing it to align your body and assist in your horse balance over their hocks etc. At a show or lesson I may say “Be a princess” but that is just a visual. I have students come to me and say “I don’t want to show equitation, I know I don’t have the body for that so I just want to work on making my horse as good as possible” They have given up trying to improve their position because they believe it to be an end unto itself. My point is, one can be effective without being pretty but chance are one’s effectiveness would only improve with improved position.

  5. I knew I would like the whole article from the moment i read the part about the “mentor of all things horse” comment. Really well put together article. I enjoyed reading it.