Thursday, August 4, 2016

open season: form over fences

Gosh it feels like it's been forever since I've actually ridden a horse. One might think that would lead to a dearth of things to write about.... and, well, one would probably be correct. But yet here I am still writing.

Brita got my brain juices flowing last night when we were discussing her latest event - a low key twilight eventing outing where she and Wick tackled some new challenges. Including the training version of the produce stand you see Isabel totally dominating in this blog's banner image above.

She lamented her position in the photograph, but maintained that it was super fun all the same so she didn't really even care. (Let's not even talk about how Wick was attacking that damn giant thing from what was most definitely the long spot lol).

It surprised me tho bc I thought her form was totally appropriate. My general rule of thumb being: erase the horse from the picture and imagine the rider dropping straight down to the ground. Does the rider land in balance and stay on their feet? Or does the rider face plant or topple ass over tea kettle?

In that photograph, she was most definitely in the "lands on her feet" category and I deemed it a position in balance.

Like I said, tho. It got me thinking. See. The thing is, I've never been a very classical looking rider. Despite coming from a solid hunter background, my equitation can be quite weak (heels down waaat?). I've consoled myself over the years by instead focusing on being effective. Being in balance and strong enough to hold myself such that I reduce the chances of interfering with the horse.

On a sensitive and small creature like Isabel, this has proved very important. Noise in my position and body has a very real impact on her way of going. Or. Um. Not going, as the case may be. lol?

All the same tho, I've been a very comfortable and stalwart believer that, at least in jumping (and especially in eventing haha), form follows function. Be strong. Be in balance. Go with your horse. The various body parts will more or less take care of themselves when those criteria are met.

This philosophy is very convenient for me, as it aligns with something else I hold strongly as a belief: When it comes to horses, there are often many "right" ways and fewer "wrong" ways than one might think.

My case in point being these little illustrations I've created. In my mind, there are only two here where the rider most definitely would not land on their feet were the horse to mysteriously evaporate out from under them (well. three if you count the one who is already totally fucked haha). There's a couple more where the rider might teeter precariously for a moment, sure. But I'd still class them in the "acceptable" range.

I'm curious tho. I know for a fact that some of you out there are master technicians of equitation. That developing solid form over fences is something you've nurtured over the years - that it's not just some byproduct but an honest to god end result.

And I want to know: What makes good form over fences? Do you believe that form follows function? That one should be effective first and foremost and that correct form will naturally follow? Or do you believe it's a tandem process, where you can't have one without the other? Does it depend on the discipline?

What are the pieces that you believe are most critical to good equitation over fences? What areas in your position do you look at first? Is it your hands? Heels? Is it a level back or a line from hip to heel? Do you have your own "rule of thumb" like I do? Or do you think mine is stupid or missing a critical element?

This post is also called "open season" for a reason - I legitimately want to hear all about it. And am hopeful that these friendly little illustrated models might serve as a case point. Do you see yourself in any of them? Or is there one standard in there that you would hold above another?!?

39 comments:

  1. Not a jumper here but it's the same in dressage I think- there is the basics but then it has to conform to your body type and is, in the end, all about balance. I think that we can get so caught up in the looking perfect idea that we lose the idea of being effective. And sometimes we can be working so hard to to be effective that our position falls to crap. Can I get more wishy washy?

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  2. I've been curious about this! I look forward to seeing the responses. I don't have an opinion yet because I'm still trying to work everything out in my brain.

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  3. I don't jump anymore (not that I was really good at it when I did haha) so I have nothing to add to the overall discussion but I really LOVE your quote - "When it comes to horses, there are often many "right" ways and fewer "wrong" ways than one might think."

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  4. Your way of thinking struck me when I was putting together my blog post and was hesitant about posting some of the jumping photos. I have always been hard on myself for not being able to really break at the hip and 'fold' like I see so, so many (almost all??) riders doing over fences. I think that this is three-fold. From the time I started jumping again in 2008, my trainer had to beat into my head to not jump ahead. Now it is so ingrained in me to sit back and sit up that it's my go-to happy place. Second, I'm old lol and I don't bend and flex like I used to. I found a jumping photo of me in college and I was closed at the hip, but the result left a lot to be desired. Pretty sure that if the horse disappeared I'd end up on my chin. And third, this one took me a loooonggg time to figure out is that Duke doesn't put much effort into 'small' fences and basically steps over them. When the horse doesn't round into you and give you a place to go, it's hard to create a jumping position for a stride that has no real jump. Now at Novice we are finally hitting a place where he has to make an effort (or I learned how to ride better??) and actually rounds over fences a little more (funny how I like my position much more over bigger fences).

    I think it's also your perspective too. Sometimes I cringe when I see someone fold up to the horse's ears over a 18" crossrail. It's just so opposite to the way I ride that it seems unnatural. But also for me, I'm an eventer with an eventing background. I'm going to have a different eye to what looks right to me than someone with an equitation or hunter/jumper resume.

    Bottom line to my novel is that I am with you. I feel that if you are in balance and secure and not interfering with the horse, then you are doing your job as a rider. And I definitely feel that the 'if you take the horse away' point of view is a great one. We use that for dressage, so it makes sense to use it for jumping as well.

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  6. Yes, form does follow function, and to extend on that, style follows function. Prior to IEA, I only had good equitation once in a blue moon, and that blue moon also only ever happened once.


    It wasn't until I started riding more horses with greater variety that something changed. More two-pointing on the flat, more no-stirrup work, more time in warm-up, tied-stirrups that one time, but, for an equitation team, no one was ever drilled on their equitation. Sure, you got the heels down and shoulders back, but that was because you had no leg and looked like a sad tortoise on a horse.

    Little by little, my good equitation came, but it never cemented well enough to survive afterwards.

    Comparatively, I do have a style, and it is dramatic. My style came from me trying to get over the fence with minimal damage when I didn't really have the strength or experience to jump as high as I was jumping. My style is nothing but a compromise, but, for the most part, it works.

    So, whether I'm hunched over with a shoddy auto release or standing balanced with a stoic leg under me, the goal is still to be effective. Variations in my form depend on how the horse is jumping and what I need to do to aid it.

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    1. Also, can I pleeeaaaasseee share these diagrams on tumblr? They're so damn cute!

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  7. Better formatting, sorry, I wall-o-texted. I should use preview more.

    I'll bite. I specifically signed up for eventing lessons because the eventer people seem secure and in balance over a fairly wide array of fences and landscapes. I'm in favor of secure and balanced, so...

    Anyway, I personally tend to look like picture 5, above, the polka-dot jumping-ahead rider whose upper body has tipped forward and whose lower leg has slipped back. I realize that this is pretty much the opposite of ideal and I am working on my stuff. Sometimes, when I try really hard to not jump-ahead, I wind up looking like picture 7, the slanty-diagonal-lines rider who is nowhere near a two point anything, behind the horse's motion and probably thumping him on his back. Oops. Anyway, aside from picture 1, Red Fail, those are probably the two suckiest positions on display. Good to know where I stand, right? Anyway, let's look at the rest.

    Picture 2, flowers on green background. Rider is pinching at knee, lower leg has slipped back a bit. Not horrible, but could be better.

    Picture 3, orange. Hip angle looks a little too closed to me, maybe would be better if rider bent knee more and hip less? Not horrible, but again, not ideal to my eye.

    Picture 4, swirls on dark grey: Rider does hunters. Ass in air. Lower leg back. Weight very far forward -- imagine if this horse stumbled on landing, how would rider fare? But, lower leg mostly under rider and rider is in correct position insofar as center of gravity. I think this rider lacks stability in case of emergency but they are not interfering with their horse particularly.

    Picture 5 I've done above. Picture 6, orange with writing: rider looks very in-balance with horse, ready for anything. Nice medium position, could totally stick a landing. Probably this rider is Denny Emerson.

    Picture 7 I've done, above. Picture 8, splotchy black, is a "jumps ahead" picture that isn't as bad as Picture 5 (polkadots). In Picture 8, rider's lower leg is more-under and upper body isn't so severely tipped forward. If we could convince this rider to bend at the knees, it would do wonders to improve things but even as it is, the center of gravity isn't as far off as in Picture 5, so this is a 'more functional' approach.

    If the choice is between functional and pretty, go for functional. But, for jumping position, functional *is* pretty (or should be -- if it isn't, train your eye and your taste to make it so).

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    1. Love this! Basically says my thoughts about the pictures too. And I love "for jumping position, functional *is* pretty" because it's so true!

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  8. What stands out to me is the lower leg and the shoulders. Lower leg sliding back? Ducking with the shoulders? I never developed the duck, but I did have a nasty time with my lower leg sliding back. My leg was awesome for the longest time, then poof, it was gone! I've found the if the lower leg doesn't slide, and the rider isn't ducking (back parallel to the horse's neck), their position is generally pretty good. I was always hesitant to share awesome pics of Mikey jumping because I generally looked like crap in them!

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  9. I'm very curious to read the comments on this one!

    While I generally agree with you that there are many roads to Rome when it comes to a balanced, safe jumping position that doesn't interfere with the horse, I DO also believe that there IS a technical ideal that we can and should strive for. (For reference, see this old photo of Bill Steinkraus. This is perfection: http://www.horsemagazine.com/thm/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Steinkraus_11.jpg)
    Clearly, most of us do not look like that over every single fence we jump, and many of us cannot look like that do to individual conformation, but I believe we should all make an effort to be as close to that ideal as possible.

    In my opinion, there are a few basic building blocks on the way to the ideal jumping position that are necessary for any position to be considered good, appropriate, and balanced. The leg needs to be hanging down perpendicular to the ground with heel at the very least level, or flexed down to some degree. The seat needs to be balanced over the center of the saddle and off the horse's back, and the hands need to give forwards in some kind of release to allow the horse to use its neck.

    And that's about all you need to have a safe, effective jumping position.

    You can get into all sorts of discussions about appropriate degrees of hip angle for the size of the jump, every type of release under the sun, and other minutiae, but I am not going to crucify someone if they don't paint the picture of an equitation class winner as long as they are safe and balanced. I do believe that the closer we can get to the ideal position the MORE balanced and effective we will be, but again, it's certainly more than possible to be "close enough".

    In the images you posted there were only two that were concerning to me: The one with the pink polka dot background where the rider is pinching at the knee and pitched too far forward (if her horse stops or stumbles, she's toast!), and the one with the striped background in which the rider is left behind (inhibiting the horse's ability to do its job). I've certainly been guilty of both of those sins! All the rest... fine by me!

    Looking forward to reading the resulting discussion!

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  10. Since my Nancy lesson a few weeks ago, I've been more convinced than ever that there is no such thing as pretty form, only effective form, at least in Dressage. My shoulders being hunched forward has such a massive effect on the way Connor goes. Similar to Izzy, he's so small, everything has a dramatic effect on him. All I had to do was fix me, and I suddenly had a totally different horse. That, to me, tells me that I was the problem.

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  11. I'm pretty much with you - I think of it as "remove the horse. is the rider standing balanced on the ground?". If so, you're probably fine. I know that the whole equitation thing is big amongst the bloggers, but I have to say - the word makes me absolutely freaking cringe. Mostly because I feel like if you're focused on looking perfect in a photo, you're approaching it completely bass-ackwards. Focus on creating a good, balanced canter to the fence, keeping your eye up, your leg on, and following the horse's motion... if you do that, the "equitation" will follow naturally. Getting really hung up on your leg being exactly in x position or whatever the hell else it is that I constantly see people worrying about - forget it. Just be a strong and balanced rider that helps your horse rather than hinders it. I've seen a lot of people that manage to look really good in a photo but are actually super unbalanced (especially when you can hide a weak core/unbalanced upper body in a crest release). I think it's really really important to consider the big picture.

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    1. This is exactly what I was going to say. So I'm not going to add my own novel.

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  12. I think arguing away clearly unsafe position as "well it works for my horse and me" is foolish, but I also know I've spent the last year changing the way I jump for the better and before I was willing to out those hours in I probably would have argued many of my issues (hellooooo wandering lower leg) away.

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  13. in george morris' hunt seat equitation (aka the bible) he says (and this might not be a direct quote anymore, its been awhile since ive read it) that "style and good riding can and should go together"

    im more effective when i ride properly. and if i'm being effective, it's because everything is in its right place.

    easier said than done as I love to perch on my crotch and jump ahead but you know. rome wasnt built in a day :P

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  14. "Equitation" is one of those "you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means" things on Equestrian Internet. :P

    A correct position with effective aids is good equitation, but I think that can mean different things to different disciplines. The position employed over a big table late in the cross country course is different from the position seen over an airy vertical in the show jumping ring. However, the trendy equitation position of jumping ahead, ducking, and reaching for the stirrups helps no one!

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    1. Ha! I love that. So true though. I've even had people comment on photos and say "Great equitation!" when I was not pleased because I look too perched or I was about to fall back early or whatever.

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  15. I don't jump anymore, but position is so important in dressage that I imagine it also is over fences. I think good, effective riding can only happen with a correct position since a correct position allows the rider to get out of the horse's way when necessary and deliver correct, effective aids (but not saying that a good position means correct, effective aids all the time). But we all have position weaknesses that we need to work on and everyone is shaped differently so I definitely agree there's not one perfect position. I do believe that all good positions have the same underlying abilities- to stay in balance with the horse, to allow the horse to do their job, and to not interfere with the horse.

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    1. Megan really put this eloquently. And I also agree with Stephanie. On the internet especially, (and a lot of times in real life) I can usually know right away if a Rider knows wtf they are talking about when we get on the subject of Equitation. Most people who harangue it are continuing to use the word, and not using it correctly or in the right context.

      You need the basic, good building blocks to have correct form, this correct form also works in concert with the aids applied. Can you have correct form and incorrect aids, yes. You can also have good correct form and be a totally useless rider. But beautiful effortless and thinking riders tend to have classical form that are garnished with their own style. When something goes wrong, the whole fucking picture doesn't explode like a war torn country.

      I think I have decent equitation, not to toot my own horn, or at least I used to. (As I stare at one of the best pictures of me riding next to my desk), I usually have a solid leg and deep heel and my hands follow. Where my position personally tends to go awry is in my upper body. On a large horse slow horse (Ramone) my upper body shenanigans tend to not cause any issues. On a hotter horse (Carlos) it would cause him to be reactionary and quick, which is why my absolute best eq pictures are on him, very classical, very still and on Ramone I tend to have a more closed hip angle (probably also mentally caused by me thinking goddamn I'm small I need to crouch to give him more freedom in his back!) on ponies my upper body flailing causes rails. sad face.

      Also super agree with Kate Little, anyone who argues that their unsafe position works for them and their horse is foolish. Like I'll smh quietly and at the end of the day the way other people ride doesn't effect me and my riding, but pony up and realize that by making excuses you are cheating yourself out of being a better rider and cheating your horse out of having a better rider and being a better horse.

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    2. I really can't say much more than these two ladies did and I second their statements. esp "Also super agree with Kate Little, anyone who argues that their unsafe position works for them and their horse is foolish."

      Regarding myself, I know my flaws but at least I am working towards fixing them! Generally little things like thumbs pointing in is less drastic than say, my tendency to jump ahead. That actually throws the horse off balance and is 100% not effective. I know you know I just did a giant post about this, so I'm going to leave it at that!

      Form IS function

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  16. I really, really love these illustrations! I struggle a lot with not only my thoughts on equitation, but... my actual equitation. Coming from the hunter/jumper world, I do tend to get caught up in "looking the part" a little bit. I've never been a particularly pretty rider... especially over fences.

    I really like your description of removing the horse, and seeing if you land on your feet. I went back and looked at pictures, and sometimes I think I'd be okay, and other times not as much. I definitely don't have a classic hunter or equitation position, but I am getting closer to being more balanced. It's definitely a work in progress for me!

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  17. I want these little headless creations to be art that I can hang.

    None of them are exactly what I think of as ideal: with the heel directly below the knee, the butt back and folding over. The last one is the closest, if the hip angle were closed and the butt were further back over the saddle. My last legit trainer told me to think of a squat over the fence. As a weightlifter, I know the squat puts my butt back, my knees over but not in front of my toes, and my shoulders squared over my heels. I've never been able to translate that directly into the saddle. :(

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  18. I always look at the lower leg. The upper body to me depends on the horse, rider and jump. For example, I am extremely top heavy. I ride a pony with a short neck. I absolutely cannot lay on my horses neck or release really far forward and expect her to actually be able to lift her front end over the fence. As a result, I tend to be a bit more upright in my body over fences. Also, we do smaller fences, so dropping back is not as much of a concern because she's in the air a much shorter time. And I always struggle with getting that butt back, as Beka talks about above, but I know it's supposed to be.

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  19. Love the illustrations! Of all of them, I'd aspire to the last once since I ride a pony and it's really not fair for me to lean or get ahead of her even a little. The last one looks the safest and in the best balance.

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  20. I love your illustrations.
    I think I mainly focus on where the butt is, cause I feel like that's my biggest issue. It ends up hovering way too far forward, and I feel like it should be so much further back, closer to the saddle. So when I see a butt nice and close, but still hovering above the saddle, I'm like "That's a good butt."
    But there is the whole picture of course... the legs, and the release. Release would be my second, I cringe when I see no release. Looks like all your models have a good release, even the first picture!

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  21. I worked my lady balls off to have a solid leg always. Always, always, always. Even when everything else is going south, my leg is anchored to my girth. That really helps me feel secure no matter what spot we come in at.

    Ever since taking jumping lessons with BM, she's made me switch to approaching the fence super upright--almost to the point of leaning back. I was definitely guilty of flinging my upper body forward and throwing off everyone's balance so that's helped me a lot. It also helps in that, again, no matter what spot we take to a jump, I'm already in a defensive position so I'm not going to get chucked forward (and bash my head and get another TBI and cry about it for the rest of eternity because so scary). I don't think it's the prettiest thing ever equitation-wise, but hot damn does it make me feel secure, and that's what I care about the most.

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  22. I'm def the pink green and orange polka dots. I hate how I jump. But I think a secure leg is most important and that's my biggest issue with my self. I think my perfect position is balancing weight in the heels with a low hovering two-point. I definitely believe in a ton of release.

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  23. Can't answer your question as it's been about 2 years since I last jumped a fence #supersadtimes I need to get back at it as i really miss jumping!
    I just had to comment to say that I love the accompanying images in this post, so stinking cute!

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  24. I am with the other people that lamented that if you worry about the fundamentals like being balanced and correct etc your position will end up in the right direction. So many people get so stuck on "equitating" and sure I like to make a nice picture but when I worry about my riding effectively and not how I will look it's a better full picture and I know I am working in the right direction.

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  25. I think a correct position is not only effective, but the position thst optimizes physically allowing your horse to do his jump. Faulty jump positions over lower fences may not be problematic for athletic horses because the effort is not so big. Faulty position over larger fences means stops, rails, crashes, and falls. Correct riding is practical, not just "pretty."

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  27. I love your cut-out illustrations. I think correct position is like you said: effective position. I grew up riding at a show jumping barn. I could ride anything and stick anything and regularly schooled 4'. My trainer would take me to shows to warm up horses in advance of classes. And I would never have won a single ribbon in Eq. In fact, when I tried doing IHSA in college, I think my highest ribbon was 4th. Which is probably why I have such a dislike for hunters. I much prefer jumpers where your actual ability to ride is measured and not your ability to hold your hands at a specific angle. Although I 100% admit that my position currently sucks and is not good riding from an effective standpoint let alone an eq standpoint. Polo ruined me.

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  28. Love this. I had never heard that idea before: about removing the horse...thanks. I am struggling in my position over fences these days as a) my saddle is making me off balance and b) lack of practice. I've been traveling too much. My next jumping lesson I will channel my inner sort of stick figure on the cutout horse. ;)

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  29. Love this. I had never heard that idea before: about removing the horse...thanks. I am struggling in my position over fences these days as a) my saddle is making me off balance and b) lack of practice. I've been traveling too much. My next jumping lesson I will channel my inner sort of stick figure on the cutout horse. ;)

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  30. I think it's Jimmy Wofford that says 'the difference between good riding and bad riding is that you can't see good riding'. This whole 'pretty' thing is based on the idea that you're moving completely with your horse and in balance. I've yet to see someone that was in true balance that didn't look pretty. I've seen plenty of positions that were called pretty that were out of whack and made me uncomfortable just looking at them. Sure, it's a nice big release, but that rider is going to catapult right between the ears if something goes wrong.

    I've seen some pretty dang sketchy positions that were based on surviving something going wrong, and there's nothing wrong with that, either, so long as it's just a tool in the toolbox. You sure don't use the same position jumping downhill as you do in stadium. Or at least I don't anymore. My first eventing trainer had a strong heart to deal with an experienced jumper being let loose in the wild. That poor woman. Did you know you shouldn't jump a ditch like the water in stadium? Lessons learned!

    I have a problem with riders that have fundamental flaws and refuse to fix them because 'it works for us'. No, your horse is talented enough to cope with what's going on. They'd jump even better if you were properly with them and not interfering with their effort. Full stop. If the best of the best are hammering their positions every day, don't tell me that your position is fine because you didn't pull a rail in your round.

    As for my position? Lower leg tends to slip and I tend to snap forward over small fences. I'm way better over big fences. Always a work in progress.

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  31. Plenty of other people have said what I think so I'll try to be brief. The short version is: There's a reason the people who are consistently at the top generally have pretty text-book equitation. Just look at Beezie or Mclain in the Hunter Jumper world, or Michael Jung and Phillip Dutton. All of these riders are constantly in a good balance, never interfere with their horse's efforts, and it works well for them.

    For me, I'm definitely a constantly in search of perfection type of person. I think it's important to have the basics, and what "perfect" looks like varies from person to person. Obviously there is a lot of posing in the equitation ring, and I've posted about that before. But there's definitely a happy medium. There's a reason behind every aspect of the ideal overall equitation (not just over fences, but in every aspect). A solid leg under you is a really important start, because it allows you to compensate and stay balanced when things go wrong. But it's also important not to brace or get it too far forward, because then you can sit back early and hit your horse in the back. A tight core is important for balance as well.

    My biggest pet-peeve, if you will, is when a lack of balance leads to hitting the saddle too early or hitting the horse in the mouth at any point in its jumping effort.

    Obviously the conformation of the rider can make some things harder than others. Short riders tend to need to overcompensate a release at times, and it's hard to wrap around and keep your leg under you. Some people have tight hips, and struggle to close their hip angle. But you won't usually get worse by trying to be better. Just because it's hard, or what you are doing is working, doesn't mean it's the best you could be doing. And what is riding if not the constant pursuit of perfection?

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    1. Phillip Dutton is occasionally less than beautiful I will admit, but as a rule of thumb looks pretty solid and secure in his position.

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  32. Really interesting! I do find some rider positions more nice to look at but really I think that a position that would allow you to "land on your feet" and doesn't interfere with the horse is plenty good. It's so hard to judge anyone from a single picture, who knows exactly what was happening pre/post jump. Love this post and the illustrations! :)

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