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Hunt seat vs. cross country position

From: Sarah A Davidson

Jessica, In answer to a question last week about cross country position, you said: "Your eventual cross-country position will NOT be the same as the position you would assume in a hunt-seat equitation class;"

Can you elaborate on these differences and on the hunt seat position? I have just recently been exposed to hunt seat equitation since I moved back to the states a few months ago, and I often feel confused about the two-point position, because I really only learned jumping position (hips back and shoulders down). Now I am trying to keep a two point with my shoulders up and further back. Actually, I have become more and more serious about trying some beginning eventing next year, and I would like to understand more about how the galloping postion differs from the two point in hunt seat. I often feel, and this may be due to my particular trainer, that in hunt seat lessons I am being taught to stay off the horse's back and interfere as little as possible, which frankly doesn't seem like the kind of riding I want to do. Is this usual in hunt seat equitation?

Hi Sarah!

That's an excellent question, with a complicated answer. There are two issues here: one of definition, and one of quality. First, the definition: you need to understand that hunt seat equitation is strictly a USA phenomenon -- and that it has nothing to do with hunting, or with riding cross-country. The name tends to confuses people from other countries because "hunt seat" or "hunter seat" sounds as though it ought to have something to do with hunting -- but it doesn't.

But the real issue is one of quality. When this form of riding is taught well, as it is by George Morris, Anna Jane White-Mullin and other top trainers -- it can be an excellent system to provide the rider with a position that is both elegant and functional. Done correctly, it's the basis for our American jumping style -- something that is much admired, and emulated, by jumper riders in other countries. GOOD huntseat training can be very, very good -- but it can also be hard to find.

But there's a downside -- it is very often done INcorrectly. It's a style that is too often taught as an end in itself, and too often taught by people who are only concerned with show ring success. Instead of creating soft, elegant, balanced riders, these teachers create stiff, perched, posed passengers who don't so much ride their horses as float above them, staying out of their way while the horses "perform" as they have been taught to do. Success in equitation classes depends partly on the appearance of the rider (clothing and body as well as position), and partly on the choice of horse! "Equitation" horses are not the sort of horses that you would choose for eventing, for instance -- the ideal equitation horse is a daisy-cutter, a flat mover, with as little knee action as possible, and NO bascule over a fence, because riders can maintain their pose more easily on a horse that jumps flat, without using its back.

The sort of riding that these standards reward can look attractive to the casual observer, but isn't actually very practical. Perching and posing can only be maintained if the horse is working on smooth, flat footing, and only as long as the horse's balance isn't compromised.

Eventing is another matter. The type of horse that's wanted is quite different -- more knee action, more versatility, an active, strong back, and the intelligence and agility to get itself out of trouble. Looks matter less than performance.

The rider needs to be able to participate actively, not just stay on top of the horse. Riding up and down hills, through water, and across uneven terrain and variable surfaces makes a lot of demands on the balance of both horse and rider. An event rider who tries to "perch" with an over-arched back may not last through the cross-country phase -- either rider and horse will part company at some point, or the rider will come through the final flags sore and exhausted (and so will the horse, having had no help from the rider). As courses become more difficult and demanding, the rider needs to become more supple and strong; eventually, most riders find that the best galloping position for cross-country involves staying close to the horse and a little behind the leg -- a useful security precaution.

I agree that the riding you're doing at the moment doesn't sound like the kind of riding you want to do if you're going to event. Your interests (and your safety) would probably be best served if you were working with a competent instructor who teaches eventing rather than hunt-seat equitation. Your current instructor might be ideal if the show ring were your goal, but for eventing, you may be happier with a more sport-specific approach. If there isn't a qualified professional in your area, I suggest that you go to a few events, look at the riders who seem most proficient and whose horses seem the best-prepared and most comfortable, and find out who trains those riders -- then approach THAT person about lessons. A truly good lesson every two or three months will allow you to make steady progress, whereas an indifferent or poor -- or inappropriate -- lesson every week will do nothing to help you improve.


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