Horsemanship and Equitation
I find that while promoting and answering questions about my clinics that the difference between Horsemanship and Equitation frequently comes up. Particularly when I am trying to convince an English rider that I really can help them, even though my saddle weighs a lot more, and my personal horse goals are quite different. It will not be my intent to start a turf war here, but merely to point out some major differences between the two visions of the man horse relationship. I will also state that the English instructors are not nearly the only ones guilty of teaching only equitation and leaving out horsemanship entirely. We are all dealing with horses, and all of those horses are constantly sizing us up and testing our leadership, so we’d all better be aware of and dealing with it, regardless of the type of saddle we’re riding.
As some of you know, my decision to begin teaching horsemanship evolved after my niece had a pretty bad riding accident that left her with a dislocated jaw, punctured lung, and ruptured spleen. She had been taking riding lessons for about two years at a very well known and respected facility and had certainly developed some equitation skills. Unfortunately, she had not been taught much about horses, how they think, and how to control them. In other words, what I consider “Horsemanship” was left out entirely. I find this to be an exceptionally common and disheartening occurrence among those who teach “Equitation”.
Since they are frequently used synonymously, let me define each term right now:
Equitation- The art or practice of riding a horse using proper form and signals to guide and direct the horse. This can be fairly discipline specific as varying forms are needed for varying goals.
Horsemanship- The art or practice of using psychology, common sense, and a complete understanding of the horse to influence and control his movements, moods, and the man/horse relationship. This is universal among all disciplines, and to a certain extent, the basic philosophies carry through to training any animal to do anything, with certain differences among each particular species’ social structure. Notice that it does not relate specifically to riding, but more generally to handling.
Many definitions, even in dictionaries, will make these two terms essentially interchangeable. I do not. To me, there are major differences between the two. For instance, we could all easily pick out the cowgirl that we dressed up and put on a dressage horse, and a Dressage rider that we put jeans and boots on and stuck in a Western saddle. Those differences are precisely differences in equitation. Their horsemanship however, would not and need not change, since they are both still dealing with a horse.
First off, equitation, to my mind, focuses primarily on the rider and their position. They seem to leave out the personality and wants/don’t wants of the other half of the equation, the horse. I will say that I am sure there are exceptions to this, but in my experience, those exceptions are rare. While I think that rider position is a very important thing, it is not nearly the only thing that will critically influence the man/horse relationship. To refer back to my niece, she was taught how to post, how to ride around in two-point, how to jump, she was beginning to learn leads, and of course, proper position of her fanny in relation to her ear, and her heals. She was not taught that horses have a mind of their own (at least not to an effective extent), or how to control a horse who has become uncooperative, or even when or why a horse might become uncooperative.
I’m sure that we’ve all seen the same horse ride differently for different riders. This is an example of a difference in horsemanship. A very good horseman can get along with a wide variety of horses and horse personalities and still get them to perform well despite differences in disciplines. Likewise, we can have a person who sits a horse very well, but is missing out on those subtle areas of communication with leg and rein. This person may sit a horse well, but a large variety of horses will not respond well to them. There’s more to it than simply sitting or riding well. This is where Horsemanship comes in, to my estimation.
I truly do believe, know, and understand how rider balance and position affects the horse and how he moves. I also truly believe, know, and understand that if you do not have your horse’s attention and respect that you are in DANGER. This is because a horse is bigger, faster, stronger, and more reactive than any regular human being can possibly comprehend without lots of experience with and around horses. Horses have fears, likes, wants, and desires, and can be very lazy and headstrong. Treats, heel position, and petting are insignificant solutions to these problems. Equitation is an important element in riding a horse and horsemanship. Let us hope that those teaching equitation will see horsemanship as an important element in their teachings as well. Let’s learn how to not get killed first, we can learn diagonals and leads later.