Saddle Seat Equitation

Saddle Seat Equitation

Tammy Wilke with Naughy Nite – Five Gaited Champion of Champions 2016

We believe, equitation is the ultimate form of horsemanship. An airy art of combining horse and rider in unison; presenting themselves as one dynamic energy. Precise body poise is required while rising on the extravagant trot, continually adapting rider form to the horses function.

The saddle seat discipline has been uniquely adapted to suit both vertical and horizontal movement from the horse. The horizontal movement presents similar in style to most equine disciples with a similar cadence to an extended trot, while the vertical movement becomes very pronounced in saddle seat. The horses have strong engagement from behind, affecting the riders timing on the rise and their depth in the canter, slow gait and rack. It requires an upright position from the rider to maintain balance at the centre of the horse’s movement as well as allowing space for the horses high head carriage. A flat cut-back saddle has been specifically designed to fit the saddle horse’s unique conformation, freeing the shoulder and allowing the rider to place themselves in their horses centre. It is vital that the rider maintains balance to fully synchronise with the horse’s high animated forward impulsion.

The equitation rider is required to perform on the rail and execute various levels of tests individually. The optimum rider would engage the horse in a balanced frame at the correct impulsion while skilfully maintaining a neat, elegant and versatile seat.

  • Matching horse and rider

When mounting a rider it is important to select a suitable mount. An equitation horse should be able to be competitive in composure in the performance divisions and be of sound, quiet mind. It should appear energetic and be responsive to aids. It should present a smooth cadenced trot and project ground covering ability.  The horse should perform a rounded flowing smooth motion in the canter. We prefer a well sprung rib which naturally allows the rider to be seated base wide. We place emphasis on the rider’s leg slope, from the hip to the knee in the seated position, this angle  needs to match the horse’s shoulder slope to ensure that the riders length and posting height are a suitable match to the horses stride. The horse’s neck length and arch play a vital role under the selection criteria; the riders hand height is preferable at the same height as the horses snaffle while reins run parallel to the ground. The line from the elbow through to the wrist should always be maintained to allow for ideal communication through the horse’s mouth. Generally we would mount a tall rider on a long necked horse and a short rider on a shorter necked horse.

  • Rider form in summary

Feet The foot is the foundation of the seat, supporting the rider’s body. The foot should run a natural base wide angle along the horses rib spring. The weight distribution centred on the ball of your foot. The toe should be directly behind vertical and pointed forward. Heels always lower than your toe


Your body weight should fall into your knee while the knee is pointed downwards. The slope of your thigh should exit your hip at approximately 45 degrees with a slight inward rotation. The thigh and knee to be flat and snug against the saddle, while the calf is slightly angled outwards from the horses sides. All the joints in the leg should be supple and functional, presenting a controlled spring on the post and act as enhanced shock absorbers for the animated motion.


The hips should be placed squarely in the centre of the saddle, preferably with an 2 inch clearance from the cantle. Your spine is best centred directly above the horse’s spine while you are openly seated on your seat bones


Your upper back best presented as an extension straight out from the hip. Shoulder slightly rolled back and out from your belt, presented square and heavy in frame. The upper body should always maintain flexibility and appear graceful and never braced


The riders head determines body balance. The head should always face the direction you are moving in. The head weighing nearly 8kg will easily displace your balance if it’s displaced. We like to use the phrase ‘look at the point that you are riding to’, by doing this, the body will follow your heads weight to automatically balance itself, always placing you in the correct upper body position for the direction of movement

Hand position

The hands to be held above the horse’s withers at the same level as the snaffle, holding the reins parallel to the ground proves to be the most efficient line of communication. Elbows should point down presenting a right-angle between the upper and forearms. The hands should be spaced that the horse’s neck fit between them allowing reins to have contact on either side of the neck. Hand position should be versatile and dynamic with elastic and respectful mouth contact. Hand position is secondary to good communication with your horse

Side view

There should be a straight line running perpendicular to the ground, from your ear, through your shoulder and hip to your heel. This, balancing your centre of gravity. The longer your saddle, the more difficult it becomes to achieve the side view line

  • General position at required gaits

The equestrian is required to maintain natural poise throughout all specified gaits. Riders are to be aware that the horses centre of gravity changes on different gaits.


The rise in the trot should be quiet, low, controlled and flowing. The rise should be clear with a single seat between the alternating two beat stride. Posting should represent the diagonal required for the direction of movement, always set by the outside shoulder. A trot exhibits a forward momentum, your post should follow with a rise into a forward motion through the hip and a quiet landing in the seat, this ensuring that you will stay synchronised with your horse’s impulsion, preventing you from loosing timing and staying behind your horses centre. The riders hands to remain independent from body


The canter is a three beat and executes a round circular type motion. A rider’s hips should rotate with the stride while maintaining depth in the saddle and a quiet upper body frame. The rider should maintain collection and control on impulsion. The canter should always be lead by the inside shoulder of the horse


The slow gait and rack, both four beat with lateral cadence, require depth in the saddle showing an even singular beat through the seat. The horses centre shifts slightly further back

  • Pointers to improve proficiency


Riders are encouraged to rise immediately on the outside/correct diagonal, without anticipating the movement ahead of the horse. This movement synchronises with the forward impulsion of the horse’s outside shoulder or from the forward thrust of the horses inside hind leg.


Before giving your horse the canter aid, make sure you have its attention. Keep the horse square, lightly placing rein pressure on the instruction hand to control the fore quarter, drop the opposite hip from the required lead and apply light pressure through the calf to engage the hind quarter. While giving the horse the instruction, give it enough time to respond to your aid and shift its body weight without moving off the square position


An up transition is the increase of impulsion from one gait into another, while a down transition is the decrease of impulsion from one gait to another. An up transition requires collection, balanced frame and a strike from behind. The rider is to apply leg pressure while maintaining collection to set the horse off at the correct frame encouraging lightness on the fore quarter. The movement should be controlled with a gradual increase of impulsion. The down transition requires the rider to maintain the horses balance keeping the fore quarter free and behind the vertical. The rider should apply rein pressure and depth in the saddle, slowing the post from an impulsive trot to the collected frame, slowly decreasing pace and lowering post height until the timing is correct to apply deep saddle pressure into the walk. Transiting from the canter to the walk requires rein collection, decreased pace in a controlled frame, shortening the stride into a smaller motion until the horse can stride from the canter directly into the walk. Equestrians need to take into consideration that there will be a push from behind as a result of the forward momentum of the gait. The rider needs to control this momentum before the final down transition otherwise the horse will transcend with its weight on the fore quarter


A square halt is defined by pausing, the horse is to stand square with all four hooves on the ground, the horse’s weight equally distributed on each foot, maintaining a collected quiet frame. Ride your horse into the halt with a maintained frame while the horse’s weight is securely centred. The rider is to maintain poise and apply depth in the saddle

Rein Back

The back is a two beat diagonal movement. The horse is required to move straight backwards with the forelegs following the hind legs. To perform the rein-back, the rider applies guiding leg pressure through both legs with a slight resisting hand pressure preventing forward impulsion. The upper body remains upright. A slight body weight transfer is applied, easing off your weight from the seat bones and transferring the weight into your thighs. This allows the horse to softly rounden its back and free the hind quarter allowing engagement. The rider is to keep the horse between their legs and hands allowing the horse to execute the instruction on a straight line. When the rider requires the horse to stop moving backwards, the rider should retransfer weight into the seat bone and apply a deep seat, the rider needs to add leg pressure and loosen rein contact. The horse should maintain its frame while the rider should avoid over-aiding resulting in the horses head moving from side to side or above/below vertical

Horse’s frame

The rider is to keep the horse in a compacted frame of collection at all times. All forward impulsion is initiated from a strike in the hind quarter. If your horse is above or below the vertical or evading the bit, any strike will be lacking in collection resulting in your horse falling into its gait or allowing the hind quarter to trail


The rider is required to bend the horse’s body laterally along a curvature line ensuring that the horse tracks his hind feet in exact accordance to the front feet. Executing a circle correctly, the horse carries its weight on the inside hind leg. The rider needs to transfer their weight onto the inside seat bone following the direction of movement and have the outside shoulder moved slightly into the circle. The horse is guided by your steering rein, dropping your inside leg on the girth followed through by supporting your horses flexion to the inside on the indirect rein and supporting his outside hind quarter with the outside leg being just behind the horses centre. The rider needs to keep the horse bent on the curvature line through its entire frame and maintain the horses balance preventing a closed or open shoulder from the horse in the circle. The circle should present equal depth through all four its quarters.

On changing rein, the rider needs to shorten the new inside rein, transfer weight and leg aids. Before changing direction, the horse must be straightened for three strides before executing the changing of rein. It is of utmost importance that your circles remain equal in circumference, stride length and pace.


Executing the serpentine starts on a centre line and ends on the same centre line, using this line as your marker when changing rein. The execution from the rider is the same as the description for circle work. The serpentine requires consistent bending and flexion over equal distances over the arena while maintain rhythm and balance. The loops are counted from centre line to centre line. It is of utmost importance that your half circles remain equal in circumference, stride length and pace


These are executed either on the forehand or hind quarter. Your decision to execute a specific pivot is based on your pivoting point. The fore quarter pivot should be when the inside fore foot is closest to the pivoting point while on the hind quarter pivot, the pivoting point should be closest to your inside hind foot.

The forehand turn needs the rider to apply slight inside rein pressure and a transfer of weight onto the inside seat bone. The inside leg applies pressure slightly behind the girth pushing the horses hind quarters step by step around the forehand. The rider’s outside leg supports the horse behind the girth, applying pressure after each step to encourage a light pause. The horses inside hind leg should cross over the front of the outside hind leg.

The hind quarter turn creates collection, the horses weight is distributed on his hind quarter allowing the forehand to pivot. The rider guides the horse with the inside hand, rider weight in the inside seat bone while the inside leg is positioned closed to the girth, encouraging a ‘forward movement’. The inside leg together with the correct use of the outside leg encourage the horse in a four beat rhythm to move its hind quarter forward  towards its centre. The horses pivoting point is at the side of the inside hind leg

Straight lines

To be performed from point A to point B in absolute straightness and free of curves. The horse needs to maintain a straight line through its spine and remain balanced.  The rider should keep the horse between their hands and legs. The rider should look up and straight at the end point riding directly towards it to maintain straightness. The rider needs to cover ground and increase pace throughout the segment

Diagonal lines

Diagonal lines start with a change of rein requiring the rider to balance the horse while travelling with sufficient impulsion through the turn followed by a straight line to a specified point. The rider needs to ensure that the horse is immediately straightened and continues straight without deviation. Maintaining correctness of the straight line is specified above under straight lines.


Aids are to be performed with the least amount of pressure. When the rider applies an aid, the communication should be subtle, a light transfer of information between horse and rider. A riders hands control the horses neck and head while a riders legs control the horses legs and barrel. The combination of leg, hand and use of body weight aids, instruct the horse to increase pace, decrease pace, move forward, move backwards, turn or halt. A voice aid may be added into instruction, providing it is calm, quiet and instructive.

Equitation is a stimulating discipline. It teaches a rider to show a horse at its maximum capacity while strengthening a rider physically and emotionally.  The rider is mounted on a living animal that experiences moods and emotions similar to the human. Peaking the horse and rider combination simultaneously is challenging, continually putting the athletes under pressure. The art of riding teaches the rider patience, focus, discipline and respect. It is both challenging and humbling. There is no greater reward than grasping the complete understanding of the horse and its function.