Saddle Seat Equitation: Form to Function


Saddle seat pleasure equitationIf you’ve ridden saddle seat for any length of
time, you’re probably used to the regular
reminders about proper equitation. “Hands
up! Heels down! Roll your thighs in!” The
elegant appearance of a skilled saddle seat
equitation rider is unmistakable. But what is the
purpose behind the position?

Ellen Beard has trained American
and saddle seat equitation
riders for more than 30 years. She is
currently the assistant professor and
coordinator of equestrian operations at
Stephens College in Columbia, Mo.
Beard emphasizes that in order to
understand saddle seat equitation, you
must first understand the function of
the horse in that discipline.

“The saddle seat horse moves
vertically as well as horizontally, and
because of that, the rider ends up
being more in the middle of the
horse’s back,” explains Beard. “These
horses have a very upright neck and
high head carriage. The way they
move off their hocks is a more vertical
motion than in other types of horses.
That lends itself to the rider having a
very upright position.”

The cutback saddles used in saddle
seat riding are flatter than other
English saddles, so you need to center
yourself comfortably in the seat. Adjust
your stirrups so that the bottom of the
stirrup iron hits your ankle bone when
you let your leg hang. If your stirrups
are adjusted correctly and your saddle
is the right size, there will be an inch or
two between your seat and the cantle.

Keep your shoulders back so you
aren’t collapsing forward on your
horse, but be careful not to lean back.
Maintaining a neutral, vertical
position in the saddle will allow you to
balance properly and move in sync
with your horse.

“You need to be in the center of your
horse’s back to stay with his motion,”
says Beard. “If you’re ahead of or
behind your horse’s motion, you’re
going to become unbalanced.”

Legs and Feet

One of the most common
misconceptions of saddle seat riding is
that the riders are supposed to push
their feet out in front of them. Attend
any saddle seat breed horse show and
it’s not hard to see why this perception
is so widespread. Many trainers ride
with their legs slightly ahead of the
vertical, especially when mounted on
high-energy performance horses, but
it’s not correct equitation and doesn’t
create a pretty picture.

When viewed from the side, there
should be a straight line that runs
perpendicular to the ground from your
ear through your shoulder and hip to
your heel. This position is necessary for
balance. If your leg is too far behind
you, it will cause your upper body to
lean forward. If it’s too far in front, you
will not be able to post with the motion
of your horse. Think of the joints in
your lower body as shock absorbers;
they need to remain in line and be fluid,
not stiff, to be effective.

“All of the joints in the rider’s leg
m u st be able to flex,” explains Beard. “If
you brace against your stirrups, you’ll
pop off your horse’s back. The best
equitation riders are those who can
absorb their horse’s animation and still
create a pleasant picture.”

Riders coming to saddle seat from
other disciplines often have the most
trouble with lower leg position. Instead
of the constant lower leg contact
favored in hunt seat and dressage, your
calves should be slightly away from
your horse’s sides. Beard explains that
this difference in position comes from
the difference in horses used for saddle
seat riding.

Saddle seat breeds, particularly
Saddlebreds, are highly sensitive and
require a sensitive leg. “Saddlebreds are
very thin-skinned, more so than most
other breeds,” explains Beard. “We use
our leg cues as needed, and then
remove them. When you drive a highpowered
sports car, you don’t just lay
on the gas pedal; you use it
intermittently, as needed. We ride our
high- powered horses the same way.”

Beard also cites the saddle- type
horses’ historical use as part of the
reason for their sensitivity and
forward- going nature. Both
Saddlebreds and
Morgans, for example,
were historically bred to be cavalry
mounts. “These horses were bred to
trot across the battlefield and to go past
anything that’s scary,” she says. The
result is that today’s descendants of
those war horses are forward- moving
by nature and don’t need the driving leg
and seat aids used in other disciplines.

To position your leg correctly, you
need to maintain contact with your
knees and thighs. Place your foot in the
stirrup so you have even pressure
across the ball of your foot, with your
toes pointing straight ahead. With this
proper foot position, your leg will fall
correctly into place. Pinching with your
knees and thighs will create a tense,
stiff position. Instead, think of resting
your upper legs against the saddle.

Hand Position

The United States Equestrian
Federation rule book specifies that “the
height the hands are held above the
horse’s withers is a matter of how and
where the horse carries his head.” The
rider’s hands should remain at the same
l e vel as the horse’s mouth so the snaffle
rein on the double bridle stays parallel
to the ground.

Saddle seat equitation victory passHand position is a dynamic element
of equitation. When mounted on a
horse with a long neck and high head
carriage, you will need to hold your
hands higher. A horse with a shorter
neck will require a lower hand position,
and this is where some saddle seat
riders get into trouble. Many top
equitation riders are mounted on very
upheaded American Saddlebreds. This
creates the idea that a very high hand
position is the ideal, when in reality,
such an exaggerated position is
incorrect on a horse with a shorter neck
or lower head carriage.

“Your position is only as good as it
communicates to your horse,” says
Beard. “A direct line from your snaffle
bit to your elbow is the most efficient
line of communication.”

Additionally, the hands’ position is
secondary to their use. Like all English
disciplines, saddle seat demands
contact, but you shouldn’t be trying to
pull your horse into a frame with the
reins. Your contact should be
sympathetic and elastic, not forceful.
In every element of saddle seat
equitation, think of how it affects your
horse. Keep your position in tune with
him, and you’ll present a winning
picture every time.

Liked this article? Here are others on saddle seat riding:
Fresh Steps: Create an at-home saddle seat training routine
Saddle Seat Myths and Misconceptions

holds a Bachelor’s degree from William Woods University in Equestrian Science with a concentration in saddle seat riding

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.


  1. I rode gaited horses and some Tennesse Walkers, showed some as an amateur. Was from Missouri. If your magazine had more articles on equitation and saddlebreds in general, I would send money for a subscription. Too many pictures of horses in fields.

  2. I’m going into equitation this year, and I was just wondering if anyone could tell me any shows that have pattern classes in the ohio , Kentucky , Indiana area.

  3. I agree with Constance. I have an Arabian/Saddlebred and an Arabian. Part of the reason I don’t get this magazine anymore is because the English section of the magazine seems to be geared only to hunter, jumper, or eventing. Very rarely is something that is geared toward Arabians, Saddlebreds, and/or Morgans show up in the magazine. If those articles appeared more I would subscribe again to this magazine.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here