Horse Show 101: Equitation

This is the second in a three-part Horse Show 101 series on the three divisions at a hunter/jumper show. Horse Show 101 is to help you educate those less knowledgable so they can stop asking you questions like, “Did you win your horse race?” If you missed the post on hunters, you can see it here.


The simplest explanation of equitation is that it is the only class judged subjectively on the rider. However, the horse also performing well is a reflection of the rider’s skill at helping him to answer the questions the course is asking. So, if your horse picks up the wrong lead during the flat class or turns into a charging giraffe during the bending line, it’s still your fault. 

Many equestrians view the equitation division as teaching the basic foundation to becoming a successful jumper or hunter rider. Equitation is unique in that it is most competitive at the junior ranks because of its named classes that hold cumulative finals each year. Equitation’s focus on the rider and technical aspects of the course and its competitive finals make it a great predictor of future professional success. 


Equitation is all about having good position and getting your next Facebook profile picture.


While there are a few divisions involving adults or juniors with lower jumps, the main competitive equitation division is a tough 3’6” jump height junior class, thus the term #BigEq. Within this division, there are four main classes that junior riders compete in, the USEF Talent Search, WIHS Equitation, Pessoa/USEF Medal, and ASPCA Maclay. These classes take place at A-circuit shows, where riders earn points for performing well that help them to qualify for the specific finals shows for each class. It’s sort of like the Sprint Cup in NASCAR or the SEC Championship in Football, only with way less tailgating. 

Despite its competitive points system, tailgating and Medal classes are not a natural fit.

These named classes and finals are what make equitation uniquely exciting and prestigious, as it offers a culminating event for juniors that takes effort to even qualify for, let alone win. The winners of these finals often go on to be top competitors and trainers in the equestrian sport. It’s a dream of many riders to be a part of these events, so if you have a friend or family member competing in equitation and you can’t throw out references to Medal or Maclay, you need to step your game up.

The Horse and Attire

Equitation horses are uniquely different than both hunter and jumper horses. They will be sensitive to a rider’s commands, have a very adjustable stride, a smooth trot and canter that is easy to sit to, and a flatter jumping style that makes it easier for the rider to have a good position in the air. Basically, equitation horses are the high heels and makeup of horses: they’re built to make you look good. 

The large size of equitation classes often leads to many riders waiting their turn around the ring, sometimes discussing the intricacies of the course in terms such as “That six is hella forward.”

Equitation attire is more traditional and conservative like in the hunter ring so that nothing distracts the judge from the rider’s round. It’s not uncommon for a rider to go straight from their hunter class to schooling their equitation horse. This makes their inevitable placing or winning in both classes that much more impressive and/or painful. 

The Course

Equitation courses share many similarities with jumper courses in that they have many aspects built to test the rider, including hectic jump combinations, changes of direction, and even brick walls. The equitation course is like the college application of the horse show: it’s competitive, designed to weed people out, and your trainer/counselor can only prepare you so much. 

After last year’s brick wall jump proved too easy,
course designers are pondering adding a ring of fire standard.

The design of jumps are both bright and colorful like jumper jumps and may also contain natural elements like on a hunter course. Equitation courses will often ask riders to seamlessly re-adjust their horse’s stride in order to make the correct distances to jumps all the while keeping the horse’s energy coming from behind and underneath at a consistent, flowing pace. 

Combination jumps require you to carefully measure strides and occasionally clone yourself.


The Competition

All equitation divisions include at least one jumping class. Each named class has its own different logistics after the jumping round is completed, usually with the top scoring riders from the jumping class. For example, the Maclay has an additional flat class, while the Medal has a test class doing a shortened course with no consulting with trainers. The judges can also go to extreme measures in these tests to determine a victor, from making them ride without stirrups to asking the top two riders to switch horses, as was done in the 2014 Maclay Finals. Don’t be surprised when, like college applications, they begin to pull up riders’ social media profiles and use that to judge them too. 

Future equitation judges looking to social media to decide the winners.

Nothing can set off the “well, I’m screwed” thought in your head like the smallest of slip-ups in an equitation round, as you have to be flawless to separate yourself from a crowded field. Trainers are a key part of minimizing these mistakes when you’re discussing the course before your round… and reminding you of them after.

Equitation expert TJ O'Mara discussing the course with his all-star trainer, Stacia Madden.

Equitation expert TJ O’Mara discussing the course with his all-star trainer, Stacia Madden.

One key to a flawless round is maintaining a good position as a rider. The basics of a good riding position are heels flexed down, a strong leg that stays firmly on the horse’s side on the flat and over jumps, and a good center of balance that is never too ahead or behind the motion of the horse. The rider’s eyes remain up and looking forward, her shoulders and elbows are relaxed at her side, and her body does not fight the horse’s stride but moves seamlessly with it. 

Perfect form is almost as difficult as keeping your grey horse clean.

In Conclusion

Equitation requires mastery of the fundamentals through flawless riding. The horse showcases the rider’s form, while the course challenges it. Winning an equitation round is as much about being an expert rider as it is about forgetting you’re not.

Perfectionists will find a calling in equitation. It is also for the rider that craves glory, as equitation finals are lofty goals to strive for. While this will give you fame in the horse world, your non-equestrian friends will regard you winning Maclay Finals as “just another horse race win.”

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