The arena is pin-drop silent as an equitation rider performs the final circle of an intricate pattern and halts his or her horse in center ring. After a flawless workout of trots, canters, lead and diagonal changes, all that is left now is the return to the lineup. In most cases, this requires a turn before picking up the trot and heading back down the rail. But since it is not stated in the written workout, what kind of turn should it be?
The question is understandable, as saddle seat equitation rules do not actually specify whether riders should perform a turn on the forehand, a turn on the haunches, or some hybrid of the two. In a sport that seems to spell out everything, from suit colors to where the bight of the reins should fall, this lack of clarity may seem frustrating at first glance. However, it may also be a chance for riders to demonstrate their horsemanship skills in a way that goes above and beyond anything written rules could’ve called for.
There was a time when turns in saddle seat equitation patterns were more often referred to as pivots. Today the term is used less frequently, and Carol Jones, trainer at American Acres in Little Rock, Arkansas, understands why.
Carol has had much success in the western discipline with Saddlebreds, but also in the Appaloosa industry, where pivots are extremely prevalent. While she doesn’t think western enthusiasts would get too worked up about the terminology used by saddle seat riders, the turns she sees most often in equitation classes would not be considered proper pivots by any other standard.
“It looks like the horse is moving all four feet at the same time and just gets going in a different direction,” she said.
Among western enthusiasts, this is known as a “Coke-bottle” turn. It is never a desired movement, as horses are either called to pivot on the front end or the hind end.
“In most of the stock breeds or western breeds there should be some consideration given to a pivot foot, meaning one foot remains on the ground and the rest of them are turning around it,” Carol said. “I guess an analogy would be in basketball when a player catches the ball. Unless they’re dribbling it, they have to leave one foot on the ground. They can spin around that foot, but they can’t pick that foot up.”
And a truly skilled rider should always be able to feel what the horse is doing underneath him or her.
“Part of horsemanship and equitation is knowing which part of your horse is moving,” she said. “I would think if the requirement is a turn on the haunch or turn on the forehand and that’s not performed, it certainly should be marked against the rider for not knowing that the wrong end is moving, or that both ends are moving.”
However, when it comes to saddle seat equitation, neither of those types of turns are actually a requirement, as a quick scan of the United States Equestrian Federation Rule Book’s section on saddle seat equitation shows. The rulebook lists sixteen tests that can be used in saddle seat equitation pattern work. Those tests can be called for individually or collectively, but they are the only tests that may be used, and therefore, judged. Performing a “pivot” is not one of them. It is for this reason that the United Professional Horsemen’s Association uses the terminology “turn” or “reposition” rather than “pivot” in its popular pattern book.
But while riders are technically free to perform whatever type of turn they would like, some qualities do make for a better turn than others. According to Gayle Lampe, judge and saddle seat professor emeritus at William Woods University, a horse that resists, roots down in the bridle, or wanders all over the place during the turn does not make an attractive picture, and sometimes denotes a rider’s lack of skill.
“I think the worst thing … is for the rider to use the hands too strongly and the legs not enough, resulting in the horse backing up,” she said.
But as long as the horse and rider avoid these major pitfalls, especially going backward or forward, she doesn’t think most judges are too concerned about what type of turn is used. One of these judges is Liz McBride-Jones, trainer and instructor at Forever Farm in Raeford, North Carolina.
Liz grew up riding with the legendary instructor Helen Crabtree during the early 1960s. According to Liz, Helen did not expect her riders to perform actual pivots. What she did expect, however, was that during the turn her riders were doing something to prepare their horses for the next gait.
“She was very clear about where you went and how you turned around,” Liz said. “You were not pivoting, standing and then going off. You were doing something to set yourself up for the next part.”