Horseback Riding

Borrow a Trainer: Part 1

July 11, 2011

Are you a functional rider?

By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lynn Palm in The American Quarter Horse Journal

jumping horse

Alyssa Bernhard won three 2006 amateur world championships by being a functional rider. Journal photo.

One of the main emphases at a recent AQHA judges’ seminar was for us, as judges, to find “functional” riders. There has been a trend in judging to credit a rider who’s on a really good horse but is not truly functional. The rider is perched on the horse like a statue and is not effective in what she is doing to control the horse’s performance. The rider just pushes buttons. If the horse is very broke and tuned to the rider, they can get through a pattern nicely. But if a rider has faults in position, even if she is on a really broke horse, she is not going to get the ultimate performance out of that horse.

This is what judges watch for when looking for a functional rider:

  1. Position. A functional rider has to have perfect position: Position equals function.
  2. Moving with the horse. The rider must be able to synchronize with the horse’s motion. You see it in the hips and deep seat. The rider who is a statue does not flow and move with the horse.
  3. Use of aids. A functional rider has invisible and effective aids in her seat, leg and hand.

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Those three things enable the rider to work with the horse in a true partnership, and the rider can get the most out of a horse’s performance. The perfect scenario is a rider who has correct position and is able to use soft, invisible aids, and the horse lightly responds. The horse understands what the rider is asking.

If there happens to be a problem, the rider can softly bring that horse right back on the correct path. You don’t see stiffness through a lead change and the rider’s seat popping out of the saddle. You don’t see a rider digging a spur in and pulling on the rein for a spin.

Becoming a functional rider is really the fun and challenge of all riding, from the show ring to a trail ride. But it’s like a golf or tennis swing: You can become very functional, but you can’t let it rest; you still have to practice to maintain it.

Common Problems
There are several clues that point to a rider not being functional:

  • Stiffness. A rider that looks rigid and stiff, perched on the horse’s back.
  • Stirrups too long, causing the heels to come up and the toes to point down.
  • Cueing off the spur, where a rider digs the spur into the horse’s side and locks it there. That’s pushing a button, using an artificial aid to achieve something and not the natural aid of your leg. You might get results, but it’s not from you working with the horse’s motion and controlling his body alignment and balance.
  • Reins too long. If the reins are long, then the rider will have visible aids.
  • Sitting too far forward. It makes the hips go backward, and the rider ends up perched on the crotch and very stiff. It locks the hips, and you see almost no movement in them.
  • Shoulders too far back. There you might see a little movement in the hips because it doesn’t lock the hips as much as riding forward, but it still creates a stiff-looking rider. You can really see it at the extended trot: The shoulders are too far back and don’t line up with the hips.

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The effect of these faults is the rider’s inability to control the horse’s body alignment and balance through a maneuver. You really see it when a horse isn’t “straight” while bending on curving lines or through spins or lead changes. Or when a horse just goes to the forehand in a stop, or goes behind the vertical and curls his neck while backing.