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Equitation: Science and Fiction 

Equitation has a long tradition dating back 6000 years [1]. Unfortunately, some long standing training practices and believes can often create confusion – not just for the horse but also for the rider. Many ‘traditionalists’ view horse riding as an art that should not be subjected to scientific scrutiny [2]. However, scientific measuring of variables is important because it allows us to quantify what is happening and helps us decide what works and what does not. That is where the relatively young and exciting field of equitation science  can help. By utilising evidence-based approach, we can evaluate and, if necessary, improve existing equestrian methods to promote welfare-friendly equitation. 

‘Traditional’ jumping style till the start of the 20th century.
Captain Caprilli revolutionised the jumping seat (now known as forward seat).

Putting equitation science into practice

Let’s look at some examples from dressage manuals:

1) Even bend through the horse’s body 

Even bend through the horse’s body is required in many dressage movements yet research shows that the thoracic spine (the part we sit on) can move laterally to a very limited degree [3] while the neck is much more ‘bendy’.

Shall we be asking horses to bend evenly through their bodies if they are anatomically not designed to do so? And what about the riders? Are we setting them up for failure? Are they going to get frustrated because they cannot achieve what the trainer is asking for?

2) Maintain the same ‘rhythm’ through all variations of a trot

Dressage manuals stipulate that the horse should maintain the same ‘rhythm’ through all different trots [4]. To start with, rhythm is often used interchangeably with tempo – already adding to the confusion! The correct term is ‘tempo’ (strides per minute) – so for example going from a collected to an extended trot the horse should only lengthen the stride without changing the number of strides per minute (tempo). 

What is really happening though? Studies have shown that from collected to extended trot, the horses lengthened their stride (as required by the rulebooks) AND the stride duration decreased and hence frequency (a proxy for tempo) increased as well [5]. In collected trot horses would do on average 75 strides per minute while in medium and extended trot the number of strides would rise to 86 strides per minute – that is extra 11 strides per minute!

3) Passage is characterise by prolonged suspension

According to the FEI rulebook [4] passage is defined as ‘a very collected, elevated trot characterised by prolonged suspension’. However, the relative suspension phase in a passage was shown to be shorter than in a collected trot [6] hence contradicting the dressage rules. 

Does my horse care about equitation science?

Yes, they do! They want to be comfortable and not confused by our signals or conflicting demands. The examples above highlight the need for more evidenced-based approach in the equestrian world – if we know better, we can be better riders and carer for our horses. Some traditionalist might ague that adding science to equitation will reduce our beloved horses to some kind of robots or eliminate the horse-human bond we all care so much about. I beg to differ 🙂 Equitation and science do not have to compete – they can and should work together to help equestrian communities around the world develop even better understanding of horses and create much stronger bonds between horses and humans.

Are you looking for a horse riding instructor who offers evidence-based training for riders and horses? Get in touch now to book a lesson with an experienced BHSAI riding instructor in Hertfordshire and start your journey to success.

Click here to find out more about equitation science and how it can help you with training of your horse.


1 Anthony, D., Telegin, D., & Brown, D. (1991). The Origin of Horseback Riding. Scientific American, 265(6), 94-101. 

2 McGreevy, P. D. (2007). The advent of equitation science. The Veterinary Journal, 174(3), 492-500.

3 Faber, M., Johnston, C., Schamhardt, H. C., Van Weeren, P. R., Roepstorff, L., & Barneveld, A. (2001). Three‐dimensional kinematics of the equine spine during canter. Equine Veterinary Journal, 33(S33), 145-149.

4 Fédération Equestre Internationale. 25th ed. 2020. Available online: GO (accessed on 4 September 2021)

5 Walker, V.A., Tranquille, C.A., Newton, J.R., Dyson, S.J., Brandham, J., Northrop, A.J. and Murray, R.C., (2017). Comparison of limb kinematics between collected and lengthened (medium/extended) trot in two groups of dressage horses on two different surfaces. Equine Veterinary Journal 49, 673-680.

6 Clayton, H.M. (1997). Classification of collected trot, passage and piaffe using stance phase temporal variables. Equine Veterinary Journal Supplement, 23, 54–57.

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