– by Bree Sprik
By now, I’m sure many of you have at least heard of working equitation. You may be wondering, what exactly is it? You may have seen some videos on youtube of the horses and riders in strange attire galloping over the bridges and doing a gazillion lead changes through the poles but wondered where to even start?
Welcome to Working Equitation 101
Working Equitation is a relatively new equestrian sport originating from Spain and Portugal. Its foundations are based in a combination of classical dressage and ranch work. It is rapidly growing in popularity in the west, south, and now starting to gain steam in the north east.
The sport is divided into 4 phases, similar to how eventing is divided into 3 phases. The best pair overall, wins the division. There are 7 levels, ranging from intro, which is ridden only at walk and trot, to masters. There are also open, AA, and youth divisions within the levels. Levels 1-5 are ridden with one or two hands, levels 6 and 7 must be ridden one handed. Working equitation is a working sport, and you have to imagine needing your free hand for useful things like getting cattle out of the brush, opening and closing gates, etc. Therefore, they are looking for a horse that is easy and useful to ride and maneuver with one hand. This means you really are riding off seat and leg!
Phase 1 – Dressage
The dressage phase sets the stage for the rest of the phases, and while dressage is a piece of the puzzle, working equitation is very much a working sport, and while a competitive dressage horse can be competitive, the basis is on classical dressage and a well trained western horse can be equally as talented in WE. The judges would like to see a horse who is engaged in his work, and useful to ride, light and handy. All dressage tests are ridden in a 20x40m arena, so a small dressage square. Some of the movements required are collected to extended gaits, leg yield, half-pass, pirouettes and flying changes.
Phase 2 – Ease of Handling
The ease of handling trial is basically dressage with obstacles. The goal of riding an EOH test is style and flow. Judges would like to see correct bend when going through the slalom, around the drums, etc. and would like to see the rider take a useful approach to an obstacle, which is not always the most direct route. They would like to see a horse engaged, interested in its work, not hesitant or rushing as it approaches and works with an obstacle. Some obstacle examples are the bridge, gate, spear the ring, and dragging an item. All of these obstacles are meant to represent things that need to be done from horseback when out working on a ranch.
Note : la garrocha is a 10-12 foot pule used traditionally to aid in working with cattle in the brush and wild bulls. It is not used for torture, rather to protect the horse from a charging bull, allowing it bit more reaction time.
Phase 3 – Speed
Think obstacles at speed. This is the phase you will most likely see on YouTube. This is where we find out of your horse is really easy to handle or not. You will need a greater amount of adjustability, working from extended canter or gallop and easily coming back down to a more collected or slower gait to maneuver through an obstacle. This phase is not offered at level 1 and most who do this are not speed demons. They are moving along but not full force, as you would then lose your maneuverability.
In both EOH and speed, if you knock it down, you have to get off your horse and pick it up before moving on to the next obstacle. You are allowed to use anything in the arena for a mounting block if needed. There are always barrels, a bull, and sometimes even a mounting block in there. At level 1 you will have ground crew to assist and pick up your mistakes, but after that, its all on you!
Phase 4 – Cattle
The cattle phase is a timed team penning type event where a team of riders’ goal is to work together to sort out and pen specific cows one at a time in a certain order. It is also offered individually without teammates depending on the show.
Not all WE shows in the northeast incorporate the cattle phase so if you’re thinking about trying it, don’t worry about if your horse has not seen cows! It’s something we’re working toward incorporating more and more, but this year and likely next year, there will be several shows without cows. If its something you’re thinking you’d like to get involved in longer term, start introducing your horse to cows!
Perhaps the best part about working equitation is that it is not breed or saddle specific. If you go to a show you will find yourself supported and welcomed by western riders, dressage riders, friesians, quarter horses, and warmbloods. It truly is a sport that brings all disciplines together and looks for the most useful relationship between a horse and rider, no matter the tack or price tag.