Once upon a time, back when the concept of “Hunter Seat Equitation” was respected as a form follows function sort of enterprise, much of the essence of the concept could be summed up in the four words, “Heads Up, Heels Down.” In 1944, CW Anderson actually wrote a treatise about riding and jumping, with those four words as the title of the book.
I wasn`t coached by USET Show Jumping coach, Bert De Nemethy, but I was from the era of many of his proteges, George Morris, Carol Hoffman, Billy Robertson, Neil Shapiro, Bernie Traurig, Kathy Kusner, Mary Mairs, and I was a bit younger than Bert`s superstars, Bill Steinkraus and Frank Chapot, and I watched them train and ride at Gladstone, and at many horse shows.
The words “Heads Up, Heels Down” were more than a book title, or a preached mantra to these riders. They had practiced this way of riding until it was simply the way their bodies responded over fences. This way was something they “owned” through constant repetition. If we study photos of these riders, that`s what we see, most of the time. Will there be aberrations and lapses from perfection? Of course. Many? No.
In eventing, riders like Mike Page and Mike Plumb exemplified these same strong grasps of correct basics, and it`s no surprise to me that both of them had been champion equitation riders.
Lately, though, it`s almost as if modern coaches must have convened a big, secret conference, and studied those old ways of riding, and decided that the basic premises were wrong. “Hey”, it`s almost as if they`ve said, “you know how Bill Steinkraus and those old fashioned riders looked up, and kept their heels down? How unfashionable was that? Let`s switch things around. Let`s teach look down, toes down. Let`s not get conned into obsolete methods. We don`t drive Model A`s any more, why should we teach Model A era riding?
Last weekend at Southern Pines, during the advanced show jumping, I asked Daryl Kinney to use my motor drive camera to take pictures of lots of riders, just as my wife, May, had done the year before. Toes down, heels up, heads and eyes down or to the side, not everyone, by any means, but both years, over and over and over, there it was.
How did we get so far from the De Nemethy/Le Goff era? Were they actually wrong, and this new way right? Or, perhaps, does style even actually matter? Does form really follow function?
This isn`t a definitive answer, but it`s the best answer I can imagine, since it came directly from Bert De Nemethy. In 1969, we had Bert do a riding clinic at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, and after the clinic, I drove him to Bradley Field, in Hartford, CT, to get his plane back to Newark, NJ. He discussed some of the things he`d been teaching over the last two days, and I asked him if form was so key, why were there such successful riders like Rodney Jenkins, whose style was unorthodox by De Nemethy`s standards.
Bert replied that, yes, there were fabulous, intuitive riders, like Rodney, who were far from classical stylists. But Bert said something like this, not an exact quote, but something I`ve remembered for 44 years: “If they are that good doing it wrong, how much better might they have been doing it right?”
Agree with De Nemethy, or disagree, but that was his answer to my question.