Saddle seat is a uniquely American form of riding that grew out of a style of riding used on Southern plantations, with some European influences from “Park” or Sunday exhibition riding of high-stepping horses in public venues (often literally, city parks). Today it is seen most often at horse shows organized for exhibitors of the American Saddlebred, Morgan, Arabian, Tennessee Walking Horse, and the National Show Horse. It is also sometimes seen in competition for Andalusian horses. There is now an international competition, the Saddle Seat World Cup that includes the United States, Canada, Europe and Africa. Other national saddle seat equitation competitions include the NHS Good Hands Finals and the USEF (US Equestrian Federation) Finals held at the American Royal Horse Show in November.
Gaits shown in Saddle Seat classes include the walk, trot, and canter. Some competitions may call for extended gaits, particularly the trot. In some cases, breeds who can perform five gaits add equitation classes that require two additional gaits: the “slow gait” and “rack.” All classes require Rail work, where competitors show and are judged as a group going both ways of the arena. Saddle seat equitation may include individual tests or a pattern to be ridden. Tests may include backing up, mounting and dismounting, riding without stirrups, “addressing” the reins (i.e. picking up the four reins correctly), figure eights, serpentines and straight line patterns done at any gait. At the canter, only simple changes of lead are required when changing directions. It is possible to have a “ride-off,” where two or more riders are asked to perform additional work to determine the winner.
Correct position for the rider is to have the shoulder, hip, and heel in a line. He/she is also to have a straight line from knee to toe, and from elbow to wrist to the horse’s bit. The rider’s back should be straight yet relaxed, and the legs and arms are to remain virtually motionless.
The informal dress for saddle seat equitation includes a coat and Kentucky jodhpurs of a dark, conservative color, e.g., herringbone, pin stripes, black, blue, grey, dark burgundy, dark green or beige; a white or pastel collared shirt with a tie; derby or soft hat; and jodhpur boots. Vests and gloves are optional. After 6 p.m. formal wear is required. This habit includes a tuxedo-style jacket, pants and vest with bow tie and formal shirt, and top hat.
Pleasure equitation is another form of saddle seat equitation in which a rider is required to wear informal dress (coat, jodhpur pants, derby or soft hat, all in a dark color) in the day and evening and ride a horse that has a full mane and tail which is not set.
The value given to rail work and pattern work varies from qualifying competition to championship competition.