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One of the joys I’ve experienced recently is watching my daughter learning the art of riding horses. At her first competition (after a few months of lessons), I learned about one of the categories on which she was being judged, something called equitation. I, having never ridden a horse besides the kiddie pony ride horses when I was a child, had no idea what equitation was.

It turns out that equitation is a fancy word for horsemanship, and it’s about the rider’s poise, command, and presence while on a horse, from basics like the cleanliness of the horse to the rider’s posture, and most importantly, the ability of the rider to control the horse with a commanding but relaxed presence.

I suspect equitation has its roots in the military application of horsemanship. The ability to control a horse with a relaxed command means that a horse is responsive to you. That skill would be handy in less calm situations such as a battlefield, where keeping order in a cavalry line would mean not only your own safety, but preventing panic from spreading to other horses in the line.

In watching my daughter’s lessons, one of the most important factors in equitation is your own attitude, energy, and approach to the horse. If you train with the horse and learn its idiosyncrasies, if you know its limitations, if you reward it amply and maintain your own calm and poise when it misbehaves, in time it learns to trust you and obey you. If your behavior towards it is obnoxious, at best it’s not going to do what you want and at worst it’s going to throw you, which can lead to serious injury or death.

In thinking about discussions in recent days about girls, bossiness, and what not to say, maybe we should take a fresh look at the very old art of equitation for some answers about what we do want girls to learn about leadership. While what we don’t want to call them matters, I think it’s equally or more important that we positively define what we do want them to be. The traits that make for outstanding command over your horse are traits that make for an outstanding leader as well.


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