A couple of years ago I started assembling some thoughts for a blog, but, oops, it became DRESSAGE Unscrambled. Other than The Godfather, Part II, I can’t name very many sequels that measured up to the original. So, now it’s back to Plan A. I ended D.U. for the same reason that you stop eating potato chips—at the time I was full and, presumably, so were you. But like an old dictator haranguing the crowd, I’ve got my second wind now. You probably join me in observing that many, many riders get in their own way—by over-analysis, by under-analysis, or sometimes because they just ought to be in analysis. Dressage is full of Truths. You are bombarded by them in books and articles, during lessons and lectures and even over a glass of chardonnay at your dressage club meeting. Unfortunately, those truths are not all equally applicable across the board in all circumstances. Some obfuscate; others downright confuse. Navigating the whole shell shocking world of dressage is as fraught with pitfalls and booby traps as the task of Buying Your First Horse is to an unwary and unaccompanied novice. I certainly don’t claim to have a monopoly on dressage wisdom, but the same rules that apply to the human condition are equally valid as applied to our sport—exercise some common sense and avoid the mistakes that everyone before you has made. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t take it all so seriously. It won’t make you ride any better. As before, the tales which follow are not arranged chronologically but in studied disorder. Some are meant to illuminate. Others to distract. Some just can’t stand to hide in the dark any longer. Light and Truth R Us. And, oh, by the way, feedback is GOOD! I’m afraid that within me there’s an element of Alexander Haig after the Reagan shooting or Riff in Rocky Horror–“I’VE GOT TO KEEP CONTROL!” Consequently, this isn’t an open contribution blog. Tell me what you think. If it fits in, I’ll post it. If not, at least I’ll have learned something. CLICK to comment on anything below.
Fancy but . . .
As I look back on the hundreds of blog posts I have written, one recurring theme is the need to be clear and definite in the way you communicate with your horse . . . not to be passive, to be the Alpha, not just to ask but to be sure your horse understands, responds, and is rewarded.
Now and then I meet a trainer who has not only taken that advice to heart but has doubled down on it to the extent that he (or she) needs to dial it way back. I met a guy who came to a pre-show clinic with a very talented, exotic young horse. And the guy had a seat. He had available strength. But he rode the horse against a fixed hand and with a short neck. In his mind expression – even flamboyance — was everything. And unfortunately there are judges who are willing to reward that despite serious holes in the horse’s training. This horse could make Totilas– like extensions with his forelimbs nearly parallel to the ground. And he could cover massive amounts of real estate in his medium trot and canter. Could he make a clean simple change? No, he would fall out of the canter against the hand and jig in the walk steps. Did his outline ever lengthen when he was asked to extend? No. And the leather fibers of the reins always looked stressed, never neutral. The horse was quite steady otherwise, not showing active resistance.
And the guys sat very still – no overtly exaggerated aids. But to me there was no harmony therefore the so-called “expression” he so coveted was seriously devalued. This rider was fairly young and tended to believe himself more than my advice. His concept of engagement and uphill balance reminded me of putting your thumb over an open pop bottle and shaking it like crazy. Agreed, a harmonious picture should by no means lull you to sleep, but the version cg of expression he wanted to show was so lacking in Quality that it made me feel bad for the horse. Indeed, had he not been such a fine mover and so levelheaded, this horse probably would have exercised his right to rid himself of the aggravation on his back.
I don’t mean to sound harsh, but it’s our job to preserve the goodwill of our horses and at minimum the semblance of something artful.
You think you are . . . .
I said to a student, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but if I had to describe you as a rider to someone, I would say that you are incredibly naïve,” A polite-ish away to intentionally rock her world a bit. This was a woman who had all the best intentions and had read all the right books, and thought she was doing all the right things. “I was being really strong!” she’d say as her horse trickled to walk about 20 m after she had begun to ask her. The answer was that although she was applying force, she was sending no message. Her legs gripped. Her hands held. Her horse was oblivious .I explained that on the great continuum of aids, her idea of more or less was all in a very narrow range which, until the horse listened, meant approximately nothing. She told me how sometimes if the horse was really bad (like running off with her) she could be very strong. “All well and good,” I said, but the point was not about violence, it was about being unapologetically meaningful enough that you got a rewardable result and then diminished the size of the aids. This involves some decision-making on the rider’s part. If you have been swayed by too many articles about absolute lightness, harmony, and non-confrontation, you can wonder if you were doing the right thing. There’s nothing wrong with second-guessing yourself and evaluating whether the aids you used were appropriate or not. But if you got no result, they were not appropriate. Don’t be afraid to be effective!
The texts of past blogs which used to appear here have their own page. Access them with a simple click below