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.
Among my favorite dressage acquaintances over the years was one particular character important to CDS, especially to the then often neglected northern part of California. He was Vic Beckett—larger than life, good-hearted, irascible, sometimes acerbic, but dedicated to our sport and never dull. A retired Air Force colonel, he never outgrew his command presence or tired of his ability to gleefully rub those who impeded him the wrong way. Fortunately, he liked me.
Our connection was through Major Lindgren whose work he adored. I had the Major’s stamp of approval, and that got me (and later Susan) invited to his domain to do a string of clinics and even a USDF Instructors Workshop. Our venues included Napa/Sonoma, the top of the Central Valley near Redding, and Sacramento, usually done four days at a time over a two week span.
Driving his going-on-her-fourth-hundred-thousand-miles orange ancestor of The General Lee (not named Rocinante though she should have been) Vic always showed me quite a time, touring me all around HIS California when I wasn’t working. All things with Vic took place intensely, rapidly, and at maximum volume. In the service he had flown P-80s which he described as a sewer pipe stuffed with a jet engine. That had pretty much destroyed his hearing, so he compensated by shouting everything.
Vic took me all over the Bay Area from his old stomping grounds at the Presidio to the abandoned World War II era pillboxes overlooking the entrance to the Golden Gate to his favorite Sausalito hotel where from the breakfast terrace we could see the entire bayscape all the way past Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge to the Berkeley Hills and beyond. His knowledge was encyclopedic. He was also a non-stop storyteller.
My favorite one harked back to his younger days when he and three friends decided to drive from somewhere near Mt. Shasta westward to the coast at Eureka. Back in the day that area was forested wilderness—it’s not that much different now. The “roads” were unpaved, little more than rocky trails, and they were fighting the terrain constantly since all the mountainous ridges ran north-south. Their vehicle was a pre-war touring car, running boards and all. What it lacked were brakes of any substance.
The boys, not to be deterred, had a solution. As they packed for their adventure, they loaded on board several axes and a heavy chain. The car would labor up each grade wheezing and threatening to overheat, Then at each summit they would disembark and hack down a wayside tree. Chaining it to the rear bumper, they would confront the steep slope dragging the log behind them to slow their descent. At the bottom they’d unhook the log, roll it aside, and proceed up the next mountain, repeating the process over and over to the Pacific. The moral–As in good dressage, ingenuity triumphed!
I raise a glass in Vic’s memory.
In the court of St. James
One of my recurring themes with students is to do lots more stuff than the patterns of your tests. Look at higher level ones. Look at lower level ones. Look at rider tests. Look at foreign tests. Stay out of a rut. Nothing should be so surprising to your horse that he can’t do it. The tests are more interesting than they used to be. I’m talking 30 or 40 years ago. During that first spurt of popularity when “normal” dressage riders discovered that you didn’t have to be an Olympic rider to do more than 20 meter circles on Arabs and quarter horses (no offense intended) and the Germans flooded the American market with schoolmaster-ish warmbloods, things were getting a little out of hand. Slap them in a double bridle, buy a shad belly and a top hat, and presto you’re an FEI rider! Like anyone with a newfound toy, it was only natural to concentrate on the “tricks.” There were many voices of reason trying to stem that tide, several of them by proposing a modified kind of competition. In CDS on the West Coast there was Baron Hans von Blixen Finecke from Sweden. In the mid west there was Colonel Kurd von Ziegner. Both had the idea that a more meaningful competition would include both the standard FEI test and one especially created emphasizing the basics. The two elements would be combined for an overall score. The point was to ensure that the horse was truly on the aids—that he didn’t just make a flying change at the corner or over the centerline because that was where you always did them. Von Ziegner was doing clinics at St. James farm in Illinois, so the competition which he was encouraging was cleverly called the Prix St. James. Here it is: It probably looks a lot less radical to you now than it did back then. Remember this was before the stretching circle was introduced in our tests, likewise before they included uberstreichen. The Colonel was a bit ahead of his time, but his ideas should be familiar and consistent with the way you train.
It’s what the surgeon in the OR shouts immediately preceding something like, “Get the mop!” So you might think that this is one of those blogs that harps on making your horse sharp, quick, and attentive to the aids. But in this case, NO! This “stat” is short for rheostat, that device on your dining room wall that dims the chandelier for an optimistically intimate dinner or cranks it all the way to a piercing brightness suitable for removing splinters or conducting a Jack Bauer-style interrogation. Most significantly, it allows you to choose any level of illumination in between.
On these posts and in DRESSAGE Unscrambled I’ve often referred to the vending machine analogy—wherein when a horse is properly prepared and on the aids, anything you can reasonably ask for should be immediately available to you without further preparation. Put the money in and when it blinks READY, it’s ready for everything. When you ask and the answer is not forthcoming, the problem usually lies in an incompleteness in your relationship in what last you were doing.
A subset of this principle lies in what Robert Dover so eloquently nasalled at a USDF symposium: “Remember, people, in dressage adjustability is everything!” Frame, balance, energy, and tempo among other qualities, should all be available in increments that you, not your horse, choose. An “all or nothing” reaction indicates a “doing the tricks” relationship and it disables your ability to pick and use an exercise which brings out a missing quality in what you’re working on.
Some examples: Picture a horse with a semblance of “piaffe” on the spot but quite uneven in his rhythm behind. He is stuck there and can’t advance unless he goes flying off in a huge trot as he grabs the bit. If he doesn’t understand that you can push him forward incrementally to purify his rhythm, you are the victim of a useless trick. Likewise if his medium trot is flat, bracing, and ballistic, there is no good avenue to re-balance, shorten, and lift it towards a developing passage.
There are other examples across many movements at all levels. While riding shoulder-in at a competition, you undoubtedly wish to present a particular amount of bend, angle, and energy to the judge. But suppose your horse is too sluggish or stiffens when you attempt it in schooling. Consider beginning with a trot you like but entering the movement along the rail either at a lesser angle or with the correct angle but a straight horse in a “tail to the wall” leg yielding. In either case as he finds his balance, you can gradually adjust the angle and bend to the amount the judge wants to see. If the problem is energy/engagement related, during the shoulder-in you can play up and down the spectrum between hints of medium and hints of half steps. While doing so you may incidentally discover that you need to train more suppleness into those transitions within the gait, but that in turn will make him more honest and enhance his movement across the board.
Creating this adjustability—the rheostat-like, controlled ebbs and flows, the fluid segues between and within movements, the ever-present possibility of adding a soupçon of another quality to enhance the “flavor” of the primary movement you are schooling— separates artful dressage from the “paint by number” variety.
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