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.
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.
Just Whose Facts, Ma’am?
You’ve heard Daniel Patrick Moynahan‘s line: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own set of facts.” That should always apply when we evaluate dressage performances. The complication is that in our sport much of what we value, whether as judges or spectators, is an opinion!
However, there is one distinction we should be able to make. Whether we like something or not is flat out opinion. We may arrive at that judgment independently from within, or it may be based on values which we have come to accept as norms. For instance “I really like that horse’s energy level and elasticity!”
That is a whole separate topic from determining if the horse IS energetic or if his movement IS elastic. Within an agreed-upon range, those and many other qualities are definable and quantifiable. They are as close as we can come in the dressage world to FACTS.
Other times I have written about objective versus relative “good.” In the competition arena an “8” equals good. If the comment in a block says “good marching walk” and the score is 5.5, something is amiss! Meanwhile if a horse has had a major meltdown and his novice rider has managed to survive, a “good job” comment might not be at all out of place.
There are some words or phrases which I reserve for when they are truly accurate and appropriate. I roll my eyes in the warm-up arena if I see a novice trotting around counterflexed and with her horse’s head in the air as her instructor purrs, “Beautiful!” every time she goes by. In short there are many kinds of encouragement which don’t have to bend reality to the breaking point.
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