BILL: And now for the bad news for both your spouse and your bank account….
BILL: This is another one of those questions that doesn’t have one right and one wrong answer, although I bet you’ll find some people that are sure that it does. If you read the dressage pulps or lurk around the message boards and chat rooms, you’ve already heard the contentious sparring: It’s an art; it’s all about the relationship; it’s how you think about your horse and your work, not success itself; you can’t measure success, anyway, by ribbons you win. That’s the Less Taste side of the argument. On the More Filling side, if you don’t go out and measure yourself against other riders, you seal yourself in a bubble where “Not Very Good” can seem to you like “Just Fine”; competition is what pushes people to excel; shows attract sponsors and money and even fame, and without those things it would be impossible to breed and support star athletes like Ravel or Edward Gall’s horse that we all admire. From one vantage point, it might be even borderline sinful to spend exorbitant amounts of money on a horse with all the problems and inequities that exist in the world. But what’s “too much”? Is it ten million dollars? Is it two million? Is it the price of a house? Or just a low six figures? Maybe just the price of an SUV from Korea? Might it only be a year’s tuition someplace? I’ve heard people claim that if it’s more than a thousand bucks, that horse ain’t worth it. Clearly, it’s a matter of perspective. The so-called (oops, I’m showing my bias) classicists might argue that “since it’s about the training” and not the innate value of the horseflesh, there’s no need to spend the cash. That is, until someone acknowledges that there is greater raw beauty in the superior horse than in a common one. They might also point out that success which is purchased is of lesser value than success which is created from time and effort. Alternatively, that you can’t experience what some of the movements are really supposed to feel like if you don’t feel them on a horse that’s truly talented and capable (and, by definition in our modern world, expensive.) You can go round and round— many people have in the past in tones both self-righteous and accusatory. Personally, I like shows and competition as long as they don’t make people crazy. Kept in perspective, showing can be wholesome, fun, and motivation to go out and put in the hours in the saddle when it might feel easier to succumb to the comfort of the couch, a glass of wine, and the TV. If you’re of the journeying ilk, you’ll say you’re happy enough right at home, and you don’t need externals to keep you focused. It’s all so tied into your own personality and what makes you tick. I will say this, however, whether you do it for its own sake or specifically to get to the destination, the journey itself is inevitable, and it’s always a long one. You can step out for a jaunt to the convenience store pretty easily, but training a dressage horse is more like embarking on a hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. Governor Sanford excluded, if you don’t enjoy the trail itself, you aren’t going to be happy out in the woods, and you’re going to be more aware of the aches and the blisters than you are of the rewards. If frustration and disappointment dominate your riding, you either need a new, attitude, a new horse, or a new sport!
It ought to be simple, painless, and elegant, but much of the time getting your whip switched from one side of your horse to the other is none of those things. So to avoid you impersonating the fourth Musketeer or a high school baton twirler, I offer these suggestions. Number 1: Don’t switch it like this. Pulling the whip through from the opposite side with your hand waving through the air can be done discreetly with a short jumping bat but not with a dressage whip. There is a much better way to switch it. Number 2: If you have discovered that experienced riders keep their hands low and bring the lash-end of the whip slowly and quietly past their own foreheads, you’re on the right track. However, don’t make the mistake pictured here by twisting your wrist of the hand that’s holding the whip. That “donor hand’s” only job is to manage the rein contact with the horse, not to distract him in any way with a pull on his mouth. The right hand simply keeps riding the horse. In a few, easy steps, Here’s the RIGHT way.
BILL: The one word answer is WELL. You’re supposed to ride it well. The question is HOW. What do we see as judges that usually goes wrong? The exercise is mainly about suppleness and bending and showing that the bend can be changed smoothly and without resistance. Riders very often dig themselves into a hole right from the start by riding the figure itself incorrectly and giving themselves no opportunity to show those bend changes. Typically what we see is a figure that looks a lot like the walk pattern in Training Test 2: The rider goes from the corner letter on a diagonal, “changes her mind” at X, and goes back to the corner letter on the same side on another straight line. What we want to see is a figure of continuous curves–no straight lines at all. Think of a “bell curve.” After a normal corner between C and M, peel your horse gradually off the track aiming not at X but almost towards E. You should cross the quarter-line right opposite R, and that’s the point where the bend should change. Then you ride a “fat dome” whose point furthest from the track is at X. The second half of the dome as you return to the rail, should match the first half. Don’t aim back at F; think of a sharper curve almost as though you are going to P. Then DO change your mind and the bend as you cross the quarter-line in line with P, and ooze gracefully back onto the track approaching F as gradually as you see the space shuttle touch down at Kennedy. When the movement was new, a diagram on the front of the test sheet explained how it should look. I wish the Test Writers would restore that picture. It would make it a lot simpler for the riders, and I wouldn’t need to order a rubber stamp which explains to the people I judge what they keep doing wrong!
BILL: The nice thing about this question is that there isn’t really a single correct answer. Some opinions may be worth more than others, and your own can be foremost if you so wish. When I first saw the video from the end of July of Edward Gal & Moorlands Totilas doing their 89+% ride at Hickstead, I very much admired the horse’s athleticism, and the piaffe/passage was truly spectacular. My overall impression, however, was less ecstatic than many others’. For me parts of the ride seemed almost inorganic — robot like. The topline reminded me a bit of a Saddlebred — nearly a headset, and I missed the elasticity and harmony I have seen in other horses. Looking at the linked video here from the European Championships, I take it all back. I admit that the music doesn’t appeal to me — on the apocalyptic scale it belongs somewhere to the west of the Road Warrior soundtrack. But, WOW, what a ride this one was! Goosebumps are more than appropriate. Tears, well, that’s up to you.
BILL: The answer to this, for better or worse, is a resounding NO! Some judges seem to have a sliding standard and want to be “kinder” or “encouraging” to less experienced competitors. I am totally in favor of encouraging them—particularly with my comments on the test sheet or, if time permits, in conversation after the ride. But to jimmy the scores higher—whether at a schooling show or at a competition in a more remote part of the country—just confuses riders and trainers. A single standard that remains the same morning to night, professional to amateur to kid on a fat pony, and—as much as is humanly possible—week to week and show to show is the only good way to indicate to riders where they really stand and what progress they are making.