Stuff I Discovered Climbing the Beanstalk
DRESSAGE Unscrambled (although it did not yet have a name) began in my head over fifteen years ago. Not unike the brooms in Fantasia, once started, it was impossible to stop. So added to the original manuscript, here are more than 450 blog entries to cover a few things that I missed.
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.
It’s not but it should be
“Why should I learn turn on the forehand? It’s not in any test.” The reason is more political than academic. Remember at one point leg yielding was also banned from American tests. Depending on the philosophical underpinnings of the system of riding you follow, turn on the forehand can mean a of variety of things. Not all of them are created equal.
Historically in the German tradition, turn on the forehand was done from the halt and practiced simply as an obedience-oriented, moving away from the leg exercise very early in the training. Once accomplished, it was soon abandoned for more sophisticated lateral displacement requiring back to front connection starting with the shoulder-fore.
The teachers who most influenced me—Lindgren, Sommer, Wikne, Ljungquist, Nathhorst, Christiansen—taught in the Scandinavian tradition (as illustrated in the the Danish cavalry manual) where leg yielding and turn on the forehand were viewed quite differently.
The first few times a horse was invited to move off the leg were similar to what was described above. However, a more meaningful and useful version of the exercise once the horse understood moving over, was to think of keeping him straight with a slight poll positioning to the inside away from the direction of movement, and rather than moving your pushing leg behind the girth, leaving it at the girth and moving the girth around the inside front leg. The rider’s outer leg stayed back to keep the haunches in line, and if the horse wanted to back off the bit, take backwards steps, or fall out, the outer leg behind the girth reminded him to think forward and into the hand. In the learning phase the horse was permitted to “turn around the forehand” rather than being on the spot, just as introductory turns on haunches are done on a smallish circle. As the exercise progressed, the size of the circle was made smaller, but the horse still maintained the rhythm in the turn, staying straight, and willing to move forward off the leg instantaneously when requested.
This requires the rider to develop a much more sophisticated interaction among the aids which has many applications to more advanced work. The results of the coordination of the pushing/receiving/allowing/momentarily redirecting effects are immediately visible by the horse’s responses. Learning to ride the movement step-by-step and tailoring the size of the aids to what the horse needs at the moment helps the rider get beyond generic, recipe riding. The results are obvious when a pupil can master it!
Things in a judge’s head
As you may know, every licensed dressage judge is required to take part in regular training/re-training periodically to maintain their standing. This includes written tests on the rules and at least every three years participation in a judges forum which usually involves moderated oral judging of tests in front of their peers and a distinguished moderator. These are usually two or three days in duration.
I recently attended one such forum in Atlanta under the direction of (retired) FEI 5* O. judge Gary Rockwell. One purpose of the gathering is to reaffirm what we should be looking for and rewarding (or discouraging) as we judge. But I for one have been judging for nearly 40 years and I, like most judges, have a pretty good idea of what I want to see in the ring.
For our sport to have meaning to all involved—the riders, the coaches, the trainers, and those of us sitting at C—there must be reasonable unanimity among what we value and prioritize when we observe the horses. If you work on your own too long without feedback, it’s possible for your standards to deviate too high or too low from the norm. Next thing you know riders are hunting through their omnibus for lenient judges and to avoid the low scoring ones.
Usually at issue is not whether what you see is right or wrong, but if it’s not what you want, how much is it appropriate to penalize. Does a momentary bobble blow up the score for the whole movement? How significant is not enough energy or too flat a top line? What degree are the Purpose and Directive Ideas being fulfilled by the horse in the ring?
This periodic recalibrating or at times reaffirming the numbers we give is an essential duty we perform to keep our advice correct and beneficial to the riders.
Why Counter Canter?
An old friend of mine, Colonel Aage Sommer (DEN) used to say “One counter canter is worth ten true canters.” It was implied, but allow me to state it outright: one good counter canter!
The benefit of counter canter is not that you can manage to canter around on the “wrong” lead. It’s that to make a decent one, you must be able to create and sustain enough balance and self carriage that your horse can perform it comfortably and correctly.
When a horse has a good true canter, once you’re in it, it tends to take care of itself. In similar fashion if you begin a shoulder-in on the long side of the arena, once positioned you usually don’t have to do very much. Put that shoulder-in on a 20 meter circle, however, and your interaction with your horse becomes busier and more complicated.
In like fashion working in the counter canter provides a venue in which you must develop a more intimate, meaningful relationship with your horse to help him stay balanced and relaxed. He has to be real to do it right. He can’t just “mail it in.”
Does this mean anything to you: “The Old Garden?” If it doesn’t, then you’re pretty young and you should run to your Google machine.
It is said that the most famous arena in the world is Madison Square, Garden. Heavy weight Championship prize fights, super big time rock concerts (preceded by Frank Sinatra ones), the NITs when they mattered, Willis Reed and the Knicks back in the day, and of our particular interest for a period of time the National Horse Show.
Before it left downtown Manhattan, there seemed to be nothing so romantic as watching the beautiful hunters and jumpers unload from their vans onto the sidewalk outside the Garden. Or if you knew someone and had a pass, you could get under the stands and see the horses warming up in cramped tanbark covered corridors schooling over huge verticals. And this was the “new” Garden, perched on top of Pennsylvania Station so I could take the New Haven Railroad into the big city and land right underneath my destination.
The “old“ Garden, dating from 1879, with all its history and patron inconveniences, had expired in the decade before I got there. I know there are still some people around who remember Hugh Wiley and The Horse with the Flying Tail, Harry deLeyer and Snow Man, and Arthur Godfrey on Goldie. We still have Fenway and Wrigley Field, but the old Garden ranked right up there with them.
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