Pressing Onward

gustafson_-_jack_and_the_beanstalk-726768A 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.


(posted 5-15-19)

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. At each level you have to do the movements that are required, but that’s not the essence of what we need to see. What makes me most unhappy as a judge is a rider who goes through all the patterns but without displaying any of the qualities that the test is designed to bring out. A Second Level test in a Training Level frame and balance is disheartening to watch. I can be patient with mistakes -– they happen. But I hate writing “This picture does not fulfill the requirements demanded at this level.”

There are several obvious remedies. First of all, read the Purpose for the level. Beyond that, YouTube can be a great help. Find some good tests at the level you’re trying to do. Look at the outline of the horse—his frame: How long is it? How high? How gathered is he? How much energy does he display? How does he direct it—how forward versus how up? How much ground is he expected to cover in each pace—working versus collected versus medium?

Please remember that moving up to the next level because you’re bored with the last one is no reason at all. In our country there are no mandated requirements to be passed before you are allowed to move up. You are entirely responsible for self policing. But don’t program yourself for failure. It’s OK to dabble in something on the border of your horse’s skill set at a schooling show, but generally speaking, you should be fairly sure things will work before you take them to the show arena for real.

                                        Do the Math

(posted 5-3-19)

I started out with a great premise— if event riders would just improve their dressage score by four or five points (presumably by concentrating on it and taking more lessons), they would place higher at the end of the (Sun)day. Obviously standing near the top of your division after the first phase makes everyone else have to play catch-up, and you don’t have to hope others will falter.

So I went on line to research past results to see how various scenarios had actually played out. I was less concerned with riders who had completed their dressage near the top and either maintained their standing or moved down with jumping or time faults. More to the point were riders in the bottom 2/3 after dressage who had jumped clean but had moved up “only so far,” their dressage shortcomings keeping them out of the ribbons.

I searched primarily in the “Rider” divisions thinking they would be less experienced at the level at which they were competing but also did general searches across the board at all levels. I did find individual anecdotal evidence that supported my original contention, and for each of those the message should be obvious. However, more generally, particularly at the lower levels riders who placed well in dressage tended to go clean and maintain their standing. But clearly if they had been first after dressage and not fourth by a couple of points, their outcome would have been different. Farther down the bracket often if they had a weak dressage, jumping problems had followed as well. At the more advance levels time faults on the cross country came more into play, again a few fractions which could have been made up in the dressage phase rearranging the placings.

So my earth shattering discovery has been more or less left on the cutting room floor. That said, it stands to reason that every point you accrue is equal to every other one, and every way you can avoid or minimize them, the better you are in the long run. There are the great overriding issues that come down to how sophisticated a rider you are: Is your horse really round and through and energetic? While lively, is he soft and permeable, and does he carry himself or brace against you and drag you around? Is he honestly on the aids, or is he posing? As a judge the two words which I least like to use to describe a test are “coasting” or “cruising.” They imply a passivity on the rider’s part— an abdication of your duty to present your horse in his best possible light. These are all qualities in your riding which take a long time to master.

Meanwhile, there are lots of ways not to throw away points that could mean the difference between primary colors and an insipid pastel ribbon. Here’s a quick short list:
Straightness on centerlines.
Accurate figures including circles which have no accidental corners.
Movements which happen when they are called for: If the test says “Canter at K and proceed on the long side,” it doesn’t mean do it somewhere in the corner while the horse is still bending. That’s missing the difficulty that the movement is asking for.
Likewise, unless otherwise stated, transitions happen at the letters—that means when your shoulder is at the mark. They need to be smooth and prompt. You give away points if you trickle into the trot In an aimless jog.

Remember: it’s really not rocket science. Look at the good riders. Study the good videos of horses at your level. And do your homework. Put those extra points in your back pocket, and be sure to feed your horse lots of carrots while you’re sipping the bubbly after your victory lap.

                Thanks to Kem Barbosa (USEF “S”) for suggesting this topic.


                                          OK, I’ll give it a shot!

(posted 4-24-19)

A fellow professional some of whose students board with her was lamenting seeing them ride around on non-lesson days appearing aimless, thought-free, and unproductive. At her wit’s end, she asked me if I had written anything she could show to them which might change their ways. I put these several old blogs together to give it a try.

What’s it all about, Eberhard?

In the great wide world of dressage instruction you’ve got your bio mechanists, your “position-is-everything-ers,” your dominators, Dressage-Lite proselytizers, and practitioners of at least a zillion more flavors of training. I’m a “Form Follows Function” guy. I urge my students never to lose sight of the basic question—what did we come here to do in the first place? Robert Dover once defined our task as “behavior modification and body building.” Believe me, if you’ve set out to do either of those things with a thousand pound (or sixteen hundred pound) animal, you had better figure out how to maximize your communication skills or you’ll be talking to a brick warmblood!

Along these lines, I met a new student in Costa Rica—an American travel writer living there and employed by a website whose clientele is comprised of U.S. citizens shopping for vacation opportunities.
Her horse, a former jumper, was pleasant enough, i.e. not likely to cause her serious injury, but when asked to show me what she’d been working on, she rode him around in total passivity—no energy, no meaningful contact, no attempt to produce any kind of frame or balance. Alfie, you see, had ridden (equitation) as a child, then, prior to acquiring this new horse, had been away from the sport for fourteen years.

Helping a rider identify her priorities—what to be thinking and what to be doing—is always a big part of every instructor’s job. The problem is further complicated when we face a rider who’s new to us, and she arrives with her own baggage and a pre-conceived vision of what she should be about.
Over the years I have discovered that to blurt out, “Oh, my god! What in the world are you doing? Ride him on the aids!” doesn’t usually send a new student rushing back for more lessons. Nor does shredding her dignity and self esteem by pounding her in the first five minutes with a recitation of all the things she’s doing wrong.

As much as I always want to “get something accomplished” in the limited time I have, I try to let things develop gradually. Over the hour the student and I can find our way to a solution that helps her go away with an insight into the scheme she should follow in her training. So in this case I opted to try a mechanical approach: “feel a heavier contact,” “push him into a more alive connection,” “get him coming off your inside leg more promptly,” but nothing changed very much.
When a rider is passive to begin with and has grown up in a tradition of keeping the aids invisible (whether she’s doing anything or not) and of avoiding getting scolded rather than discovering ways to be creative, the challenge is obvious. It’s all about changing her goals.

So we took a “study break” and conferred in arena center.
“Alfie, tell me what you’re thinking while you’re riding,” I proposed.
“Well,” she offered rather tentatively, “I’m thinking of keeping my wrists ‘like this.’ I’m trying to keep the rhythm of my posting steady, and I’m trying to keep my weight down in my heels and not lean forward from my hips.”
Her answer didn’t surprise me at all. But how to get her to re-prioritize and see things differently.

Keeping her “other life” in mind, I suggested this scenario:
“Imagine you’ve gone off to survey a new resort… you’ve tried all the amenities…. you’ve sampled each of the main dishes at the restaurant…. and you’ve gone home to write it up for the website. You’re sitting at home on your deck by the pool, and forsaking your laptop, you’re writing up your review on an old fashioned, lined tablet with a pencil in your hand. And I interrupt and say to you, ‘tell me what you’re thinking about.’
“If you answer I’m thinking about holding the pencil just so between my thumb and my index finger, keeping the proper angle but not putting too much pressure on the point, then it’s OK to address your riding that way, too!
“But you’re in the business of communicating, and that’s the essence of how we try to ride as well. If that isn’t your focus, if all the window dressings and mechanical details aren’t designed to facilitate that one over-arching goal, then all those efforts won’t amount to anything in the long run!”

I’m happy to say that Alf caught the drift of my message, and she began to really Ride. By focusing on what she was saying to her horse, in the span of two days she was able to establish a contact, start to shape his topline, and make use of his potential. She’s still near the beginning of the road, and yes, she should check in on her wrists and her heels and her hip angle periodically. But now she has found a thread of interaction to explore between her horse and herself, step by step, second by second. That relationship is what will make her riding less rote and end up producing real dressage results as she goes on.

Okay, with Alfie as your example and so as not to make your instructor totally crazy, unless you are on a trail ride, start with a plan and try to follow it. What kind of plan? Read this Thomas Ritter explanation:


“In the tradition of the old Spanish Riding School, three repetitions of the same exercise were defined as a reprise. That is a good structuring device, because you start to see a trend after three repetitions. The horse’s gait and posture will either improve or deteriorate. If you ride something once, the outcome could be a coincidence. If you get the same result three times in a row, it’s a pattern. If there is no improvement within the first three attempts, it’s unlikely that things will get better during the next hundred repetitions. Therefore, you should then modify the aids or the exercise, or in extreme cases abandon the exercise completely for the time being.
After the first reprise, you change direction and ride a reprise on the other rein. Then you compare in which direction the exercise was more difficult for the horse, and in which direction it benefited the horse more. In the past it was customary to ride a third reprise in the more difficult direction. This protocol prevents mindless drilling and thoughtlessly repeating the same mistake over and over.”
(Thomas Ritter)

The next questions are “What are some reprises?” and “How do I know which ones to use?” There are literally dozens and dozens of them. You can find them in manuals and workbooks, but this is where your instructor comes in even if she’s not present in the ring. In lessons she can guide you towards ones which are appropriate to your and your horse’s level of training.
That leaves you with just two jobs: Choose the right exercises and execute them correctly. That’s how you train a horse between your lessons.                                            

The texts of past blogs which used to appear here have their own page. Access them with a simple click below