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.
At a recent conclave of judges we were watching demo horses and evaluating their movement. Commenting on what was wrong with a particular horse’s canter, one judge volunteered, “He’s strung out.” Indeed, he was and discussion followed about his overly long, flat topline, high croup, weight on the forehand, and trailing haunches which lacked engagement. After all this our leader said, “So what comment would you give on the test sheet?”
“How about strung out?” came a voice from the back.
“People,” our leader said, “let’s use correct terminology,” implying that if the term isn’t in the Glossary, it somehow can’t apply or doesn’t exist.
This brings us to a philosophical question not so much about dressage judging but about communicating. I’m sure you have heard the tale of the tourist who goes up to a local in a foreign land (The story is usually set in Germany) and asks directions. The tourist obviously doesn’t understand the words, so the German repeats the same thing only much louder.
OK, I agree judges should know all the terms in the Glossary, and it would be nice if all the riders understood them too. But it’s not good enough to say, “If they don’t know them, they should look them up.” While to a judge a technical term like engagement can call up a whole bundle of intricate images, the reaction of a typical 15-year-old rider is apt to be, “Huh?”
As a teacher or a judge, I am in favor of using many different terms, images, and explanations. What works for one listener may not for another, but if you say it enough ways, something is likely to click.
One of my favorite judges when I was trying to learn the craft almost 40 years ago was Heather St. Clair Davis. She was a gifted artist and wordsmith, and I delighted at her ability to get her message across colorfully without the constant refrain “Needs more…“
So getting back to “strung out,” as the forum’s discussion ended (leaving some of the participants unsatisfied), I believe I heard Sidd Finch whisper sotto voce, “It’s OK. After tomorrow we can go back and do whatever we want for the next three years.“
So what’s the point of a dressage test? Since it’s a competition, obviously the “who’s the best” answer carries a lot of weight. Additionally, because of the progressive nature of the levels, working your way through the tests provides a structure to your training. And within an individual test, the arrangement of the pattern and the relationships among the movements are also designed to give the rider insights into how to school at home.
Beyond all that, showing is supposed to be fun! Isn’t that what the freestyle is supposed to be about after all? So here’s a thought for you—not a substitute for the regular competition but perhaps something that would be fun to do at a schooling show if you could convince enough riders to take part.
A precondition would be that everyone participating would feel able to perform all the requirements of a given level. Then each movement would be written on a slip of paper and put in a fishbowl on the judge’s table. After the initial halt and salute, the judge would pull a slip out and announce the first movement to be shown—a medium trot, for instance. The rider would be granted 10 or 15 seconds to position his horse to begin and another 20 seconds to perform it. As time was expiring, the judge would dig into the bowl again and announce the next movement to be shown. Each one would be scored by the normal standard with the transition out of the last movement and into the new one included in the block.
The whole “test” could require 12 or 15 separate but fluidly connected displays. In a certain way it wouldn’t really be “fair” because not every rider would do all the same movements. The luck of the draw would favor or penalize one or another competitor. But as Jimmy Carter pointed out to us all: “Life isn’t fair.”
As you know from my vending machine analogy, it’s my position that a well-trained horse should be able to do any movement you ask in any order and at any time you ask. This little game would cause riders to hone that skill, and I’ll bet it would keep the spectators involved and interested.
Once this catches on, you can imagine the bigger shows hiring a voluptuous assistant to pluck the movement-labeled ping pong balls out a borrowed air-mix Lotto jackpot machine to hand to the judge.
They’re only secrets if you haven’t heard them
Here is part of Associate Editor Sidd Finch’s ongoing conversation with Bill reflecting on his years of teaching.
SF: So here’s a question for instructors — do you teach people what they want to learn or what you feel they need to learn?
BILL: Of course that’s a different question than telling them what they want to hear. Ego stroking is only called for if you’re really impoverished!
I think I speak for many instructors who get that call from someone who has decided to do “dressage.” They’ve read volumes on the subject and looked at endless videos on YouTube, but routinely they don’t grasp how much they need to discover before they can realistically pursue the goals they envision. A big part of our job is teaching those riders what they should want to learn.
SF: Are they receptive?
BILL: The revelations can be jarring. It’s like a woman who professes to “want to do art” and finds out she doesn’t know how to hold the brush.
SF: An example?
BILL: One thing many riders who are new to the sport don’t understand is the need for physicality. It looks so easy when it’s done right, and a tall, lean rider who is very fit can make it look that way.
A novice may also have bought into the “I don’t want to be strong with my horse” syndrome (which is how so many natural horsemanship beginners get hurt.) I am amazed at some riders who employ a truly minuscule amount of strength and wonder why their horse proceeds blithely along totally oblivious to them.
That old “as little as possible but as much as necessary” line pertains. Sometimes if nothing is happening, “as much as is necessary” is more than they can conceive of! Working riders understand this, but if your book learning exceeds your practical experience (and the above situation describes you), it may be time to think things over and re-calibrate.
SF: It sounds like you’re advocating strong riding…
BILL: Not hardly! I’m advocating effective and appropriate riding and the goal of using small aids to get all the effect you want. Strength when used should be brief and immediately followed by reward, but I’m talking about people who use cotton candy aids that the horse politely smirks at.
SF: Any other ways these riders distress you?
BILL: Distress is too strong a word. More like “bemuse.” We have all heard phrases like “Why did my horse do that?” or its corollary, “I didn’t tell him to do that!”
Some riders are okay with the physical part of riding— they know the buttons—but they haven’t learned to psychologize yet. To “think like a horse” is beyond them. An experienced rider when faced with her horse’s inattention or distraction adjusts her aids and simply goes on. A novice hasn’t figured out that horses are horses and gets waylaid by the incident even if it’s a very small one. They have to learn a popped shoulder, a sideways glance, even a bounce or a buck or a mild shy shouldn’t be worth their time of day!
Along similar lines getting into their horse’s head will let them tailor their schooling to the best long-term outcome.
SF: For instance?
BILL: Well, repetitions are extremely useful. When teaching some movements even a little bit of anticipation can help. But be careful! Too much rote drilling and you will have taught your horse behaviors that pop up when you don’t want them and are hard to extinguish!. Having your horse be honestly on the aids and waiting for your advice is far, far different from teaching him to learn his test!
To be continued (by and by)
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