“Raising (Eyebrows) in Arizona” further thoughts on the 2001 National Symposium, published in regional newsletters in May and June of 2001

I’m looking for a polite way to explain how this April’s USDF National Dressage Symposium was “different.” Having attended every one since the inaugural symposium in 1992 and ten of the eleven National Instructors’ Seminars in the years immediately preceding them, I figure I should be allowed to make comparisons.

Each year my primary duty at the Symposium is to begin the edit process of what becomes the videotaped record of the event. The past few years I’ve also been recruited to write some “nuts and bolts” articles about the Symposium leader’s training theories. In Isabell Werth’s case, this year’s featured speaker, I have dutifully outlined her trademark and controversial “Round and Deep” method of suppling horses. That article will appear in a forthcoming USDF Connection.

Here, though, are some more general observations that I didn’t think belonged in a “house” publication.

The 2001 Scottsdale, AZ, Symposium was organized differently than past ones. Ms. Werth presented no set of goals to be accomplished level by level; no outline of specific skills to be mastered; no set of recipes for performing individual movements. Nor did she seem to address her remarks to the 600 or so people in attendance. Instead, she taught a series of private lessons which we were permitted to observe. In the process, we were able to observe the perspective which one of the world’s most successful competition riders brings to her work and see what she feels is important. It turns out that the great majority of her advice is textbook classical, a surprise given the way her methods are talked about in many circles.

In brief, Ms. Werth’s training priorities are:

  1. Make the horses supple and through. (This is her Round and Deep phase.)
  2. Make them reach to the hand from behind.
  3. Add impulsion.
  4. Shift the horses’ balance towards collection, and whenever they offer resistance, go back to #1 until it dissipates.

Despite her willingness to put the poll much lower than most texts advise, she was absolutely insistent that the horse’s head not be fiddled into place, see-sawed, or hand ridden there. She seemed stridently sincere in this regard, not just mouthing the words for the camera, in counseling:

  1. strong driving aids in a shoulder-fore position to make the horse “say yes” and yield through the poll and jaw;
  2. a very prominent reliance on the inside leg to outside hand connection; and
  3. that the horse be made to reach over the topline TOWARDS the bit, never being ridden from the front to the rear.

She made frequent reference to keeping the horse straight (by the dressage definition) and in lateral balance, never letting him escape through a drifting or popping outside shoulder.

Ms. Werth, it appeared, takes many of her own skills for granted. In training, she always knows as precisely where she is as does an experienced captain on a well charted sea. She also assumes that all the riders are as familiar with every figure, movement, and exercise as she is and that they can click into any of them whenever the horse indicates he is ready to try something new. She would ask for a flying change from a young horse if in that moment the canter was balanced enough, or even from a Second Level horse some piaffe-like steps if the horse offered to shorten and stay in rhythm.

She demonstrated her intuitive feel for how much pressure a given horse could take. And she was quick to scold a rider for exceeding that threshold, especially if their fault lay in unsympathetic or disturbing hands. Whenever a horse displayed insecurity about the rider or in her system, she would go back to her basics, spending many minutes in the walk on a twenty meter circle, reinforcing her previously listed priorities.

What you got from watching and reading between the lines was fascinating, and I think the finished videos will be able to present plenty of useful information which she dispensed. Unfortunately, as a real-time experience, the symposium left much to be desired. Since Ms. Werth’s focus was on her work with each horse, and not on a systematic explication to the audience, we saw the same lesson many times in a row. And never before has a USDF Symposium been led by such an abysmal teacher. A badgering shrieker, she made me want to turn off her mike for long periods of time. She was nearly a caricature of the “If you don’t understand the first time, I’ll repeat it louder, and then LOUDER” school of instruction.

It’s my hope that novice riders in the audience won’t conclude, “Ah ha, so this is how it’s supposed to be done!” Explanation, quantification of demands, putting statements in context, reconciling apparent contradictions, using imagery, staying cool when the rider’s grasp was less than the instructor’s, and even bothering to learn her pupil’s names were among the ideas that eluded Ms. Werth throughout the weekend.

My guess is that she found an unfathomable gulf between her own riding feel and the riding feel of the lesser mortals she was stuck with teaching. She seemed to have an equally great unfamiliarity with the concept of limiting one’s goals based on the horse’s limitations. We might surmise that in her version of reality, the horses she trains don’t have limitations in the conventional sense. Yes, perhaps one’s passage is a little less cadenced or another’s hocks aren’t quite strong enough to support a “9” pirouette every time. But these are not the problems that regular people have — like My Horse Really Doesn’t Want to Do This; or Shouldn’t Be Asked to Do This; or Loses his Cookies When Asked to Do This.

As I said, there were many things to be learned from Ms. Werth, and some riders do need an anti-complacency, get off your butt, re-direction from time to time. And in her defense, she’s a Rider and makes no particular claims about her skill or interest in teaching. While she had no apologies for the watchers for ignoring them, it does point to the difference between those who can ride and train and those who can explain what they’re doing too. Having an Isabell Werth-type figure to lead the Symposium was an interesting experiment, but not likely an experiment that will be repeated anytime soon. Her style left a void, I fear, for many watchers who rightfully would wonder how, when, and where to apply what they saw. The information was good, but as presented, it needed to be accompanied by a warning label like on the TV sportscar ads: “Professional driver on closed course; do not try these stunts at home!”

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