She’s got everything she neeeds. She’s an artist. She don’t look back.

(“Wherever you guys are, you’re still free to do that!”)

My last post spoke in general terms about abuse, a topic which reared its head big time in the last week or two when an unfortunately dreadful dressage ride was posted on Facebook. The firestorm which erupted elicited a counter storm of cyber bullying accusations. Along the way almost everyone but the Deep State was singled out as culpable in permitting such a travesty to take place.

Frequently voiced was the comment: “The judges should have stopped the test!” So should we have? Could we have? And what are judges thinking when we see this kind of thing before us in the arena?
First of all, despite what you may hear from a very vocal minority, judges DO care about preserving the honorable relationship we profess to have with our horses and the adherence to the themes laid out in the FEI’s Object and General Principles. It is true that the power/strength/lightness/harmony pendulum has swung back-and-forth over the years. The FEI is not a monolith. It is composed of delegates from many countries with varying agendas and philosophical leanings. Over the years judges and trainers of conscience have redirected the organization when it has strayed off course in any particular direction.
Judges must operate within the structure of the rules. We judge what we see in the arena. That is all. We don’t alter our scores based on rumor or innuendo or even on some unpleasant action which we observed last Tuesday as we drove past a competitor’s home arena.
Ours is not the only sport which has trouble coming up with accurate definitions. Even with the aid of video replay, the NFL is constantly plagued by relatively benign but passionate “Was It a Catch?” controversies.
Since we can’t be in the warm-up ring, does that leave the ring steward to be the arbiter of acceptable behavior there? That is sort of how it works after all. If they see something bad, they are told to call the technical delegate. But if we give them more power like the ability to issue warnings or disqualifications, who trains them? And what do we tell them? And unless it’s a big-time CDI, who pays them?

As for behavior in the arena, there are a few things which honestly draw our ire—any display of violence, particularly a rider who loses his temper and takes his frustrations out on his horse. We may cringe if a rider sits badly or confuses or worries his horse. We will remark on it. We will give an insufficient score especially in the rider box. And in some extreme cases through official channels we may request a formal audience with the rider. Depending on the outcome we may issue a yellow card or a charge. These are extreme measures.
In all honesty rides which require this sort of reaction are relatively few. I’m not sure which golden age the naysayers refer to, but by and large the dressage we see now is better than what we saw 25 years ago and immensely better than what was the norm 50 years ago. That’s the truth. And there are many knowledgeable participants and trainers who aren’t relying on gimmicks. There are many, many talented and athletic horses in the show ring. If there’s one thing which I lament, it’s how expensive they are!

To the recent swirl of negativity, let’s start here. It’s probably not reasonable to expect that competitive dressage will embody all the qualities of the classical art which was practiced by a handful of the greatest masters in past generations. Wherever you guys are, you’re still free to do that!
Meanwhile, if you accept the premise that competition itself is not intrinsically evil (and not everyone would agree to that), then the sport must be constructed in a way that is judge-able. The roots of modern dressage are in the cavalry schools of the 19th century tinged with a strong Germanic influence. Precision, symmetry, and other measurable attributes are basic to what is demanded. Dressage as Sport is already so subjective that making it even more freeform would make the results entirely unfathomable. Toss in the complications of making the training transferable from one distant venue to the next plus all the psychological adjustments to which horses must accommodate outside the arena itself, and you end up requiring a different kind of obedience than what the classical masters were creating.
With that as a given, I say let the artists practice their art, and let the conventional dressage community define and refine our goals and methods to suit the realities of the 21st century. That, by no means, condones mechanical performances or tension or restraint. We can still reward an airy, joyful, harmonious picture. And real abuse must not be tolerated. But as my last post indicated, that term itself is subject to many interpretations. As I read over the torrent of scathing remarks on-line excoriating the ugly ride which started all this, I half-wondered if the criticism would have been far less harsh had it not been directed at someone who could afford such a nice horse. Just a thought.