Friday, July 31, 2009

The End and The Means

My recent dressage lesson video prompted some interesting comments. Many thanks to those who take the time to write in. I read every comment, even if I don't always have the time to respond.

I wanted to write up my thoughts about how I train my horse in the discipline of dressage. I should note that these are my opinions and thoughts and I do not actually have the skills or body control to ride as perfectly as I would like. Furthermore, I realize that much of what I believe is currently unpopular with the competitive dressage set. But there are some principles that echo throughout all my training. Despite my best efforts to confuse and befuddle, Brego very much is the product of my training. The happiness in his work and his willingness are cultivated very carefully. I cannot take credit for his talent, but I can take credit for his everyday work ethic and his progress through the exercises.

It is no secret that I fancy training methods that improve the movement and gait of my particular type of horse. I ride a horse that has a natural carriage very much on his forehand. I am not so lucky to buy a horse that was born half trained with an uphill, floaty trot. But that does not mean we are doomed to plod around on the forehand. I have done extensive reading, watching of videos, and, dare I say, experimentation on my own forgiving horse to see what works best for him to help him carry himself.

A horse Brego's size, when asked to do the heavy work of dressage or jumping, should be encouraged to unweight the front end, to free his shoulder and allow maximum shock absorbency on his front legs. His obviously powerful hind end should be slowly and carefully built up to carry more of his weight in balance, to give him more power through his back, and increase his agility. To be light and nimble, he must have his weight back.

To this end, I have been most successful in practicing principles esposed by the "classical masters" of dressage, namely Baucher, La Guérinière, Oliveira as translated and executed by Phillippe Karl. I find his teaching style very approachable and his examples clearly illustrate some of the physiological issues about how and why horses move through their gaits.

I ride Brego in plain nose cavesons, loose enough for him to graze in his bridle. I use french-link or double-jointed snaffles for everything but cross-country or foxhunting. I will not use a flash, crank, or figure-eight nose band. My goal is to make Brego's mouth comfortable and relaxed in his work and if he is gaping, gnashing or lolling his tongue, then it is a training issue for this particular horse (knowing he does not have a physical condition) I must correct, not mask through equipment.

I do not punish anticipation. I have heard in many dressage circles that the horse must not anticipate the next movement. If I am schooling simple changes on a figure eight and Brego anticipates the change in bend in the middle and perhaps changes early or lightens in the bridle in anticipation of the transition, to me it is because he is mentally engaged. He is thinking about the problem, the intent of the exercise, and he is showing initiative and a willingness to please. Good!!! Brego is not a robot, and especially while hunting or cross country, I want him a thinking, eager equal. I need him to be there helping to keep us safe.

I do not school perfect 20 m circles. I introduce lateral questions early and often. Why is a shoulder in a 3rd level move??? It is critical to strengthening the inside hind and moving the shoulders. How can you achieve straightness, one of the most critical dressage tenants, while trotting 20 m circles without lateral exercises? Perhaps Brego is just not that talented of a horse, but until I taught shoulders- and haunches-in, there was no hope for straightness. He has strengthened through the lateral work and with his strength, comes his ability to move straight. Does he do the lateral movements to perfection? No, but rebalancing and strengthening is still gained through the attempt.

I do not keep my hands low and fixed. I agree greatly with Phillipe Karl's write up on the critical roll of the hands to communicate and encourage the correct weighting and bend. Modern dressage confuses the end with the means. Yes, a schooled horse should be presented (FEI level) with a fixed and low hand showing his or her understanding of the questions, self carriage, and light response to aids. Keeping my hands fixed and driving Brego into them would not invite any suppleness through the poll or the throat, instead he would learn to lean on them, a weight I am unprepared to carry.

In the same vein, I do not drive with my seat. I do not pump. The ultimate goal is to lighten Brego's front end. Driving with the seat is riding "down" not riding "up". A nicely balanced horse is a "nice place to sit" with a gait and cadence that "carries" you. The rider should not be compelled to push the seatbones down and forward, which invites the horse to hollow the back to evade. Certainly, it does not raise the back to carry you. I have been guilty, once or twice, of fixing my hands, leaning back, and driving with my seat and the response was immediate and drastic. He rounded his neck and went immediately behind the bit, dropping his back. In shame, I must admit that I did the move almost as a punishment, a "Hey, listen to me!" move when he was blowing off my aids. Paul Belasik describes using his seat as a weapon until the poor horse he was riding reared in protest and collapsed in an exhausted heap on the ground. That is not to say that one should not have a following seat, but a driving seat pushes a horse and does not lighten a horse.

I strive always to lighten my horse which is why I do not increase leg pressure, I train him to respond to less and less pressure. I also do not school in spurs. I will wear nubbin spurs at shows to get a little extra attention from him, but I do not school in them. People use them with great success, but I personally do not have the leg control to not deaden my horse to the aid with them. I realize this about myself and so I make the choice appropriately. In fact, the last few months, we've worked almost exclusively on lightening the aids, until at the last lesson, I squeezed lightly and he bounded into a trot, or rolled into a canter departure. This is the ultimate goal. Riding a well schooled horse should take very few muscles. :)

Finally, I do not force a head set. I don't use draw reins. I don't see-saw on my horse's mouth to get him to tuck his nose. I ask for softening, I ask for a mobile jaw, and I release. I ask for him to push from behind and he carries himself.

I am not a particularly talented rider and I am certainly not a dressage expert. I am a training-level rider on a training-level draft horse so everything said herein should be evaluated with a healthy dose of skepticism. But I start with the premise of "do no harm" and everything I do is geared towards the longevity of my mount. A light, responsive, happy horse is a good mount. It's worth taking the time to get him there.

Luckily, I have found a talented dressage trainer who agrees with my principles and is happy to guide me on my path. Measure progress, not perfection.


Alex said...

In competition, the free walk to medium or working walk always baffles me too- I think you are right about letting a horse "anticipate" (or play a more active role in the activity!) and when people are punished in their tests for breaking or jigging it bothers me. I think some of the times its anticipate... but regardless of why it happens it is tough for me to punish my mount by bringing him back as i want to foster an understanding that I pick up the reins and you (horse) come forward from behind and meet me in the bridle. I find this a very important and difficult lesson and we ask our very beginner dressage riders to tackle it?! When i see this ridden in an intro or training level test and see riders punished for "jigging" or breaking into the trot I always shudder- Its a double edge sword, I want to ride the test accuratly and correctly, but I also don't want to punish my horse for wanting to go forward into contact.

Andrea said...

As a kid back in Michigan, I was taught to do dressage as thus: set your hands on your saddle with the reins very taut, and press down hard so they can't move, then kick like hell. The horse puts its head down and voila! Dressage. Right? Right....

It took me some time to figure out everything that was wrong with that, and much longer to correct my locked and low hands and arms and rounded, slumpy shoulders. This is very much the type of dressage we often see in eventing - force the head down and get through this stupid dressage stuff so we can go XC. Thankfully, the trend is shifting so that you can't ever win if you actually work like this. It makes folk actually stop and think about what they're doing, and about how there must be a better way.

I am very fortunate to have a very unforgiving horse. She doesn't take my crap and quite frankly, if I ever seesawed or used draw reins or cranked her in, I am quite certain I would end up flipping her over. Her rearing history just doesn't allow for it. She gives me that magic moment of seeking the contact lightly on her own, and the work just isn't quality until she does that. I love it... that's what makes dressage so addicting, that moment.

We are right proper dressage riders because while we may or may not have the ability to go train a horse to Grand Prix, and we will always make mistakes, we are sympathetic to our horses' needs and love to do this because it's fun for us and for our horses, and it's always a self-discipline challenge. There is always, always something to improve upon in ourselves, which in turn improves our horses. I love watching Brego do dressage and I see a very happy guy doing something he really seems to enjoy. That's what it's all about.

HorseOfCourse said...

I believe your principles are both sound and based on correct dressage riding, and that you are doing a good job!

Correct dressage work is a matter of building strength through patient work over time. Working as a physiotherapist on your horse, strengthening him where he is weak and softening him where he is stiff. No horse is identical.
And having fun with your horse while doing it, working together with him, building a partnership.
Of course you shouldn't punish if your horse anticipates. He is doing his best to show you what he believes you want from him, and to cooperate with you. He's being a good boy. I would just calmly ask again, doublecheck that I am giving him the right cues and reward the right response.

I get a bit sad when I read comments that (implicit) equals competitive dressage riding with bad training methods, being an active dressage rider myself.
I believe that the principles and rules are correct and sound, and that a clear majority of dressage riders also trains and competes according to "classical" principles.
Unfortunately a few, greedy individuals don't. (Sadly you have them in all equestrian sports.) I also believe it is important to have a (loud) debate about what is acceptable or not to achieve a change, and to keep the road clear from abusive training methods and incorrect use of pharmaceuticals. As long as those who are striving to do their best (by being fair to their horse and by training according to classical principles) are not bundled up with the bad guys.

Long, ranting post - sorry for that! I feel that your post today was a bit on the defensive side, and I hope my comment on your post wasn't the reason for that?
Dressage is fun. Sharing dressage is double fun! Yes, I am a nerd. Totally. But no expert. And I have lots of fun together with my horse - as I believe you have with Brego!

I believe you are lucky to have found a good trainer. Hold on to her. And enjoy your partner!

And if you feel an uncontrollable surge to discuss dressage at any point with a fellow rider, please drop by, I'd love a chat :)

Wiola said...

This is why I like reading your blog so much - because you do what is good for your horse. I don't think there is one rigid system that suits all. But totally agree with 'do no harm' first and foremost.

I think every aid has its place and time, whether it's a part of driving seat, following seat or slowing down(resisting) seat. Personally I love the way Charles De Kunffy puts it in his books.

I make lots of mistakes and am guilty of overdoing and under doing many a time. I am hoping that one day I will get it to some decent level.

The two most profound thing I have ever read on riding are:
1) The art ends where violence begins
2) It's not you feeling the horse [what really matters], it's you feeling the horse feel you back


Anonymous said...

Loved your post - you are so right - the classical dressage principles (not what passes for dressage in some circles these days) lead to a balanced, engaged and happy horse who does what you ask (as softly as possible) willingly, not because he is forced to do it. Some people are too impatient to do it correctly, and don't really care about the well-being of the horse and what the horse thinks of what they are doing - they are the ones that end up with mechanical, unhappy horses who don't do the movements correctly.

You are on the correct path - keep up the good work!

manymisadventures said...

I very much agree with you and Andrea.

It's not about forcing the look, or forcing anything really. Half the time I feel like I'm stumbling around in the dark, but we have moments of insight, and I hang on to them.

I enjoy reading about riders who approach dressage in such a thoughtful, caring way.

SoraSoul said...

YAY! This is why I love reading this blog so much! That was IMHO an extremely thoughtful and well composed post. I am currently training my own Arabian filly from the ground up with the idea that eventually she will be my Dressage horse and I refuse to do so much of what is "popular" right now. I see eye to eye with you on several points and I learned something too. Thank you so much for such a wonderful blog. I'm waiting with baited breath for your next entry :~)

Muriel said...

Thanks so much for such refreshing view on Dressage. I used to love Dressage but after the rolkhur, and the general corruption high level Dressage, I have quitted and turn to reining (O_o). At least reiners do not pretend to be "the Masters of horse-riding".

I would love hear more about your work ethic for Brego. How do you keep him engaged and willing? Especially for a Draft horse !!!

Anonymous said...

Just beautiful. You and Brego are our role models. We are far both far behind, but I agree with every word.

I once asked how did you know your horse could jump? Last ride I wondering how long it took before you knew your horse could dance? What were some of the early efforts and lessons to get him off the forehand? Thanks for giving us some insight.

Anonymous said...

All so good and intelligent. Want to offer a very quick BRAVO for eschewing flash/drop/figure 8 nosebands (Why are people so quick to slap these on their horses? To me they scream, "Otherwise he'd be going with his mouth wide open, protesting my lousy hands and rough bit." And also draw reins. Such a bane. Such fakery.

Jayne Austen-Healey said...

I have been thrilled to watch your development in dressage. What you have done for yourself and for your horse in such a brief period of time has been both outstanding and inspiring. I remember your first few rides while still in Texas and how you took a step back and STUDIED! You are, and will continue to reap your rewards through your implementation of light, correct aids.

Laura said...

Great post! I find it very refreshing to hear of riders (in any discpline) that take the time to develop the horse. So many people use harsh or artificial means to train, with the goal of going up levels more quickly. Very little thought is put into the limitations/inexperience (in my case) of horse or rider.

I am the owner of an older, very forgiving horse. He came from a barn where his 12 yr old rider demonstrated his "frame" for me. She proceeded to see-saw the reins and yank his head. I watched as he pinned his ears and hollowed his back as he tried to comply with what she was asking...

I've owned him for a year and we are still working on undoing alot of his previous training. Luckily my instructor has a similar approach to what you wrote, so my horse and I are both learning and are slowly improving.

Daun said...

Thanks all for your kind words. I am sorry if I came off defensive or worked up, but I often get comments, behind the scenes, that are intended to be helpful, but I feel would ultimately be hurtful.

After going through trainer after trainer, I learned I had to think for myself to protect Brego. Not to say I know it all, but that I need to trust my instincts on what is appropriate for my particular horse.

At the first dressage show of the year, this horse was in my training division (you may need to enter your email, but they don't spam). This picture makes me so sad. And it doesn't do justice to how it *felt* to watch the horse. Blank. The neck is so overbent, the stride is so stifled, the padded crank noseband is so tight.

Here is Brego from the same day. Look at that incorrect bend, look at my dropped inside shoulder, but look at that happy, bright, engaged horse! He's so awesome, I obviously can't take my eyes off him. ;)

So I apologize when I lump competitive dressage in to the "baddies". There are some very good judges, trainers, and riders out there who won't tolerate riding like the first horse I linked to. But I see way to many that do. If I was riding/training that horse, I would not bring it out for presentation until the foundation had been rebuilt.