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In Response to a Eurodressage Article March 18, 2014

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, competition, dressage, performance standards, rules, training.
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This is a post written in response to the Eurodressage article:


The basic points of this article are:

1. To do dressage correctly the horse must be up in front, have a raised, swinging back, be engaged, through, elastic, and in self carriage. Each of these qualities is related to the others and all are necessary to have any.

2. Determining the qualities listed in point 1, is a subjective process “ and needs to be experienced and felt to understand and see” except for the nose and poll position as it “… can be judged easily, as it is technically well defined! The nose must be in front and the poll at the highest point.”

3. Judging is a matter of first subjectively deciding the qualities listed and then, based on that subjective decision, deciding whether the horse is doing dressage correctly or “doing dressage correctly in an incorrect way” – performing tricks (circus).

Point One

Point one is well taken as top horses do need to display these qualities. So there is no argument here.

Point two A- Judging is Subjective

Point two, that judging is mostly subjective is mostly nonsense – having experienced and felt a horse going correctly does improve the eye, but to determine correct basics one need not look past the basics.

If you want to know if a horse is over his back, swinging, through, engaged, and correctly balanced (light in front) look to his transitions, tempo and bend. For a horse to perform smooth transitions within a single stride he must have a raised, elastic back, be engaged, balanced and reaching forward into accepting contact. There is no other way this can happen. You cannot fake a correct transition or do it “as a trick.”

If you want to know if a horse is correctly balanced, engaged, elastic through his back, and accepting the bit correctly look to his tempo. A horse must be engaged, elastic in his back and balanced to maintain even tempo through transitions and movements. A horse who can perform an extended gait in the same tempo as the collected must be correct it cannot be faked and it cannot be done as a trick.

If you want to know if a horse is supple in his back, carrying himself and reaching into an elastic contact check if he maintaining tempo and bending appropriately. Correct bending in tempo cannot be done as a trick, it cannot not be faked. If a horse fails to bend when he should or changes tempo when he does, there is some flaw in his basics and stiffness in his body.

So the statement a horse can “perform the test correctly, but in an incorrect way” is nonsense. Only someone so confused about the very nature of dressage, it’s very core principles could say such a thing. A correct test cannot be performed in an incorrect way. The old sully “a circus horse doing tricks” has been used by lessor trainers against their superiors for centuries. If you want to know if a horse is doing tricks or has correct basics, you need look no further than the basics – the transitions, tempo, rhythm and bend. If you want to know if a speaker understands dressage or is a trickster himself, look to see if he can explain the basics, the essential elements of dressage, in simple clear words and concepts.

Point 2b – poll nose position

The article expresses the idea that the nose and poll position“… can be judged easily, as it is technically well defined! The nose must be in front and the poll at the highest point.” This is wrong headed and amateurish.

There is a range of positions in which the poll as highest point with the nose in front are correct, not just one. For instance the classical Ramner is correct in some schools, in others the more horizontal vision of poll/nose position considered correct. Obviously everything is between fits these criteria as well. There are also many situations in which poll up/nose forward is quite incorrect – the American Saddle Bred going in park seat is an obvious example.

Furthermore, while the article claims the rule is objective and “technically well defined” the fact is the Rule for poll/nose position deliberately leaves room for exceptions — this is why it says is “as a rule” the poll is “more or less” at the highest point and the nose in front of the vertical.

And lets not forget that the easiest element in all of dressage to do as a “trick” or “to do correctly in an incorrect way” is to put the horses head and neck in the “correct” frame. So rather than the poll/nose being a useful indication of whether the rest of the qualities and movement are correct, the quality of the rest of the movement must tell you whether the poll/nose position is correct for that horse and if was obtained in the right way.

Point 2c – lightness

The article asks, “Is it not better to have a horse going in lightness and make a couple of mistakes; which is what the judges at London said about Valegro’s test at the Olympics.” I think the judges got it exactly backwards. It should be if there really were only a couple of mistakes in the entire test, the horse was “light enough” — for that horse.

So in judging tests, and judging judges, we really need to look at the elements of dressage that really are objective and “well defined” – the basics of transitions, tempo and bend. If the horse can keep these throughout while performing a correct test, he has to be over his back, engaged, through, light, accepting the bit, and performing effortlessly. You can’t fake the basics, they can’t be done as a trick, and you can’t do them correctly for incorrect reasons.

Since the article mentions what the judges said about Valegro and “only a couple of mistakes” there are by objective criteria more then just a “couple of mistakes.”

For instance, Article 418 states in part,

“…The hands should be carried steadily close together, with the thumb as the highest point and a straight line from the supple elbow through the hand to the Horse’s mouth. The elbows should be close to the body. All of these criteria enable the Athlete to follow the movements of the Horse smoothly and freely.”

Yet throughout the test we see a straight line from bit to shoulder with the elbows far in front of the body. That’s objectively wrong and should have been marked down, as well as been treated as a red flag that something is amiss.

Transitions are “technically well defined!” in Article 407.

The changes of pace and variations within the paces should be exactly performed at the prescribed marker. The cadence (except in walk) should be maintained up to the moment when the pace or movement is changed or the Horse halts. The transitions within the paces must be clearly defined while maintaining the same rhythm and cadence throughout. The Horse should remain light in hand, calm, and maintain a correct position. The same applies to transitions from one (1) movement to another, for instance from passage to piaffe or vice versa.

This is the rule, yet Valegro gradually picks up speed (over many strides) at the beginning of every extension and gradually slows down as he returns to collection. So all of his transitions into and out of extended trot and canter should have been marked down (even though they were quite flashy) and the judges should have looked at them as a definite red flag that some basic or basics are lacking.

How the horse should bend is defined in Article 409 – Changes of Directions:

1. At changes of direction, the Horse should adjust the bend of his body to the curvature of the line it follows, remaining supple and following the indications of the Athlete, without any resistance or change of pace, rhythm or speed.

Yet Valegro never bends through corners – he leans through them. When he does bend for lateral work, he picks up speed. Yes his head and neck are in the correct place, but these other, better defined, basics indicate all that glitters is not gold – or shouldn’t be.

Yes I’m nitpicking, and yes Valegro is a fantastic horse that does a great test. My concern is not about him – it’s about Judges saying it’s OK to look to the subjective (is the horse over his back? Is his head in the “right place?”) first to decide if the horse is correct for the “right” reasons. Doing that is assigning marks for all the wrong reasons.

If the top dressage horses in the world are selected by the quality of their breeding instead of the absolute correctness of their basic training – transitions, tempo and bending, then dressage will be done incorrectly and nobody will be there to notice.



Culture War in Training July 10, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in Behind the bit, calmness, competition, contact, dressage, looseness, roll kur, training.

Many are confused and concerned about the way they see horses go in schooling and warm-up arenas.  This is due to the culture war between the German “forward, straight, poll up” school of dressage, and the Dutch “tempo, flexibility, and back up” school.  Both schools agree that the ideal finished horse should be forward, straight, with the poll at the highest point.   So the argument is really over how to get there.

The German “practice like you play” school puts the emphasis on “forward, straight, poll up and open” at all times.  To my eye, that system results in a certain “look” – part shape, part conditioning that shows how well or not the system has been adhered to.  The best horses from back than looked a lot like this horse ridden by Herbert Rehbein.

Now Herbert was a wonderful horseman and this was a wonderful test for the time.  The thing is, it isn’t very good by todays standards.   Yes, the poll is always up, but the horse is not very elastic, supple or flexible by todays standards.  You can see that at most there is very little bend through his body – not enough to match the corners or voltes he is on. As a result the horse gets a little quick going through the corners and he loses the quarters at the end of the voltes.  The horse lacks elasticity as seen in the downward transitions from the extended canter where the horse slows himself down by braking against the ground.

Before moving on, let me be clear that I’m not attacking Rehbien or looking down my nose at this test.  I think it’s a good representation of the type of horse you get using the “always forward, straight, up and open” school of training.  What I’m seeing now as wrong with this horse can be seen in all the top German horses of that period – and frankly all the top competition horses from then were either German outright or a product of the German school.

By way of contrast – of the training schools – not the individuals, I like this video. The rider is a professional but not internationally known.  She’s on a very good horse, but not an international horse.  However, the benefits of training with the emphasis on “tempo, flexibility,  and back up” are clearly visible in this horse.

When this horse lengthens, his frame gets a hair longer and his tempo a hair slower as he clearly changes his stride length.  By contrast the Rehbein horse gets a hair faster in the extensions.  This horse goes forward in the transitions back to collected gaits, the Rehbien horse braces his front feet against ground to slow down.

This horse clearly has more lateral bend in the voltes and half-pass.  So, he stays “on track” coming out of the volte going into the HP – while the Rehbein horse throws his quarters out noticeably and loses rhythm.

The list of things this horse does better, more correctly, goes on but I’m not trying to say just that this horse is more suited to the task (he is) or that one rider is better than another.  The point is that training with the emphasis on tempo rather than forward, suppleness and flexibility rather than straightness, and keeping the back up rather than worrying about the poll, is generally a better system that generally makes better horses.  It’s time to just accept this and move on.


Training Indeed -3/14/2012 April 3, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, contact, corrections, dressage, hyperflexion, looseness, Riding.
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Whoops – I forgot to put this up on the blog.  This schooling tape is from mid march- the changes are getting straighter, the trot stronger and more consistent, and I’m keeping my right elbow quieter. There’s a good correction coming down the long side where I raise “and GIVE” my hands to stop him when he starts getting against me and quick.



On a students horse January 6, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, contact, corrections, dressage, looseness, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.

A while back a student videoed me schooling her horse in a lesson.  It’s a pretty good example of taking your time, working slowly and helping the horse to understand what you want.  Share your comments…


Poor Toti.. August 22, 2011

Posted by mikeschaffer in Behind the bit, competition, contact, dressage.

I look at him riding this horse and want to yell through the screen, “LET GO of his mouth Mathius!”


2010 in review January 2, 2011

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, dressage, looseness, Riding, roll kur.
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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2010. That’s about 26 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 24 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 38 posts. There were 14 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 266kb. That’s about a picture per month.

The busiest day of the year was February 5th with 299 views. The most popular post that day was Hyperflexion/Rollkur/Blue tongue, Insanity!.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were mikeschaffer.com, britishdressage.co.uk, facebook.com, saddle-up.org, and dressagerider.wordpress.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for hyperflexion, dressage training pyramid, rollkur blue tongue, in_the_moment_dressage, and mike schaffer dressage.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Hyperflexion/Rollkur/Blue tongue, Insanity! December 2009


The Anky Clinic Discussing LDR February 2010


The Myth of the Independent Dressage Seat December 2008


LDR Long Deep and Round, May 2010


The Rollkur Cure February 2010

Gerd’s Demise? August 4, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, contact, corrections, dressage, hyperflexion, looseness, Riding, roll kur.

It seems Gerd Heuschmann, Author of Tug of War and, until now, the titular head of the anti-rollkur movement writes better than he rides. The sad fact is he’s pretty awful from all reports. I have seen a short clip of him on You Tube (seems to be missing now) and I thought he looked pretty amateurish. The latest is that he’s been riding in his clinics so badly that he has been kicked out of the xenophon group, and has lost his standing with the German National Federation and the F.E.I.

Here’s the link to an article in a German magazine explaining the problems – it’s in German and I had to rely on the Google translator to see what was said (it seemed to do a good albeit not perfect job.)


I’m not sure yet what I think about all of this…

I do have some observations about just these pictures related to the article


I’m not offended at all by the first two pictures from 16:48 ad 16:49. He seems to be using his aids adequately to ask the horse to release and by the picture at 16:50:27 it looks like he has succeeded – as far as the horse goes. The horse is definitely better in that moment but he is awful. By leaning forward and dropping his hands he hasn’t given the horse a hand to go do or out himself in a position to influence the horse with his body.

However by 16:51 he’s sitting down, his hands are appropriate for this horse and the horse is reaching nicely into them.

By 16:52 he’s back in that silly half-seat so when he asks the horse to go back to trot the horse is lost and starts to go off on his own.

Now Gerd is in a bad half seat so his only tools are his hands which are no effective in his position so the horse rightfully sets out to sort this out on his own. From there things start to spiral downwards rapidly and Gerd is going from too weak and out of balance to too strong. Next it appears he has to use the wall to get the horse to stop – while still using strong backwards pull on the bars of the horse’s mouth. That’s a major no-no in my book.

Still he seems to have gotten things back on track by 16:56:57 but then, instead of just sitting quietly and allowing the horse to figure out the correct balance he’s leaning forward and starting the too free too tight cycle over again.

LDR and Article 401.6 May 17, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, competition, contact, dressage, hyperflexion, looseness, performance standards, roll kur, rules, training.

Let’s clear something up straight away. If the only thing you needed to know about Article 401 was that the head should be slightly in front of the vertical, with the poll as the highest point, dressage would look like this:

high poll

Any questions? No? Good.

That fact is, the idea that the poll has to be the highest point is not even a rule – it’s an “indicator” and the least important of many.

The “rule”  of Article 401 is found in it’s first sentence,

1. The object of Dressage is the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse.

. Once we know the object is to develop the horse, it says what happens when you do it right.

As a result it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider.

And the rest of the article just describes “indicators” of a horse that is calm, supple, loose, and flexible, etc .

Let’s be clear about this too, you do NOT BEGIN with all of these qualities in place. If you did, you would not have to train horses at all. Just teach people to ride and every horse would be an Olympian.

So when you read 401.6

6. In all his work, even at the halt, the horse must be “on the bit”.

It is talking about a horse that is already trained and “in his work.”

Now, Is a horse “in his work” when you ride him from the stable out to the warm-up area? Is he “in his work” if you’re walking him around the warm-up area before you begin to warm up? Is he “in his work” if you’re trotting around warming him up, before you “pick him up and put him to work?”

Even when clearly “in his work” this is still not an ironclad indicator of anything.

“A horse is said to be “on the bit” when the neck is more or less raised and arched according to the stage of training and the extension or collection of the pace,…”

There are an awful lot of modifiers in this statement. “When the neck is more or less raised and arched according to the stage of training and the … pace.” This does not read like a rigid standard to me.

And there is yet another modifier –

The head should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the vertical, with a supple poll as the highest point of the neck

The idiomatic expression “as a rule” means “generally”, “usually” or “typically.”

So, a correct reading of 401.6 in context is:

The object of dressage is the harmonious development of the horse. When you do it correctly, your horse will develop wonderful qualities. There are many indicators that these qualities are being or have been developed. One of these indicators is that the neck will be more or less raised and arched according to the stage of training and what he is doing at the moment. This usually, generally, or typically (but not necessarily always) results in the poll being at the highest point with the face slightly in front of the vertical.

So the poll being at the highest point with the face in front of the vertical is hardly a hard and fast gold standard by which one can determine what is “classical” dressage. In fact, it is often the antithesis of such a standard. (see picture above!)

Remember the object of dressage is the harmonious development of the horse. So the narrow question is, how do you develop a horse that carries his head with the poll up and the face in front of the vertical. I know of only two approaches. The first is to hold the horse’s head up with your hands, and then chase him around in the hope that he’ll loosen his back, engage, and re-balance. I’ve never had any luck at all with this approach, but I’m not that good a rider.

The other approach, is to teach the horse to stretch his head and neck out and down, releasing his back, which allows the horse to strengthen and then engage his quarters, which take on more weight, which lightens the forehand. Then the horse will elevate his head and neck as he needs to in order to accommodate the new balance. This way does take a long time – sometimes years. But even a clumsy rider like I am can do it.,

LDR Long Deep and Round, May 14, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in Behind the bit, calmness, competition, contact, corrections, dressage, hyperflexion, looseness, performance standards, roll kur, rules, training.

The FEI gets it a little right (and a lot wrong…)

First of all, the General remarks from the 4/15/2010 report are good.  They state the obvious.

1. Basic elements of the guidelines:

a.  The welfare of the horse is paramount
b.  Respect for the horse according to the FEI rules and the Stewards Manual
c.  The responsibility for the Welfare of the Horse rests with the athlete (p.r.)

2. What should be avoided?

Abuse of the horse in general, but especially:
a.  stressing the horse
b.  aggressive riding
c.  inflicting pain and/or discomfort on  the horse

So far, so good.  They should have stopped there.  However, on May 10, 2010 the stewards issued their report on “Pre and Post Competition training techniques – position of the horse’s head.”

The best thing about this is that they’ve figured out stretching is is GOOD for the horse.  They even officially labeled Long, Deep and Round, Low Deep and Round, and Long and Low as “acceptable forms of stretching.  It’s also very good and useful that they separated “stretching” from “extreme flexion” in paragraph 3.

Unfortunately, they confuse stretching and flexing in the rest of the document.  Apparently they still don’t understand the difference between a horse that is BTV (behind the vertical) because he is stretching with a supple poll, vs. a horse that is BTV because he is being pulled in a backwards fashion.  As result, they’ve really made a muddle of the “regulations” by applying rules to stretching and extreme flexing equally.

So, let me begin with objective standards by which an ordinary observer can tell whether a horse is being correctly “stretched” with forward going aids,  or being pulled backwards into an incorrect “flexion” with backwards aids.  These objective standards are:

1. The riders hands are higher than the horse’s mouth and the curb rein is relaxed.  It is possible to pull and hold a horse into a tight flexion with a high hands using the curb rein, but since a tight curb rein is inconsistent with a horse stretching into a frame, that is easy enough for an observer to see.

2.  The rider drops the inside rein from time to time.  A horse that is stretching into a frame, will stay there with a loose inside rein.  A horse being pulled into a forced flexion, will not stay in that frame if one rein or the other is released.  Again, this is easy enough to observe.

3.  The “poll angle” is correct.  The poll angle is correct if the front of the horse’s face will be at or in front of the vertical as the poll elevates to the highest point.  I’ve used my super human photoshop powers to show this exact situation in my new book.  The page with these graphics is included in the free sample pages from the book available for download at my web site, http://www.mikeschaffer.com

(Ok – I guess that was a bit of a plug….)

In the absence of these objective standards, the committee consistently made errors that confused stretching with flexing.  For instance, they state,

5.  Method of achieving stretches

It is imperative that stretching should be executed by unforced and non aggressive means.  By unforced’ is meant that the rider is not permitted to use rough, or abrupt aids or apply constant unyielding pressure on the horse’s mouth through a fixed arm and hand position. It is the responsibility of the steward to intervene if these requirements are not respected.

The first problem with this is that it’s impossible to “force” a horse to stretch. So, it should read “… imperative that flexing should be…”   So, right away, the rules are confusing two distinctly different techniques – something that becomes more of a problem in the next paragraphs.

The second problem with this is they’re saying you can’t use “rough of abrupt aids” to achieve stretching.  So, is it OK to be rough and abrupt and pull constantly on the reins when you’re not trying to stretch the horse? (I ask rhetorically)

Actually, there are times when it is absolutely appropriate to use a correction that is a little “rough or abrupt.”  In fact, failing to tell a horse to “knock it off!” in a way that is clear, effective and over with is definitely NOT in the best interests of the horse’s welfare.  But what does that have to do with stretching or flexing?   Should we have a new rule that says you’re not allowed to be rough or abrupt when asking for a half-pass?  Another for shoulder-in?  Another rule that says you shouldn’t get after a horse for bucking and running off across the warm-up area?

But wait – it gets worse.

6.  Action by the Steward in the case of incorrect behaviour of athlete in relation to  flexion of the head and neck

Ref. Annex XII, Guidelines to the FEI Dressage Stewarding Manual

The steward will intervene should he observe;

*  Neck stretching achieved through forced, or aggressive  riding

*  The  use of extreme flexion  if it does not comply with the above

*  A rider deliberately maintaining a sustained fixed head and neck carriage  longer than approximately ten minutes

*  In cases when the horse is in a state of general stress and/or fatigue

You see the problem?  Here they’re saying, albeit as clumsily as possible, that you should neither stretch or flex your horse through force or aggressive riding, nor should you stretch or flex your horse for more than 10 minutes at a time.  Two totally different techniques being treated exactly the same way very much to the detriment of the horse.  I will generally spend the first 15 or 20 minutes “stretching” a horse in the long, deep and round position before ever considering bringing him up or together.  So, I think 10 minutes is arbitrarily and ridiculous – what harm is supposed to come from stretching beyond 10 minutes?

On the other hand, over flexing done for more than 10 seconds is too much.   How is riding a horse bent in half for 10 minutes a good thing?    What are they thinking about?

But wait, it gets worse:

7.  Maximum duration of pre-competition warm-up and post-competition cooldown periods

Only in exceptional circumstances and with the permission of the Chief Steward, may a training session  exceed one hour. The training session must include a number of relaxation periods.
Riding the horse at the walk whether prior to, or following the training session, is not considered to be part of the one hour training session. There should be at least one hour break between any training/warm-up periods.

Let’s put this in perspective.  We’re talking about FEI rules for international competition.  By and large, riders competing at the international level have spent years and years learning their craft, developing their skills, and have a tremendous respect, love, and feel for horses.

If competing at this level, it’s pretty much a given that while at home, working at your leisure in a familiar setting, you can do a credible job of the test your riding in competition.  So the issue when showing is, can you now perform at your best at precisely 3:06 PM (or whatever) in this different setting after going through all the travel etc.  In short, not only is doing the test well an art form, but so is the warm up.

It means being so skilled and knowledgeable about your horse that you can factor weather, his mood, the time of day, the conditions in the warm-up area, and Lord knows how many other details into having him at his performance peak at the precise moment the bell summons you down the centerline.  (You think doing a few flying changes or a little piaffe in your backyard is a big deal – hah!)

Now, a committee, meeting by phone, has determined the only right way for each of these individuals to warm up each of their horses?  That’s amazing!  This group is either the most insightful, knowledgeable and brilliant the world has ever seen or the same bunch that figured out there’s something “wrong” with a horse that reacts to being touched.

Spin this anyway you want, but this rule says it’s fine to work a horse in 98 degree 100% humidity for an hour, but it’s not OK to work a horse in 40 degree windy weather for an hour and 15 minutes.  DUH!!!!

Of course I know that working a horse to heat exhaustion is already a violation of general rules against abuse and promoting the welfare of the horse.  So WHY do we need a time limit at all and what is it doing in an annex pertaining to stretching and flexing?

The real problem is that the FEI has forgotten its job is to provide a level playing field for the best in the world to duke it out and determine who is the best of the best.   That’s it.  Yes, there should be a generic rule that says injurious, cruel or abusive methods are not allowed and participants who engage in that type of “training” will be sanctioned.  But that is all there should be – one rule on abuse.  Not an ever growing number of conflicting poorly written rules written in the hope of preventing the worst among us from doing their thing, but actually preventing the best among us from doing theirs.

Riding in the Moment April 8, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, competition, contact, corrections, dressage, equipment, half-halts, hyperflexion, looseness, Natural Horsemanship, performance standards, Riding, roll kur, rules, training.
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