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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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To the Dressage Committee November 19, 2008

Posted by mikeschaffer in competition, dressage, equipment, performance standards, training.
8 comments

Below is the text of a letter I sent to the USEF Dressage Committee with my thoughts regarding the proposed performance standards as revised.  Readers are encouraged to post comments here and to write to the committee which has now invited everyone in America who is interested in Dressage shows to go to Denver and speak their piece Thursday, December 4, from 1:30-2:30 p.m.


November 17, 2008

To the Dressage Committee,

I have the following thoughts regarding the latest version of the performance standards proposal:

First: If this is, as the committee originally stated, about a few riders so horrible the judges can’t bear to watch them, why not make the standard a few marks of 6 or 7 for rider position from appropriate levels?  (Although I did have such marks I’ve long since lost the score sheets so I have no personal motive in this observation).

Second: There are problems with the rider test directives.  For instance, the idea that “contact” should be independent of the seat  is true of hunt seat, but not Dressage.  I’m also concerned that some of the verbiage in the proposal will be misinterpreted and lead to more rider stiffness, not less.   So, I offer the following for consideration:

The function of the position is to allow the rider to move smoothly and easily with the horse while using his hands, seat, and legs in a deliberate and coordinated way.  As a general guide the rider should sit erect in the deepest part of the saddle, his head, shoulders, hips and ankles in a line perpendicular to the ground.  The elbows should fall close to this line so the rein can work with the seat.  The hands should be on or slightly above a line from rider’s elbow to the horse’s mouth, fairly close together with the thumbs at the highest point. The riders legs should be allowed to stretch down into the stirrup and heel  so they remain quiet yet supple.  There should be an overall appearance of sitting quietly without stiffness of any kind

.In the next directive the statement, “The effectiveness of the aids will determine how well the horse can perform the movements in the test.”  is at best only partially true and at odds with the purpose of a “rider” test. The phrase “The horse should show he is in front of the riders aids” is a poor substitute for the concepts of the horse being “on the aids”, “in front of the leg”, or, “moving from the leg into the hand.”   There are far too many horses running about the ring barely within the rider’s grasp already — please do not codify language that would encourage more of it.

Third: Separating the levels between Prix St. Geo. and I-1 doesn’t make much sense since the two tests are so frequently ridden as a pair in competition.  That so many of the  survey respondents didn’t notice this should be reason to wonder about who was responding and why.

Actually, suggesting a different “rider” standard exists between St. Geo. and Grand Prix seems a bit odd.  Is the committee implying a rider doesn’t have to sit as quietly at St. Geo. as at I-1 or Grand Prix?  Has no one noticed this may prevent a capable rider with a marginal horse from going out and getting some experience above St. Geo.?  Have we totally abandoned the idea of the dressage show as an educational experience?

Fourth: If part of the committee’s responsibility is to educate, than the real issue is not that a tiny minority of riders enter the upper levels ill-prepared — it  is  the overwhelming majority of riders who are not being prepared for advancement by the lower levels.  To address this I suggest the  following:

I.  Change the General Impressions at Training and First levels.

Why apply the same coefficient for “impulsion” to a relative beginner on a fairly green horse as an Olympian?   The coefficients and wording of these marks should accurately reflect the stage of the horse in terms of the training pyramid.  By more heavily rewarding relaxation, suppleness, rhythm, rider position, and use of the aids through higher coefficients (much as is suggested in the rider performance test proposal), serious guidance is given to new riders.  Manipulating coefficients and putting the emphasis where it belongs can also take some edge off the problem of the big moving horse that wins at training level even though he isn’t being well ridden or correctly prepared for his future.

II. Institute a“Two Finger Rule”

The “two finger” rule would require the cavesson (and flash if so equipped) on all horses in all USEF  dressage classes (or perhaps just at training and first levels) to be adjusted so the steward can easily slip 2 fingers under it.

This rule doesn’t cost anything and since it affects all riders it is inherently fair.  More importantly, it will teach new riders that a horse properly accepting the contact does not have to have his mouth held artificially closed.  This  will assist young riders in learning to ride their horses forward and out to the frame instead of pulling the horses head  backwards.  Finally, it provides an objective standard in scoring as every movement in which the horse has his mouth pulled open should not be scored more than a “4″.

III. Eliminate Spurs below 2’nd level

If riders can’t get through training and first level tests without spurs they’re doing something very wrong and won’t be able to make progress anyway.  Again, there is no cost involved and it is 100% equitable since it applies to all horses ridden in all dressage classes below 2’nd level.  In conjunction with the above proposals it will tend to guide riders to the feeling of a horse moving freely forward into an accepting hand as opposed to the feeling of jamming a horse forcefully into stiff hand and false artificial frame.

Hopefully  these suggestions will be of some use to the committee in meeting it’s goal of improving the standards of dressage in and out of the show ring.

Yours,

Mike Schaffer

USEF  # 113851

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Hyperventilating Over Hyperflexion September 11, 2008

Posted by mikeschaffer in Behind the bit, competition, dressage, equipment, hyperflexion, roll kur, training.
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30 comments

I recently made some comments about “hyperventilating over hyperflexion” in my   Training Indeed blog:

In reply, Stephanie posted this very considerate, thoughtful message:

Hello Mike,

I enjoyed your Indeed videos. I am confused about your statement referring to “hyperflexion”. Why do you keep Indeed’s head behind vertical?  I have watched many classical trainers and they all keep their horse’s heads in front of the vertical even when long and low.. In all the videos, you never let his walk or trot or canter out and let him have his head, wondering why you do this?  I watched your dressage performance to music and your horse is given full use of his neck and poll is highest point. why do you not train this way too?

Thank you for your time,

Stephani

By the time I wrote the reply, I realized it had become an article good enough to post on it’s own, so I’ve moved it to this forum which is intended to deal with more generic issues of training. That being said, here is my response to the individual questions and points Stephanie raises:

“I am confused about your statement referring to “hyperflexion”.”

I think the confusion comes from the fact the word “hyperflexion” isn’t accurately defined.  So, it has become very common to equate “hyperflexion” with “behind the vertical.”   However, they’re not the same thing.

Let’s begin with defining the elements of actual “hyperflexion”:

1. A condition created by a consistent, stiff,  backwards pull on the reins, which results in;

2.   the horse’s neck being compressed (shortened) which, among other things, pulls the poll down so it is not the highest point, and also;

3.  forces the poll angle to close (hyper-flex)  more than it would be if poll was at highest point and the horse was at vertical, and will also;

4.  pull the horse’s mouth open unless clamped shut by a horribly tight noseband, and also;.

5.  creates tension throughout the  body.

By this definition, a “hyper flexed” horse will always be behind the vertical, however,  a horse behind the vertical  is not necessarily hyperflexed.

So how do you tell the difference?  Well, first I’d hope that every serious student of dressage would develop their eye enough to see the difference between a horse being pulled rigidly backwards into a frame and a horse being ridden out to the contact.

Of course the easiest test is to see if the horse’s mouth is being pulled open – or would be if the noseband allowed.  For example, in moments of tension, Indeed’s mouth clearly opens, so we know his noseband is not forcing his mouth to stay closed.  From this we know that 99.9% of the time there is correct contact and his mouth is quiet – neither he or I is doing any pulling.  By that standard alone he is behind the vertical but not “hyperflexed.”

Next, when looking at a horse with a low poll that is behind the vertical,  look at the  poll angle.  If the plane of the face would be at or in front of the vertical if the poll was at the highest point and the poll angle remained the same, the horse is simply long, low, and flexed at the poll – he is not over flexed or “hyperflexed.”

“Why do you keep Indeed’s head behind vertical? “

The short answer is, he goes better this way.  I don’t really care that he’s BTV now, I’m concerned that the muscles at the base of his neck are released and not bracing, that he’s loose through his back, bending, and maintaining a “balance of movement” that he can work in comfortably. In short, I’m working him the way I think he needs to be worked  “now” at this moment of his training.  As he progresses I see all kinds of improvements in every aspect of his way of going.  This includes more time when is he is closer to the vertical.  However, his being at the vertical is a low priority – that will resolve itself as a natural result of other qualities continuing to improve.

“I have watched many classical trainers and they all keep their horse’s heads in front of the vertical even when long and low.”

Well you’re very fortunate to have watched many classical trainers since I fear there are very few around (although we suffer no shortage of pretenders).  Of the people I have worked with, their concerns have always been centered on issues like keeping the horse relaxed and happy in his work, making sure the horse isn’t being pushed past his limits or his ability to maintain  balance.  As I sit here I can’t recall a single time an issue was made of the horse being a little behind.  Perhaps an instruction to “get him more up”, or, “send him a little more forward.”,  would be given – it was no big deal.

Why these “classical” riders have such an obsession with the poll opening as the horse stretches down is a bit of a mystery to me.  Some years ago the Western Pleasure riders became so fixated on stretching their horses down with the nose out that they became known as “peanut rollers”. It became so ridiculous a rule was finally made to penalize them for being too long and low.  However, the point relevant to this discussion is that there is nothing inherently wonderful about going long and low with an open poll.  None of these western pleasure peanut rollers has ever, to my knowledge, gone on to do anything that could in any way be considered good quality dressage – classical or not.

“I watched your dressage performance to music and your horse is given full use of his neck and poll is highest point.  why do you not train this way too?”

First, thanks for noticing.  I train the way I do so that I end up with a horse that knows how to carry himself without bracing in the neck or balancing on the reins.  I’ve never had much luck with the approach of making the horse “look” like he’s supposed to and then having him “be” the way he’s supposed to.  My approach is to first help the horse to understand what we’re trying to do.  Then I let him work in whatever frame will help him build the strength, balance,  and coordination he will need to do the job.  This is the stage Deedles is in now.  Then, I let him alone to perform.  As you notice, the horse in the GP video put his  poll where he wanted it and used his neck the way he needed to. Since I had been his only rider for the 3 years before that tape was made, I must have done something right.

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Real Performance Standards September 10, 2008

Posted by mikeschaffer in competition, dressage, equipment.
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15 comments

While the goals of the proposed performance standards may be admirable, there are problems with the approach and better methods to accomplish a more useful result.

The first problem is there are  costs both to the organizations and competitors.  These costs will be shared by everyone, however, the standards are only intended to deal with the problem of a tiny minority.  Further, for this tiny minority this system may not work.  Someone who can afford to purchase and campaign an upper level horse they can’t ride well can, in all probability,  afford to purchase or lease  a 2’nd level horse that they can get scores of 55% on.  After getting enough of those scores, there is nothing to stop them from again riding advanced horses badly.  The entire new system is now useless, however, the costs and paper work remain.

In order to avoid these pitfalls and still accomplish the goals of raising the standards of dressage, there are two alternatives that don’t require any additional financing or record keeping and are without question “fair” in that they apply to all riders.

I. The “Two Finger Rule”

The “two finger” rule would require the cavesson (and flash if so equipped) on all horses in all dressage classes (or perhaps all classes below 2’nd level)  to to be adjusted so the steward can easily slip 2 fingers under it.  (As a practical matter there may have to be a wood or plastic dowel of particular diameter to provide a consistent measure.)

The advantages of this rule are:

1. It doesn’t cost a cent.

2. Since it affects all riders at all levels it is inherently fair.

3. It will teach new riders that a horse properly accepting the contact does not have to have his mouth held artificially closed.  This  will assist young riders in learning to ride their horses forward and out to the frame instead of pulling the horses head  backwards into a frame.

4. Provides an objective standard in scoring as  every movement in which the horse has his mouth consistently pulled open should not be scored more than a “4″.

II. Earn Your Spurs Rule

This rule would eliminate spurs in all dressage classes below 2’nd level.

The theory here is that if  riders can’t ride these  walk/trot/canter tests without spurs they’re probably doing something very wrong and won’t be able to progress up the levels anyway.  Again, there is no cost involved and it is 100% equitable since it applies to ALL horses ridden in all dressage classes below 2’nd level.

Tight nosebands and spurs at low levels are incompatible with the entire concept of “free forward movement” which is at the very core of dressage. Is there any member of the Dressage committee that could not ride a training or first level test to a respectable score without spurs or a mouth clamped shut?

These rules would go a long way to fulfilling the educational function of the committee.  Yes, because these rules will affect the all riders there will be a tremendous amount of shouting about them. I submit those who scream the loudest are the ones who will benefit the most in fairly short order.

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