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Half-halt in half a minute. March 22, 2015

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, competition, contact, dressage, half-halts, looseness, performance standards.

A half-halt is half of a halt.  A halt is a forward going stop.  To ride a horse forward to a stop (halt) he must understand what you want and do it because you asked him to.

You can (sometimes) make a horse “stop” with strong use of hand and leg by making it difficult or impossible for him to keep going.   However, a rider cannot use strong physical aids to “forward going stop” a horse.  To ride a horse forward to a halt you must use aids that allow him to go forward.  Aids that request, encourage and allow.

A rider can slow a horse down with strong hands and legs – but that is a slow down, not a half-halt.  A rider cannot physically half-halt a horse (FEI definition be damned!).  He can only ask the horse, with whispering aids,  to collect himself.  Since we rely on the horses’ understanding of the aids for the correct response, there is no problem with the horse listening for what we want next  and doing that as well.

Times up.



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.


The Problem with the System March 22, 2013

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, competition, contact, dressage, performance standards, The Training Pyramid, training.

In the official “system” your hands, seat and legs are your “aids.” Everything you do is an aid and there’s an “aid” for everything you do. The aids are always described in their ideal form – how you would ride a GP horse. Riding a GP horse through a corner – these are the aids for it. Riding a barely broke baby through the same corner – same aids!

It’s crazy talk!

First of all, your hands, seat and legs are not your “aids”, they’re your hands, seat and legs!

When you use your hands, seat and legs to make requests of the horse in a way that encourages and allows him to do what you’re asking for, then you’re using them to create aids.

When you use your hands seat and legs to physically/mechanically stop a horse from doing the wrong thing or to show him the right thing – then you’re using your hands seat and legs to create “corrections.” Corrections should be “clear, effective and over with.” Use them for a moment – then go back to riding with aids.

There are two kinds of aids – connected and cognitive.

“Connected” aids are the ideal aids used with a balanced supple horse that will go on “elastic” contact. The horse stretches to, but not through the bit. For this to happen the horse must be supple and elastic in his body, go with some engagement and a raised back.

Telling green riders on green horses to ride with “connected” aids will lead to bracing and pulling about 99.99% of the time. So most riders have to use “cognitive” aids when on green horses.

“Cognitive” aids are feather light and rely on the horses understanding of them for their effectiveness. If your horse knows to stop when you sit up and jiggle the rein a little, there’s no need to pull. If your horse knows to go when you push your belly button out a little and gently rub your legs by him, there is no need to squeeze or kick. If your horse knows to “follow your belly button” to go where you point it, there’s no need to pull him around with the reins while kicking and carrying on with your legs.

After you and your horse are pretty good at going with cognitive aids you ride him on the right size circles, do some figures and transitions, and he will gradually become loose, supple and elastic in his body. As he does, he will start to reach out and seek the connection with the bit – then you’re starting to ride with ideal aids. Note that YOU don’t establish the connection, your horse will seek it out.

Once he starts to connect HE will start to adjust himself to go in the correct frame. YOU don’t have to put him in the frame – the frame is “correct” because it’s the easiest and most comfortable frame for him to be in to do the movements and figures of dressage. Do I have to force you to do something the easy way or just show you the easy way? Well, your job as trainer is just to show the horse the easy way.

Once you’ve taken a horse through this process (which doesn’t require going to a single show!) the rest of dressage makes sense. It’s no big deal. Just one thing after the next.


This is fun! December 17, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, contact, dressage, looseness, performance standards, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.
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I’ve been watching schooling  videos of Indeed and have noticed that when changing from left to right, sometimes he is late behind, sometimes late in front, sometimes even but jerky.  I think he’s blocked on the right side of the base of his neck and overloading his hocks by elevating too much in front – not just popping his head up, but bringing his whole body too high in front.   It’s also interesting to note that he elevates this way in the simple transition to the rt lead canter too.

So, I’ve been working him deep and doing a lot of over bending each way to release the muscles.  I’ve want  him to stay level in his body and “unload” his hocks so he can swing them  freely through as he changes.  You could almost say I’m  “un-collecting” him.

With that in mind I’ve been working on having him reach down and move his shoulder to the left as I bring my right hand up and forward towards his right ear – a standard correction I use as anyone who has ridden with me knows.

Today I got that correction working well, then I found myself on the 18m circle doing a rising trot to the rt.  When things felt correct, I would bring my inside hand up and forward.  As he softened and reached down,  I would ask for the canter while rising, almost in a two point position. After a few easy strides I let him back down to the trot or walk.

Well I suppose there are many that would say I was doing it all wrong, and technically I may have been. There are certainly a lot of traps and pitfalls to be aware of and avoid if doing things this way.   But the results I got were really good!  He was doing nice level transitions obviously bringing his hocks under and through.  There’s no question but this is the feeling I want in the flying change and I’m sure working this way will get him in the habit, so he’ll be there soon.

But wait – there’s more.  Riding around on this very cold crisp day in the silence of my furry hat with the ear flaps pulled down, Deedles and I were just having a great time working together sorting this out.  We’re past the re-hab stage (finally!) and now that he accepts me as leader, I can let him be a partner.  (hope that makes sense to you, if not, I  really don’t want to hear about it)  Being out there on a willing horse working through one of the myriad of idiosyncratic problems that is part and parcel of bringing all horses up the levels reminded me of just how much fun it is!  I just love deconstructing these things, figuring what’s really causing them, trying different cures and seeing how well they do or don’t work. Hell, working through issues may be more fun that being through them. It’s what keeps horses, training, and dressage new, fresh and challenging after all these years.


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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Read this book and try the program for a few days.  If you don’t think it’s worth a lot more to you and your horse than it cost,  I’ll gladly refund your money!

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Opinions December 23, 2009

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, competition, dressage, Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas, hyperflexion, looseness, performance standards, Riding, rules, training.

An important issue for the aspiring dressage rider is to know which opinions are going to assist in his goal of riding and training, and which are going to lead him into an alley with no exit, wasting his and his horses most precious commodity – time. This is a question of separating theoretical riders who have some book knowledge, facts, but lack the real world experience to know how they apply, from those who have the real world experience and knowledge that can only come from actually doing it.

In all my experience with real world riders, I have found that 100% of the time they will ALWAYS talk about the good of another ride before the bad — if they talk about the bad at all. It seems to me that once you’ve personally realized how much knowledge you have to have, seen for yourself how much work, how many hours in the saddle, how many thousands of details that each need to be made right, everything that IS right with a ride just pops out at you. This is why the real rider looks at what is right with such appreciation and admiration.

In complete contrast, the theoretical riders, the rail birds, all puffed up with a few images and formulas but no real knowledge, jump immediately to the bad. How can they appreciate the work required to bring any horse to upper levels if they’ve never done it? How can they appreciate the real hands on knowledge required if they don’t have it or have any way to know that it’s much, much, more than they know? How can they appreciate all the thousands of details that had to be attended to if they don’t know what details I’m even talking about?

So, for the serious student of dressage, your choice is easy. You want to seek out and learn from those whose first reaction is to tell you what is right and correct about the rides of others. They’re the ones that can lead you down the path to success.

As for the theoreticians – I think they deserve your sincere sympathy. Imagine, if you can, how sad it would be to live in a world that didn’t allow you to see the artistry and excellence of Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas even though it was right there, in front of your face, plain as your nose.

Hyperflexion/Rollkur/Blue tongue, Insanity! December 5, 2009

Posted by mikeschaffer in Behind the bit, competition, dressage, Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas, half-halts, hyperflexion, performance standards, Riding, roll kur, rules, training.

Here are my thoughts about the February 2010 FEI statement on hyperflexion – now known as “Forced Head Position” (FHP)

The Rollkur Cure

Here is a  link to another post about hyperflexion that I wrote months before this one.

Hyperventilating Over Hyperflexion

Also note that  I do not use or recommend any backwards style of riding.  I think pulling a horse’s poll up and back is just as bad as pulling it down and in.  

While I do not like the way this horse is being ridden, I don’t think  this rises to an OBJECTIVE standard of “cruelty”, “abuse”, or harm.  The horse is not lathered in sweat, bucking, rearing, bolting, or carrying on in any way that would be indicative of a horse in panic or pain.  I think this is an important point because giving public voice to the idea that the FEI and individual officials at that or any other CDI  are allowing “cruelty and abuse”  will ultimately harm dressage.

I believe the efforts of the very many sincere people upset about this way of riding would be better directed towards addressing the bottom of the pyramid not the top.  Those who have been following this blog know I have had that position and advocated concrete steps that we could affect through our own national associations.  I favor instituting a two finger rule requiring loose nosebands and the banning of spurs below 2’nd level.  here is the link to that article –  “Real Performance Standards” – it is my sincere hope that it gets as much attention as is  being spent on this other issue.

Since this remains the most visited article on the blog, I’m reopening the comments for a while.


Thousands of indignant dressage riders are up in arms over the so called blue tongue affair in particular and hyperflexion / rollkur in general. There are now efforts to urge the FEI to clarify rules so that stewards can step in whenever they see this (whatever “this” is) in the warm up area.

This is insane – here’s why.

First, there wasn’t any blue tongue. Sorry, I know it’s a drag to have reality intrude on the fantasy, but there was no blue tongue in the video.  The proof is in the uncut youtube video – I’ve provided the “uncut” 10 minute version here so you can watch the entire thing, but the issue at hand comes between the one minute and one minute forty second marks.

Here’s the frame from 1:27 into the video showing the best/closest view of the so called “blue tongue.”  It does seem to have the same whitish, grayish color  as the froth on the horse’s lips

Here’s the next frame – again you can see the tongue does appear to have the same froth on it as the lips.  Yet, while seen in motion the grayish/whitish color could be interpreted as bluish.  The actual color balance of each computer monitor will also have some effect.  Some will have more blue, some more red.  What is fair to compare is the similarity of the lips to the top of the tongue.


Of course, if you wait a second – literally at 1:28 of the video – you’ll come to the view of the horse moving away from the camera instead of towards it and now, blurry as it is, we see pink.  What is this?

Well, you don’t have to wait very long to find out – in the very next frame, a few hundredths of a second latter,  the bottom of the tongue comes into focus.  Guess what?  It’s nice and pink!  How could that happen?

The answer is obvious – “it” couldn’t have happened.  You simply cannot make the top of the tongue blue from lack of circulation while the bottom remains pink.  If you doubt this, tie a string around a finger and see if it doesn’t “blue up” all around and not just on one side or the other.

Another thing you’ll discover if you do try the string on a finger trick is that it will take more than a minute for the finger to turn blue.  Yet, if you watch the video at exactly the 1:00 minute mark,  You’ll see Scantic canters directly in front of the camera and his tongue is not out.  Nothing is apparently amiss until the 1:18 mark when we first see his tongue out.  Then, by 1:39 of the tape the rider has seen the problem, stopped, put things back in place and we don’t see the tongue again for the next 8 minutes.  So, did the tongue  turn blue from a maximum of 40 seconds of constriction from being over or between the bits?  That  doesn’t seem like a rational explanation.  However,  the top of the tongue appearing bluish from being coated with the same froth as the lips does explain why the bottom of the tongue remained pink.

Finally, the entire argument that mere hyperflexion is in and of itself enough to cut off circulation and turn the tongue blue has to be dismissed as totally irrational.  We know this because another complaint with this ride is that the horse was held in a tight frame for more than 90 minutes.  Well, if the tongue was blue from lack of circulation for more than 90 minutes, common sense tells you that he wasn’t going to be able to go out and place 3’rd in competition the next day.

So, now we need to move on and examine how the mob became so enraged by such hysterical nonsense, and figure out the positive lessons that can come from it.

The Role of Epona

The first thing that struck me about this tape was it’s sheer crapiness.  For those of you who have been fortunate enough to see the “Warm up at Achen” tapes that were around some years ago, there is simply no comparison not only in quality but in motive.  The Achen  tapes contained treasures of wisdom and insight on how the best prepared for a test.  Yes, there were moments when things didn’t go right, and seeing a rider deal with that was educational in and of itself.  But by and large, those tapes were being prepared for riders to learn what was correct.

By comparison, this video was shot by someone on a mission.  Whoever shot this was interested only in proving a negative pointt.  The result is a hatchet job that whizzes by anyone riding nicely to  focus only on a few horse’s necks and jaws.   So, Epona got their name in a lot of places and probably sold  a bunch of subscriptions, but don’t fool yourselves into thinking they only did it for the good of the horse – this kind of nonsense always ends up hurting more horses than it could ever help.

What should YOU do?

Those of you concerned about cruelty or harsh practices anywhere should begin by becoming better educated and more skilled  yourselves.  Start  by realizing it is insane for you focus on horses being prepared for international competitions when you can probably improve your own horse’s life.  To begin with:

1.  Learn how to learn.  Start by learning to take the time to analyze and understand what is being said.  In the above example had anyone been willing to take the time to analyze the next second of the video they would have seen the pink tongue and this entire bruhaha would have fallen apart..

2.  Realize that lack of experience and knowledge does not put you in a morally superior position to judge others with more experience, skill, and knowledge than you. .Seeing something that may offend you before you understand it doesn’t mean it has no value and should never be used.  In exactly the same way, seeing an advanced rider using techniques and exercises that you do appreciate does not mean you should take it upon yourself to do it with your horse at his stage of training and your level of riding.

3.   Develop your  seat!  Although I don’t understand why this rider rode his horse as curled up as he did for as long as he did, it is clear that he had the physical riding skills to do it deliberately, using his aids in a coordinated fashion.  So he did it for some purpose and I would like to hear more from him as to what the logic and reasoning of his training method is.

4.  DO NOT write outraged letters to the FEI.  It won’t help.

What the F.E.I. should do

Nothing – anything they FEI tries to do will invariably cause more trouble for the horses.  While the goals of the FEI are admirable, and the individual members are dedicated, knowledgeable, and well intended – as an organization they have not been at their best when trying to write specific rules to prevent the lowest common denominator from doing  harm. They keep trying to fix things by determining one size fits all standards that don’t work.  For example:

In order to prevent the worst riders in the warm up ring from accidentally hitting other riders with their excessively long whips, the FEI issued a rule determining the longest whip that anyone should use.  This is insane!  Now it is perfectly acceptable for a 5 foot rider on a 14.3 hand horse to use a 48″ whip, however it is illegal for a 6 foot two inch rider on an 18.1 hand horse to use a 49″ whip.  How is this fair, rational, or a solution to anything?  It isn’t.   The rule should simply state that riders are not allowed to interfere with others in the warm up area.  Period. Now it is up to the rider to be sure they don’t interfere with others and if that means they have to use a shorter whip, let the rider figure that out or be removed from competition.

A similar argument can be made in regard to spur lengths.  A spur should be long enough to get from the riders foot to the horse’s side.  Period. Standardize that distance before standardizing spur lengths.

A rule more closely related to the matter at hand has to do with the length of shanks on curb bits.  Now it is perfectly acceptable for a small arab mare to be ridden with a 10cm curb shank, however it is illegal to ride the 18hh warmblood with a 10.5cm length shank?  How does this help anyone?  The 10 cm bit is much more than is necessary for the little mare, however, a good argument can be made that the shorter curb bit has dulled the huge warmblood and given rise to practices such as  “hyperflexion” in an attempt to work around the problem.

The most recent FEI debacle came  in response to the problem of quality riders being penalized for having trace amounts of drugs left over in their horses systems.  The correct response to the problem would have been to state that trace amounts of drugs, far below the therapeutic or effective levels, were not to be penalized.  The FEI got it totally backwards and declared that therapeutic levels of certain drugs were to be allowed in competition.  Insanity!

So I have no idea how the FEI wile “solve” this problem, but I’m fairly certain whatever solution they come up with will create more problems. This is why I hope they do nothing – it’s the best we can hope for.

No, wait.  The best we can hope for is the FEI honestly admits error and rescinds the whip length rule, the curb shank rule, and the newest drug rules.  Then they should announce that a two finger rule – a rule that will require loose cavessons will be instituted within a few years.  That will set riders on a path to lightness like nothing else will.

PS – it would also help a great deal if the FEI finally got around to correcting the “Half-halt” rule.

Dressage – The Chicken or the Egg May 19, 2009

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, calmness, corrections, dressage, half-halts, looseness, performance standards, rules, The Training Pyramid.
Tags: , , ,

What comes first: Energy and impulsion or calmness, looseness, and balance?

In order to do dressage your horse has to have all of these qualities and more. However, there are two very different approaches to achieving this. The first is to send your horse forward and then get your horse to soften, bend, and balance. There is no doubt that this approach can work and work very well. Generally, the very best riders use this method with excellent results on a regular basic.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that this method can and has been futile and frustrating for thousands and thousands of horse and rider combinations. There’s nothing wrong with these riders or their horses – the problem is they’ve been given a single method with no other options.

However, there is another option – a very, very good one. Instead of making your horse go forward and then trying to sort out softness, looseness, and balance, teach the horse to be soft, loose and balanced first, then gradually add in more energy and forward as both horse and rider improve.

I think this is really the approach anyone who isn’t a professional riding a bunch of horses every day should use. It’s easier. It’s also more classical. Chasing the horse around with more leg, more hand, more this and more that in the hope it will look like he’s really moving forward and you’ll impress some judge is what’s wrong with “modern” dressage.

Keeping your horse calm and relaxed, giving him the time to figure out his job and develop the muscles and abilities to do it is what’s right with classical.

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