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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.
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2 comments

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.

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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