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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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3 comments

This is a post written in response to the Eurodressage article:

http://www.eurodressage.com/equestrian/2013/03/23/classical-training-over-back-supple-and-light-vs-tense-tight-held

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.

Mike

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