Wednesday, January 22, 2014

400 Years: The Arthur Kottas Clinic

 “Seat, Weight, Leg, Reins” and “You can do it!” run through my mind like mantras. I can still hear these words in Arthur Kottas’ very distinct voice. I had become accustomed to a certain degree of excitement during a clinic ride - a certain amount of emotionality on the part of the clinician (possibly accompanied by some well-appointed screaming). Although able to tolerate this, I had most certainly never enjoyed it, and I find it very counterproductive to the learning process. What’s even more important, it hardly promotes relaxation in the horse. Not only was there none of this with Arthur Kottas, there was something about his voice and manner of speaking that was downright mesmerizing, which has an ability to bring both horse and rider into an immediate state of complete focus.
      My horses are all emotional and sensitive by temperament. I had actually discontinued riding in clinics for some time, because clinics had become a serious source of anxiety for my mare (who is already a very tight horse). I would find it necessary to spend anywhere from days to weeks tuning her up after clinics, in order to re-school a proper response to hand and leg (yield and/or collect, rather than ‘run’ through the aids). Over lunch with Arthur the day before, I made a point of telling him about my mare’s clinic phobia. He listened tolerantly without saying a word. I sensed my words were completely unnecessary, but my compulsion to prepare him for the sake of my beloved mare pressed me on. As soon as I began riding the following day, I understood fully just how superfluous my words were.                              
      Engendered in the word Master is both a sense of the ultimate technical mastery of a certain skill (to the point where the skill has become second nature and part of the person) as well as the expectation of a high degree of wisdom in the application of the art. One knows immediately and absolutely when in the presence of Arthur Kottas, that you have had the very rare and privileged honor to be in the hands of a true master. Not only did I not have the usual thoughts of, “Is this right for my horse” during clinic rides, on the contrary, my mind became utterly clear and focused as I listened with absolute trust to the gentle and melodic sound of his voice. I don’t mean to say that he didn’t criticize – as Arthur put it, “What would happen if you say Arthur Kottas has told me everything is nice, and does not correct”. And that’s what I loved the most – correct the rider first, then the rider may “invite” the horse to work to their potential.
     To teach any subject can be quite challenging, as pupils have different learning styles and quite different aptitudes for the subject. To teach dressage borders a little bit on the absurd. Your pupils are not only of greatly differing aptitudes and temperaments, they are of two species. They are themselves working on developing a mutual language – or perhaps I should say a mutual sign language, as there are very few spoken words and the language is based solely on feel, muscle memory and conditioned responses to physical stimuli. I can find no better word to describe Arthur Kottas’ teaching style than to say that he is a ‘conductor’. That was my impression as I rode the geometry of the arena. Arthur stood presiding over the space very much like an orchestral conductor influencing an orchestra to play a symphony - with complete awareness of what each member and section of the orchestra is doing and what the proper timing and emphasis were in order to bring the disparate parts into harmony, so that they could become something greater than themselves - Music.  I felt a tangible energy between myself, Arthur, the horse and the sacred space of the arena. What was utterly amazing to me, my horses obviously felt it too. Not only did my mare not have the customary panic attack three-quarter’s way through the clinic, she become more relaxed with each successive day.
      I had decided beforehand not to ride my mare on Saturday of the clinic – partly out of a desire to give her a break from the work, and partly, because we would have approximately seventy auditors that day, and as the clinic organizer and host, one can become so busy or distracted with running the clinic, one’s concentration becomes divided and the ability to learn is seriously diminished. I had arranged with Arthur ahead of time for him to do an in-hand demonstration with my stallion on Saturday (who by chance, turned six that very day). I had also told Arthur that I would not ride my mare that day, in order to tend to the auditors. While going over the planned schedule the evening before, Arthur looked at me and said merely, “I think you should ride”. By chance, one of the riders had dropped out, so I took the first ride in the morning on my mare. I was just finishing my warm up when Arthur entered, took the microphone, and greeted the auditors with an air of inspiration. After some introductory remarks, he turned towards me, and before I fully realized what had happened, we were doing a demo. I think perhaps if he had suggested we do a demo, I would have been so full of nervous tension I would have found the anticipation of it quite burdensome. Not that I had not been a demo rider before – I had – but when it is your own venue, you feel a certain responsibility to perfection that is not at all realistic. In his wisdom, Arthur understood everything that I had not expressed: that it was my desire to make the auditor day as educational as possible, but that I was no less prone to nervous tension than my horses - so best to prepare me by setting me up as well as possible, and then allow me to find my own balance and poise in the moment, without the distraction of anticipation beforehand (a lot like horse training I suppose). As he directed me to ride different figures and lateral work, Arthur explained to the audience the use of the rider’s seat, weight aids, and leg position, and the principal use of the indirect (outside) rein while riding a trained horse – all of the fundamentals that I find nearly every rider who comes to me for lessons needs explaining, no matter how much experience they have.
     After lunch, Arthur did the in-hand demo with my young Lusitano stallion, Dario. I can only find one word to describe my impression of this: Magic. My stallion himself is quite the personality. He has the boyish charm of young Latin lover, and is unusually quick and smart. It’s not easy to keep him focused, and it is easy to get ‘out of step’ with him if not entirely aware of his every movement and able to anticipate and re-direct if necessary. Added to this, one week before the clinic start, he had been bitten by a wasp while I was riding him in the arena. Neither one of us – neither horse nor rider- had come anywhere near to recovering from the utter horror of this experience. I literally sat on the edge of my seat as the flies bothered Dario and Arthur commenced the demo. Arthur had worked Dario in-hand the day before, but between the flies and the many spectators, I naturally assumed he would be poised for distraction and would need some discipline. But, just as a magician pulls tangible objects as if out of the air, by slight of the hand, Arthur had Dario so completely mesmerized by his body and voice, that the horse never once removed his eyes from him. It was literally like watching a dance, as the horse moved forwards, sideways and backwards in response the almost imperceptible movements of Arthur’s body and position. It was only then that I fully realized just how much in-hand work is like riding (and prepares the horse for the ridden work) and just how much of an art it is. I have never seen anyone ‘perform’ this work with such nuance, and I will admit that I am nearly mournful that this ancient, valuable, and highly developed art will likely be lost one day.
     The following day when I rode Dario in the clinic, I was still under the very palpable influence of what I can only honestly call physical terror, due to Dario's explosions of the previous week, on successive days, in the area of the arena where the wasp bit him (this, despite a successful ride two days before and a peaceful demo the previous day). I looked at Arthur tentatively as I mounted. I was obviously tense (to put it mildly) as Dario and I began walking around the arena. We were half way around the arena (nearing the area of the explosions) when Arthur moved fairly close, looked up at me and said, “Don’t worry, nothing can happen to you while I’m here”... And, the amazing thing is: I absolutely and utterly believed him. It might as well have been the voice of God speaking to me.  The memories of the explosions melted away and I began to feel the horse’s body and to ride him. From that moment to this day, we have not had a problem.
     My final impressions: There was a certain wisdom and empathetic energy that Arthur possessed, which I can only describe as spiritual. I’m fairly certain that he would not himself choose this word to describe himself (about as certain as I am that he will never read this article, or I would not be so bold). I have only known two other people possessing his qualities – one was a Romanian Orthodox monk who spent many years in a Communist prison, and the other is a Japanese Master Gardener. I’m not sure myself what the point of this comparison is, but I felt compelled to make it. I would not normally comment thus on my impressions of someone I do not know well, but in this instance, the teacher is so much more than the sum of his knowledge, I could find no better way to describe the experience. Just what was it that I failed to grasp the day before the clinic? The culmination of 400 years of acquired knowledge, human creativity and spirit, embodied in one person, makes that person more than the sum of their knowledge. I suppose this is what mastery is all about. As the master is more than just an artist, and an artist is more than just a rider, and without either of these, we would have neither courage nor inspiration.

copyright Lisa Scaglione January, 2014

Sunday, July 21, 2013

When Lightness Is a Hollow Word

 Originally published in 2-parts in Tracking Up, Issues 19 & 20

     One of the principles of Classical dressage is that the training of the horse should not go against nature. This means that we should not impose upon the horse methods of training which either physically contradict the laws of nature, or which offend the psychology of the horse. Just as correct Classical training has not diverged in the thousand plus years since Xenophon, techniques used as short cuts to the training of the horse are also surprisingly long lived. Through a tremendous effort on all sides, there have been great strides in the battle against over-bending the horse, known as Rollkur. Unfortunately, we have seen a concurrent mushrooming of interest in another technique which can be just as harmful, the Raising of the Hands. Interestingly, both of these techniques are not new. Not only are they not new, they both have their origins with the same French riding master from the 19th century - Francois Baucher. Some may argue with me about Rollkur and its origins, but this technique is quite similar to what is called Baucher’s First Manner. The Raising of the Hands, which is employed by followers to teach the horse not to carry weight on his forehand, is indisputably Baucher’s Second Manner. Those who practice this believe it the most expedient way to ride the horse toward Lightness. Like all short cuts to the training of the horse, this technique is not only contrary to the fundamentals of the correct schooling of the horse, but can have serious physical consequences for the health of the horse, particularly when practiced by a less than expert rider.
     If the practice of Rollkur forces the horse’s spine to become painfully over-flexed through a misguided effort to force the horse to be ‘round’ through the simultaneous and harsh use of hand and spur, the Raising of the Hand does the exact opposite. By raising the hands high to force the head and neck up the horse’s spine at the withers is thereby pressed down and the horse’s back becomes concave, or hollows. This action compresses the vertebrae of the horse’s spine all the way down his back to his hind end. This is not only painful for the horse, it undermines our efforts to teach the horse to collect properly, as it forces the horse’s hind legs further out behind and leaves them unable to bend, engage, and carry his weight.  It is a pity that these techniques are often referred to as French Classical Dressage, when they are, and always have been, controversial in the French Classical School. If Baucher has been a lightening rod of controversy, General Decarpentry is not only a highly respected master of the French Classical tradition, but was also the first president of the FEI Dressage Committee. General Decarpentry addresses these very issues at length in his classic, Academic Equitation, where he devotes an entire chapter to the technique. He writes: Lifting the neck without Ramener causes the muscles above the neck to slacken, and their slackening is communicated to the rest of the spine which tends to collapse. In this manner, it diminishes the elasticity of the whole of the spinal column, limit’s the play of the hind legs and considerably reduces their ability to engage under the mass…If the lifting is attempted at the beginning of dressage, before the appropriate gymnastics have developed the suppleness of the joints of the hindquarters, the hind legs as a whole under this constraint become unable to bend. 1
      Proponents of this method claim it is an expedient way to teach the horse the stay off his forehand, but artificially lifting the head and neck is just more front to back riding. To correctly school the horse toward collection, the hind end of the horse is developed through proper gymnastic exercises over time. First, the horse must use his hind legs to produce energy - impulsion. Next, we use gymnastic exercises (circles and lateral work) to encourage the hind legs one at a time to engage just a little bit more under the horse’s center of gravity and to bend just a little bit more. This work is slow and gradual. The horse is not able and should not be expected to suddenly and all at once be manually lifted off of his front end. As the muscles of the hindquarters and top line develop gradually, and as the joints are more and more able to flex and reach further under the horse, the horse will naturally lift through his back, lift his withers and ribcage, and arch his neck up from the withers to his poll, which will remain the highest point. The head and neck will now have the look everyone associates with dressage - what we call in English the “on the bit” position, or the Ramener in French. This work is quite difficult for the horse and should not be rushed.  At first, the horse will only be able to do this to a very small degree, but will progressively be more able to collect as he develops through correctly ridden exercises. In true collection, the horse will lift himself from the base of the neck at the withers - not starting with the head. As a result of this correct work we will see the horse develop muscles in his hindquarters, his loins, and along his top line, particularly in the area of the trapezius and along the top of the neck. Any attempt to achieve this artificially through the action of the hand alone will result in a horse with overdeveloped muscles on the underside of the neck, and little muscling in the area of the loins. This is a sure indication that our work is incorrect.
     This leads us to another problem caused by the Raising of the Hands. In order for the horse to be worked properly, we need contact. What we call contact, not only refers to the contact between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth, it is also the connection between the horse’s rear and his front. In other words, the energy created by the hind end travels through the horse’s back, to his front where the rider feels this energy in his hand and is able to regulate this energy through discreet rein and seat aids. If the horse is not connected rear to front, and the rider and the horse are likewise not connected, we simply cannot execute any correct work, no matter how simple. Encouraging a horse to trust the rider’s hand and to seek the rider’s hand is one of our first priorities in schooling the young horse. If the rider’s hand is constantly shifting and moving about in dramatic fashion, the horse comes to distrust the rider’s hand and will disengage from this contact. To teach the horse to trust and seek our hand we need a stable hand. Let’s, for arguments sake, say a young horse has suddenly thrown himself onto his forehand leaning heavily on our hand, what do we do? It is enough to momentarily close both hands so that the horse feels the unpleasant action of the bit that he himself has caused, for him to learn that it is better to carry himself with reasonable balance - that is, in the balance appropriate for his level of schooling. A premise of all Classical dressage, including French, is that the rider’s aid should never be greater than the resistance of the horse. Together with this, the action of the rider should cease the moment the horse yields.  In this manner the horse is rewarded for the correct response. The aid may be repeated as often as necessary, but it is never repeated randomly, and never with more force than necessary. A young horse of average to good conformation who has been properly started should need nothing more than a momentary closing of both hands followed by an immediate yielding of the aid (slightly opening the fingers) in order to be encouraged to carry himself in the balance appropriate for his level of schooling. This aid will be replaced by the half halt with the outside rein as the horse is more able to bend and is ridden more with the outside rein. Is there ever an occasion for a more dramatic action of the hands? A horse of heavy conformation (Draft cross or Cob) or one in need of re-schooling (due to having been ridden collapsed over his shoulders and on his forehand) might not respond to the above described aid and might bear down with enough strength to require a stronger aid. Again, the aid should not exceed what is necessary to obtain a proper yielding from the horse. In nearly all instances, raising the hands a couple inches and widening them slightly is sufficient to request the horse to ‘pick himself up’. This lifting of both hands needs to be performed with precise timing both in the execution and in the release, and it is imperative that the contact not be disturbed (lost or altered). Otherwise, what might be a useful aid may cause the horse to distrust our hand and disturb the contact. Having described this aid, I should say that I find it rarely necessary. When using a rein aid to ask the horse to carry himself, even a very strong horse will nearly always respond to a half halt on the outside rein performed with a very quick slightly upward movement (not backward), and then immediately released. I should point out that even this half halt is replaced in time by the mere closing and opening of the fingers, which is performed simultaneously with the seat aid.
     So what about that all important relaxation of the jaw? Is it necessary to literally lift the bit up in the horse’s mouth in order to achieve a softly yielding jaw?  The French refer to the softness, or mobility of the horse’s jaw, as the Mise en Main.  Baucher achieved the Mise en Main by first manipulating the reins from the ground until the horse literally opened his mouth - called Flexions. He followed this by doing the same from the saddle at halt, at walk and at trot. When performed by an expert hand at precisely timed moments, this was said to assist the rider in asking the horse to release muscular resistance further down the body, by first releasing tension in the muscles of his jaw.  But, is this excessive manipulation of the horse’s mouth profitable, or even necessary to achieve a softly yielding jaw?  Let’s again let General Decarpentry answer that. In the chapter devoted to the Mise en Main in Academic Equitation he writes about the effect of excessive or improperly performed Flexions (particularly when practiced by followers of Baucher, including some of Baucher’s students, not just his imitators). He writes: The excessive use of these flexions makes the jaw become more supple than the rest of the body. It yields too quickly and too easily, before the rest of the muscular system relaxes…Because of this excess, which can be aggravated further by the trainer’s lack of skill in the practice of flexions, the value of the yielding of the jaw is much diminished and can be very small indeed if produced by a pinching of the spurs…For the less experienced, even when advised by the former [the experienced], it is often too late to rectify this completely. In most cases it is therefore prudent to achieve the Mise en Main indirectly, by means of comprehensive gymnastics which will lead the horse to use his forces as harmoniously as possible in all the movements required of him. 2 Once again, we find that if preformed without absolute exact timing and feel, not only will the benefit be lost, the practice will undermine the correct schooling of the horse until it is “too late to rectify this completely”. So how then do we achieve this softly yielding jaw?  The very same way we increase the horse’s ability to carry himself, “by means of comprehensive gymnastics which lead the horse to use his forces as harmoniously as possible”.  This is Classical dressage. The very same process described above to school the horse toward collection also encourages the mobility of the horse’s jaw (and just as importantly of  his poll). I think it also important to define just what me mean when we say the mobility of the jaw. For Baucher and his followers, the Flexions were performed until the horse literally opened his mouth. A much more traditional idea of a soft and mobile jaw is a horse who gently moves his jaws in the same manner as when he is chewing. We look for evidence of salivation as a confirmation of this. Who amongst us associates a gaping mouth with softness and lightness? And if we do wish the horse to gently ‘chew’ on the bit, it is the light play of the fingers which encourages this. If I feel the horse tense his jaw on one side or the other, I gently vibrate my fingers for a fraction of a second without moving my hand and as always, I cease this aid when the horse responds.  This results in an immediate softening of the horse’s jaw on this side. I can alternate or repeat this aid as necessary, and the better my timing and feel the more quickly the horse will respond, but it is never necessary to use a more forceful action. Indeed, a more forceful action may lead the horse to the excessive play of his jaws, which actually prevents this aid from acting on the rest of the horse‘s muscular system, the ultimate purpose of this aid. I should add here that one should never perform this action simultaneously on both reins, or the horse might respond with tension rather than relaxation.
     So what about Lightness - that elusive quality that all covet? I hope it is apparent that in Classical dressage, it is the proper execution of gymnastic exercises, combined with tactful and discreet rider aids, which lead to lightness in the horse: self-carriage in collection. And what if the rider does not have very good timing or feel to achieve this? All the more reason not to use means which, questionable in themselves, depend entirely on tact and feel if they will not do harm! A rider who follows the proper gymnastic training of the horse, but lacks some tact and feel will do no harm to their horse, and they most certainly will make very real progress in time. Not only that, they will come to ride in greater harmony with the horse and this accomplishment in itself is very exciting and gratifying for nearly every rider. When a horse is truly light, he responds as if he can read his rider’s mind. The rider achieves this through sensitizing the horse to ever and ever quieter aids, until the aids are so imperceptible they cannot be seen. This is what we perceive as Lightness. This will lead to greater health in the horse, as well as a horse proud and even joyful in his work, one who makes himself available to the rider out of genuine devotion. This harmony and sense of oneness in both movement and in spirit is the only true lightness. This is when lightness is not just a hollow word.

#1 General Decarpentry, Academic Equitation, trans. Nicole Bartle, ed. J.A. Allen & Co.(London, 1977) p.75
#2 Ibid, pp. 64-65
illustrations: Ibid, p. 91, p. 77 

Copyright Lisa Scaglione April, 2013

Saturday, April 6, 2013


photo courtesy Paul Thacker copyright 2012

     I have seen numerous articles in periodicals in the United States highlighting a new discipline called “Western Dressage” by its devotees and advocates. I initially thought this a rather fun and possibly positive development for the world of dressage, since outsiders not infrequently have the impression of dressage enthusiasts as being uninviting and overly serious. I imaged Western riders all geared up in their colorful attire and tack, trying to learn the basics of elementary dressage principles, while riding traditional American bred horses such as Morgans and Quarter Horses. While I imagined correctly regarding the attire and horses, my imagination was quite mistaken in its hopeful assumption that this new discipline would in some way advance the level of horsemanship in general, by making the principles of dressage known to a wider audience. On second look, I now fear we have a new group of uneducated dressage rider who "does not know what they do not know", as the saying goes. If the first type of uneducated dressage rider could be referred to as the "drive and hold" school, we might refer to the second type as the "ride your horse disconnected and on his forehand and call this lightness" school. In regards to the Western rider, I actually do no think this would matter so much if they considered their discipline something completely unassociated with dressage, and all its own. But, there seems to be a sentiment (and even a claim on their part) that what they practice is in the Classical tradition of Dressage, and not a few of them advertise themselves as Classical Dressage Trainers and Instructors. It is already an uphill battle to keep the Art of Classical Riding alive, due to the genuine lack of legitimate teachers of true Classical riding, as well as the fact that there are only a handful of modern Masters world wide who have a full understanding of its principles and an unbroken link to its tradition. It is not my intention to demean Western riders who participate in this new discipline, merely to suggest that it bears no resemblance to Dressage training whatsoever, and it would be more accurate and respectful to call it something like "Western Pattern Riding".
     Any educated dressage enthusiast who has seen even a still photo of a Western trained horse being ridden at what is called a ‘jog’ (Western trot)  and a ‘lope’ (Western canter) will immediately notice what distinguishes these uniquely Western ‘gaits’ from any correct dressage gait at any level. In the Western jog, the horse’s hind end is very much disengaged, has no real impulsion, and consequently no real energy. For the Western rider, if there were any significant impulsion or too much engagement, it would spoil the ‘jog’ which is meant to be a rather lazy, pleasant, easy to sit gait - perhaps preferred and even necessary for the Western cowboy who had to sit for long hours in the saddle on the Western range. The Western ‘lope’ is very much the same thing. It is a lazy canter which borders on the four-beat, due to a marked lack of energy from the hindquarters. With insufficient energy traveling from the horse’s hind end, across the horse’s back, and to his front end and mouth, there is no connection between the horse’s hindquarters and his forehand (no working through his back) and consequently no connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth . This lack of connection means the horse is not permeable to the rider’s aids. This lack of permeability to the aids would probably account for the reason most Western riders use the aid of very large and sharp spurs in order to motivate their horse (whereas in Classical Dressage, the aim is to sensitize the horse to a very light leg aid). Additionally, since there is insufficient energy for the rider to regulate through hand and seat, there is no way to ask the horse to shift his balance and to channel the energy up and into collection - the aim of Dressage.
     This leads us to another basic fault in the Western dressage model. Once the properly schooled Dressage horse is strong in his hind end and working through his back, his head and nose naturally fall just in front of the vertical (with a slight ask of the fingers) giving the head carriage of the dressage horse the outline that everyone associates with it. The degree to which the horse’s head is in front of, or at the vertical, is a consequence of the level of collection the horse has achieved (and somewhat also of his conformation). The more the horse is able to shift his weight to his hindquarters, rounding his body and shortening his base of support, the closer the horse’s nose will be to the absolute vertical. The longer the horse’s frame - whether it be because of a novice level of schooling, or because the horse is being asked to stretch - the further in front of the vertical his nose will be (assuming the horse is stretching with his poll above his withers, rather than below). In the first instance (collection), the angle at the poll is more closed. In the second (lengthening), the angle at the poll is more open. For a horse who is still very much on his forehand and ridden in a longer outline (as all the Western dressage mounts are) I would expect the horse’s poll to be more open - in other words, for the nose to be more in front of the vertical than it is displayed in Western dressage mounts. The underlying cause in these Western horses of a poll angle which is too closed for the level of the horse’s training has to do with the manner with which Western riders teach their horse to be “soft” in the bridle, or to yield to the bit. Before starting the horse under saddle (or breaking them as they call it) and sometimes before every ride, the rider will practice from the ground what they imagine are Flexions - they take one rein and pull the horse’s head full around practically to his side until he yields to the bit. I have nothing against teaching a horse to yield to the bit through properly practiced flexions, but this Western version of it (while possibly advantageous for Western disciplines) essentially teaches a horse to avoid the bit, particularly when done with a Western shank rather than a simple snaffle. In Dressage terms, a horse who has learned to avoid the contact of the bit by dropping behind it, is a horse in need of serious and complete re-schooling before any other work can be undertaken. The horse must be encouraged to reach for the bit - to seek the rider’s hand - not to arch his neck in avoidance of it. I should add here that proper reaching for the contact is in no way the same as leaning on the bit, which a horse will do when he is properly connected, but also too much on his forehand. Unfortunately, it seems to be precisely this lack of contact which causes Western Dressage enthusiasts to imagine that they are riding in ‘lightness’ - not knowing that it is only a very advanced dressage mount who has achieved complete self carriage who can be ridden with a rein so soft it can go slack and the horse will remain connected. Teaching the horse to drop behind the contact, while moving with disengaged hindquarters and on his forehand, is pretty well the near exact opposite of the very first principles and aims of Classical schooling.
     The one area where there is a significant similarity and overlap between Western riders and Classical Dressage is in the importance accorded the use of the seat. A rider with a well developed and correct Western seat is generally nearly in the same position as a rider with a Classical Dressage seat. This is indeed a very good basis for Western riders to take an interest in Dressage, and probably the reason they sense an affinity with the Classical school. A natural consequence of a highly developed rider seat is the ability of the rider to influence the horse more through the use of his weight, and increasingly less through leg and hand. A Western rider with a highly developed seat is able to do this quite well, and it is this which probably causes them to imagine that they are somehow riding according to Classical Dressage principles. But, without the proper schooling of the horse in the very fundamentals we have discussed above, we still have to call this fine use of the seat Advanced Western Riding, and not Dressage Riding. I might also point out, that as much as I greatly respect a good Western rider with a good Western seat, I see it about as often as I see dressage riders with good seats (which is not as often as one would like). One of the commonest faults one sees in the seat of Western riders is sitting behind the horse’s motion (leaning back behind the vertical). Sometimes this is so extreme the rider’s feet are pushed forward and down against the stirrups (rather than the leg hanging naturally by the force of gravity and the rider’s heels falling down naturally as an outcome of this). The consequences of this to the horse are quite significant - an undue heaviness on the horse’s back, which causes the horse to hollow his back away from the rider. Any time a dressage horse is presented with a tight and hollow back, the first priority of the rider should always be to take the pressure off the horse's back (by going to rising trot or a light seat in canter) to help the horse relax and lengthen his topline. One does not go on sitting and riding complicated patterns, and then press on to riding lateral work, with the horse hollow and resistant. The first priority of any schooling session is a horse who is both physically and mentally relaxed, and thus able to respond to the rider’s aids in a way that builds his confidence and his physique, not wears them down.
     Moving disconnected and on the forehand while riding patterns, or simply using one’s weight to move the horse sideways while he crosses his legs, are not in and of themselves Dressage. Unless they are done correctly and with a mind to developing the physique and general education of the horse, their purpose is lost, or even becomes counter-productive and damaging to the horse. Dressage exercises not properly ridden are a mere parody of dressage.  Every Dressage movement from half-pass to something as simple as a 20 meter circle has an important purpose in the development of the horse and should be ridden in proper progression. Before attempting half-pass, the horse should be well established in haunches-in. Before haunches-in, he is schooled in shoulders-in, before shoulders-in, a 10 meter circle, and before that a correctly ridden 20 meter circle. All of this takes years to accomplish if it is done correctly. You can claim to be riding elementary dressage if this work increases the strength of  the horse’s hindquarters and core muscles, supples him both laterally and longitudinally, and increases the ability of the horse to bend and flex the joints of his hind legs and place them more under his center of gravity. Any patterns or lateral work ridden not with this aim, cannot be called Dressage at all. From the point of view of the development of the horse, incorrectly ridden work will actually do harm to the general level of Dressage, causing one-sidedness and muscular resistances that are harmful to the horse’s health, particularly his joints. Riding the horse too much on his forehand is not only contrary to the fundamental training philosophy of Dressage, it will cause early onset of arthritis in the horse.
     Were riders in general (English as well as Western dressage riders) more diligent about learning what correct Dressage is before deciding they are proficient at it, the general level of horsemanship in this country would increase quite a bit. The pity is, that many of these riders have a very nice way with horses and a deep love for them, and I imagine might be quite capable of  increasing their level of skill and knowledge were they to realize just what it is they are lacking. Perhaps the fault here lies more in the lack of educational opportunities in this country, as well as the lack of any real tradition, or access to Masters of Classical horsemanship. Dressage schooling should indeed be the basis for the proper start of any horse, and should continue until the horse is confirmed in his elementary schooling when the rider can then specialize in any discipline - whether it be High School Dressage, Jumping, or even Western riding. Once a horse is schooled in the fundamentals of elementary Dressage he can be a handy, healthy and reliable mount for any discipline. A horse continuing on for more advanced Dressage work will be well prepared to begin schooling higher degrees of collection. The mount intended as an Eventer or Jumper will have the foundation for shortening and lengthening of strides so necessary when approaching a fence or between fences, and he will be more able to respond to a half-halt and to ‘collect’ himself in preparation for the take off at a jump. Even a Western trail horse can benefit from the gymnastic training of Dressage, which will help strengthen his muscles, and teach him to use his body to negotiate difficulties of balance (and I might add that the reverse is also true). This is not to mention that correct Dressage will make any horse stronger and more supple - in short healthier, more beautiful in his form and longer lived. It will also develop the natural gaits of any horse - not diminish them. One thing that I do love about Western dressage is the understanding that it is for any horse, not just for horses with big, flashy gaits. But, now that they’ve understood that, let’s share with them the knowledge to develop those Quarter Horse and Morgan gaits in a way which shows that every breed of horse can amplify the expression of his natural gaits, and show himself with the nobility of increased self carriage.
     I hope none of this sounds too critical of Western riders in general. I have tremendous respect for a good Western rider, and find some of their disciplines quite amazing, and others simply fun and friendly in a way that English disciplines too often lack. There are also great practical benefits to Western training which any one who has watched a real working ranch cannot help but admire and respect. What I am saying, is that I find it unfortunate that Western riders call their new discipline Dressage, and I find it presumptuous that they consider it Classical Dressage and even sell themselves as Classical Dressage Trainers. If it takes about ten years to create a Classical rider at the Spanish Riding School, why do they suppose that they have mastered it well enough to teach it, having only just discovered it? I would never dream of taking my horse into a field of cattle, running him at them, sending the cows in every direction, and calling this “reining”. Additionally, if I had done this repeatedly over time, I would certainly not advertise myself as a Reining Instructor. I consider reining to be a skill which takes much precision, timing, feel and a highly developed ability to communicate with the horse (not unlike dressage in this). Should I wish to pursue it, I would first make sure I understood what its purpose is, and would then seek out someone much advanced in the discipline to teach it to me. It is my hope that Western riders will show the same respect for a discipline about which they know very little, before assuming a title they do not even know the definition of. Were all riders to show this kind of interest and respect for other riding disciplines, we would have an equine community more able to appreciate the unique talents of other riders, and even to learn from them. But when we have another instance of riders, “not knowing what they do not know” this can only lead to more misunderstanding and even rancor across disciplines,  and certainly does nothing to raise the general level of Horsemanship all around, which should always be our primary purpose in promoting any Equine activity. Were Western dressage enthusiasts to change its name to something more accurate like “Western Pattern Riding”, I would be the first to cheer them on in their creative new activity. Not only this, I might feel inspired myself to don some really colorful Western wear, borrow a Western saddle, take my best trail horse to one of their events, and have myself a whole lot of fun giving it a good try. And if I scored rather badly at my first show, I would expect nothing less - knowing that I am certainly no expert at Western Pattern Riding.

Lisa Scaglione Classical Dressage

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Toughest Training Challenge 

NOTE TO THE READER: I have purposely gone into detail in the hopes that the reader will try to guess the cause of  my training problem, and would consider how they might have responded to a similar set of challenges. As is so often the case in life, things are not always as they appear.

     In Dressage Today there is a column called My Toughest Training Challenge, which I enjoy reading. The most difficult issues are generally ones that are outside of what we expect from the normal course of training, and often cannot be solved until quite a bit of thought and intuition have been applied with an effort to 'think outside the box'.
     I had one such issue with my 4 year old Lusitano stallion, whom I had recently started under saddle. I’m accustomed to the challenges that the more sensitive horse presents, especially early on in their training when everything new to them is good cause for fits of excitement - whether from exuberance or fear. Dario’s grand-sire is Opus 72, a well known bull fighting horse from the last century. Bloodlines on his dam’s side also include Veiga as well as Andrade, so he is bred to be quick, sensitive and intelligent - and has not disappointed. He also happens to be a very sweet young stallion who wants to do well for his people, and who takes his job as the man about the barn quite seriously. 
     When I first started working with him in hand and on the lunge, I could see he had an unusual ability to focus on the work, and was quite proud when he understood what was expected and found he could do it. If, on the other hand, the work progressed at anything faster than ½  a baby step, he would have a kind of hysterical nervous fit, becoming wild eyed, running and bucking while flinging his body in every direction. In this case I would do the obvious - go back and do something I knew he could be successful at to build his confidence, and then proceed further at a slower pace.
     Approached in this manner, we progressed in almost text book perfection to the point where he seemed ready to be ridden, so I asked my assistant to lunge me on him. Dario did well accepting the contact of the side reins and balancing under my weight. I had walked him many times under saddle and worked with him in hand to teach him basic rein and leg aids. The first time I took him off the lunge he went beautifully. He not only responded to my aids to trot, walk and ho, but also steered well and even reached for the contact at times. At walk, he responded nicely to seat and weight aids and consistently sought my hand. Knowing how quickly a young horse can loose focus and the importance of getting off while things are going well, I kept these first rides extremely short.
     We went on like this for about a week, until one day when I got on him, he began fidgeting almost uncontrollably when I stepped into the stirrup and sat down. After some rather unfocussed walk work, I asked him to trot and he took off in a springy little protest buck. There was something in this little buck that felt more like “I really, really need you off me now”, rather than “I’m a young guy who’s a little excited today”. I make it a rule never to get off a young horse while he’s playing up or misbehaving - whatever the cause - but my intuition told me there was something really wrong, and that if I pressed him he would explode. My mind told me: “If you get off now, you’ll cause a serious training problem and he will act up for the next month”. My heart said: “This horse is severely anxious for reasons you need to uncover, and if you continue on he may injure you, and you will permanently damage his young confidence and goodwill”. I have always been sorry when I haven’t followed my intuition (and have never regretted it when I have) so I decided to end the ride. I wished to disassociate my dismounting from his misbehavior, so I asked him to halt to allow him a moment to settle his mind. Then I walked him for a minute in both directions, trotted him several seconds in the direction we had been going when he misbehaved, asked him to halt again, and got off  - hoping he hadn‘t seen through my ruse and didn‘t think I had gotten off because he had intimidated me.
     I assumed that possibly I had gone a bit too fast in his training (as hard as that was to believe) and that it was this, in combination with the foul weather (it was December) that  was causing his stress. So I did the obvious, and took a step backward in his training to build his confidence and re-affirm previous lessons. The following day I planned to first lunge him and then briefly walk him under saddle (no trot work). When I lunged him, he was particularly naughty - running, bucking, falling in on the circle in order to thwart my efforts to keep him forward. My intuition told me it was not a good day to get on him, but I foolishly pressed forward with the program I had decided upon (after all, he had been walking under saddle for months now). He was extremely difficult to mount again (which I attributed to my assistant not positively dealing with this the previous day). As soon as I was in the saddle, he started shaking violently, acting as if he was about to take off in a wild buck or begin rearing. I did the only thing I could to remain safe and decided to pretend that the lesson that day had been all about “Ho”. I stopped him, told him he had performed a very clever “Ho”, and jumped off. I knew now I had a real training problem on my hands, as well as a serious safety issue, and I assumed I had caused it. I hoped Dario believed that our lesson had really been all about halting, but I had my doubts, and I knew if he thought he had intimidated me, I was in very serious trouble.
     I did the only thing I could, which was to proceed yet another step back in our training, intending to focus on obedience as we re-affirmed old lessons. When faced with a difficult training issue I like to focus on one aspect of it that seems to be at the heart of things, and I considered obedience to be the underlying problem here. But, to my surprise - and extreme dismay - with each step I took back in training, he was equally as uncooperative. We went backwards and backwards until I was no longer lunging him in the arena and was even having difficulty working with him in hand (this was a stallion I had shown in hand with no difficulties, even when we ended up in an arena full of mares and babies at one show).  Now, I found that he was difficult just walking to the arena and to the pasture, and the only place I could work with him successfully was the sand paddock adjoining the barn - so this is where we worked.
     Although I now thought his behavior disobedient, he still seemed more stressed to me than defiant, so I was quite sure he had had some kind of nervous breakdown due to me proceeding too quickly with his training (and that being a sensitive young stallion, it had gone to the extreme and he had lost complete confidence in both me and himself). Since I had not been able to solve this on my own, and since I pride myself in being humble enough to seek outside input, I poured myself into trying to find the key to Dario’s loss off confidence. I went online reading blogs, chat rooms and training articles. I re-read  Col. Podhajsky’s Complete Training of Horse and Rider and a very good book called, The Natural Stallion. I even watched video of Opus 72, and asked friends with Iberians for advice. Somewhere, I thought, was the answer to the training problem from hell - but it wasn’t in me.
     To my utter horror, as fascinating and educational as all of this learning was, it did not help my problem one  bit. I began to study Dario’s behavior in and around the barn more closely. I quickly realized he was just as miserable in the pasture as he was when I worked with him in the arena. He seemed to wish to remain in his stall all day. When I turned him out, he stood still for hours without attempting to graze. I even attempted to lure him into the pasture myself by walking well out and calling to him. His response was to gallop out to me, wag his head at me to warn me to return to the barn (obviously considering the far reaches of the pasture unsafe for a female alone) and then to gallop back to the sand paddock adjoining the barn, where he stood staring at me with a look of obvious dismay and reproach. Then suddenly it hit me: he was content only in his stall and in the sand paddock -- rather than being a sudden and inexplicable complete mental and emotional breakdown, it might just be that his feet were sore. He wasn’t lame in the sand paddock, so I put him on a lead and walked him over various other turf, observing him closely. I realized he was tender footed even on the rubber stall mats in my barn. I applied hoof testers, but couldn’t find an actual sore spot (like an abscess or a bruised sole), but I was still sure both of his front feet were very sore. I gave him bute the following day to test my theory, and for the first time in weeks he walked around the pasture grazing happily. I knew I had found the key. I pulled out the calendar and there it was - the day he first acted up under saddle, the day after which he was never the same, was also the day he had his feet trimmed by a new trimmer.
     I should stop here to explain. I am a fanatic about management and about service providers, often learning to do things myself so I can be sure they’re done properly. There is only one farrier in my area whom I trust,  but I had decided to remove my other horses’ shoes for the Winter, and my farrier cannot travel the distance to me for a few trims. I tried a barefoot trimmer, and after being dissatisfied  with the first, tried a second, who was able do a good job with my other horses. Neither trimmer, however, seemed capable of trimming my stallion, who actually has beautiful feet and should have been quite easy to trim. The issue was that his feet are so hard the soles don’t wear down enough naturally, and the barefoot trimmers were allowing his feet to get too long, to the point where he was stumbling. This new trimmer decided that rather than lower the whole foot (wall and sole) as I requested, she would rasp the wall of his feet up about ¾ of an inch, so that the soles of his feet would wear on their own (according to her). I had real reservations about this, but I decided to allow it for one cycle.
     Now, I picked up Dario’s front feet and examined them very closely. I could see that at the point of contact with the ground the wall had been filed in such a manner that he was making contact only with his sole and along the white line. His hard soles didn’t seem sore, but I suspected that concussive pressure on the white line was traveling to the more sensitive parts of the foot and had triggered a painful inflammatory response. I called the vet out who confirmed my suspicions. At this point I did the only thing a person with my nature could do - after a brief and disappointing attempt to find a trimmer I could trust, I signed myself up for an online course in foot trimming and poured myself into learning all I could so I could do the trims myself. I had always trimmed younger, unstarted horses, but once they were working, I left their podiatric needs to the professionals. I began to study the anatomy of the foot with all its internal structures, the biomechanics of the foot and leg, learned about various balance issues, and viewed instructional video of various types of trims. I combined some of the barefoot methods with some of the traditional methods to come up with a trim that keeps my horses’ feet in maximum health, but allows them to work under saddle comfortably and with good stability. 
     I decided to allow Dario to remain mainly in his stall for about a month while his feet grew out, and then I proceeded to trim them myself. When I rasped his feet the first time, I could see that one of his front feet was bruised in a thin line all along the area where the white line and the sole meet (confirming my theory). I began soaking it. Shortly after this - with much trepidation - I  proceeded to the arena with him for the first time to begin working with him again.  We started out simply, just walking around in both directions on a lead. I was greatly relieved by Dario’s alert, “Yes, Maam” attitude, and put him in his stall that day considering it a positive first step. After doing this for a couple days, I moved on to lunging in a cavesson, lunging in a surcingle and side reins, lunging in full tack, being mounted…you get the picture. We quickly reviewed all the stages of young horse learning at an accelerated pace, reinforcing all our previous lessons in a couple of weeks. We moved on to lunging the rider and removal of the lunge line. I don’t know if I was surprised or just relieved, but the horse I thought was utterly ruined before he began, the horse I considered so disobedient he was one phone call away from being gelded, was once again focused and proud -  going around the arena just as if nothing had ever happened (which I suppose, it hadn’t).  After our ride, I leaned over before dismounting, patted him on the neck, and told him “good boy”.  As if in affirmation of all my efforts, he turned toward me and nickered very low in my ear, "brrr" - very much pleased with himself. That low nicker of recognition will be indelibly etched in my memory as an affirmation that kindness and devotion to a horse is always rewarded with like affection.
     So what is the moral of my story? It’s a lesson I’ve already learned numerous times and am surprised it’s so easy to forget: that the training problem that just can’t be solved with reasonable effort, the training problem that appeared out of no where despite a sensible program - just might not be a training problem at all. Pain is the ultimate de-motivator for any creature, no less a horse, who is incapable of expressing his hurt in any manner other than refusal to cooperate. Not knowing my horse was in pain, but correctly assessing his mental state, allowed me to ultimately proceed with his training as if there had never been a problem - once the pain was removed. So what was the key to solving, ‘My Toughest Training Challenge’ -- LISTENING.
     Now lets imagine the contrary. Imagine a young, sensitive horse who is fearful because of serious pain and is in training with someone who fails to recognize or explore his emotions. The trainer presses him onward, thinking the horse disobedient. Imagine the horse’s desperation, the explosion, the trainers attempts to get this ‘unwilling horse’ under control.  Imagine the gadgets that might have been pulled out, the forceful and utterly futile attempts to stem the horses ‘aggression’ (yes - this horse would likely have become actually aggressive by now). The horse is moved from trainer to trainer, but by now has learned that humans, and being ridden, are to be feared beyond all things. The pain may have long been gone, but the lesson of distrust and fear remain. A talented horse with a kind and willing temperament is now considered mean, dangerous and untrainable - and actually has become just that, ruining any potential he may have had, and dashing all his owners dreams for him. How often does this happen, I wonder?
     Perhaps in most instances the horse’s pain is less severe, the horse has a more stoic temperament or the horse is further along in his training, but the outcome is still very much the same (or possibly worse for the horse). Since the horse is not acting out enough to be considered dangerous, he is branded ‘stubborn and unwilling’ and is whipped and spurred until he is pressed forward through his resistance in silent pain…until one day he finally breaks down altogether. I have seen this scenario much too often and marvel at the ignorance of all around. They will tell you with perfect confidence what an unwilling creature the horse is, and how he is in need of discipline - as if the ultimate disobedience of the horse was to stubbornly break down in defiance of the trainer’s prudent training program. A horse who has become mentally stressed is accused of  trying to “get out of work” by “always acting up when the work gets hard”. The  horse who is physically broken will be said to have some unseen underlying congenital issue which the vet can’t diagnose, but everyone knows must be there, or to have injured himself in the pasture (the reason so many performance horses are not let out of a box stall).
     So what do we do when we desire to listen to our horse, but are unsure of what the horse is saying to us? I’d like to leave the reader with a mantra, which I repeat to myself every time my schooling program isn’t progressing at the pace or in the way I had imagined, but which I believe has saved me from ever inadvertently causing any mental or physical grief to a horse:   I’VE GOT TIME.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Reflections on the German Training Scale

from a classical perspective

        Since the German Federation has come to be viewed as either the originators of dressage or the destroyers of it (depending on what 'camp' your in) I feel compelled to comment on the German Training Scale. First, let me say that I find both of these views rather overstated. Dressage theory and technique were well formulated before the founding of the German National Federation. The fact that so many refer to The Training Scale as if it were a biblical map for dressage only reveals the limited education available to dressage riders today. On the other hand, to criticize Germany for taking so seriously the task of educating its riders is quite unfair. Conversation over whether certain ideas hold up in practice is quite a good thing, but taking it to the point of vilification or idolization prevents any productive exchange of ideas.
     Strictly speaking, from a classical point of view, the German Training Scale itself is not classical, but the concepts behind it are. My own ideas on the German training scale were developed over a long period of time. I thought long and hard about The Scale, because there were aspects of it that I could not understand in the light of actual experience - such as why a linear scale or pyramid? When I had finally formulated precisely what my views were, I had one of those remarkable moments when I found that others before me (classically minded) had formed nearly identical ideas. As a guideline to help one examen the qualities a correctly trained dressage horse should display, the individual elements of the German training scale are quite useful - rhythm, relaxation, contact, schwung [throughness], straightness, suppleness, collection. That being said, the omission of the most fundamental of all qualities - Balance - is quite glaring.
     Balance ought to be the foundational element of the scale, and must remain a fundamental principle throughout training. The first task of the young horse is to regain his balance under the weight of the rider. As the rider develops the horse (we hope)  the horse's balance moves further rearward, culminating in self-carriage and collection. This improvement in longitudinal balance goes hand in hand with the development of lateral balance, which itself is dependent on straightness and expresses itself in suppleness. Personally, I believe disregard for balance as a fundamental aspect of training is behind many false practices in dressage today. It is a pity the Germans did not think to place Balance on their scale at the base of their pyramid. This disregard for balance as a foundational principle of training can be seen in the German manner of riding a young horse. I once made the mistake of taking a young horse to a German clinician (with the result that I had to re-school my horse for several days afterwards in order for her to regain her balance and to respond properly again to my half halt). I was asked to literally run my horse around on her forehand (I'm sorry, I was going to try to explain why, but find I don't know the purpose of this training method). Running the young horse at break neck speed in order to teach him to ‘go forward‘, or to 'reach' for the rider's hand, or to work through his back (just guesses) does not teach him any of these things, as it greatly disturbs his balance, and without balance non of these other nice qualities can exist. In fact, a horse who feels a lack of balance will often himself take to running at break neck speed for fear of toppling under the weight of the rider. This makes no sense, but if you can picture yourself carrying a heavy weight which has unbalanced you, you will remember that your response will be to scramble under that weight in order to 'catch it' from underneath. Some young horses have much the same reaction, only it is through slowing down the hurried, choppy footfall and encouraging the horse to take energetic but unhurried steps underneath himself that he will actually regain his balance. A horse is moving ‘forward’ in dressage terms when he is taking well-engaged, energetic steps with his hind legs and responding promptly to the rider’s leg aid. The concept of ‘forward’ does not necessarily involve speed, which can actually dissipate the energy of the horse’s hind end as the steps become short, choppy and uneven, and the horse’s weight falls more onto his forehand - in short, unbalanced. As far as stretching the horse is concerned (encouraging him to lengthen his topline) running him around on his forehand only causes tension - not the relaxation, hind end engagement, and reaching for the bit necessary for proper stretch.
     Straightness: Once the horse has reasonable balance, the rider must then start to address the horse's crookedness. All horse's (like all people) are not symmetrical side to side. The horse will likely never be perfectly straight, but riding the horse straight is an absolute prerequisite to both suppleness and proper contact. Placing straightness way at the top of the training scale after contact and throughness is quite baffling to me. A crooked horse will be heavy in one rein and ‘reluctant’ to take contact on the other (unable to fill that rein because he cannot stretch his body into it on the hollow side, due to carrying too much weight on the opposite shoulder and forefoot). Inability to achieve unilateral contact with the reins prevents even elementary training from proceeding in a way that is beneficial to the development of the horse. Likewise, attempting to further the horse’s training before he has become reasonably straight will actually increase the crookedness of the horse, and will result in much tension and resistance, possibly leading to the breakdown of the horse. Perhaps this is the reason far too many well-bread horses break down in the first few years of training, and many average but reasonably conformed horses ‘get stuck’ at the very lowest levels.
     The reader may have noticed that the description in my last blog of connection sounds a lot like the German concept of Schwung (called throughness in English). In a nutshell, connection being the energy created by the horse’s hind end, traveling through the horse’s body over his back, into the rider’s hand via the reins connected to the horse’s mouth - like a continuous electrical circuit. Connection, as I’d prefer to call it, not only connects the horse to the rider, it also connects the horse’s hind end to his front end. The rider’s hand, and also his seat, become like a valve on a circuit regulating the flow of energy from the horse‘s hind end. I think it most unfortunate that the German Federation has separated the concept of contact from that of 'throughness'. This may give the unsophisticated rider the impression that contact is a quality that exists only between the rider's hand and the horse's mouth, when in fact, the energy of the hind end and the transmission of that energy through the horse's body are the alpha and omega of contact, and these concepts should not be separated.
     I do agree with The German scale on the placement of collection at the top. All of these other nice qualities do culminate in collection, if the horse has been properly schooled in balance. So what about the rest? Balance first, then straightness, then everything else develops hand and hand - contact, suppleness, schwung - and they are refined over many years, resulting in collection (and did I mention that balance is not something once achieved, now forgotten, but always remains a cornerstone of training).
     So what about rhythm and relaxation? To me these are more of a 'tone' - a reflexion of the quality of the other elements, and not so much a schooling goal in themselves. Some riders have good natural rhythm and so do some horses, but I do not think that rhythm is something you 'school' a horse to. If all of the other elements discussed above are attended to, particularly balance and straightness, the rhythm will be good. If we are considering the even footfall of the horse as part of the German concept of rhythm, then straightness and balance are absolute pre-requisites of rhythm, as it is the crookedness of the horse which causes his feet to travel unevenly (or sometimes poor rider technique, as in the case of a lateral or ‘pacing’ walk). I discussed relaxation in my last blog at length. I hope it was obvious that this is also a 'tone' - a natural result of correct riding. Again, some horses have more naturally relaxed temperaments and it will show in their bodies, and some horses are considerably more excitable and prone to holding tension in their bodies. When given a more excitable horse, it is the task of the rider to modify the training program in whatever way necessary to help the horse feel mentally at ease, bringing the horse along in a way which will not cause him to hold tension in his body. If a horse is not relaxed, it is a direct reflexion on the rider’s ability and sensitivity. With a sensitive horse, relaxation is not a once achieved now accomplished event. Such a horse will always respond more acutely to stressors by holding tension in his body. It will be the daily task of the sympathetic rider to lead that horse in both physical and mental relaxation. Although we do not ‘teach’ the horse to ‘be’ relaxed, we can and should teach the rider the art of relaxation, since the horse will mirror the rider. In the properly schooled rider they are a result of tact and feel. The horse will be relaxed (both in his muscles and in his mind) if the rider's aids are given in a way that does not cause tension or confusion. Tension is not a natural attribute of a young horse (such as crookedness). It is always caused by the rider. Even though a more sensitive horse is more prone to both muscular and mental tension, it is the rider who provokes it under saddle. There may even be times when tension is not the result of poor rider technique, but a response to a poorly fitting saddle or some other physical cause - again, the responsibility of the rider. A rider who does not investigate the reasons why a horse might be unusually persistent in holding tension in his body has failed that horse in a very fundamental way. Good horsemanship involves a myriad of skills in addition to riding if we expect the horse to truly be an athlete.
     I hope I do not give the impression that I actually dislike the German Training Scale. The biggest problem I have with the Scale is not the elements, which can and should help the rider evaluate the correctness of her training efforts, it’s the scale itself. By placing these qualities on a pyramidal scale one following the other, too many riders misunderstand the interconnectedness of these qualities. This can lead to schooling the horse in a manner which is rigid or unthinking. I do not know, but I imagine the German Federation fleshes out these concepts to riders in its programs through in-depth study. Perhaps it is even taken for granted that balance is an underlying principle of every one of the elements, and the reason it was not included on the scale was because it is so obvious (one can only hope). That would make the scale a handy check list for the already educated rider. But, the uneducated rider who attempts to use the scale as his road map to training the horse may very well fail in some fundamental ways, leading to frustration for both horse and rider.  In short, there is no substitute for an in depth classical education. All of these concepts  (perhaps not the words themselves) have been known to good horsemen for centuries. The fundamentals of these concepts, as well as their inter-connectedness, are still taught today by classical teachers. Classical writings on horsemanship are full of detailed descriptions as to what these concepts actually mean - what they look like, what underlies them, how they function biomechanically, their inter-connectedness, the skills the rider needs in order to cultivate them, etc. I do understand that for people living in a fast-paced society accustomed to using google maps on their phones in order to get places faster, a handy pyramid that can be used like a road map for dressage must seem both familiar and somehow comforting. I would challenge those same people to reflect on what attracted them to dressage in the first place. I’d venture that for many it was because they had hoped dressage would deepen their communication with their horse, allowing them to achieve a connectedness approaching oneness with their equine companion. Surely it should be obvious to anyone that such a sublime state cannot be achieved by strict adherence to a pyramid of concepts, any more than a monk can achieve union with God merely by reciting the ten commandments. I do not wish to malign the familiar and beloved pyramid. I’m hoping merely to remind riders to reach further, strive harder, look deeper, and to not give up their dreams if the pyramid fails to be the stairway to enlightenment they had hoped it would be.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dressage & Pseudo-Dressage

When is a Rose by the Same Name No Longer a Rose?

I’ve seen the words Classical Dressage used so much of late, I was a little hesitant to call myself a classical dressage instructor, fearing the words had become meaningless, or worse, had become an empty marketing phrase. But, after so much effort on my part to become a properly educated rider and instructor, I’ll try instead to explain what actually distinguishes classical dressage. There are a number of excellent books written by those much worthier than myself, so this condensed version of classical vs. modern will be mainly observations of what I’ve seen, and what I’ve learned through instruction, study, and from my own horses 
   The word classical itself has numerous meanings: of or relating to the ancient Greeks or Romans; relating to the most artistically developed stage of a civilization; standard and authoritative rather than experimental - these are just a few that I found. All of these definitions would apply to some degree when we use the term Classical Dressage. I will use the term Modern Dressage to refer pejoratively to practices which have crept into riding in modern times and which are classically incorrect and harmful to the horse, but I'd actually prefer the term Pseudo-dressage, as it's the falseness of the practices, not the modernity which is the problem. As much else in life, these black and white distinctions do not hold up well, and there is more of a continuum between the two. There are many correctly trained riders who would not call themselves classical, but who do ride according to classical principles (perhaps with a few modern elements). There are also riders who ride using a bag a tricks which they’ve learned, but perhaps have also absorbed a few elements of correct riding along the way (or at least the terminology). Then there is an admix of everything in between. I will not use the term competitive dressage. The rules for the FEI were written by classically trained riders and are based on the classical principles of riding. In competition arenas you will find everything from the most accomplished to the absolutely tactless. Judging may also vary between those who reward correctness and harmony and those who reward mainly large and flashy gaits. I will not criticize any one national school. Personally, I find it commendable when a nation at least makes an effort to educate its riders and codify what it expects them to learn, even if one chooses to disagree with some of its teachings or methods. 
     The earliest treatise on horsemanship is from Xenophon, written before the time of Christ. During the Middle Ages in Europe horsemanship fell into decline, and it was only during the Renaissance in Italy that interest in horsemanship as an art was resurrected. From Italy this interest traveled to France, and then throughout much of Europe. Most of us know that military schools eventually became the holders and teachers of this art in order to train horses to be quick and reliable in battle, as well as for purposes of national pride in parade. The first European treatise on dressage was written in the early 18th century - F. de la Gueriniere’s School of Horsemanship. Then there are numerous more recent books written by those of the various national schools. It is difficult to describe in words what is actually feeling of movement, so one will notice some differences in wording and emphasis when reading works by different authors. One can say there is a French Classical School, a Portuguese Classical School, German Classical, Viennese, etc. The fundamentals are the same until we reach modern times, but there are some differences in style and emphasis. Riders were all men, and they were all from privileged, educated classes of society. Horsemanship was taken very seriously, and riders were rigorously trained by academies for horsemanship. In modern times, thankfully, we live in more egalitarian societies where anyone with a backyard with grass may own a horse; but this has left riders seeking training for themselves (from riders who have sought training for themselves) leading inevitably to techniques and ideas adopted and passed on because they seem to provide shortcuts to the training of the horse. Some of these false practices have come out of a false understanding and exaggeration of some of the differences between the national schools mentioned above. I will explain.
     Roundness and the horse’s back - is it a bow? In classical teaching the horse becomes ‘round’ due to the engagement and impulsion of his hindquarters and the resultant lifting of his forehand. The rider must school the horse carefully and over a long period of time through gymnastic work to strengthen and supple the joints of the hind end as well as the muscles of the hindquarter and core. We might think of an image of a motor boat - as the engine in the back of the boat lowers and increases in power, the front of the boat lifts naturally. The horse’s back gently swings and lifts as if meeting the rider’s seat, and the neck gently arches upward from the withers, flexing at the poll. One of the German classical writers in describing the feeling of the gently rounded horse’s back used the unfortunate term ‘bow’ (as in an archery bow) and it is this, I think, which has led to a basic misunderstanding in modern times of how to achieve roundness in the horse. Riders will often attempt to ‘make their horse round’ through the compression of the horses spine (like an archery bow). They will use leg and hand to force the horse’s spine to arch upward in an artificial manner. This compression of the horse’s back between the riders leg and hand causes too much flexion in the horse's spine, which can do physical harm to the horse. It also creates an incorrect balance in advanced horses, with the horse literally collapsing over his shoulders (on his forehand) rather than lifting in the shoulders and withers and lowering the hindquarters through the articulation of the joints of the hind end. Visually, this incorrect balance will result in a horse who is tight in the throat latch, who’s poll is too low with head behind the vertical and the cervical vertebra 'broken' somewhere near C3, who doesn‘t engage the limbs of the hindquarters sufficiently for the work demanded, and there will be an overall tightness and mechanical way of going. In extreme cases it is easy to see, as the horse is likely to drop his back during extended trot - flinging his front legs outward and not tracking up with his hind legs. In piaffe, his front legs will be angled sharply backward - toward his center of gravity - as a counterbalance to the weight of his head collapsing over his shoulders. Although not difficult to see in advanced horses, the problem begins with incorrect lower level schooling.
     Related to this incorrect attempt to achieve roundness, is an incorrect attempt to achieve connection. If you think of the energy generated by the hindquarters as an electric current, it travels from the horses hindquarters, through the horse’s back and the rider’s center of gravity, into and through the riders hands to the horse’s mouth, and back again to the hindquarters - like an electrical circuit. To achieve this, the horse is schooled from the very beginning to reach for the bit - to seek the rider’s hand. The hind end of the young horse is strengthened through forward movement and the hand is soft and stable to encourage the horse to seek the contact. This cannot be achieved if the horse is first started under saddle by lunging him in tight side reins with his head pulled part way to his chest in order to teach him to ‘go in a dressage frame’. The young horse needs time to come to trust both the bit and the rider’s hand. When the young horse has regained his balance (and no longer feels the need of his neck to help him balance under the weight of the rider) and when his hind end can move energetically, his nose will naturally drop on its own. As he becomes stronger and his balance shifts more to the rear, his haunches will lower, his neck will arch up from the withers, and the head will appear vertical to the ground (the ‘on the bit’ outline we are used to seeing). The angle at the horse’s atlas does not actually change - it remains about 90%. Any attempt to achieve this ‘look’ too early in the horse’s training (through hands pulling left and right or gadgets) pulls the horses head behind the 90% angle, disturbs the connection of energy from hindquarter to hand, and necessitates bigger and bigger aids to keep it all going. Obviously, self carriage could never be achieved in this manner, and the horse will resort to leaning on the rider’s hand for support to balance himself.
     This brings us to the next difference between classical and modern dressage - cessation of the aids. In classical dressage the horse is schooled to respond promptly to a light aid. If, for instance, a leg aid is given and the horse does not move forward, the leg aid is backed up with a light tap of the whip. I should not have to use my leg nagging or spurring with every stride in order to achieve energetic movement. If an adjustment needs to be made to the horse’s balance, I half halt. I promptly release my half halt and allow the horse to carry on. I do not hold him up with my hand. I repeat these aids as often as necessary, but I go back to 'neutral' when the horse responds. In this way he is rewarded, and he learns to balance himself with the rider on of top him (self carriage). If I were to go on continually asking with leg and hand (driving and holding),  the horse would perceive this as so much ‘white noise’ and would only respond to my aids when I resorted to ‘screaming’.
     Which brings us to separation of the aids. We all know that a young horse should not be given a rein and a leg aid at the same moment. He is just learning the meaning of our aids, and this would confuse him (go and stop at once). As the horse progresses and our aids become more nuanced, they begin to meld and are given closer together, but still not at the exact same moment. Ideally there should be a split second between, let’s say,  leg and hand aids, or between using the inside and the outside rein. In this way we give the horse 'someplace to go'. He is not bombarded from all sides with various aids at once, which would lead only to tension. This obviously does not mean that we 'drop' the contact with the horse’s mouth, or that we remove entirely our leg from the horse, but they do not act continually, nor do they act at the same time. In between more specific requests from my legs (forward, sideways, bend) the legs remain lightly on the horse “like wet towels” as one author wrote. In between more specific rein aids (half halt with the outside rein, or more flexion please with the inside rein) there should be a constant tension on the outside rein. The inside rein may be quite light or even go slack as the horse gently bends around the rider’s inside leg, filling the rider’s outside rein. This is another difference between classical and modern dressage. Many dressage instructors (and even some judges) will admonish you for ‘loss of contact’ if they see the inside rein go slack (of course, if you’re one of the unfortunate riders holding your horse up with your hands, you’ll probably need to keep firm 'contact' on both reins in order not to wear your arms out too soon).
     Next, we come to one of the differences between classical and modern that I find most interesting - relaxation. Everyone will admit that relaxation is important (because it’s in the German training scale) but it’s not easy to find anyone who can give a definition of its equestrian meaning.  According to Nicole Bartle, who translated a number of classical works on horsemanship, the French word for ‘relaxation’ (if translated literally) would be something like ‘decontraction’. In other words, it is the opposite of ‘contraction’. It signifies an absence of sustained contraction of muscle during movement. When a muscle is used it contracts - it must then ‘decontract’ and remain in a toned and ready state (not become entirely slack) until called upon again. This applies to both horse and rider. When a muscle remains in a sustained state of contraction, it becomes fatigued. At best, this condition is unpleasant for both horse and rider and results in overall tension in both. At worst, it can result in soft tissue injury. Additionally, in order for the rider to maintain a 'relaxed' position, his core muscles will be engaged, but his joints will be 'open'. When a rider continuously uses his biceps muscle in order to give a rein aid, the joints of his shoulders, elbow, wrist and fingers will become tense or locked.  This continuous muscle tension and locked joints translates to the horse as tension in the jaw and poll, and can transfer down the horses neck to his back. When the rider continuously applies his leg, his continuously engaged gluteal muscles and the muscles of his upper thigh and calf  feel 'hard' and uninviting to the horse's back and sides. Likewise, his hip flexors, knees and ankles will not be 'open' and soft. When the rider adds to this a 'driving seat' the horse is more likely to want to drop his back away from all this pressure than to lift his back to meet the rider.  'Open' joints allow the rider to remain in continuous contact with the horse in an elastic and giving way while sitting deeply in the saddle. 'Closed' joints disable the rider's ability to yield and soften immediately when the horse yields and softens. This is why we see so many horses ridden in tension in the dressage arena.
     This brings me to the most fundamental of rider qualities - the rider's seat. I addressed leg and hand frequently in the above paragraphs (since we see so much riding from leg and hand) but in classical dressage, these aids should become refined until they are mere nuances, and the horse responds more to the rider's seat and weight aids. In order to attain this, the rider must have a classically correct seat, as the horse mirror's the rider. Correct rider seat also affects the rider's ability to aid correctly, since a rider who is sitting in a manner that interferes with the biomechanics of movement, will be unable to aid the horse with a well-timed, effective and light aid. I'm not actually going to describe a correct rider seat, since this could be the subject for a short book (I suggest the reader refer to Sylvia Loch's, The Classical Seat, or any number of classical works where correct rider position is always addressed). Instead, I will address two common defects seen in rider position in modern times which adversely affect the training of the horse (as well as looking most inelegant). The most common defect is a collapsed upper body and rounded shoulders. Many of us spend much time slumped over computers or desks, and little time in athletic pursuits. When we slump, we literally 'hang on our ligaments'. In other words, we do not engage the muscles which would hold our spines 'straight' and our bodies erect. Our muscles and ligaments become shortened in the area of our chest, and elongated near our scapula and upper backs, resulting in a slightly (or largely) hunched, round-shouldered posture (and in riding, sometimes a 'turkey neck', as the rider juts his head out at the atlas to counterbalance the weight of his shoulders). When we take this poor posture into our riding, a collapsed rider upper body causes the horse to collapse his 'upper body' (shoulders and forehand). In classical riding, the energy of the rider's upper body is up - and the horse comes with him: the rider's sternum is up, chest open, shoulders relaxed and back, rider thinking 'waist to hands'. This is not physically possible if the rider's shoulders are rounded and the chest 'closed' through poor daily posture.  The rider must first address these issues through exercises on the ground, since attempting to correct them only in the saddle may result in stiff shoulders and back. The next most common defect in rider seat is a collapsed pelvis. This often goes hand in hand with the collapsed upper back. The muscles which hold the pelvis upright are connected to the bottom of the ribcage. If the ribcage is collapsed (due to the collapse of the upper body) the rider does not have the control over his pelvis he needs in order to give a refined seat aid, and the pelvis may even rock forward and backward, tossed about by the movement of the horse's back. Thinking 'waist to hands' engages these muscles in a manner which holds the pelvis upright, but does not result in stiffness in the back. The core muscles are engaged, but the lower back remains entirely elastic. Additionally, the hip joints will open, allowing the rider’s legs to fall naturally. Not only do the above defects inhibit the rider's ability to give a refined aid, they make the rider feel even heavier on the horse's back. Many Warmbloods do a remarkably good job of carrying such a rider, but put our sack of potatoes on a less tolerant, highly sensitive horse, and immediately the horse will hollow his back away from the rider. Ideally, the energy of the rider's lower body should flow down from the pelvis, over the thighs and knees and through the balls of the feet (gravity working), just as the energy of his upper body is up. This allows the rider to adjust his pelvis and seat bones, using the weight of his seat as an aid. These minute, well timed seat aids are quite different from the misguided attempts by some riders to 'drive' their horse with their seat by bearing down on his back. Such efforts will only cause the horse to drop his back away from the discomfort, and some very sensitive horses may even come to a complete stop in protest (or possibly take off running in order to 'escape') .
     I'd like to address very briefly flexions, practiced  by some of the French classical school, and first used by Baucher in the 19th century to supple the horse's jaw and adjust his balance. I do not wish to become involved in the debate over flexions, except to say that they are not necessary to the correct schooling of the horse, and incorrect usage of them can cause problems in the foundation of the horse's schooling. Flexions, as they are practiced in the French tradition, should only be taught by and taught to, rider's with impeccable tact, impeccable timing, and an impeccable rider seat. Attempts by those with less education and less skill and tact often have horrible results, with the rider literally pulling his horse's head this way and that in order to 'supple' him. I've heard instructors ask students, "Well, you've seen a horse reach around to remove a fly from his side, haven't you?" I'd like to respond to that, "Yes, but only when the horse is at a complete standstill, never in motion, and never in an 'on the bit' outline". Since these rein aids are given by the tactless rider at random moments, the horse does not find them comprehensible and may even perceive them as punishment. The result is more front to back riding, the biomechanics of which are opposite to that of the horse who is over-flexed in his spine through the rider's harsh attempts to 'make the horse round' with his hands. Rather than leaning on the hand like the over-flexed horse, the horse who is aided with ill-timed flexions may come to distrust the rider's hand, thus disturbing the contact. Rather than an over-flexed spine, the horse may hollow his back as he lifts his head in response to over-active rider hands.  Personally, I have found that lifting one rein as a correction to a bulging or leaning shoulder, or to raise a dropped poll (if a half halt failed) can be a useful correction, but when it comes to asking the horse to remain relaxed in his jaw and poll, hands that aid in a sympathetic manner (quiet but ‘alive’) never fail to do wonders. As for making the horse’s back supple, only proper gymnastic work practiced over a period of time will actually strengthen and stretch muscles and ligaments. One cannot ‘supple’ the horse's back by pulling on his head any more than I can ‘supple’ my shoulders by pulling on my arm. Even if you feel a momentary ‘give’ in a horse’s ‘stuck’ position, this will not last, as you are not actually stretching the appropriate soft tissue. Oftentimes it is the ribcage which is ‘stuck’. Pulling on the horse’s head and neck do nothing to correct this in-balance and can only hinder long term efforts to straighten the horse. Only tactful riding of well planned exercises has lasting results. My advise: since innumerable master's of horsemanship have schooled horses without these means, I strongly advise rider's not to convince themselves that they are among the few who have the tact to use flexions to advantage, particularly if they have not been schooled in this over a long period of time by someone of this school.
     If all of this sounds rather complicated, that’s because it is. Dressage is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the impatient or simple minded. One cannot learn dressage from a book, although study to understand theory is absolutely necessary. Once theory is understood, the rider must be able to feel it on the horse and then be able to practice it in schooling the horse. Likewise, when the rider feels something, he must go back to theory to understand what it is he feels. Most importantly,  he needs a well trained eye to tell him when he has ‘got it’. It’s a bit of a circular learning process, and since it’s so easy to misunderstand what one feels or to misinterpret what one reads, instruction from someone who themselves has gone through this process is absolutely necessary. Dressage is one of those disciplines where a little bit of knowledge is a very bad thing. If the horse is unable to comply with a request, the rider should look to himself first: is the rider sitting properly or unintentionally blocking with his body; did the rider ask in a manner the horse can understand (based on previous training); did the rider set up an exercise where the horse was in an optimal position to fulfill the request; most importantly, has the horse been prepared physically (and psychologically) for what was asked. Asking the horse to ‘yield’ to the rider’s aids is a basic part of training. That is precisely why someone with quite a bit of experience and education should oversee the training of the horse - so the rider knows when his request was given with tact, and when he has given it in a way that the horse is unable to comply. If your ‘dressage trainer’ continually blames your horse for a bad attitude - find another one. If your instructor offers you one ‘tool’ after another, but cannot tell you the purpose of what they ask (or you find there is no long term benefit) seek someone with better qualifications. Everyone and their sister offers dressage instruction today. Riders who otherwise have a lot of experience in other disciplines and  possibly some real talent, often consider themselves experts after taking a handful of dressage lessons, or even reading a book or two. The ability to confidently bellow out well appointed phrases may at first impress. Possibly such an instructor may even give helpful flat work lessons to a novice rider. But, the rider/owner should be aware that should they later wish to specialize in dressage, their horse will likely need some amount of re-schooling, and they will likely need to undo some bad habits which they’ve formed. Although the lower levels of dressage should constitute the basic training of every horse, this is not the case today. Be careful before entrusting your dream horse to one of our self-appointed experts. If any harm comes to your horse, their life will go on as usual, but you will be feel devastated and betrayed, and your equine companion may suffer lasting consequences.