Competitive Dressage Could Interest Me If….

There has been some heated discussion recently among the dressage crowd, competitive and otherwise, that has given me hope that there might be people out there who do truly wish to demonstrate how they and their mount can work in harmony.   The good thing about controversy is that it does push people to speak up, so I am putting my two cents out there.  I’d give competitive dressage another look:

  • If the top eight horses at every level had to complete a mandatory quadrille in order to receive their ribbons

Face it, folks, for most people watching dressage competitions is about as interesting as watching paint dry. Spectators like watching quadrilles.  Horses enjoy riding in formation as it comes close to herd activity and some sensible social behavior on the part of the humans.  On the down side, there are sure to be squeals of complaint from the competitors, claiming that that would be unfair and too hard and so on but the truth is that:

  1. if you can successfully ask your horse to make transitions at a certain point in the ring and
  2. if you can successfully ask your horse to moderate their gait and stride

which are the fundamental skills every dressage test requires, you can ride a quadrille. So, the underlying kicker for competitors is the realization that if your dressage mount cannot do these things in the company of other horses, you had better take a long hard look at how you are training them. Because:

‘The test of a real horseman

Is his ability to manage his horse;

To suppress all resistances

due to lack of training

or stubbornness.

What then are we to think

Of complicated principles

By which we occasionally obtain,

It is true, some airs, more or less bizarre,

But which do not teach us

How to take our horse

WHERE WE WISH,

WHEN WE WISH

AS WE WISH.’

Horse Training Outdoor and High School

by E. Beudant

If the lower levels of dressage tests are actually meant to help people and horses learn, there are three legitimate combinations of horse and rider:

  1. Experienced rider and green horse
  2. Novice rider and experienced horse
  3. Novice rider and green horse

Unfortunately the combination that takes home far too many of the ribbons in the lower level tests is:

  • the ‘second-level’ horse that has been taken through the lower level tests so many times they are  thoroughly ‘routined’ and that is ridden by
  • the gullible students of unethical and/or incompetent trainers who persuade them that learning to ride upper level movements is  as unlikely and unpredictable a prospect as winning the lottery.

I realize this statement will anger many in the field of competitive dressage but frankly, a ‘dressage’ trainer whose horses consistently top out at second level does not know what they are doing.

‘ I have many times repeated that

The great stumbling block

of training is the

folly of mistaking effects for causes-

the folly of attacking effects instead of causes.

This is especially true in the haute ecole.

There, as in all other delicate situations,

The key to success is lightness.

Without lightness

It is difficult if not impossible

To execute any but the simplest movements,

With it,

Nothing is difficult,’

Pg 71 Beudant

A physically sound horse that is correctly started and ridden will begin to offer upper level movements of their own accord as they develop the strength and coordination to do so. Competitive dressage does need to clean its house so please:

  • Require horse/rider combinations at the lower levels to move up once they have received a certain score, say 65-70 points, riding a specific test at a specific level

Yes, this may reduce the number of people riding in the lower levels and that will cut into the dollars that support the USDF. However increasing the number of riders in the upper levels could offset that loss. Since there are those out there who are excellent riders and trainers but who for whatever reason do not ride the breed of the moment, the USDF could  follow the lead of the Westminster Dog Show and:

  • award prizes to ‘Best of Breed’ instead of penalizing people for showing an off-breed of horse

Yes, it will make the judges do their homework as a Halflinger, an Akhel Teke, a Lusitano, and/or a mule are all going to move quite differently even if they are trained according to the same principles. Then, just to keep everyone on their toes, have the:

  • Best of Breed compete in Best of Show

And make Best of Show a prize worth winning. The French cavalry made a practice of testing horse and rider by having them perform various upper level movements as they were called out instead of riding a memorized test. Instead of a quadrille, I’d love to see a baker’s dozen upper level horses all turn across the short side of the ring and perform the piaffe on the center line on demand.

  • Yes, it would be a challenge.
  • Yes, people would make mistakes.
  • Yes those mistakes would get you disqualified.
  • Yes, how you trained and rode your horse would matter

It would be a genuine competition. Spectators might actually be interested in watching.  Horsemanship might actually be rewarded.

And closest to my heart:

  • Offer a ‘Light Hands’ option at all levels

The English horse master Colonel M. F. McTaggart used a pair of reins made out of paper and thread to demonstrate how well trained his horses were. Competition would require some sort of uniformity in the breakability of the rider’s reins, so perhaps using 10 lb test fishing line instead of thread would work. A rider that completes a test with their breakable reins intact gets a ‘light hands’ bonus. If the idea takes off, have ‘light hands’ classes where everybody rides with such reins and breaking one disqualifies the rider. That would be a class worth watching and horsemanship worth emulating!

If I take the liberty of substituting competition for book, the USDF and competitive dressage riders might be able to apply John Richard Young’s advice to the show ring:

‘’I believe that a worthy competition

on horsemanship

for young riders

must offer a goal

which even the best of them

can attain

only by diligent effort…

And if you would like to win both your horse’s goodwill and the judge’s approval:

Be patient.

Persist.

You may taste the exasperating bitterness of failure at times,

But you will never fail irrevocably

If you are always willing to try again.

A good horseman

Always has a high

And ever higher goal to achieve-

And the moment you lose this,

You are finished.

That is why this competition,

Rather than being ‘easy’

Is meant to be a challenge.

Its purpose is not only to instruct

But to prod

And provoke

And inspire.

The rest is up to you.’

Schooling for Young Riders

By John Richard Young

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