Sunday, May 31, 2009
the view from the porch and a few thoughts on dressage
It's been a hot day and a lazy one. I've not done much of anything and yet the day has slipped by, hour by hour, until now it's evening and dusk is turning the sun to shadow outside. The cats are lazing on the front porch, and horses are grazing in various spots until later when they'll all go out to the field for the evening.
Last night my daughter and I went to the annual dressage competition that attracts a lot of upper level riders and horses. I hoped as we drove over that I wouldn't see anything that caused me to regret supporting the show. Unfortunately the very first ride we saw was a young rider doing an FEI pony class, and between her rigid hands, the tight noseband, flash, and her quite agitated rotating leg jabs, the pony was straining to open his mouth, showing the whites of his eyes, and threatening to spook and/or bolt about every 5 strides. He was the very image of a horse pushed to explosion, but he didn't. She held him in from every angle and as far as I'm concerned, he was being a saint not to spontaneously combust out from under her.
This was not my idea of dressage, and it was difficult to watch, but we stayed on and were happy to see more harmonious riding later in the afternoon and evening.
My eyes roamed from the horses' mouths to the riders' legs and then up to the hands again. It was no surprise that quiet, kind hands and legs plus a relaxed mouth/jaw/poll yielded elegant, fluid rides.
I found this quote earlier in the week, and it was appropriate last night as I watched many horses and riders, most at the upper levels of the sport. Only a few had what Albrecht is talking about.
The “aids” that have become a technical term in horsemanship are no real help for the horse, as long as he perceives them clearly as interference from the outside. They only deserve to be called “aids” when they blend into the horse’s movement so seamlessly that the horse’s desired response becomes “instinctual” and that the rider’s “orders” direct the horse without him perceiving it this way. The observer on the outside will therefore always have to get the impression that “the rider thinks and the horse carries out on his own.
-Kurt Albrecht (1996; translation: T. Ritter)
There were many illustrations of collected work, including the piaffe, the pirouette, and tempi changes. Some were truly beautiful and others looked forced and almost mechanical, and it isn't hard to imagine those mechanical renderings of what should be freely flowing movement creating, over the longer term, joint issues.
Ritter's quote reminded me of the conversation my daughter and I had on our way home last night, having to do with which of our horses would be good at what higher level movements. In my mind that's as it should be - the work should come out of what comes naturally and beautifully to the individual horse. Our pony does levades in the field and I'm sure he could easily be taught to do them in hand. Cody has a natural piaffe that is quite beautiful. Keil Bay floats when he does an extended trot. Salina has the style and elegance to do flying changes that even an amateur rider can sit with ease.
I've experienced some mistaken upper level movements on Keil Bay, and for all I know, that may be the closest he and I come to a canter pirouette. But when it happened, it was fluid and graceful and I sat it well because I had no idea it was coming and it was over before I could start trying to control it. On some level, I love the concept of "accidental dressage" and now that I think of it, it's the sort of sport Keil Bay and I can manage quite nicely. :)
In the course of his education a horse will sooner or later offer most dressage movements on his own, either out of a misunderstanding or as an evasion - travers, counter canter, flying changes, piaffe, passage, even airs above the ground. So, in order to "train" the horse to do them, the rider merely has to seize the right moment and polish what the horse is offering. Before the right time has come, however, the thinking rider will not punish the horse for the premature execution of a movement he wants him to perform at some point in the future. Rather, he will observe and remember the circumstances that made the horse volunteer the movement, so he can use them to his advantage when the time has come.
I watched the faces of the riders, and the ones who impressed me were the ones who kept the same focused expression no matter what the horse did. It was nice to see the smiles when things went well, but better still seeing the measured faces of patience and acceptance, because you know when you see that in a competition, the horse has experienced it at home.
The biggest enemy to the partnership of dressage is impatience and the human nature to dominate other creatures.
There were a few idiot people walking around, as usual. One supposed trainer and competitor sat behind us during the Grand Prix musical freestyles and did loud, piercing catcall whistles when the winning horses rode their victory lap, in an effort to make the horses spook. I felt like spooking myself, and in the process accidentally belting her one.
There were several musical freestyles that were good, but only one that revealed a horse and rider in their element with the music and the movement. The crowd responded with spontaneous applause a number of times during the ride, and a huge ovation afterward. The judges rewarded the pair with winning scores, and that was good enough to overpower the noise of the banshee behind us.
Today the only horse movement going on here is tail swishing and the occasional snort and shake of the head. We're pondering dressage from the porch while the temperatures fall. As far I'm concerned every equine here gets a blue ribbon.
For true equestrian art there are no recipes and no tricks, regardless of what saddle we ride in. One has to learn that the greatest attention must be paid to the seemingly easiest things and that that is often the most difficult thing. One of the most important principles for a rider is always to put the horse first, in other words, to look out for his wellbeing in his stabling, care, and training. The moment the human starts working with the horse determines whether he will become a great athlete and artist who will be able to look back on a long, healthy life, or whether his path ends all too soon due to poor handling and incorrect work. With knowledge, time, discipline, and body control it is possible to bring the horse almost without training aids into a relaxed position by honest work. You don't have to reach the highest level, but you must always have the feeling that whatever you have accomplished was accomplished well and with honest work. Then you and your horse will always be content.
- Dorothee Baumann-Pellny (Im Damensattel: Eine Reitlehre f�r die Frau, Olms Press - 1997; translation: T. Ritter)