Wednesday, February 24, 2010

various thoughts on judging, assessing the use of force, and the FEI's ability to adhere to the standards already in place

Arlene shared this quote in yesterday's comments:

What the horse does under done without understanding...and there is no beauty in it.

- Xenophon

Xenophon's statement perfectly frames our shift from yesterday's post and comments to today's, which has to do with stewards having clear criteria to follow when monitoring warm-ups, and which also connects to what comes after the warm-up: the ride itself.

Maire wrote:

How is a steward to decide if aggressive force is used? What about horses that have such force used at home and therefore have learned to submit to LDR? That cannot be judged. Dressage judging is subjective and I think that the steward judging of warm up rides will also have to be subjective. What is aggression? Is it a braced position on the part of the rider? Is it obvious signs of discomfort such as swishing tale, excessive sweating and these signs could also be argued the other way?

Maire has described the difficulty in very exact terms, asking what I believe are the critical questions the FEI's working group has to address.

Particularly important, I think, is the possibility that aggressive force used at home leads to learned helplessness and submission on the part of the horse, who then offers little resistance in the warm-up arena. How can a steward address that?

Dougie wrote:

I think the definition of LDR needs to be expanded into a really simple "If you see this (description of look/behaviour by horse and/or rider) this is what you should do."

That level of clarity would help everyone develop a much higher level of common understanding of what is/isn't acceptable & people would then start to self-analyse & change their behaviours, coz they know they won't be allowed to do what they've previously done.

From such small acorns, great oaks grow.

Dougie has come to what is needed - absolute clarity, with very specific criteria that become second-nature as they are implemented.

Which brings me to something I was thinking about last night as I read over the comments: in many sports, there are elements of subjectivity in judging, and to some degree we have to accept that if we use humans to judge. Having very clear criteria make it less subjective and easier to achieve consistency across many rides.

However, I'm going to say something here that might seem as if I'm leaning in the other direction. I feel that at the upper levels of the equine sport, the judging can get so technical and so focused on the movements and the extravagance of gait, that common sense is tossed out the window.

The image of a horse with muzzle to chest, or even muzzle behind the vertical, noseband cranked tight, curb rein nearly horizontal, mouth gagging open, eyes either fearful or worried or more disturbing, simply resigned, tail swishing, spurs active, tremendous sweat and foam and saliva - how hard is it to see and to judge that this is not correct, not good, and unworthy of reward? Many of the upper level rides that are winning seem to have completely skipped both rhythm and relaxation.

Instead of looking only at movement, or how far and high the front legs extend, how about telling the stewards and the judges to simply look at the horse's face? Look at the horse's back. At the tail. Is there a happy, relaxed demeanor? Is there a lovely soft swing through the back? Is the tail making that beautiful S-shaped swing at the trot? Are the hind legs tracking properly?

These are things I look for when my daughter rides her 12.2h pony in our modest backyard arena. Why can't these basic, standard signs of rhythm and relaxation be used at the upper levels, where they are even more important?

I remind you of the standards that I downloaded months ago from the FEI's website:

Chapter I Dressage
The object of dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the rider.

These qualities are revealed by:
• The freedom and regularity of the paces.
• The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements.
• The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the
hindquarters, originating from a lively impulsion.
• The acceptance of the bit, with submissiveness/throughness
(Durchlässigkeit) without any tension or resistance.

2. The horse thus gives the impression of doing, of its own accord, what is required. Confident and attentive, submitting generously to the control of the athlete, remaining absolutely straight in any movement on a straight line and bending accordingly when moving on curved lines.

3. The walk is regular, free and unconstrained. The trot is free, supple, regular and active. The canter is united, light and balanced. The hindquarters are never inactive or sluggish. The horse responds to the slightest indication of the athlete and thereby gives life and spirit to all the rest of its body.

4. By virtue of a lively impulsion and the suppleness of the joints, free from the paralysing effects of resistance, the horse obeys willingly and without hesitation and responds to the various aids calmly and with precision, displaying a natural and harmonious balance both physically and mentally.

5. In all the work, even at the halt, the horse must be “on the bit”. A horse is said to be “on the bit” when the neck is more or less raised and arched according to the stage of training and the extension or collection of the pace,
accepting the bridle with a light and consistent soft submissive contact. The
head should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the vertical, with a supple poll as the highest point of the neck, and no resistance should be offered to the athlete.

6. Cadence is shown in trot and canter and is the result of the proper harmony that a horse shows when it moves with well-marked regularity, impulsion and balance. Cadence must be maintained in all the different trot or canter exercises and in all the variations of these paces.

7. The regularity of the paces is fundamental to dressage.

I believe all judges should go through remedial training in 2010 to review the EXISTING standards. From the FEI level all the way down to local schooling shows. As recently as last summer, my daughter received a comment from a judge that said "shorten the reins and get your pony on the bit." This was in an intro level class.

If you were a 12-year old girl, what message would you take from that comment? In my opinion the ongoing focus on getting horses "on the bit" contributes mightily to the image of holding the horses' heads in a "frame" rather than learning to get horses correctly "on the aids" and moving with rhythm and relaxation, the first two steps of the training scale. Contact shouldn't be in the picture until the first two are achieved.

Even at a local schooling show, the winner of the show was an adult professional rider, who rode the entire test with her big warmblood's nose several inches behind the vertical. At intro level.

As recently as this week my daughter and I received an email from our local Pony Club, in which dressage was described as a discipline in which being "on the bit" was the most important thing. Again, what does this say to our young riders? The bit, the reins, the hands, the horse's head are the focus. Not the hindquarters, not the rider's seat, not the horse's entire body being in relaxation before any contact is attempted.

Part of why I am so adamant about the rollkur issue is that I feel if we correct the riding and the treatment of the horses at the TOP, those effects will ripple all the way down to the schooling arenas and shows and backyard arenas, where little girls and boys will learn to ride their ponies with kindness and correctness. Isn't that why the standards are in place? Shouldn't the riders at the top be examples of those same standards?

As far as I'm concerned, the FEI cleaning things up at the top has the potential to help create better riders and happier ponies and horses all over the world, which is the number one reason why it is so important that they take this seriously and do what needs to be done in as straightforward a manner as they can.

I've gone off on a slight rampage here, so feel free to rein me back in (no rollkur, please!) and share your thoughts.


I wanted to add Malina's comment that just came through on yesterday's post:


Thank you again for the opportunity to converse with you and your readers.

In order to ensure practical results in less than two months, the working group had to be kept small. It is important to note however that the working group will be consulting widely outside of its membership.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Jacques Van Daele, FEI Honorary Steward General for Dressage, is on the working group. He has served at hundreds of FEI events from the lowest to the highest level over many years and is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced stewards working with the FEI. John Roche, who is FEI’s director for stewarding, is also a working group member.

The FEI has put in place a new education programme for stewards. All stewards officiating at international events will have to go through this programme in order to gain the best possible understanding of FEI rules and regulations and to be in a position to perform their tasks in the most informed and efficient way.

I hope that this information is of interest.

All the best,


Thanks, Malina - that is indeed interesting information and I'm very happy to hear about the stewards officiating at international events going through an education programme.

Will the education programme be available for use by stewards officiating at lower level events? I would hope that all stewards could have access to it and would be encouraged to take part.

And further, will the material covered by the programme be available for the general public? I personally would be extremely interested in the information. It might be just the thing to push me into volunteering for stewarding positions in local competition - they always seem to need extra help.


Kate said...

It's all there in the training scale - people in all disciplines make the profound error of "riding the head" instead of developing self-carriage with the whole of the horse's body. It's easy to get a frame, but that's got nothing to do with the training scale.

Grey Horse Matters said...

It's hard to expand on what is staring everyone in the face. Simply read the rules and follow them the way they are stated.

I don't really know the criteria for becoming a judge in dressage since I've spent most of my life as an equitation/hunter rider and have only recently embraced dressage.

It would seem common sense to me that anyone who desires to become a judge should need to get an education in classes and take tests pertaining to the rules of the discipline they intend to judge and should also apprentice to knowledgeable judges.

I'm glad to see they will be implementing education programs for stewards. Then again it's all subjective once they leave the program isn't it? Being human everyone has a different take on what is right before their eyes. I agree with Dougie that everything needs to be put clearly and concisely. It wouldn't be a bad idea for the judges to take a refresher course too. I mean after all how did the sport get this far wrong from where it started, it had to be allowed to happen and one can only wonder why...

Jane said...

On the issue of subjectivity, why not install video cameras in the warm up arena of the high level competition shows? It takes pressure off the stewards, who can defend their calls: tape can be reviewed, paused and angles proven.

If this proves to be a logistical nightmare, why not live streaming video? If enough people complain about the same horse/rider combo, stewards and judges will be alerted.

Also, if riders *know* they are being taped, I suspect much of the practice would discontinue. It takes it out of the "judgement call" category and offers a chance to review from an unbiased source: the camera.

billie said...

Thanks for commenting - I appreciate it, especially since so few people are!

jme said...

i agree with the other comments here that this new language leaves way too much up to individual interpretation. i am quite certain that what i consider 'aggressive' riding is very different from what 95% of the competitive world thinks. at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some who can look at a horse with holes in its sides from spurs and blood in its gaping mouth and think that is 'acceptable.'

we need clear definitions, and we need those willing to enforce them. of course, i wouldn't know where to begin with defining them, because for me, as you say, it's all in the horse's eyes and body language. and it is a rare judge or steward in the competitive world these days who can truly read a horse - or who cares to.

on a separate note, i agree with the comment in #7 above that too much emphasis is placed on the externals of 'frame' from the beginning, rather than on balance and fluidity, which can be achieved on a long rein as well. i'd like to see tests at all levels include free work in all paces, which would surely show up all the holes in a faulty training regime. if a horse is dependent on being held together by the rider's hand at all times it has been improperly schooled, and the best way to test for that may be requiring some 'off the bit' riding in tests too. at the very least, it would give these poor horses a few minutes relief!

jme said...

i was pondering this one again and forgot to add that i also mean the threshold for 'aggressive' riding will be different for each horse. the kick in the ribs or nudge with the spur that the big, cold horse shrugs off might completely terrorize a more sensitive horse; firm bit pressure might give confidence to one and be torture for another. whatever criteria are developed for assessing appropriate riding, they should first and foremost be concerned with gauging the individual horse's responses to his particular rider.

again, the sympathetic eye of an educated judge is absolutely necessary. such an eye can, imo, also spot a horse who has been regularly schooled in rollkur, learned helplessness, etc., which is why, if formal standards and criteria can not be properly defined (they probably can't) and weighed objectively, educating judges and stewards in these finer points becomes all-important.