July 22, 2009

Is forward always good?

A tendency within the dressage sport lately has been to favour horses with a hotter temperament.
Which is not always so easy to ride unfortunately.
I have seen some riding lately that has made me wonder.
Riding in high tempo, with horses out of balance and on the forhand.

So when one of the dressage Nestors in Sweden, Bo Tibblin, had a post in the major Swedish equestrian magazine a while back where he touched this subject, I read with interest.
He was reflecting on what he sees in dressage shows on regional level.
He is looking for the basics in dressage riding, i.e. balance, rhythm, exactness and supportive riding - but is seeing much of a constructed balance which has its origin in the hands of the rider, and where the horse is working in such a high tempo that balanced turns and movements are made impossible.
And as a result he questions the education of trainers and judges.

I find this very interesting, also his conclusion that you have to look at the source, with those who set the standards - judges and trainers.

I am returning to the dressage basics again - but it is really such a good base to work from, so you have to excuse me for being repetitive.
The German training scale is acknowledged all over the world as the base for dressage education for the horse.
It is like follows:


The first three makes the foundation, and are so important as they aim for the horse to rediscover his balance under the rider.
So what do they mean?

Rhythm. The horse has to have a clear four-beat walk, a trot that keeps the same rhythm in collection and extension, and a true three-beat canter where you also keep the rhythm in movements, collections and extensions. Rhythm is a function of mental and physical relaxation. A tense horse often loses the rhythm.

Suppleness. The horse has to be loose and supple in the body, without any tensions or stiffnesses. The horse has to swing over the back to achieve a forward motion without locking up in neck, poll or hocks. He has to flex in the body and tackle changes in direction or gaits without tensing up or changing rhythm.

Contact. It is not only contact to the bit, but an acceptance of the rider's seat and aids. We need the horse to accept and respond to the aids while keeping a round outline with a soft,steady and even contact on the bit and with a relaxed jaw and mouth.

These first three building blocks are linked together, intertwined.

Far too often you can see riders that tries to solve a contact problem (getting the horse on the bit) by sending the horse forward in an attempt to get "impulsion", while forgetting about the rhythm and suppleness.
It won't work.

So what happens if you put in more energy than the horse can handle?

He will run, increase speed and get on the forehand. And you will lose balance and rythm. And he might tense up, or you might get problems with the contact as he either gets heavy in the hands through being on the forhand, or braces against you.
Maybe it is the request of suppleness/relaxation that most often is sacrificed or forgotten?
It takes time to build the necessary strength, balance and understanding in the horse. There are no real shortcuts. And your horse has to work in a relaxed frame of mind if he is to learn in an efficient way.

If your ground is weak, you will get problems in the work to come.

We have to get the first three building blocks established first before we can get to the second phase - the development of thrust from the hindquarters, impulsion.
Impulsion is that which creates the beautiful spring in the steps, the ability to carry in the hindlegs and the power and grace of the dressage horse.

Only when the horse through consistent training has aquired strength enough we can put in more energy and get the horse to move with more impulsion - while keeping the balance, the rhythm, and staying supple - and not only speed on forward.
All forward is not good.
Forward does not equal impulsion.

Now reading this it sounds a bit black and white, and riding is not that easy - is it?
What we are speaking about here is really a marsh full of shades of grey, where it is so easy to step wrong.

Problem is that a dressage horse needs a lot of energy, and he needs to be alert and ready to go forward at all times – being in front of the leg. This often creates some tenseness in the horse, which can be everything from clearly visible to very subtle.
It is so very much a balancing act, and where the pitfalls are situated is depending on each individual horse and rider.
Some horses easily tense up, other loses the rhythm.
Some have problems with the contact.

I am so very grateful to my instructors, who help me to perform this balancing act.
It is a continuous struggle, because to get the necessary hind leg activity you have to have energy in the horse, and during this work you will inevitably also run into problems with rhythm, suppleness and/or contact which has to be addressed and solved.

It is imperative that our guides, the trainers and the judges, are clear and consistent about what is correct.
Otherwise we might get lost on the way.


Kate said...

Very good post - it's not what the horse does but the feel of how the horse does it that matters. Part of the problem is that you can't get good results when you hurry, and hurrying a hotter horse produces very bad results, in my experience. A horse that is leaning on the rider's hands cannot be balanced.

Grey Horse Matters said...

Great informative post. If only everyone would have the patience to master the basics it would be so much better for the horse. Unfortunately, I feel the trainers and judges are to blame for a lot of the problems these days with dressage. Everyone wants to see flashy and showy rides and the judges pin riders who don't deserve it with their poor riding. Everyone is in such a hurry to make some money or get endorsements I think that they just don't give the horses the time they need to come into their own and have relaxed flowing elegant rides.

Di said...

I agree wholeheartedly, competition dressage needs a good shake up to say the least. Some of the practises are tantamount to torture for the horse. German/French classical is certainly the way to go. Unfortunately, the standards of competition dressage have taken a nose dive over the last few years. Oops, I'll get off my soapbox.

HorseOfCourse said...

Thanks for your comments, all.

I have been thinking much about this lately as I have seen a merited dressage rider work a couple of younger horses in a high tempo. It has made me wonder why, and wondering whether there is something I’ve missed because it is contradictory to what I have learnt myself.
So when I read the Swedish article I was relieved to hear Tibblin’s comments. Maybe I wasn’t far off after all.

GHM, you wrote: “Everyone wants to see flashy and showy riders”. I agree. I believe much of the problem lies there. A flashy horse looks impressive, right?
But if a flashy but tense horse is placed before a horse that is relaxed and working in a steady rhythm, that is not correct according to the rules.

Di, I agree with you that many things in competition dressage are not as they should be. Hyperflexion/rollkur being the worst example of this.
But I do believe that there are bad apples in all equestrian sports. Some people get too obsessed with getting quick results, unfortunately at the expense of the horse. Rollkur as an example is used just as much with show jumpers, but it has not been discussed as openly. I have heard examples from Western riding that makes me convinced that they also have their share of bad apples.

So how do we solve it?

If you look at dressage riding IMHO the principles and the rules are sound. It is very important to have a continuous, open discussion going on about what they say, and what is correct or not.
And subsequently what should be rewarded or not at shows.
I also believe that it is a good idea to focus more on regional levels as that is where the bulk of riders are, where the foundation is laid, and where the judges/trainers have less experience.
I agree with Tibblin that the key to this must be to focus on further education of judges and trainers in order to keep their licenses, and through this secure the correct education of the horses and riders.

wilsonc said...

Very very good post. Thank you.

Di said...

Couldn't agree more, well said HOC!

stillearning said...

Good stuff! Thanks!

You said: It is a continuous struggle, because to get the necessary hind leg activity you have to have energy in the horse, and during this work you will inevitably also run into problems with rhythm, suppleness and/or contact which has to be addressed and solved.
What a perfect description of my ride today! It's nice to know that I'm not alone in my struggle.

jme said...

thanks for a great post! i couldn't agree more. i have always been averse to this constant driving forward i see in dressage, and have resisted it when trainers have demanded "forward! forward! more impulsion!" i always felt like i am running the poor horse off his feet :-\ i don't see the benefit in it, and watching it in the arena looks so unnatural. the horses almost start racking they are running so fast.

"Far too often you can see riders that tries to solve a contact problem (getting the horse on the bit) by sending the horse forward in an attempt to get 'impulsion'"

exactly. the horse doesn't come onto the bit because he is being forced forward into it - he might BRACE against the bit, but it's not the same as being ON THE BIT! impulsion, in my experience, has nothing to do with being on the bit. and only a horse that is already correctly on the bit can be asked for proper, supple impulsion, so it seems to me a lot of riders are working in the wrong direction.

worse, each horse is built differently and has it's own natural style of movement. my dutch horse take naturally long, slow, round strides. if i rush him he gets tense, choppy and unbalanced. my trakehner has a faster, more up and down stride (which is why he was such a quick jumper,) and i can go very forward all day without any problems - in fact he prefers to be quick and has more difficulty slowing his paces and adopting a longer stride. but recognizing that they are both different for me means riding them as individuals and not trying to make them into horses they aren't by chasing one forward all the time and holding the other back. trying to make every horse fit into one style doesn't work and generally creates tension, which in turn destroys everything!

HorseOfCourse said...

Thanks for your comments!

stillearning - no, you are definately not alone in your struggle, lol!
This area is what has been occupying Fame and me the last year (and for sure since I started to ride her)
I am now starting to ask her for more impulsion, but I have to watch the three base requirements as a hawk.
We had two very good lessons with the Danish trainer just before I put her out on summer pasture, I haven't written about them, time was too short at the time - but he gave us good help and I was very happy with my horse :-)
Nothing fancy, we worked on basics and to get more impulsion and hind leg activity, but she responded well and it is such a treat to sit on them when you are feeling at one with your horse.
Happy, happy!
But you know, I believe that this basic work is what every (dressage) rider often has to return to, whatever level he/she is working at.
So we are in good company, don't you think?
How are things going at your side?

jme, thanks for joining!
Your description of your two horses is a very good illustration both to the topic and to riding in general, I believe.
No, we can never ride two horses the same way.
Which makes riding so challenging.
So I believe we just have to try and do our best, respecting our horses and and try to get a bit wiser while we are on this journey.
Charles de Kunffy is not only a master with horses, but also with words:
"Riding is a quest, not a conquest"
I just love those words.

stillearning said...

HOC, things are going well, actually.

It's helping to think of my horse as a teen-ager, rather than having a resistant personality...same actions on his part, but a more hopeful outlook for me. I try not to fight with him, just quietly insist that he listen.

It's been a help to use forward to get straight. It's also helpful to be reminded not to ask for too much forward.

I'm also seeking the balance between being firm and being too strong. I'm experimenting with a very active, but light, leg aid to get him working as opposed to a stronger aid, with good results. And the "fluffing" with one or both legs is loosening my hips, which tend to tighten, so it's good for everything.

I've been able to get lighter with my hands as my legs get busier.

I've also convinced my semi-retired teacher of the need to give me more frequent lessons.

Here's a chuckle for you: today His Majesty was not feeling much like working at first, so I totally forgot I had carrots in my pocket. But my horse didn't. After he (finally) got moving and was swinging along, relaxed, soft and forward, I stopped to give him a break. He turned his head completely around and I was sure he was pointing to my pocket, looking for his good-boy carrot, which he actually deserved. Made me laugh. He's one smart guy.

HorseOfCourse said...

Stillearning - yes, that made me chuckle!
Aren't they just marvellous, our horses!
I am happy things are going well. I particulary liked your setting
"I've been able to get lighter with my hands as my legs get busier."
That's a good sign. When the hind legs are working, it creates that nice suction feeling in the reins from a good, honest contact on the bit.
It is easier both to keep the hands still, and to sit into the horse.

Have you read Kate's (A year with horses) posts on the Mark Rashid clinics?
Much food for thought there. Check it out!

stillearning said...

HOC, Thanks for the tip about Mark Rashid. There certainly is a lot there to digest. I'm especially interested in "not participating in the brace" and "clearly picturing what I want my horse to do (and how) before asking". Very intersting.

I also had my first lesson in awhile this morning, and got lots of food for thought there. My trainer was happy with the relaxation, rhythm, and connection--but felt that we were getting too comfortable in the "long & low" stage and need to ramp it up a bit. I was to ask for more work (engagement) while asking him to stay slightly higher in the front--and he responded well.

This is fun! Maybe our time of "practicing scales" is paying off.

HorseOfCourse said...

That sounds good, stillearning!
How satisfying to hear that the work that has been done have been correct, and so nice to get a confirmation that it is time to step up. Congratulations!

Playing scales pays off.
I read "Tug of War - Classical versus "Modern Dressage" by Gerd Hauschmann this summer (interesting read) where he very strongly emphasized the need to work the (young) horse long and low, to build enough strength.

I find that when I ride by myself I tend to stay with what feels harmonious, so I need my trainer to push us forward sometimes.
But then if we run into problems (which you often do when you ask for more) you have someone to hold your hand, and help to sort things out.

What about a blog?

stillearning said...

No blog. I spend too much time on the computer as it is!