Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Digression

In between blogs on tack, I'd like to talk a bit about the concepts of cadence and riding in lightness.
When you pour through the riding treatises of the classical period, you rarely come across the word cadence. La Gueriniere uses it in connection with the Passage, but not anywhere else. The masters of yesteryear were, seemingly, far more interested in lightness in the application of the aids and the sensitvity of the horse's response to them. La Gueriniere talks about the "descente des aides," the cessation of all demands upon the horse, allowing him to carry on whatever he was asked to do. In fact, the assumption was that the trained horse was to continue until asked to do something else, taking responsability for his own self carriage. Impulsion was a constant concern, as was the balance of the horse onto the hindquarters. But cadence, per se, no.
In fact, my observation is thatthere seems to be some conflict between cadence and manueverability, as the more cadenced a horse becomes, often the less he is quick and responsive to sudden movements such as those required on the battlefield(then) or in the bullring(now.)
Likewise, there is an apparent split between brilliance and relaxation, at least the way relaxation is conceived of in dressage these days! We all know that the horses that compete brilliantly at the Olympic levels are High Octane and on Turbo drive, or we do not see the maximum performance from them. However, often, the brilliance comes from tension intentionally created by the rider. The warm up rings at these international competitions are often the scene of such significant "disagreements" between horse and rider, that they look like a battle zone. Heck, lately, some horses come down centerline so tense they refuse to halt at X to begin the test, and many are so tense that their riders refuse to take a victory gallop for fear of a major come-apart! Interesting that the base of the famed German Training Pyramid, i.e. Rhythm and Relaxation, no longer seems applicable.
Now, we are fortunate to be able to view on youtube these days some of the most classically trained bullfighting horses such as the legendary Opus, or Merlin, bursting with self-confidence and energy, performing to astonishing levels in the face of a deadly adversary. Brilliant, yes! Relaxed? Well, it all depends on how you define it. I'd have to say that these horses are not acting in any way like they are being coerced to do their jobs, and that their riders are not creating tension in them but rather that these horses are mentally relaxed, while physically performing brilliantly.
So I'd have to say that any system of training that depends on the need for the rider to create tension in order to perform brilliantly is very different indeed from a system that encourages an energetic, mentally relaxed, self-confident horse, willingly performing to his max.
A friend of mine recently took her Iberian gelding to a classically based trainer for training, and her observations when she took the horse back home were fascinating. First, the trainer worked the horse almost exclusively in hand for two months, because he felt that the horse was deeply disobedient and troubled on the ground, and that fixing this lack of confidence and understanding could do nothing but improve his overall riding performance. At the end of two months, my friend reported that the horse had a newfound work ethic, worked with his haunches underneath him, and was light, respectful, responsive, and UP in the bridle. His poll was definitely the highest point. BUT...he did not take much of a contact with her hand, compared to what she has been used to all her life, had lost much of the "dressage"muscling in his neck and back, and had lost much of his cadence. However, he also no longer dragged himself around on the forehand, and obeyed the aids for collection promptly, with much more brilliance than he formerly did. I should clarify that the horse had been worked in the long lines and in hand in a cavesson.
She has taken him home and put him back in the snaffle; for two days he rode lightly and responsively, but after that, seems to be getting heavier on the hand and less respectful of the aids, even as he becomes more cadenced in his trot again. She has told me that she would like to have both the cadence and the lightness, but she wonders if she will achieve it.
So...Are the two things inimical?
Write me your thoughts and observations!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Cavesson Part 2

So, how does this quasi-miraculous device, the cavesson, work? What are the biomechanic and psychological principles that make it so particularly effective? How is it fitted to the horse? How do we start the horse's education in the cavesson?
First, it was a particularly clever man who first reasoned that since the horse's spinal vertebrae are attached to the skull, not the jaw, it would be more effective to ask the horse to bend his head to the inside of a turn by applying pressure to the front of the skull rather than to the jaw and mouth.
If you apply lateral pressure to your own nose, you know that your head turns freely and without complications, whereas if you try to turn your head by applying pressure to your jaw, things get quickly quite complicated, since you can move your jaw sideways while maintaining your skull straight on your spine.
And indeed, this is what a horse often learns to do in the process of resisting the lateral pressure of a snaffle on the delicate tissues of the mouth. We call it "crossing the jaw", and promptly tighten the noseband to try to stop it. Sometimes this works, but it can then create other problems, such as that of a pinched tongue, which may be pulled back in the mouth or protruded out the side to escape pressure on it.
These problems can be completely avoided by the proper use of the cavesson to teach the young horse to bend laterally.
The cavesson I prefer to use is a simple u-shaped piece of iron, with one, two, or three pillars, depending on the intended use (which I will get into later): covered completely with thick leather, it is integrated into a headstall which fits very much like a bridle, rather than a halter. In Spain, where this device is most widely employed today, the nosepiece is called a serretta, and the entire headstall a cabesada de doma or training halter.
The cavesson needs to be adjusted at least four fingers above the top of the nostril, (or later, one finger above the ring of the bit, so as not to interfere with it). Extremely important is the tightness of the noseband to which it is attached, for if it is too loose, it will move around on the nose and poke into sensitive muscles on the side of the face. If too tight, then we fall into the same sins as those who use a crank noseband and flash. If you can fit one finger comfortably under the part that fits across the front of the nose, then the cavesson is properly adjusted so it will not slide.
It is very helpful to have a strap positioned on the cheekpieces of the headstall, which can be buckled snugly under the jaw, like a throatlatch, only lower on the cheek, to keep the cheekpieces from coming too close to the eyes if the horse pulls strongly sideways. The concept is to have a well-fitting headstall which acts very effectively without causing pain to the horse under ordinary circumstances. A lunge or lead is then attached to either the center ring, or in the case of a 3 ring cavesson, to the ring on the side one is handling the horse from.
The best way to introduce the cavesson to the young horse is in a stall, where it can be done quietly and without violence, and where the horse is not tempted to bolt away if it becomes frightened. It is vitally important to be gentle, but firm and to reward compliant behavior lavishly during these first sessions, so that the animal can conquer its fear and actively engage in the learning process.
When lateral pressure is applied to the cavesson, the horse simply turns its head in response. If downward pressure is applied, the horse quickly learns to lower his nose, sparing a struggle with the bit which might cause pain or injury to the bars or tongue. Likewise, upward pressure should produce a raising of the head and neck. I cannot emphasize enough that one should not lead or lunge the young horse with the cavesson in a large open area until these first lessons are well accepted by the him, so as to avoid any mishaps should the horse become excited. The leather covered cavesson can be severe in rough or ignorant hands, and while it is necessary and desirable to have the extra leverage the cavesson affords in order to control a disobedient and fractious animal, one must not use it to discipline unfairly. This is the case with any tack we use; bits, spurs, whips, stud chains, all can be used judiciously to obtain obedience, or abused,
depending upon the self control of the person wielding them. I do think it is important not to delude ourselves: the goal of training is to subdue a wild creature and tame it to our bidding, and we use reward and punishment to achieve that goal. It is how we conduct this process that will reveal our humanity. Will we do it with compassion, patience, kindness and justice, treating the horse respectfully? Will we always be mindful of the sacrifice the horse makes, and which he feels deeply, that of his freedom ? We must transform that sacrifice into a willing collaboration between human and equine. Unless we do, the horse becomes an automaton, the light of his intelligence and beauty is diminished, and our own soul becomes deadened as well.
Until next time!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Question Everything Part 2: The Cavesson

What is the cavesson? When did it originate? What are its usages, effects and benefits? How does it work?

The cavesson is a metal reinforced noseband, sometimes padded, sometimes simply covered with leather. It can be of flat chain, like a leather covered curb chain, a leather covered U-shaped metal piece with joints on the sides where it attaches to the headstall, or a metal noseband with several joints which must be padded to properly fit the nose. Occasionally one might find it serrated and left uncovered, which is a throwback to a barbarous time, but normally it is leather covered. It may have one, two or three rings, for attaching reins and/or longe line, and these rings may be directly attached, or placed at the end of one inch or 3 inch pillars.

The intended use of the cavesson is twofold: the first is to give a horseman increased control over a fractious young horse or stallion without putting pressure on the horse's mouth, and the second is to teach a young horse to properly bend at the poll, again, without putting pressure on the lips, tongue and jaw. It is often used in Spain and Portugal for showing stallions in hand, and one must say, those horses are well known for their compliant manners.

The cavesson is an ancient device, dating back at least to the 17th Century, where one finds reference to it in "Ecole de Cavalerie" by Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere, who speaks at length about it, with high praise:
"De la Broue, and after him the Duke of Newcastle, attribute such large benefits to the cavesson that I feel myself oblogated to give an account of what each of them has said:
De la Broue states, "that the cavesson was invented to collect, elevate, lighten, teach turning and halting, stabilize the head and croup without hurting the mouth or chin: also to lighten the shoulders, front legs and feet..."
The opinion of the Duke of Newcastle is as follows: "the purpose of the cavesson is to collect, elevate, lighten, teach turning and stopping, supple the neck, confirm the mouth, place the head and croup, keep the mouth sound and whole, (as well as the bars and the part where the curb is placed), bend the shoulders, make them supple and the horse's forearms and legs supple, bend the neck and make it supple..."
"The longe, on the inside of the cavesson, attached to the pommel of the saddle, gives the horse a nice bend, assures and subjects him to a true contact with the hand, and makes him firm on his haunches, especially a horse who pulls or is heavy on the hand, because it prevents him from leaning on the bit."
"A horse trained without a cavesson will never have that pleasing contact that all fine horses must have, which is to be even, steady, and light."
"The cavesson and the bridle are very different in their effects, owing to the difference between the mouth and the nose. If you draw the cavesson upwards with your fingernails turned forward, this will raise the horse's head; if you draw the bridle back with your fingernails up, this will only lower the horse's nose, especially if you keep the bridle hand low.
When working only with the bridle, one can easily make mistakes, unless one is very knowledgeable of the different effects of the different movements of the bridle hand. One must necessarily want to be self deluded if one does not wish to follow so short and sure a route as that of the cavesson attached to the bridle and supported by the bridle."

When one watches contemporary Spanish and Portuguese Masters using the traditional Iberian methods, one is struck by Newcastle's description-it is exactly that of what one sees in the field today! Almost completely absent is the use of the snaffle bit, except for when side reins and a surcingle are used for airs abone the ground or pillars (advanced) work, and this snaffle is a bar bit, to avoid pinching the mouth. The preferred traditional method for starting young horses is that of the cavesson and curb, with the cavesson being used to bend, turn, and lighten the horse, the curb simply resting in the mouth until the horse becomes very well broken in and knows how to stay in self carriage.

More next post

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Question Everything

Most dressage riders don't devote a lot of thought these days to the most basic communication interfaces we have with our horses-our tack. But when one begins to explore the existing classical schools, one of the first things one notices is that the tack they use is not the same as the tack seen in the competitive dressage arena. Given that this difference is not casual, it might be productive to examine that tack, and perhaps gain some insight as to why the classical schools use certain time tested equipment. What, and why?
It wasn't all that long ago that every good horseman knew that a "French" or plain noseband was most humane, allowing the horse to softly mouth, or chew, the bit. The "Two Finger Rule"was accepted knowledge: adjust the noseband two fingers below the point of the horse's cheek bones, and allow two fingers to slip easily between it and the jaw. But this was before the invention of the Crank noseband, and it's adjunct, the Flash, which is designed to be literally "cranked" shut around the horse's lower face, allowing absolutely NO movement of the lower jaw and tongue, all under the guise of stabilizing the bit in the horse's mouth and preventing the horse from sticking his tongue out. (Why woud a horse who has been trained to "give"to the bit and who is ridden by a rider with a soft independent hand stick his toungue out?) Never mind that the Crank is padded-if you can't get two fingers under it, it is abusive.
The horse's lower face is full of proprioceptive nerves, meaning that when these nerves are painfully compressed, the horse loses depth perception, and becomes uncertain of exactly where his feet are while he is in motion. In other words, it unbalances the horse and makes him dependent on the human to guide him, since he cannot reliably feel his way. And never mind the horse's tongue, painfully compressed and forced to stay under a pinching snaffle, without hope of relief. Use of a tight crank noseband and flash can make a sensitive horse nearly crazy with anxiety and claustrophobia, leading to rearing over backwards, running backwards, refusing to go forward, or flipping the head up and down, before finally giving in and submitting to the human. In psychology, this technique is called "Learned Helplessness."and is emotionally and physically devastating to the recipient. It effectively kills all initiative and teaches passive acceptance, even when what is being demanded is painful or frightening.
When did we become so insensitized to what anyone with an observant mind can plainly see is abusive training?
When the rejected horses from the German warmblood breeding establishment were sold to unsuspecting Americans who admired the warmblood movement, (horses whose temperament was not submissive enough to make the grade in Germany) the (women) riders who bought them found themselves too physically weak to control the massive, energetic, and disobedient animals they had imported. They quickly found that they had no idea how to manage their horses, and hired German trainers, who knew how to subdue them. The Crank and the Flash were indisensible tools to that end, and the trainers always wanted the noseband tighter. Nowadays, it is nearly impossible to buy a snaffle bridle without a crank and flash, and few trainers remember the real reason we use a noseband at all.
The REAL reason for a noseband is to support the horse's TMJ joint, so that it doesn't become inflamed and fatigued when maintaining a soft and elastic contact with the rider's hand. It helps and actually allows the horse to relax his jaw and therefore also his poll, when giving to the bit.
Try this simple experiment, which is admittedly limited, since you only act on your teeth and not your tongue here:
Place your index finger sideways in your mouth and then pull down on your lower jaw to imitate the action of a bit. Do this several times, and see if your jaw doesn't begin to ache. Notice that you might be tempted to clench your jaw against the fatigue, and that if your jaw is clenched, your neck muscles also become tense and rigid. Then, place your other index finger under your lower jaw and support it against the downward pressure. Voila! No more stress on the TMJ. You do not need to clench your jaw to support your TMJ. The function of the (properly adjusted) noseband is to support the horse's TMJ so that it doesn't fatigue, and, provided that the horse has been trained to mouth the bit, it allows the horse to move its jaw softly in response to the gentle flexing of the rider's fingers while in contact with the hand. The sensitive tongue can move the bit, and the movement of the tongue frees the muscles which go from the hyoid bone to the sternum, which in turn allows the horse to relax and lift its forehand. This is the classical use of the noseband and the proper understanding of the biomechanical forces at work in achieving contact with the bit.
Next time, we'll examine the use of the cavesson for lungeing and riding.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What IS the classical legacy of Dressage?

To begin, dressage was a system of equitation which evolved in Europe from the 16th Century to the present day. Its original intent was to make a horse useful, supple, happy, obedient, safe, graceful and healthy for riding, either on the field of war, or in the Carrousels and horsemanship exhibitions of Court life. It was, and is, about athleticism, ease, beauty, and lightness of communication, whether for simple pleasure, for art, or for any of the myriad things a rider might undertake with a horse. It is a certain type of training proven to achieve these goals, and it evolved over a period of centuries when horses were the only means of transportation, an essential tool of war, and a character-forming educational occupation of European aristocracy. Classical training, as it grew and changed in response to the increasing enlightenment of society after the Renaissance, came to be based on logic, keen observation: a robust understanding and love of the horse balancing the ever- present and intensely practical necessity for dependability in the face of danger.
What was Classical Dressage at its apex in the 18th Century? This is something we can only glimpse through the writings and engravings of the time, and the teachings preserved at the great European riding schools. Today the move to re-discover dressage’s classical roots reflects the efforts of modern riders to examine and preserve them through the lens of tradition and through our modern perspective. In future blogs we will explore the origins of dressage through the writings of the past masters such as the Duke of Newcastle, Antoine Pluvinel, and Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere. We’ll attempt to understand how training techniques evolved as the European view of God, Sin, human and animal nature, and man’s place in Creation changed, and we will try to discover what commonalities we share with the riding masters of the past.
There are significant differences between modern dressage sport and the classical riding schools that still exist in the world. Sadly, these differences seem to be widening over the last 30 years, and hence the need to clarify what is indeed “classical.” It can be very instructional to look to the great Classical halls in Austria, Spain, Portugal and France to see what common threads exist.
First, and most obviously, all these schools preserve a very energetic type of equitation characterized by collection and by spectacular leaps, or “airs above the ground.”
Second, the horses used are light, agile, medium sized, with bloodlines based on the Iberian horse, and strong aptitudes for collection, rather than extension.
Third, they utilize saddles based on a 17th century model, which protect and support the horse’s back and can be ridden in all day, as opposed to the modern dressage saddle which cannot be ridden in for more than an hour or two without the horse’s back suffering damage. Head control systems are based on the caveson and the proper use of the curb bit and double bridle, as opposed to the exclusive use of the snaffle.
Fourth, the riders trained at these schools spend a very long time perfecting their positions on the horse before being allowed to take the reins, so that their balance is solid, their hands are gentle, and their seat, leg and rein aids are precise. These riders are then trained on schoolmasters before ever learning to train a young horse. This reflects an abiding respect for the equine partner and an understanding that until the rider can exercise self control, the horse’s education will be deeply flawed.
Last, exhibitions of classical equitation are characterized by the joyful partnership evident between human and equine, by lightness, ease, and amazing displays of athleticism that awe the observer.
Contrast this with modern dressage sport, which, for the vast majority of riders, rarely goes beyond the beginnings of collection (horses being placed resolutely on the forehand), gives preference to huge-moving horses bred more for flashy extended trot than for collected gaits, uses saddles which are designed to hold in a rider whose balance on that huge-gaIted animal is iffy at best, (rather than with enough weight-carrying area to protect the horse’s back) and whose death grip on a snaffle is glossed over as “contact,’ rather than the horse abuse it often is. Most modern dressage riders spend little or no time perfecting their position and balance on the lunge line, seeming to lack understanding of how profoundly their own imbalance can impact a horse’s performance, and most instructors focus on “fixing” the horse, not the rider. Watching lower level competition is often painful or like watching paint dry, especially for the “uninitiated.” Watching upper level competition frequently leaves the casual observer mystified as to how the one leads to the other, so great is the disconnect. Finally, the airs above the ground, once considered the trademark of a fully trained horse, are even expressly forbidden in modern competition!
These are only the most glaring and superficial differences, but they underscore the huge rift between the two schools of horsemanship. The philosophical schism is even more impressive. Future blogs will attempt to explore those differences in greater depth and further elucidate the training methods that are still called Classical.