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.