Saturday 24 November 2012

Airbrushing and the Art of Dressage.

Thanks for indulging me in one of my periodic rants. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Kind of, anyway.  Because something very timely caught my eye over at Chronicle of the Horse (COTH) that brings to light another rant, or re-rant as I have already touched on this once.  

But let's back up first.  Ms. V. Learning to drive standard.  Aids on / aids off.  

Release the clutch!  Release the clutch, for pete's sake!
I am not going to even begin to make excuses for the fact that Ms. V was way too reactive to the leg, to the point that every time you put leg on, she spurted forward / sideways / where ever.  This is not a normal problem that most people have, and it should have been addressed much earlier than it was. 

However - having inconsistent contact at this stage of the game is actually pretty common. 

I would say almost every young horse I know, ridden by a less than perfect rider (and even many of those ridden by riders who are perfect in their own minds), either has contact that is too light, too inconsistent, heavy as lead, too low, too BTV, not even on both reins... please add your favourite variation of this theme here.  

Because young horses are learning.  i.e - they don't know how to do it right yet.  

It is just not easy to get perfect, quiet, light yet solidly "through" contact developed in a young horse, which is just one of the reasons why it is so incredibly irritating to hear the armchair Ankys of the internet world critiquing people frame by frame on video for every dip or bobble in a horse's head carriage. 

(Not to mention that they expect horses to be able to do it in a double AND a snaffle, while executing perfect everything lightly and in harmony, whatever the hell that means.  Of course).

No problem Curmudgeon... if we go to shows and compete against other horses that are also working on the same concepts, at the same level of training, we can see how we are doing by getting the judge's feedback. 

Ah, great point.  Because all of the horses progressing up the levels will pretty likely be going through some personal phase of "taint right" with respect to contact.  One would expect that a judge will observe, comment, mark fairly, and send the riders of these horses don their way with great feedback regarding what they have seen before them. 

After all, they have taken the L program, as described in Lauren Sprieser's recent blog post over at COTH.

Pretty is as Pretty Does - A Day at the L Program

Basically the gist of this post is this... Lauren Sprieser (who I don't know from a hole in the ground, I have no axe to grind with her in particular...but she is apparently a Young Rider superstar, now up and coming coach, training with big dogs, blah, blah, blah...good for her) decided to help out with an L program training session by bringing her hot young prospect to the course to show off the fact that a horse that looks pretty is not always working "correctly".

She knows it will be nerve-racking to be shot full of holes by learning judges, but does it for the good of the sport, to help them learn.

A-HA!  This sounds like it will be a good read, I thought to myself, and may be in line with exactly one of the points that I am trying to make in my blog - don't panic if things aren't perfect all along, just keep on progressing.  It is great that this woman is getting out there and showing them what that pupal stage looks like.

And so she does.  She writes about the fact that her horse's contact is less than perfect, that he sometimes goes behind the vertical, and that "an authoritative connection to the hand is hard" for her horse.  Oh, how my heart warmed.  She is human, her horse is equine... she is showing judges that this is how the real world of working with talented youngsters look.

But then... this.

I'm glad that the future judges of the world are on the lookout for these things...(blah blah blah)... It was a good pat on the back for not showing him yet, even though he's putting together pieces of the upper-level work and could certainly show third level with nice scores. I don't want nice scores - I want to be brilliant, which means the connection needs to be beyond reproach.

Yes, that is what we should do.  Even though we think our horses are heading for upper levels... we should hide them in the closet because they aren't perfect yet. Wouldn't want anyone to see THAT!

And, we should train judges to attack the faults of horses that aren't working perfectly at the mid levels, who have some inconsistencies in the contact or bobbles here and there - because they aren't "brilliant" yet. Even if the trainers working with these horses think they are exactly on the right course in the big picture of things.

WTF?  Way to go girl.  Big pat on the back.  How does this make any sense?

ARRRGGHH!  Why aren't we instead focused on helping people understand what is NORMAL?

Properly trained horses are always light and perfect in the bridle at all stages of their training. And this is what women look like in bikinis
I guess it comes back to the whole discussion on the purpose of showing.  Is it to:

A: Confirm that horse, having begun to develop whatever the hell it was he was supposed to have begun to develop at the previous level, now demonstrates an increase in whatever the hell it is he now needs to do to continue heading on his merry way to Grand Prix


B: Show off that a horse that is 3 years older than it should be in the given level, based on objective of getting to Grand Prix before it dies of old age, can prance on through the test blindfolded

To be fair to the L program - in this post, we don't get to hear what was actually said regarding how this horse would have been scored in an 3rd level test.  Was there a discussion regarding the fact that everything this horse does is totally normal for a progressing superstar?  Possibly.  Was there another 3rd level horse shown that was dead broke and bottomed out to show the difference between imperfect potential and perfect dead end of the road?  I can't tell from the blog post, but if not, something is terribly wrong with the training program.

If this horse really IS headed for upper levels, there must have been lots of things the instructors of the course could have picked out to show the students.  Kids...scrape away the "small stuff" on the surface - sometimes btv - sometimes unsteady in contact - and focus on whatever it is that this horse is displaying that leads Ms. Sprieser to believe that she is headed for Grand Prix.  Presumably some sign of this greatness to come must have been on display, along with the faults, and THAT is what judges need to see, and to understand, if showing and the feedback received at shows is REALLY going to help us at all.  Who cares about the blips along the way?

Otherwise showing doesn't give us feedback - it is just another airbrushed pageant of perfection. Why bother going at all? 

To be fair to Ms. Sprieser - I can't blame her for not wanting to show her imperfect horse.  Because who wants to work with an up and coming coach who's horse isn't scoring 70's at 3rd?  As we sit at our computers surfing , we can't see if a coach got 60% on their test because they scored 8-3-8-3-8-3  - pure brilliance interrupted by moments of nerdy young horse... or 6-6-5-6-5-6 boring end of line performance.

Better not risk it, Lauren. Hide that horse at home.


  1. An excellent "take" on the Chron blog. While the discussion of "way of going" is lost on someone like me who is confirmed Training 1 (if you aren't all that fond of Intro C with its canter component), I agree with your view.

  2. Excellent post! I consider myself to be on of the *better* riders out there - simply because I have trained and shown more than one horse beyond second level - and I agree that many people seem to hide their horses for fear of criticism or low scores. Or they have their coach show the horse for them until the animal is dead nuts broke at whatever level. It is a bit unfair to those of us who get out there and go for it.

    I think dressage riders as a whole tend to be neurotic types who don't take competition or objective critiquing well.

  3. Oh Curmudgeon... I think I could have stuck with competitive dressage longer if I'd only had a sane person such as yourself to commiserate with. It's hard out there among the crazies.

    1. I once managed the Canadian division of consumer affairs for a French company.

      When I went to meet the head of consumer affairs in France and to learn how they managed complaints / recalls etc., he announced to me philosophically that "eeeenn deees world, we weeell always be faced with zee crazies. We must stay calm, and deal with zeee crazies".

      I felt a real bond with him at that time. Yah. You got it, Pierre Yves, we will. The crazies are out there. There is no escape.

      It wasn't until about a month later that I realized that what he had actually said was "Crises" with a heavy french accent. Doh! He wasn't nearly as in tune with my way of thinking as I originally suspected.

  4. Thank you. Thank you. And...Thank you! I couldn't give a horse pucky for a blue ribbon or a perfect 10, especially since here in the US all the judges seem to be on different pages. Let's just not go there!
    I would ride HC if my trainer would let me. She is not being controlling or mean, it's just a thing with her, after all, I do pay through the nose and steal from my families grocery fund to make it to some shows. (Yes my kids get fed!.)
    For me it is ALL about whether my horse and I have improved on what we were working on. This is paramount considering - like many of you - I have a real life full of real crap I have to do everyday before I swing a leg over my mare.
    Real stuff happens in a dressage arena. Once my mare's turkey timer popped up from her rump as I entered at A. She was D O N E for the day and forward was not an option. I laughed so hard when I saluted at X that the judges face split into a grin and she said, "Man, I was tired just watching you try to make her go!"
    I have no intention of leaving my imperfect, turkey timer, 1400 lb hormonal beast at home until she's perfect. Especially because when she's on.... baby she's on!

    1. I too have nothing against the trainer. I don't know her and have absolutely no reason or basis to judge her. I don't go there! I simply agree with what you have said concerning what is expected of horses at different levels.
      I felt I should clarify that. : )

    2. Understood for sure -

      I guess I am just disappointed that the story didn't end with her telling the L judge program to get their heads out of their butts, this is what a young horse with talent to go up the levels looks like, people. Deal with it.

      Had she done this, she would have been my hero.

  5. Thank you for that...I live in the middle of horse country, right down the road from this trainer...everyone thinks she is god around here, and I'm not sure why...she may be a nice rider, but she's only in her 20's and just not that experienced yet...

  6. I love this blog, and what it says about people's attitudes. As Lauren is young and has made several horses up to GP, I can fully understand her not wanting to show her own horse to lower scores and the corresponding judgments which will be made. I've actually tossed around whether I am going to want to show my new youngster at lower levels or not.
    I have a sometimes brilliant and often airborne TB who gets 8s and 3s on the same test, and hope to hit all the levels with him just to check that judges and I are on the same page. I have a not yet started WB who will need miles to learn about behaving away from home, but at the same time I have no desire to go with a forced steady head position which will impress judges at her "obedience" while doing nothing to help her move up the levels. Until the top levels, I see riders buying horses trained to one or two levels above them, using whatever technique they wish to force a headset, and showing until they top out at the level the horse was trained to - and doing very well until that point. They're being taught how to win with that airbrushed picture, rather than how to develop their horse's body. Other riders have horses who just "will do better once they reach collection" as folks like to say... who are quite nice at first level, simply not as perfectly still in their heads as they're learning to use their bodies. These horses become local superstars a few years later when they are kicking butt at 4th/PSG because their bodies developed. It's just interesting because showing and training seem to go opposite directions these days. It seems "obedience" is king, and an unmoving head right around or even slightly behind the vertical is what's seen as "obedient."

  7. Actually, I'm a Lauren Sprieser fan, though we've never met (just missed each other as I was getting into horses as she was leaving New England.) She's young, but incredibly organized and diligent, and has lived through some heartbreaking moments with her competition horses... Whatever she's doing, it's working, as she *and* her students do quite well in competition, both straight dressage and eventing dressage. And she seems to have a sense of humor, which can be very rare in the dressage community!

    I do think pros can have it rough competing, because with everything online, people *will* check their scores, and can be very judgmental about a low score on a low level test, without knowing anything about the horse.

  8. Took my baby (3yr old Hanoverian) to show training level last weekend. People laughed when he bounced around on the lunge on Friday telling me I'm crazy, but he settled down as the weekend went on. With some glitches (3 and a 4 since the left lead wasn't pretty) he managed 65% and some well meant but obvious feedback (talented horse, work on partnership) next day with a calmer attitude he was training level champion with 70% beating all AA half dead QH's and open riders older horses! Still some glitches, but this judge seemed to understand that's just part of the game at training level :) Now I'm assuming if we keep this up by the time he's ready for FEI he will be confident in that arena and not spook at flower pots (as we watched happen with a "this is his first show" PSG ride" wtf?)