Monday 19 November 2012

The Stretchy Circle. Like the nipples on batman's suit.

I probably don't have to point this out to you, since you are all dressage nutjobs as well, but I do have a somewhat obsessive compulsive streak to my personality.  Once I develop a habit, it sticks with me and is hard to shake (if you have ever seen my bloody and disgustingly bitten thumbnails, or seen me biting said thumbnails right after cleaning a stall or picking some hooves, you know what I am talking about.  Nothing stops me.  I like to tell myself it builds my immune system). 

My most recent obsessions are going to the indoor driving range (which you already know about), and listening to podcasts while I do just about any activity that does not require listening to the drivel going on in world around me.  Driving, mowing the lawn, running, having dinner with Motard - I pretty well always have the ipod going with some stupid podcast on. (I haven't yet tried listening to a podcast at the indoor driving range.  Hmmm... )

You can listen to a podcast on just about any subject.  Did you know that Nazis are living beneath Antartica?  Neither did I, until I got into podcasts.  I also know more about American politics than most Americans (you poor, poor people), and am right up to speed on the "PetWell" affair (if you don't know what this is - you should listen to more Slate podcasts).

One of my favourite mindless and stupid podcasts is "How to Do Everything".  It is a National Public Radio offering during which two guys answer listeners questions on how to do a variety of stupid things, like how to stop your cats from licking out your earwax while you sleep. (Yes. This really was one of the questions. I am not making this up).

On a recent episode they covered the topic of Skeuomorphs.

I thought I had no idea what Skeuomorphs were, but once they start talking about them the definition is obvious - they are design elements with no functional purpose, that are retained for purely ornamental reasons.  So, for example - when you touch the keys on your ipad and they make a little clicky sound like a typewriter - that is a Skeuomorph.  They could be silent, or make the sound of howling wolves or laser beams or whiny hunter jumper coaches - but the designers have maintained the old fashioned sound you expect a keyboard to make.  Wood grain on your laminate floor - Skeuomorph.  The fact that the "save" icon on your computer looks like a floppy disc, even though kids these days don't even know what a floppy disc is anymore - Skeuomorph.  

The most excellent example given in this particular podcast that really illustrates the principle of the skeuomorph is the fact that Batman's suit has nipples and abs moulded into it - a showy yet functionally unnecessary display to let us know that there is a ripped human in there somewhere under all of the foam rubber. (You can tell that the scientist explaining the concept is not entirely comfortable with this example, but it really appealed to me). 

This, my friends, is how I see the stretchy circle. When I see a "dressage rider" reel out their reins at the end of their ride and let their horse plow around on the forehand with it's nose dragging on the ground (usually while giving smacky theatrical pats, maybe making that brrr-p noise or cooing "GOOOO-OOOD BUUOYYYY!" in an irritating smoochy voice), what I am really seeing is a big rubbery nipple on a batman suit. 

Yah, yah - we get it. Just like the Batman abs and nipples tell us that there is someone strong and manly within, capable of kicking Joker's warped and twisted ass, we get it that you are a master of Drass-hagge, who has aced the art of having your horse follow your soft and giving hand into impeccably correct contact.  Brav. Braaav-oh.

There are only a few problems with the "10" stretchy circle - that is "allowing the horse to stretch forward and downwards" as a badge of honour. 

First - just as not all men who could potentially save Gotham City have exactly the same conformation as Batman - not all horses are ideally conformed to do a big, dramatic, draping double coefficient stretchy circle.  

For example, quarter horses can't generally sit right down and piaffe by design, but they can typically do a mean stretchy circle.  Conversely, a horse that is born and bred to be uphill (with sperm-meet-egg planned with dressage in mind) may have a natural predisposition to NOT plow around with their head way down by their knees and their nose poking out..

If you think I am smoking crack and need some concrete evidence - consider that the FEI 4 and 5 year old tests give a nod to the fact that a horse should be reaching into the contact by asking for 1/2 circle (from F to K or whatever) of "Let horse stretch on a long rein".  Fair enough. I would hope we are all in agreement that a horse that is held in a "frame" is not going anywhere fast in the world of dressage.  

However - for our lower level tests, this quick check of correct contact is not nearly enough.  

Instead, the Training level tests AND First level tests in our Dressage Canada handbooks ask for a FULL 20 m circle, and a circle of not just "stretching on a long rein", (which could be interpreted in a way to allow for many different permutations of a relaxed and stretching topline depending on the conformation of the horse), but "allowing horse to stretch forward and downward", complete with a little cartoony illustration of a peanut rolling horse with his nose poked out, and a wide handed forward slouching rider, in case any judge is unclear on what this movement is supposed to entail.  And the nipple on the rubber suit is of course that this maneouver is a double coefficient in all but one of the first six tests, training through first. 

Suzie! Lean forward - FORWARD! Drop those hands and WIDER many times do I have to ask you to round your shoulders. Look at yourself in the mirror and channel your inner hunchback, my dear.  

The problem then becomes that the up and coming stars are being evaluated using a different set of benchmarks than the horses ridden by the rest of us.  While we are busily mastering the art of getting our horses to tank around on the forehand for two years, the 5 year old horses are moving on to things that show a propensity towards the upper levels - medium canter, collected canter, simple changes of leg...By the 6 year old tests, the horse is expected to display self carriage by NOT stretching when the reins are given for a few strides - something that doesn't show up until Third level in mere mortal dressage. 

Worse still - (just a sec, I need to put my flame suit on here) - once you get out, about, and work with some more experienced coaches with better horses - you cant help but notice that a rewarding stretch for an uphill, upper level horse does NOT actually look anything like Test 3, Movement 13 illustrated above.  It actually looks more like this... 

with the horse's poll only slightly lower than the withers, and the nose typically behind the vertical.  

My GOD!  How can that POSSIBLY be correct?  Has that man not seen the cartoony pic?

Somehow, our system of rewards has spawned a whole league of lower level riders that are validated in their beliefs that a happy, peanut rolling, double coefficient scoring training level horse is somehow working more correctly than a horse that prefers to stretch in a more "low deep and round", behind the vertical outline. 

This whacked out logic is of course supported by bulletin boards dedicated to trashing coaches that are working with highly talented horses that are being warmed-up by stretching into the contact in a way that matches their conformation and level of training - namely low, deep and round - versus wrestling their faces down to their fetlocks and throwing them onto their forehands for no particular reason other than the fact that it is rewarded at the lower levels..a design element with no functional purpose. 

Get out your protractors, people.  We need to study that cartoony pic, and be sure our horse's faces NEVER go behind the vertical.  We wouldn't want anyone to accuse us of being Devil worshipping Rollkur fanatics, now would we.  Oh, and by the way...nice nipples, Batman. 


  1. Oh no! You have found out! There are two dressage worlds. One where people ride their horses with the plan of bigger and better things, and two where they justify inability.

    I think only us North Americans are dealing with this as usual we are attempting to change the ideal because we saw a 30 second video of Nuno and he rides his horses with their poll up all of the while sidepassing at the speed of light!

  2. Another spot on post! It perfectly links with your precedent post.
    But chuuuuuuttttt Stephanie, you are giving away secrets, that intermediate/advanced amateurs have worked hard to find out, usually by wrecking horses, making costly mistakes ie spending lots of dollars on the wrong coach!!! ^_^

  3. I love your blog. And I love podcasts too. For variety, I like to break up all the political and informational podcasts with the Savage Love podcast. I highly recomend it. He hasn't yet touched on blind naked dressage, but I'm sure it's coming soon.

    P.S. The entire entire dressage outfit is a Skuemorph. I think they should change the rules and let us ride in Batman costumes.

  4. I second that "love this."

    Maybe I've been out of the competition arena too long but I thought the first 'release of contact' to prove self carriage was at 2nd level? At least it was... um... a few years ago.

    Because one year we were doing Training & First, and the next season we were doing 2nd which asked for release of the rein on a canter circle. So I had to explain to my horse "Hey, so you know that thing where I give the reins and you poke your head way the hell down and out? OK, forget that, now I want you to act like nothing is happening when I shove my hands forward all of a sudden. Just ignore it completely and carry on. Aight?"

    Fortunately my horse was a smart TB and took no offense to this change in the rules.

  5. Ah. Well, after commenting about achieving a quality stretch trot, I am forced to admit that I lied. Our stretch trot does not look anything like that... at all. If it did, we'd switch over from eventing and head to the AQHA circuit. Or do hunt hack/HUS. Instead of looking like hunt hack riders, we simply look like hunter riders in a flat class... or a least that's what we look like in my head!

  6. Thank you for this! I ride a Morgan, and while she's not as upright in the neck as most Morgans, the TL "stretchy circle" is a bear because she's just not built to run around with her head all the way down there. We can do a reasonable approximation of what is illustrated in your first picture for half a circle, and then she either pops her head up (because she's on her forehand and losing her balance... and dammit, there's something out there she needs to LOOK at), or curls herself up in a ball (because she's on her forehand and losing her balance.) If stretching her neck down until she gets her ears to the level of her withers and poking her nose out was all she needed to do, we'd be golden.

    I think the stretchy circle was added to all the TL tests because it's a way of testing how much the rider is "packaging" the horse.