There are no shortcuts in the training of a dressage horse. Yet we are forced to watch the modern contrivances that are dressage in name only. In the late 19th century, Anna Sewell wrote the story of “Black Beauty” to challenge the inhumane conventions of her day and perceived as “beautiful”. Will we ever hear the story of the 21st century dressage horse and his suffering for the same faddish notions of beauty and elegance? From overchecks to rollkeur, man has run the gamut of abuse to horses to satisfy a variety of ego driven perceptions of beauty. I believe dressage training is the emulation of the horse’s natural state, except on cue and for more prolonged periods of time, requiring gradual development of sensitivity, co-ordination and muscle control. For both horse and rider!
As I’ve watched modern dressage competitions spiral into a degeneration of horsemanship skills and inharmonious pairing of equine and human endeavour, I feel sadness and shame. Desire of riders to leap-frog into upper levels of competition has produced a succession of ill-prepared horses and horse(wo)men. Yes, dressage is beautiful, elegant and stylish, but the foundation is hard work, commitment and ever increasing finesse and subtlety. Donning a tail coat and procuring a horse with some of the “buttons” in place didn’t guarantee a score 40 years ago and shouldn’t today.
What has happened to the classical principles of “lightness”, “ease” and “freedom”? Judging of the FEI levels of competition has relegated these concepts unimportant and created an environment for grass roots riders to use any method at all to obtain an illusion of dressage. The deterioration of riding skill and lack of awareness of the ultimate goals of dressage become more prevalent with each passing year and has created the environment of mediocrity so clearly evident in the performances today.
It was an examination of the book “Klimke on Dressage”, containing photographs of young horses in early schooling and the elite members of the dressage community 30-40 years ago that shocked me into the realization of our current, tormented version of dressage. Evidence of giving hands, minimal use of the curb, subtlety of aids and alert willingness of horses, well and truly schooled as athletes, is now sorely missing. Instead we have replaced it with bracing, stiffness, constant cranking and yanking, coupled with overly hard use of legs and seat to obtain stilted, ungraceful performance filled with explosive tension. In all of this, the horse is still the victim. Breeders are financially influenced to select matings producing the “uphill” horse who can present his brilliant extensions for the inadequate rider, despite having little or no hind quarter engagement. In order to produce the “frame” of the well-schooled and conditioned dressage horse, forcing of the horses head to his knees in a totally overbent position (rollkeur), seems to have satisfied the requirements.
In conclusion, a photograph of Dr. Reiner Klimke riding an extended canter, totally giving his inside reins to his horse as a reward and encouragement to lengthen his stride, compelled me to put my frustration to paper. That photo produced such a feeling of joy and ecstacy in me, contrasted by the anxiety and frustration I feel when watching many of the “elite” riders of today. Love of the horse and desire for the growth of empathetic and analytical horsemanship is my impetus. As conscientious horse people, we need to add our voices to the classicists among us, to promote and reward harmonious interaction between horse and rider. The brutality and ignorance of training techniques in evidence in competition horses must be addressed from the judge’s podium. Until there is a reflection in scores for correct and comprehensive training at the highest levels of competition, the standards of horsemanship and dedication to sound training principles will be eroded to the point of ridiculous. In order to preserve equestrian sport in elite athletic venues (i.e. Olympic Games), we must legitimize our sport and provide evidence we have respect for the principles which produce quality.