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"good" dressage vs "bad" dressage

From: Lisa

Hi Jessica,

Like everyone else I thoroughly enjoy your email and your book, and I look forward to its arrival each week. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to help us! I have learned to value your opinion and I respect and agree with your judgement on limiting the use of artificial aids in training.

I have been riding for over 20 years, always huntseat. I recently decided I needed a new challenge and I've started taking dressage lessons. I've only taken two lessons, so I'm certainly no expert, but already these two short lessons have brought up some issues for me. The trainer I'm working with insists on drop or flash nosebands for "proper" dressage horses. I personally would never put one of these devices on my own horses (or allow a trainer to do so) and I don't really like doing it to a lesson horse, but I feel it isn't my place to object to how she wants the school horse tacked up for a lesson. Besides I'm feeling like a beginner in this discipline. I'm amazed with all the things that are different between the two forms of riding.

I'm also concerned about being taught to keep what seems like contant pressure on the horses mouth in dressage. Is it just because I'm new to this form of riding that the constant contact seems cruel to me? I've always been taught to ride with a very light hand. I have always been taught to reward the horse for responding to a correct aid with a release, but now I am being taught that I ALWAYS have to keep contact and keep the horse on the bit. Does a horse really enjoy being ridden like this?

I have a 2 1/2 year old colt that I am doing ground work with, but not yet riding. I don't intend to get on his back until after his third birthday. I do intend to train him as a hunter/jumper, but I had thought dressage would be a wonderful foundation for everything else we do. Now I'm not sure this is what I want. I want my horse to be my "partner" as much as possible. I don't want a horse that hates to be ridden, but I do want a well trained horse that responds lightly and correctly to my aids. Am I asking too much? Do I need to find a trainer with a philosophy more like my own? Do you think I just need to learn more about dressage? I've been told this trainer is one of the best in my area, she is very prestigious and well respected. I also know that doesn't necessarily mean she will be the best trainer for me.

I know you focus on dressage, and I know how you respect the horse for what it is and discourage artificial aids, and it seems to me that dressage more than huntseat riding depends on artificial aids. I'm anxious to hear your opinion.

Can you recommend a book that would give me a little more information about dressage? Maybe that would help me understand.

Thank you again for the wonderful service you provide with horse-sense!

Lisa


Hi Lisa! Thank you for the kind words, I'm glad to know that you are enjoying horse-sense and RIDING FOR THE REST OF US.

It sounds to me as though you have been lucky in your riding and training, and have had the benefit of GOOD hunt-seat instruction over the years. It also sounds to me as though the couple of dressage lessons you have taken may have been taught by someone who doesn't actually know much about real dressage, although she and her students may well be successful in local competitions.

Your instincts are serving you well. No, horses should NOT have their mouths clamped shut by tight flash nosebands, and dressage horses, in particular, should be ridden in nothing more restrictive than a loosely-adjusted cavesson. It makes no sense for trainers to talk about lightness and cooperation when they use coercive, forceful equipment to ride their horses. Dressage, properly taught, should establish a state of harmonious balance between horse and rider, in which the horse's cheerful cooperation is elicited.

Good dressage is the foundation for all riding, including huntseat -- and you don't have to take my word for it! Ask George Morris, who will tell you the same thing. But GOOD dressage is the key -- and not all dressage is good dressage, just as not all hunt-seat is good huntseat. I'm sure you have seen, and can easily recognize, the signs that a hunt-seat rider is the victim of poor instruction: the overly-arched back with protruding buttocks, the stiff, posed position, the "pretend" crest release that allows the horse no freedom over a jump... You'll also be familiar with the too-tight standing martingale "to keep the horse's head down", the spike-lined noseband "to keep the horse's head in", and the various other nasty little characteristics of a poor-quality "hunt-seat" riding program. If you were attending a show, perhaps looking for an instructor for a friend, these and similar signs would be RED LIGHT warnings for you to stay away, and to keep your friend away.

I do NOT mean to point a finger at hunt seat in particular, it's just that I know that since this has been your discipline for a long time, you will quickly recognize the descriptions. ;-) There are similar poor-quality programs and poor-quality instructors in ALL riding disciplines -- and this includes dressage. You may not know anything about dressage in particular, but you obviously DO know the difference between comfortable horses in comfortably-fitting tack, and uncomfortable horses in uncomfortable tack -- these are Bad Things, whether the discipline in question is dressage, hunt-seat, reining, or endurance. ;-) Your instincts are telling you the truth. Listen to them!

The issue of contact is not a terribly complicated one. Contact with the horse's mouth should be constant, but light and "alive" -- not a "dead", hanging, contact, and NEVER a pulling contact. The rider's hands can hold, squeeze, or relax -- but there is no pulling, EVER. If the rider has used an active hand -- a squeeze -- the reward for the horse's response should be a relaxation of the aid, not a dropping of the contact. The single exception would be a moment at which you want to give the horse is complete cessation of contact, perhaps at the end of a ride, as in "drop the reins and pat your horse."

Please don't give up on a wonderful discipline just because of one unsuitable instructor. THIS instructor may not be teaching classical dressage -- from your well-founded concern about her emphasis on coercion and artificial aids, it seems clear that she isn't -- but there are others who do teach dressage correctly and well. Until you find such an instructor, you may do better to work on your own. In the meantime, trust your instincts and your knowledge of the horse world. You already know to avoid barns in which the horses are wearing too much or too-tight tack, and in which the horses seem anxious or depressed. If you find a barn where the horses are wearing simple saddles and bridles, work quietly and pleasantly, and seem happy, the instructor in charge may be the instructor for you!

Reading can be very useful. I can certainly recommend some books that will help you. Here are three excellent ones:

The Classical Seat: A Guide for the Everyday Rider (Sylvia Loch) Practical Dressage (Jane Kidd) Horses are made to be Horses (Franz Mairinger)

The first two are simpler, more cook-book style, and the Jane Kidd book has wonderful photographs. The third book is more rambling, really a collection of thoughts and reminiscences, but it's one that you will read and appreciate now, and read and appreciate again every few years for the rest of your life, but for different reasons each time you read it!

Above all, don't give up on dressage. It may take time and effort to find the right teacher for you -- perhaps someone with a more traditional outlook, someone whose orientation is more classical than competitive -- but the search is worth the effort.

If you want more information, about books or anything else, don't hesitate to get in touch with me.

Jessica

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