Classical Dressage and Technology
By Paul Kathen © 2006
The sport of dressage has so much to offer to the person who truly appreciates athletic performance. It will uplift the person who can recognize the spirit of the horse in its carriage and in the expressions of its movement as well as the connoisseur of beauty, especially the beauty of controlled motion. At a recent dressage show I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation in the breakfast room of the hotel. Two men were eating at the table next to me when a group of young ladies entered the room in their dressage outfits ready for a day of showing. One of the men asked what they were going to do that required such clothing. They were going to show horses, was the answer. “What kind of riding? Is this where you are going to spin your horses,” etc., until the question was asked, “What is dressage?” The answer sounded very much like this. “Oh, it is very boring, like watching grass grow, but I love it and that is why I do it.”
Dressage needs all the help it can get from all its friends if it is to survive in its intended form. This lady was not very helpful. To me the threats to our sport come mainly from those who want to make dressage a sport that is attractive to everybody. They desire to fill huge arenas with spectators and to collect TV and sponsor money. Those are the goals of the current leadership of dressage. Instead of approaching this challenge by educating the masses they feel they must change dressage to where it becomes appealing to most people. Here in America dressage must compete with baseball, football, Nascar, and such. Germany proves that it is quite possible for dressage shows to fill the stands of large stadiums with knowledgeable spectators who will truly appreciate the performances they observe. That is because riding is the number two sport in the country and every rider, even those who only want to jump, will learn to ride dressage at least to the second level. That creates a great number of potential spectators when you offer good competition. In most countries this is not the case. Dressage is, however, the fastest growing equestrian sport in America, yet it will take a great deal of time before we can match the Germans or many of the other European countries that have a long history in equestrian sports.
Many, even in those countries, want to change the sport to become more, “spectator friendly.” The pace must become faster and the movements more spectacular. The very essence of classical dressage is to evolve a horse that is submissive, yet self-confident. We want it to move in expressive but natural gaits and we want the horse to be free to convey a message of high spirit about itself but at the same time to work in harmony with the rider. Speed or even artificial movements, no matter how spectacular, have no place in our sport. I am worried about this development but I also feel heartened by the opposition it has encountered and I hope it will not succeed.
There is now another distraction on the horizon that has me wondering about the benefits it might bring to the sport. This is the use of high technology in all areas of riding. On the surface this seems to promise nothing but a chance for improvement in our own riding and the understanding of the horse. In riding lessons the cameras are very helpful. It allows students to see for themselves what the instructor is telling them. Often at shows the never lying camera will have the judge appear less incompetent and leave the rider more determined to do it right the next time. In veterinary medicine technology has saved many horses from having to be destroyed or condemned to being a pasture ornament. Both diagnosis and treatment are more accurate because of the veterinarian’s ability to look into the body of the horse from the outside.
At the shows I do enjoy the immediate scoring and the comparison of the different evaluations of a movement by the judges. It is visible to all. Transparency in judging can not be overestimated. This also is a benefit of technology. I hope, however, that we will not go to instant replay. We have so many judges at the high level competitions because judging a test is highly subjective and the scores will vary. I personally believe that the musical freestyle is overtaxing the judges. There are just too many factors to consider for one person to allow for enough attention to be given to them all. Again technology has made it possible to splice together different pieces of music and make it sound like it was composed that way. This then becomes a major part of the score. My question is how much did the horse or rider contribute to the music and the choreography? I am afraid in many cases the answer is, “Outside of money, very little.”
When it comes to the analysis of the horse, its movement under different conditions, or the precise distribution of the weight, thanks to today’s technology we can measure it all. We can scrutinize just about anything. We can slow it down, stop it, watch it move backwards, enlarge it, isolate it, and so on. None of that is bad in itself. I am afraid, however, that it trains us to look for flaws in the trees and no longer enjoy the beauty of the forest. It is also very difficult at times to draw the right conclusions from what these images show us. Just recently I watched what I thought was a very well executed passage and then the producer of the DVD slowed the motion way down and it became apparent that the beat was not perfectly synchronized. The hind leg did touch the ground just a moment ahead of the front leg. The comment was, “Not so pretty anymore.”
Dr. Heuschmann, a German veterinarian who lectures the world over in favor of classical dressage, insists that the trot is a two-beat gait, period. Dr. Hillary Clayton has looked at many horses, analyzed their movement, and calls this difference in the timing, “Positive dissociation.” It is called positive because it indicates that the horse has shifted his weight toward the hindquarter. He is carrying more weight on his hind legs and thereby lightens the forehand. This lift allows the forehand to touch down just that millisecond later than the hind leg. In my opinion both are correct. The untrained horse will travel at a precise two-beat trot. Correct training has changed the timing a bit to allow for the weight of the rider and the consideration of obedience, comfort of the ride, and the protection of the horse’s front legs. This time differential is invisible to the naked eye. I believe that we can see a similar dissociation in most horses executing a good passage.
My criterion for correctness would be the human eye. If an imprecision cannot be detected by the eye, the movement should be considered to be correct. We all can clearly see a four-beat canter. A lateral walk looks so unnatural that it is almost painful to watch. The sticks in the walk pirouette or the two-footed canter pirouette are also obvious to the human eye. There is no need for slow motion. Positive dissociations, as long as they cannot be seen by the naked eye, seem to improve the picture while negative ones tend to show a flaw in the movement, namely a horse moving on the forehand.
Here is my concern. The “Rollkur affair” has acted as a warning to me. I could not help but realize that many trainers and riders will not stop at the consideration for the welfare of the horse in order to reach their goal. This can be money in the training of young horses for sale or fame at the top level competitions. The demands on the horses are constantly increased and so the horses are looking for evasions to be able to deal with these difficulties. The canter pirouette is a good example. In the Grand Prix, the test asks for a full pirouette and most horses execute it quite well. In the Freestyles just about all riders ask for two rotations. That is a great increase in the degree of difficulty. Now the horse will try to deal with this additional stress by jumping a slightly larger circle. The rider watching his own ride via tape or DVD on a screen feels that the circle must be made smaller and then the drilling begins and the horse learns to two-foot the circle. He places both hind feet down at the same time and next to each other since he finds himself unable to carry the weight on this small of a circle on one leg. To the educated spectator the pirouette on a circle the size of two feet correctly jumped is more admirable than the two-footed pirouette on a circle the size of a dinner plate. Unfortunately, the man on the street now sitting as a spectator in the stands at a dressage show may not see it that way. Just watch a reining horse at work and listen to the crowds when the horse starts to spin. The problem is that technology now may override the feeling of the rider. She can feel the horse’s limits but the TV screen shows her the need to make it more spectacular. If false ambition wins, the horse suffers.
When I look at high technology with mixed feelings, it is not the technology that has me worried. When it is used correctly it is giving us wonderful tools to be more knowledgeable, to help our horses in their health, their longevity, and their performances. It is the misuse of information or the wrong interpretation of information that the technology gives us that has me concerned. Compare it to medicine and see how these wonderful drugs that were designed to be helpful, through misuse can also become abusive. My appeal to riders is to please rely on your feel first and then see how technology can give you additional input to help your horse along even better.
As I mentioned in my last article, you are welcome to send any questions you may have for me to firstname.lastname@example.org or to my address at Tex-Over Farms, Inc., 13217 Kidd Road, Conroe, Texas 77302.