Articles > Dressage, Where Are You Going?

 Dressage, Where Are You Going
By Paul Kathen © 2005


      In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the great masters of riding planted the roots of modern dressage. From there it grew. At first it improved mostly according to the needs of the military. Dressage as an international sport is still very young. It was born at the Olympic Games in 1912, and has proven to be a problem child ever since. Until 1969, just about every international event was planned, judged and ridden under different rules. It seemed like every method was just a trial to see whether it would work that way. It never did. At times they would strike the highest and the lowest score to prevent an overly nationalistic judge from trying to decide the event for his compatriot or prevent somebody else from winning. At other times judges were allowed to ask competitors to repeat a certain movement. Then performances were filmed so that judges could review them later. That caused a two day delay in announcing results and proved to be highly unpopular, and so the experimenting continued. The current system of score sheets has been in place since 1969, and as a system is quite successful. The problem is the human element and since evaluation in our sport is highly subjective no system alone can eliminate that.

     You may say that the beginning of dressage goes back much earlier than the seventeenth century and you are right, it does. That is why I said, “modern dressage” is rooted in the seventeenth century because that is about the time when riders began to consider their horses as animals that feel pain and possess emotions. If you look at the bits and spurs of the times before that, you will be impressed with how rough riding must have been for the horses. Francoise Robinchon de la Gueriniere finally did away with all the roughness in training and riding. He totally reformed the riding system and based his work on a logical and scientific approach to the horse. Gueriniere realized that training a horse is time consuming. He also insisted that since all horses are different they could not be trained alike. He expected that a rider recognize the strengths and weaknesses of his horse and use it accordingly. He also said that a rider’s lack of knowledge and bad mood might turn more horses mean and sour than Mother Nature could ever produce. He wanted to make his horses calm, supple and obedient through systematic work so that they would be attractive in their gaits and comfortable for their rider. Does that sound familiar to you?

     Other accomplishments prove him even more as the father of modern dressage. He developed the shoulder-in and followed it with the renvers, travers and half-pass. He defined the flying changes and the counter canter. He also described the canter pirouette, the piaffe and the passage. Since Gueriniere was the first riding master to give the leg and seat aids prominence over the hand and expected his students to sit on three points to allow for an elastic back, he changed the design of saddles to one much closer to the saddle of today than to the former high pommel, high cantle, straight leg saddles of his time. Unfortunately, the French Revolution wiped out the pursuit of the art of riding in France and Gueriniere’s teachings were not widely implemented until about seventy years later when Ludwig Huenersdorf paved the way for Gueriniere’s teachings to be accepted in Germany.

     The nineteenth century again is witness to a split in opinions about the proper system to train a horse. This time, however, it is the ultimate use of the horse that causes the conflict. The military now is the main source of riding and it does not need horses that can piaffe, but horses that are quick, surefooted and obedient. Two gifted riders, Baucher and Fillis, added to the confusion by developing completely new systems that at first were accepted but then later rejected. At the end of this century, however, Steinbrecht’s book, The Gymnasium of the Horse, was published and it is still today the “go to” book when questions arise. He also emphasized the need for time and patience to develop the horse’s body before asking for the more demanding work.

     The famous Hdv 12 (the German cavalry service manual) was published in 1912. It was based on Steinbrecht’s, The Gymnasium of the Horse, and it basically described the training pyramid. Until recently, changes in training and riding have been insignificant. These recent changes are what prompted me to write this article. I gave this quick overview of the history of our sport to show that it was developed in a time of great cultural depth. This was the time of baroque and baroque/rococo. Many of the beautiful castles and cathedrals that we visit and admire so much were built during that time. Many universities were founded in this period. Music, literature and painting also were at their peak. Rubens, Van Dyke, Rembrandt, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire, Reynolds and Gainsborough, just to name a few, were artists who lived and created at the time that riding also became an art. Please forgive me for mentioning mostly German artists but they are the ones most familiar to me. My point is that dressage was perfected during a time of great appreciation of beauty and in which chivalry set the tone of behavior.

     What is dressage like today? In my opinion there has never before existed a greater gap between the spectator’s expectation of a horse trained according to classic principles and what is shown to him today. This would be sad enough if I spoke simply of the Houston Dressage Classic, but I am paraphrasing an editorial in the German professional horseman’s magazine, “St. George.” This editorial was commenting on the international dressage scene. I read it shortly after the Olympic Games in Athens, agreed with it and thought that most of us here in Houston at least try to do what we know to be right. This editorial went on to say that something is wrong when judges cannot tell whether the horse in front of them was trained correctly. Something is wrong when a horse that is trained with its nose on the chest and only for the short period of time during the test is allowed to move up to the vertical becomes Olympic champion. Something is wrong when a horse that in one of its basic gaits no longer deserves the score of five, can win Championships and World Cups. When it appears that even those involved do not know according to what criterion to judge a horse’s performance, how are the spectators to know?

     Another editorial in another edition of the same magazine commented on the new rule which says that a competitor may not carry a whip during the ride around the ring before the test. When asked about the reason for the rule, FEI dressage director, Mariette Whithages, said that it was better for the image. When was the last time you saw a rider abuse a horse at that moment? The whip is still allowed in the warm-up ring however.

     Questioned about that, a German FEI judge commented that there were not as many people watching. If only we could get it across to the persons responsible that if they would worry a great deal more about the welfare of the horses, the public image would take care of itself. To me this indicates that judges are aware of some abuse happening in the warm-up ring. After as many years of judging as it takes to become an international judge, this person should be able to recognize a tight back, a short neck or tense steps no matter how spectacular it may look otherwise.

     At the USDF symposium last year, Christopher Hess, an international German judge, declared that for a horse to compete successfully at the Olympics it has to have the attitude of a workaholic. So far I was with him but then he lost me when he mentioned Salinero, Anky van Grunsven’s mount, as a good example of such a horse. He told us that after the horse had won the Freestyle in Aachen, Germany, and Anke had to mount again to receive her award, she needed help to mount because Salinero kept on piaffing he was so eager to go to work. I was in Aachen and saw the ride. Well, during the entire performance Salinero never stood still. Both of Anky’s salutes were done on a piaffing horse. I will guarantee you that if your horse had done the same thing at the Houston Spring Classic you would have lost points and earned the comment of a disobedient horse both at the salute and at the collective marks. Is this a double standard? For you it is disobedience, but for Anky it is a horse so eager to work it cannot stand still. May I suggest that fear may be the motivator for not standing still? Anky is not alone. This problem is so widespread that this is being debated everywhere dressage enthusiasts meet. One of my students, after returning from the World Cup in Las Vegas, said to me, “You should have heard the talk in the lady’s restroom after the class was over.” She had me in unfamiliar territory, so I can only imagine.

     So far my criticism has been leveled at the Judges. They are the guardians of the sport. With the job comes a great responsibility and the chance of being held accountable. On average they are doing a great job. The problems seem to begin when we move on to the national and international scene. Here the two corruptors, politics and money, are at work.

     The USDF and its counterparts in other dressage oriented countries sometimes fail to protect the sport or the horse as well. Why did we have to open third level to the double bridle? Was it to refine the aids? Was it to enable some riders to ride their horses on the bit? If a rider cannot ride her horse on the aids with the snaffle bit, the problem is not the bit but either the horse’s training or the lack of skill of the rider. In the latter case the horse would pay the price if it were ridden in the double bridle. Decisions like this to me are also leading the sport in the wrong direction.

     It certainly would be nice if we could have more spectators at dressage shows. We are not alone. Gymnasts are in the same boat with us. Many other sports are also not spectator friendly. I mention the gymnastics because they have a close relative who can fill the seats and that is called acrobatics. What is the difference? In acrobatics there are no rules. The acrobat is free to do anything he wants to as long as it impresses enough people to where they are willing to spend time and money to see the performance. Spectacle, spectacular and spectator all have the same root, and that means seeing. The more impressive the sight, the better the performance. The main difference between the gymnast and the acrobat is that the acrobat creates his own program. He can specialize in just one area of his sport and do it better than anybody else. He can manipulate his audience with fanfares, drum rolls, light effects, and any other means to distract the audience from the fact that he is really not all that good at what they came to see. In other words, the greater showman can out sell the better athlete.

     In a way that is what the dressage freestyle does. There are still rules and there are still judges but many factors that have nothing to do with the rider’s skill or the horse’s training and talent influence the score. A lively beat can jazz up a performance and a skilled choreography can clearly minimize the weaknesses of the horse and maximize its strengths. What is wrong with that? Actually nothing, but combine that with judging that leans toward the spectacular vs. the correct and you come up with the specialist horse who outpoints the all around correct performer. Weltall has no walk, is average in his canter, and seems uptight most of the time, made the German team for Athens over Wansuela Suerte, who proves that her rider deserves his title as “Mr. Training Scale.“ The German officials must have believed that the trot (passage, piaffe and extensions) specialist, Weltall, would fare better than the less spectacular but correct Wansuela. The games proved them wrong. Weltall could not handle the pressure and performed very poorly while Wansuela was relaxed and correct, winning an overall fifth place and ensuring a gold medal for the German team.

     The gymnast has to spend far more time and effort to become an Olympian than the acrobat does to become a star in his field. Another close relative of our sport is the figure skater. When a very young Olympic gold medalist who had joined a show on ice was asked if she would consider a return to the Olympics, her answer was no because she did not think that she could return to the many hours of daily training that it would take to be competitive at the Olympics. It is the work on the weaknesses that makes their sport and ours so hard. The musical freestyle is taking us closer to the acrobat and the, “show on ice.” If you think that I am exaggerating the danger of the slippery slope to which the freestyle has taken us, please consider that the next “improvement” under consideration is a change in the dress code. Have you ever seen an acrobat in a plain leotard? One of the factors that judges did not have to consider so far was the dress. How about rhinestones on the top hat and along the seams of the leg or boots with silver toes and heels? Look at the western shows. They also did not start out that way. I am sure it will be tastefully done but all that glitter is going to distract from the quality and correctness of the performance.

     Here are some suggestions for how to protect our sport:

     While there is no conclusive proof that the musical freestyle has significantly improved the number of spectators, it is attractive and spectator friendly. It should, however, be taken out of consideration for dressage championships. On February 1st and 2nd, the FEI convened a meeting on how to improve the freestyle. FEI dressage committee President, Mariette Whithages, talked about the role of music in the history of riding. As early as 500 B.C., horses in Sybaris (south Italy) were trained to music. The largest horse ballet in history took place in 1667, with six hundred horses participating. After WW1 the Felix Buerkner quadrille was well received at the first dressage shows. I too enjoy riding to music. Some of my fondest memories at the Westfaelien Riding and Driving School are about the Sunday morning music rides. However, Ms. Whithages spoke about entertainment events, not competitions. It is a great deal less dangerous to the sport of dressage if the freestyle were called a show for entertainment, not a sports competition. For the protection of the horse we must limit the liberties a choreographer can take and, therefore, we must keep rules in place. This is dictated by the fact that, unlike the acrobat or the skater, we are dealing with the well being of a creature that depends on us.

     Next, we should eliminate the “O” judges. If every country that sends riders to international events were to nominate two different judges every year to judge at these events, we would interrupt the cycle of repetition at the shows. Look at the result sheets of the shows and you will see the same names as judges, riders, coaches and representatives of the governing bodies. Such a situation is just too tempting to succumb to collective thinking and the belief that this group represents the best interest of the sport. The riders are eventually replaced, so are the coaches, but the judges who have the greatest responsibility to maintain the integrity of the sport can stay for many years. Such a system would isolate the judges from coaches and competitors and keep them more independent.

     When checking for the general principles of dressage with the FEI or the USEF, you will find that the collective marks of every test sheet sums them up as far as the horse’s performance is concerned. These are the characteristics the horse should display at every movement of its performance. Since they are the best indicators we have about the correctness of a horse’s training, they should be given greater importance than how spectacular the movement appeared to the spectator. Most of us who are dressage enthusiasts know that if a horse shows tension (a tight back, lateral walk, passage-like trot), irritation (a twitching tail, flattened ears), disobedience (above, behind or against the bit, non execution of a command), or stiffness, the score cannot be good. The scores quite frequently seem to favor the spectacular horse over the correct horse. That is what confuses the educated observer. How must the novice feel? What did fill the seats at the World Cup in Las Vegas? It was dressage riders who came to see their favorite sport performed at its best. I am sure that not many watching were strangers to dressage unless they were dragged there by someone active in the sport. So my suggestion to the judges is to please not alienate the knowledgeable crowd by handing down results that it cannot agree with just to please those who would like to see the more spectacular action. They are not in the seats anyway.

     At the same FEI dressage freestyle forum, Dr. Volker Moritz declared that we (the FEI dressage committee) want to make the sport more transparent and we want to communicate the fascination of the sport more spectator effective. I just do not think you can make a performance more transparent by adding more wrinkles to it. To me the strength of dressage lies in its simplicity. Why not write two additional tests at Grand Prix. Then announce which test would be ridden only on the morning of the performance. This way you would prevent the drilling of a test at home and force the rider to pay more attention to the obedience of the horse. Have a competent caller call the test for all the competitors and thus the audience would learn a great deal by knowing in advance where the horse is supposed to go and what movement it is to execute. This kind of participation on the part of the novice spectator would cut into the boring aspect of dressage and allow for a development of appreciation for the difficulty of such a test.

     When was the last time you went to see an opera? Many of them were written when classical (modern) dressage was first developed. Be honest with yourself. It may have been a long time ago. When you saw your first opera it just did not grab you, so you did not go again. How about on radio, do you listen to an opera performed there? No? But the classical station, you listen to it, and they do play arias and other popular pieces of operas, right? No, you are more into country music or contemporary music. Would you prefer to go see an opera or the livestock show with George Strait performing? You would like to hear George. This is the answer the vast majority of people would give. The livestock show sells out for two weeks straight with sixty thousand people in attendance every night. The opera cannot match that. The difference lies in the nature of the two events. George gets the audience going. It is loud and people are whistling and clapping. No matter how loud the audience, the speakers are louder. The audience becomes part of the performance and you need no knowledge of country music to get involved. The opera demands silence. All the action is on the stage and you had better know the plot or you will have no idea what is happening on stage. It takes knowledge and a love for the opera to enjoy it. This enjoyment then is very deep and lasting.

      Dressage is like the opera. It is not everybody’s cup of tea. Look at where we naturally gravitate. It is the Hunter/Jumper world that has the attention of our youth, not dressage. That means to make dressage a draw for the masses we would have to change it to such a degree that it would no longer be recognizable.

     Dressage is growing at a healthy rate and I believe that is not because of the changes that were made but in spite of the changes. The sad part is that we have not been very good stewards of our partners, the horses. Let us turn our efforts to that end and continue to enjoy our sport. First there was jazz, then country/western, then all the various forms of rock, now rap, and during all that time there has been the opera.

     Dressage does not receive big sponsor or television money. All it needs is riders, trainers and judges with the attitudes of a Gueriniere and Steinbrecht to continue to grow. I am convinced that the attraction towards beauty and elegance is just as strong in the people of today as it was in the people of their time. 


Dressage, Where Are You Going
By Paul Kathen © 2005

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