Training in the Right Way: Talent vs. Training — What’s Happening to Dressage in the US?

It was my intention to discuss how the training scale relates to Second through Fourth Level in this installment, but I think it’s important to broach a broader topic about the direction of Dressage in the United States.

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My initial intention was to discuss how the training scale relates to Second through Fourth Level in this  week’s installment, but there is a topic regarding the direction of dressage in the United States that I felt compelled to address. It involves what I consider the darker side of competitive dressage.

Before I get into it, let me clarify that I love competition and I believe that it can be a very valuable source of knowledge and education in the training process. I also believe that horses can actually benefit from competition in the sense that when it is done well, the horse can develop a greater degree of confidence and may even experience some joy in the partnership and performance. However, competition is getting away from its original intended purpose of confidence building and its educational roots. In other words, it is getting away from the focus on good training and is more about how much money one can spend to buy the most talent possible to compete with. I believe that the end product of competition “training”— without the focus on increasing the horse’s psychological and physical development — uses up the horse’s talent instead of developing it. This use of horses is completely opposite what dressage is supposed to do.

Although this article may seem like a divergence from my focus on training, it relates directly to what I am trying to share about training in the right way developing talent instead of using it, using the training scale in said training, and that dressage training is not meant to be just for competition, but to improve the education and athleticism of any horse that is being ridden.

I am hoping to start a discussion about where dressage-the-sport, even at the top levels in the US, is going and why this needs to change. There are two main reasons change is necessary: One is that the welfare of the animal must be better understood and protected more effectively. The other is that without this, we will lose the opportunity to continue to compete in dressage at the Olympic level. It is already being questioned by the IOC and the animal welfare community. We must return to the development of the animal and the ride and stop relying on talent and forceful riding to be competitive.

Lawool, a competitive Grand Prix schoolmaster, competing as an older “teenager” in a CDI in Wellington in 2011. Photo (c) Martin Kuhn

I have observed, through my experiences in the dressage community, that we often are using up our younger horses so that they are not fit for competition or training in their later years. I have no problem with a well-trained, healthy, older Grand Prix horse “stepping down” from high performance competition and helping a young rider or amateur adult succeed. It is exactly how people learn and, when done well, the horse stays healthier and happier into his old age. However, we absolutely are doing our horses a disservice through the way in which many horses’ minds and bodies are being degraded over time.

Even horses that have had some very good training somewhere in their past can fall victim to this. I have seen horses who once were top contenders come into their later years clearly having been used beyond the point of being able to do more than being retired. This is evident in their body-mechanics, especially the top-line, which will show a horse who had been ridden with a great deal of strength and force. Extreme bending and rollkur (extreme flexion) create a stiff, even an arthritic neck over time. Also, a fixed tight neck causes the horse to drop its back and push its hindlegs behind it, which prevents forwardness and decreases muscle use in the haunches, furthering a lack of strength and carrying ability.

This becomes a problem not only for the horse, but also for the students who are looking to move to the next level on a horse that should be able to help them do so. In such cases, students will also have to be forceful and rough to get the horse to do what it is capable of doing. At this point, what are we doing to our horses? Instead of fostering, bright, willing horses, we are creating vacant machines with no desire to do anything.

Further, what are we teaching our students? That they need to kick a horse multiple times with spurs, tighten a curb rein, and over flex a horse to get it into a desired position? This is absolutely not what dressage training is supposed to create, be, or do to the animal.

In order to try to ride the horses we use up in this manner, our up-and-coming students would have to learn to ride with force and lack of feeling for the animal: Lack of feeling for collection, forwardness, suppleness and willingness, and —perhaps worst of all— lack of sympathy for the animal’s experience. This is where I want to focus this discussion. Where is the sympathy for the animal? Where is the art of making the horse better by riding it and not just “beating it into submission?” How has competitive dressage and the breeding industry created this acceptance of buying talent and not developing it but just sucking it dry? And, ultimately, who is going to be left to teach the system of training that dressage is supposed to be if our riders learn from these degraded horses how to “ride” and from these “successful” riders that it is acceptable and even correct to ride with little sympathy and instead leverage force and strength rather than a system of training?

Now, before anyone has a coronary, I am a horse trainer. I know that some horses require some strong aids. I know that some horses are not “forward-thinking.” I know that some horses are not supple naturally. I know that some horses have received training that has not helped them be better riding horses. And I know that some horses do some very naughty things. Sometimes we small humans need to be strong and maybe even a little tough on these animals to get the point across. The reason we must do this is because we have to teach these animals what they may and may not do while a person sits on them. But, using these strong aids is not a training system. It is a moment that must then end. The use of the spur or the whip or the curb must be brief and with sympathy and empathy for what it’s like to be the animal.

Dressage-the-sport is supposed to be a forum where trainers and riders meet and judges give scores that reflect the quality of training as demonstrated in dressage tests. Good quality training is supposed to be rewarded and poor quality training is supposed to be given scores that reflect what it is lacking. With the increased talent in breeding high performance horses, the horse comes “off the shelf” with more available rhythm and suppleness and therefore more of the right connection is available, as well as impulsion and ability to collect. And riders can ride these natural talents instead of creating and developing them. So, they can then ride with strength and no system and still win because it is very hard to differentiate between talent and training in a dressage test. This is regrettable, but not anyone’s intention. That said, we need to look at how to turn this boat around and find a way to reward training more.

Lendon Gray and Seldom Seen c 1984. Showing collection, suppleness and impulsion in competition. Photo (c) Susan McPherson

Michael Poulin and Medallion c. 1984. Showing collection, suppleness and impulsion in competition. Photo (c) Susan Sexton.

Going forward, without a close inspection of the sport and a return to focusing on training instead of talent, the rough riding will continue to be rewarded. Additionally, future students who want to learn dressage and compete will logically seek to learn from the “successful riders” who are successful through rough and more forceful style of riding. The end result will ultimately be that the sport of dressage will eventually go away as the increased awareness and concern for animal welfare inspects equestrian sports as a whole, and those on the outside clearly see the resignation and lack of joy that so many high-performance horses exhibit.

*In my next submission, I will pickup once again on the training scale as it pertains to the USDF levels and discuss Second through Fourth Level where impulsion, straightness, and collection come more into focus.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.