Training in the Right Way: There’s a Problem in Competitive Dressage

This week’s editorial is a follow up to my previous article discussing the proliferation of the consumption of talent rather than the training of it to further develop it for the competitive sport of dressage.

It is not a judging problem.
It is not a breeding problem.
It is an education problem.

After the response to my previous article, I felt compelled to further address what I see as one of the biggest issues in competitive dressage today: the proliferation of the consumption of talent rather than the training of it to further develop it for competitive sport.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro.

Horses like Valegro are beautiful examples of trained talent: he remained on top for a long time and got there not only because he was a super-talented freak of nature, but also because he was surrounded by knowledge-based training. An educated eye can see this clearly in the horse’s way of moving and in his muscle structure. When a person with a trained eye observes a horse, the horse’s body and behavior tell the story of the horse’s training. It is important to understand though that just because a horse appears a certain way in a specific movement, it does not imply that the person responsible for that animal at that moment is solely responsible for the horse’s behavior and training; both are cumulative, being the result of many iterations.

This is true of both good and bad previous training. This is why it is so important not to assume the rider is responsible for the horse’s appearance, good or bad as, essentially, the horse will forever carry the imprint of his previous riders. When a horse has been ridden mostly with strength and by force, his body will show it by having a lack of muscling in his back and often, but not always, in the neck and hindquarters. When you ride these horses, they may be dull to the leg and or to the rein and they will definitely require a great deal of strength behind the aids to create the exercises and movements. This is problematic and in opposition to the actual purpose of dressage training.

So, what do I mean when I say strength based or forced riding?

In the simplest terms it means that the horse does not have self-carriage. Instead, he is held together, usually with a connection that is too strong. Because of this, the horse lacks enough suppleness to truly be on the aids. Thus he does the movements based on the rider’s strength, not from being taught what the aid means and with balance and suppleness. The reason that this is a problem is not only is it not good for the horses, but it also inhibits riders from being properly educated to be trainers.

Circling back then, what is the aforementioned self-carriage?

It does not mean that the horse does the work without the rider’s assistance. It means that the horse has been taught that the feeling of specific aids mean to do specific things. The easiest example is legs back to ask for piaffe and legs forward for passage. The horse in self-carriage will do everything in its power to try to perform these activities when the aid is applied. However, it is up to the rider to provide the correct timing and intensity and variations of the aid to produce suppleness, collection, and engagement during these activities. (Again, Valegro is a fabulous example of self-carriage matched with incredible talent).

Given that these are integral aspects of dressage training, and competition should be an evaluation of the training, why then do we have this problem of using talent instead of training it developing and flourishing in competitive dressage? As with most things, the answer to this is multi-factorial, but there are a few things of note to cover that are decidedly NOT the issue.

First, it is not a judging problem in that the judges that we have are well-educated in a system that is designed to place a numeric score on a moment in time. The presence or absence of the qualities in the training scale that are required to perform that movement are what dictate the numeric value. This system, however, does not (and cannot, in fact) differentiate the percentage of these qualities that are being developed by the rider versus being provided by the horse’s natural talent. Additionally, if you have ever tried to judge a dressage test, you would know that it is not an easy job to assign a numeric value to a fleeting moment without “replay” or “slow motion” as an option.

It is also important to note that unlike some other equestrian disciplines that are judged entirely subjectively, dressage tests are judged based on the rules of the system itself. Although as human beings, judges inherently bring some level of bias to the scoring, they cannot as a rule stray from the criteria laid out by the system. This means that the argument that “if judges didn’t score horses with bad training well, people wouldn’t use bad training” is inherently flawed.

Judging a dressage test is not easy…

For the most part, our dressage judges do an excellent job performing their duties as judges of the moments within the test. They may see evidence of incorrect training in the rider’s actions and the horse’s muscling and behavior, but they can only score based on the movement itself. The collective remarks and comments allow for some discussion and judging of these findings, but by design, it is not the forum for that discussion, but rather an evaluation of those fleeting moments within the test.

All of us who compete have had a difficult ride in front of a judge and received a low score. That alone does not mean that the rider or the trainer is doing a bad job; it means that was a bad example of the training. A judge cannot easily differentiate whether it was a bad ride with good training or a good ride with bad training within the scoring system. And though they may be able to infer that poor training is a factor, the judging system is such that it is not for them to “call out” bad training that occurs outside the test itself.

A talented young dressage horse showing so much ability for collection, impulsion and freedom of movement.

It is also not a breeding problem in that responsible, educated horse breeders are making horses that are more purpose-bred than ever. These high-quality animals are the result of decades, if not centuries, of educated breeding. Some farms in Europe are multi-generational and these folks really know what they are doing with bloodlines. They have created animals that have so much talent for the sport of dressage that the quality of movement and the scores have sky-rocketed in the past two decades. The levels of freedom of movement (suppleness), impulsion, and ability to collect and extend that these young horses are born with exceed what many older representations of high-performance dressage horses could achieve with excellent training.

This exponentially compounds the trouble for the judge to make the differentiation between top training and top quality. What we end up with (not in every instance of high performance, but many instances) are some very good test riders competing and winning on naturally exceptional quality athletes. To a degree, the horse’s abilities cover for the lack of systematic training. Unfortunately, this exceptional breeding of quality has completely, albeit accidentally, created a short cut (of sorts) to high performance success. And, therefore, it also has accidentally created a lack of longevity in the horse’s lifetime in competition. If you track the top 4, 5, and 6 year olds coming out of the Young Horse Championships, many never make it to Grand Prix or stay at that level for any length of time.

Cartoon (c) The Idea of Order

Having noted what the problem is not, let’s consider what it is: an education problem. It is such in that we have numerous riders who have derived their success from riding talented horses, and may or may not have experience training horses to fully develop their talent. Again, I cannot say this often enough, not ALL high-performance riders do this, but a lot more of them do now than 20, 30, or 40 years ago. This is a problem because many of our amateurs, young riders, and future young professionals are LEARNING how to perpetuate our sport by training with people who are not, in actuality, trainers. They are instead learning how to force ride super talented animals rather than developing them.  Sadly, there is enough of a dynamic around this that you will hear proper, classically based competitive training such as that done by the likes of Herbert Rehbein and Reiner Klimke (there are others), as being “old school,” “no longer relevant,” or “unnecessary.”

Herbert Rehbein and the famous stallion, Pik Bube (Helmets were not commonly used at the time of this photo, but are a tremendously important piece of riding equipment. Wear a helmet!)

What happens to our sport when we no longer have classically-educated trainers to train the horses and riders? How do we teach our next generations what to look for in a competition rider (and their horses) that tells them that they will get educated in the right way and not just in how to use the talent? How do we correct the course of competitive dressage away from consumption of talent and back to the development of it? What happens to the horses that get “used up?” How do we educate riders and young trainers if people have to fear retaliation when they speak up for the horse, or try to point out what we should not be doing as trainers and competitors?

These are questions we need to be facing head on now if we want the sport of dressage to continue. Our federations, who are ultimately responsible for directing the future of the sport of dressage in the US, are not able to make this distinction for us, even if they were set up to differentiate between which trainers were on the right track and which are not. This is understandable as it is a slippery slope where people with ulterior motives can try to bring down their competition. It is up to the people who care about this to continue to speak up and seek out ways to educate their eye, so they can find good teachers. The more education in what to look for in a trainer allows more riders to become their (and their horse’s) own advocate.

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.