‘Classical’ Dressage Armchair Quarterbacks, Please Sit Down: An Op-Ed

Today’s musings are largely just an op-ed brought on by some of the comments on the recent article by Gwyneth McPherson regarding Classical vs Competition Dressage.

“Oh, look over there. People I’ve annoyed.” “Are those pitchforks and torches?” Photo (c) Morgane Schmidt

Whenever anyone attempts to discuss classical vs competition dressage, the armchair quarterbacks come pouring out of the dark recesses of the internet to give their input as to why competition dressage is trash and how far we’ve all fallen from its classical roots. It’s honestly so predictable as to be cliché. And it is not helpful.

Now, before you ALL appear at my farm ready to burn me at the stake, hear me out.

I feel I should first note who I am, and am NOT, directing this at.

I am not bagging on actual classical riders or trainers — those who consider themselves classical who enjoy the training process — specifically utilizing classical principles and choose to focus there rather than competition. Awesome; you do you. I have a huge amount of respect for correct classical training and have seen some truly gifted trainers in the category. I also entirely recognize that not everyone uses competition as their personal measuring stick for success (and that’s fine!). There are plenty of ways to enjoy horses that don’t involve showing.

I am also not aiming this broadly at those who disagree with me, who also have valid equestrian experience, and can likely present legitimate concerns/considerations. When looking to address an issue, differing viewpoints are necessary for meaningful, productive conversation (as long as those views have some merit behind them). I am not trying to shut that down (keyword: productive), nor do I think I am some font of all knowledge (I am well aware of how much I don’t know).

Wilson likely reminding me how much I don’t know. Also that we need more snacks. Photo (c) Morgane Schmidt

Instead, my ire in this article is pointed at those who would much rather sit at their computer and pontificate about all they ‘know,’ when they’ve had zero practical experience training horses up the levels (or have done only some abomination of such) and a clear agenda that involves their distaste for dressage competition and a desire to dismantle it.

If you’re in the latter category, sit down. You’re not adding anything productive to the conversations that need to be had in order to improve and move our sport forward. Instead, you’re muddying the waters and giving actual classical methodology a bad name with your implication that only these theoretical horses (theoretical because often there’s no proof or any actual indication that this is really happening or that what is happening is even remotely correct) performing flawlessly perfect upper level movements with zero tension are capable of ‘REAL, true’ dressage.

That is asinine. More importantly, it’s also entirely unhelpful. If you think competition dressage is an absolute dumpster fire not worth salvaging, then you likely have nothing useful to add to this discussion on how to improve it (and should see yourself out while the rest of us try to put out the fire).

Does competition dressage have issues that must be addressed? Absolutely. Is it an irredeemable cesspool of all that is wrong and unholy with riding and training these days? Not so much. If you read Gwyneth’s article for comprehension, you would have likely noticed her emphasis on the fact that there is a middle ground between what appears to be (but does not need to be) two distinctly different training approaches. Classical principles can, and absolutely should be applied to training the modern sport horse. Arguably, when this is done, you would have not only a highly competitive dressage horse, but also one relaxed and confident in his work (note that I did not say *perfect* in his work, as perfection is an ideal rather than something that can be achieved indefinitely by a living being). This is what needs to happen in our sport.

Unfortunately, due to multiple factors, riders and trainers today often take shortcuts in the training process rather than following a more methodical (classical), knowledgeable approach. Those factors are what we should be exploring and looking to address to improve our sport, not being sidetracked by people going down rabbit holes lamenting how we should all be riding bit-less with reins of silk and controlling our horses with half halts that are effortless.

I do think the biggest reason people take shortcuts is a lack of knowledge — many don’t even know that they’re not doing things correctly. I will come back to that. Another key reason these shortcuts occur is that we’ve reached a point where the horses are talented enough to cover for a lack in training; this can make it more difficult for the tests to accurately reward effective training. It’s easy to blame judges and say that they should not reward horses with incorrect training, but the reality is that sometimes this is not apparent and other times the horse’s talent covers for any point deduction given. To clarify that last bit, an uber talented horse may perform a movement with some obvious tension, and the judge may score it down appropriately, but if the horse has an ‘8’ or ‘9’ for gaits, and the movement was overall correct, the score may only drop 0.5-1.0 points. Obviously, I am simplifying this a bit, but this is why super talented horses ridden with too much strength and incorrect training are often still able to receive high scores.

This is unfortunate and we need to ask how we can address it. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t breed talented horses. Nor does it mean that we should whine that more talented horses get higher scores (seriously, folks, I showed a half halter-bred APHA gelding up to I-1 and I LOVED HIM. But he was what he was, and I couldn’t expect him to beat most modern sport horses no matter how great the training because he was never going to be as supple or as through as a more talented animal). All (obvious) things being equal, more talented horses should score better than less — and that’s just a fact of life we all need to get over.

Major Storm, the most amazing Paint Horse ever. Photo (c) Tamara with the Camera.

Perhaps the tests could be altered to include more movements that showcase training over talent? The turn on the forehand being something that initially comes to mind, or even including a correct stretching circle at higher levels. There are other things that could be explored here.

Another factor in the current tendency to strength ride horses rather than take the time to train them is the simple fact that time is money and we have introduced big money into the top of the sport. It is far more lucrative to rush a horse up the levels to the start of FEI (because getting all the way to GP is hard when your training looks like Swiss cheese) so he can be sold (for $$$$$$) to an unwitting rider who will either (if they find a knowledgeable trainer) then go on to spend the time retraining and correcting the sketchy training in order to move up, or (if they don’t have appropriate help) will live at whatever level indefinitely (probably with the horse in training that does not actually further produce him just so the rider can sit on him), or eventually go lame, or possibly even injure the rider due to the horse’s lack of training and understanding of the aids. I can’t claim to have any overly earth-shattering solutions to this, but I would suggest that this is where knowledge and education are to vital and ultimately key to improving our sport.

If riders become more educated on what a trained horse should feel like, they will be less likely to purchase one that rides like a Mac Truck without power steering and brakes. This could incentivize sellers to train more appropriately. Additionally, if we all as horsemen and women educate ourselves to what a knowledgeable training program looks like, we can then do a better job choosing to work with trainers who have the necessary skill and knowledge to produce horses to the top level of the sport rather than making the mistake of believing that fancy horses in and of themselves are indicative of correct training (still giving you the side eye here, Wellington).

Obviously, there’s still a lot to unpack here, and much work to be done by the dressage community if we want to move forward productively and return to a focus on correct training within competition dressage. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I am at least suggesting some steps towards possible solutions — steps that begin with educating ourselves and with productive dialogue among individuals who care about the sport and, hopefully, possess some working knowledge of actual riding and training.

While everyone is welcome to their opinion (and you do not necessarily need to be an upper-level rider to have valid ideas), I would note that some opinions are more educated and therefore more valuable than others, as they better lend themselves to meaningful discourse. This, and the fact that they seem hellbent on taking down competitive dressage rather than improving it, is largely why I am so negative about the ‘noise’ created by those espousing themselves as “classical” dressage experts.

They’re a distraction that allows the current powers that be to dismiss the valid concerns we have about our sport and pretend that anyone ‘against’ the current system just ‘doesn’t know,’ or is a wing-nut, which ultimately maintains the status quo. And yes, for my more literary readers, I am well aware that my dismissal of the opinions of the “classical” armchair quarterbacks is ironically similar to what I am claiming those in charge of competition dressage are doing [to the rest of us].

I would argue, however, that the key difference is that the educated, thoughtful riders and trainers actually have the future success and improvement of the sport in mind rather than simply looking for a platform to rant about how much better “classical” is. This is why they deserve a platform and to be heard. As I noted at the start, differing opinions aren’t bad, but people offering uneducated rants doesn’t add anything useful to the dialogue.*


*Yes, I am implying there is a hierarchy of value to opinions. While I know that defining that is subjective, I would argue that most of us know who is making a point and who is just wasting oxygen. While I do not claim to be an expert, or even that my opinion deserves to be heard (you, dear reader have chosen to read this far), I am at least involved in the sport and have ridden more than the pony in front of Walmart.

Morgane Schmidt is, among many things, an equestrian who still hasn’t quite decided what she wants to be when she grows up. Author of Life with Horses Is Never Orderly, she knows all about the madness that comes with the equine territory, having owned and competed horses in eventing and dressage for years. A lifelong fan of the classic equestrian cartoons penned by internationally renowned artist Norman Thelwell, she began her own comic series in 2011, sharing deftly funny reflections on life with horses on Horse Nation as well as her personal website. A native Floridian, she spent a decade in Reno, NV, where she was able to confirm her suspicion that snow is utterly worthless (she has since regained her sense and moved back to the Florida swamp). Though she has run the gamut of equestrian disciplines, her favorite is dressage. She has completed her USDF bronze and silver medals and is currently working on her gold. Generally speaking, her life is largely ruled by Woody, a 14.2 hand beastly quarter horse, Willie, a now beastly 12-year-old Dutch gelding, and Milona DG, a 6 year old KWPN chestnut mare (you can make your own inferences there…). Visit her website at www.theideaoforder.com.