Guest Blog post # 87: "And He Thinks We Are Crazy!" ~ by Bill Woods

And He Thinks We Are Crazy!

I vacillate between being monstrously irked by certain Facebook posts or dismissing them as totally irrelevant to my riding life. But they’ve bothered me long enough that the alternate reality which they present deserves to be examined and accounted for. Let’s leave out names. I don’t mean to get in a p***ing contest with self-proclaimed experts or inexpert zealots, but try these quotes on for size:

What is termed the best of the best are judged in the Grand Prix Special which is the test used at the highest level in the Olympics. The test runs 6 minutes and 40 seconds long. There are 36 graded transitions with 9 movements that receive double scores. There are 4 collective marks.

This is considered as the gold standard for dressage which is more than unfortunate for who in their right mind would want a horse who can be forced to obey for a little less than 7 minutes with transitions occurring every 12 seconds. Is there value in this other than a grouping of tricks and traps?

One might admire such a thing if it was not completely insane. The question is if the relationship is worth it? This is not art, this is abuse designed to see who breaks down under pressure. These tests are not for horses, they are better suited for machines and the judges are the politicians du jour.

Here’s some more:

So you want to compete? Is this what you really want to support? Wouldn’t it be nicer to hang out with your horse and just talk? I would rather do one movement well in 7 minutes than do more poorly.

I see no value whatsoever (in subjecting yourself to) the pressure (of competition). There is no value for the horse and only a display of neurosis on the human end. Fear, pain and pressure are powerful motivators and increase the horse’s attention span. Modern riding depends on generalized aggression which is a cocktail of those three. I am fully aware that the majority of competitive rider do not consider themselves horse abusers, but neither did slave owner consider themselves poorly either.

And the whole situation in a nutshell as they see it:

The way the bit is used by modern riders is causing problems. But then, everything about the interaction of the rider’s aids with the horse in modern use is causing problems. It is not the bit that causes the issue, it’s the mind using the tool that is confused about how to interact in a useful, healthy way with the horse. 

François Robichon de La Guérinière stated categorically in 1733 that the hand is the first or primary aid. And he’s considered the father of all modern riding. The seat and legs came into fashion when the trainers of the 19th century decided the army full of commoners were all too crude and brutish ever to learn the subtle nuance of the hand. They took away the poetry of the interaction between the hand of the rider and the mouth of the horse, and replaced that conversation with blunt instruments: the legs and seat. They created a system of cues based on the pull, push and squeeze, since neither horse nor rider was considered to have a mind.

OK, he (they) has his dressage. But we can have ours too. We can choose which one suits our horses, our personalities, and our worldview.  In my particular universe—which by our antagonists’ reckoning may be as un “classical” as hell—I prefer my horse to be thoroughly responsive and involved with me despite whatever distraction. Transitions—both between and within the gaits—are a way we monitor that availability. Those checks, visible or invisible, are performed before the fact, prior to an overt problem. Speaking as a judge, our dressage seeks to promote suppleness, fluidity, and harmony. His notion that the only harmony that can exist in a dressage test happens if the horse anticipates and makes up the movement on his own I find laughable. Clearly I did not grow up with enough centaurs in my neighborhood!
As for this crude non-Baucherian concept of riding with your legs (those German barbarians!), people have been doing this for several hundred years now.… during which time electricity, penicillin, string theory, and biomechanics have all been invented or discovered. To say nothing of indoor plumbing and microwave popcorn.

Recently I judged an entire day of eventing dressage. There were a lot of pleasant, harmonious rides. There were also some that were short on competence, but no one seemed to lack the desire to improve. I did not see a single one that was remotely cruel or abusive (if you discount the transitions or being able to demonstrate that the horse will do what you wish when you want him to).

My conclusion—we are lesser humans in the eyes of the people I am quoting. Does that make me want to emulate them? Not hardly! But we should listen to what they have to say and filter our own relationships to training and to our horses through their perspective—even just to see what it comes out like.

As Richard Feynman, the famed theoretical physicist, said, “The most important person to question is yourself.” After you have done that, it’s fine with me if you indulge in some extreme eye-rolling and snarky, under-your-breath backtalk.

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