Saturday, November 24, 2007

Do you have to wind them up with their tail to get them to do that?

Before I even begin this topic, I want to clarify that I have no experience with dressage.

Well, actually, I have kind of a funny story about it. I was riding at a barn that had both indoor polo and h/j/dressage horses in Chicago in my late teens. I became pals with another girl around my same age. She had an amazing big dressage horse. I would ride with her on the 14.1 hand Appendix QH polo pony I was taking care of. We were buddies even though she said things that made me roll my eyes at the time, like "you shouldn't get on from the ground, it's bad for the horse's back." (Admittedly, with age and experience, I have accepted that there probably was a kernel of truth to that, although I'm guessing that launching my 19 year old 112 lb. self onto a 14.1 pony mare was probably not throwing her spine out of alignment). Anyway, she thought the polo ponies looked like fun to ride, so one day she asked me if I wanted to switch.

Sure! Why not?

Well, all I can say is that someone should have been videotaping. I had never ridden anything but polo ponies at this point in my life. I had no leg, because you only use your leg in polo when you want to turn or go faster, and a lot of polo ponies overreact to any lower leg contact at all. I had never ridden on english-style contact. I pitched Big Dressage Horse away and rode with my lower leg off of him and he was hopelessly confused. He wouldn't go forward, and he started bucking. Meanwhile, my friend on the little polo mare said HO and got a slide stop that nearly pitched her over the neatly pricked set of pony ears in front of her.

We quickly elected to switch back! And that was my experience with dressage horses. For years, I rode at various barns that had some dressage horses boarded there, and while there were some exceptions (and I did ride a really awesome, happy Hungarian Warmblood mare some years down the road), I started to see a theme: Pinned ears, swishing tail and an overall unhappy look on the horse's face. Oh, they might be doing absolutely beautiful maneuvers, but they were pissed. They rarely got turned out. They stood in their stalls and snarled at passers-by. The barn help were afraid of them. They had a lot of lameness issues, they had a lot of back problems. I'm not saying all of them, don't have hysterics now, but to the eye of a casual observer with no dressage training, a lot of them simply weren't happy horses.

In the past few years, I've learned that even among dressage riders, there's a huge amount of debate over training methods. Apparently a lot of people who do dressage do not care for the pinned-ear, cranking tail, death-grip-on-mouth look either. In fact, there is a name for it - rollkur. Now seriously, how educated of a rider do you have to be to see that these are pissed off, unhappy and physically uncomfortable horses? I've taught 10 year old kids who would be able to recognize the look on this horse's face. When I hear that Anky whateverthehell got her ass bucked off, I think good for the horse. I'd buck you off too if you cranked on my face like that in a double bridle. (Before you all have a shit fit that I made that comment, yes, I think she is a beautiful rider, far more talented than I will ever be, and I've seen some video of her rides where the horse doesn't look unhappy in the least...but I've seen others where the horse looks like it wishes she would fall off so it could stomp her dead.)

A story from another board - I'd love video of this. Anybody got the video?

"This makes me think of a discussion I read recently on another forum where I go to remind myself just how stupid people can be. The discussion was about Anky's horse freaking out during an awards ceremony and not only did he spook and bolt, he would NOT stop and she could not stop him and was yelling for help even as he ran into the band that she had steered him into hoping they would stop him...and finally a mounted policeman stopped him with the police horse. So the argument on the forum was all about how everyone's horse might bolt in those circumstances, and all kinds of ridiculous attempts to defend the number one dressage rider in the world who can't even stop her horse where's she's supposed to in her test, much less stop him if he's on the way to killing innocent bystanders. "

Again, I am not a dressage rider. But if the people riding in the Cavalia show can accomplish movements like passage on horses who are not wearing bridles at all, it stands to reason that it is not necessary to pull something's jaw off in a double bridle to do it, right? I will say, those Cavalia horses looked perfectly happy doing it. I never saw a tail crank or an ear lay back. Feel free to enlighten me - why exactly is it necessary to crank the horse's jaw into its sternum to win the Olympics? If you think you can explain/justify it, please comment. Or if you are a dressage rider and think it's crap, feel free to say that, too!

I mean, come on, would you want to do this with your chin?

This is one unhappy horse. So are these.

What I think is funny is that I know the folks who do this (hehe, I'm picturing them having a cow that someone called them "folks") can probably rag all day on AQHA training and how unnatural the head set is. Um, this is just as unnatural and if you think about how a horse's spine is built, way more uncomfortable for the horse than peanut rolling. (Yes, peanut rolling is stupid too...but really all the horse is doing is trotting around with his head in the grazing position. This overflexed bullshit does not occur in nature. A horse would never choose to do this unless you were holding a carrot between his forelegs!)

Now, I have to give the FEI some credit. They are holding workshops and trying to figure out how to deal with training methods that may be abusive and may not be in the horses' best interest. However, when they say that they need "A more detailed definition of what is to be considered as abuse is required, e.g. stress factors, pain or discomfort," I can solve that one for them. Just trot 'em out for soundness at the end and have a good vet and chiropractor assess them. Disqualify them for soreness. Everybody will figure out how to train without it in a big hurry if you do that! It's like in AQHA...when they started dropping bits in the classes, voila, it pretty much solved the illegal bit problem! Nobody likes to look like an asshat in public, no matter how much of one they are in private.

Now, before you all think I'm just anti-dressage...absolutely not. In fact, one of the riders I've seen that I'm most impressed with is a dressage rider. I know many of you have already seen her videos on Youtube, but if you haven't, go watch. Watch the absolute softness and lack of any temper this girl rides with. She is clear, consistent, has beautiful balance and as a result has been able to work through problems that I have a feeling a lot of the "Big Names" would have dealt with using a quiet call to the horse dealer.

Those of you who are so inclined may now commence having hysterics that I'm a lot more impressed with a 19 year old kid than Anky whatsername...hey I bet this girl knows how to stop a runaway without screeching for a man to save her!

I've always been a horse-centric rider. I want the horse to be happy and comfortable and willing. I'm a hell of a lot more impressed with someone who can accomplish that than with anything else in the world. I love riding, I'm grateful that horses allow us to ride them, and I want them to enjoy the experience every bit as much as we do.

Every time I see people making horses miserable because of money, or fame, or ego, it makes me want to puke, and I don't care if that's a pleasure trainer tying a horse's head up over a rafter or a race trainer running a lame horse trying to make back someone's investment, or a Big Name Trainer on a horse who has that long suffering look of a child star with a pushy mother.