Traditional Dressage / articles

Article by Charles de Kunffy.


"Call it what you may, but because learning in horsemanship never stops, equitation is very much an intellectual activity, contrary to what many people prefer to think.

What really works in the saddle will work because your knowledge has helped it work.

Classical horsemanship is based on a very pragmatic background cultivated for hundreds of years. Everything has been tried, and only that which produced lasting improvement on most horses was retained, and the rest, found erroneous, ws thrown out.

If you know enough, you know that it is not worth experimenting or using gimmicks, you know there is nothing you personaly can invent right now, because both equine and humans structure and psychology have not changed much over the last centuries. The body of knowledge handed down to us represents the sum total of the best results from the past.

Now, in the middle of the twentieth century, trying a new gimmick is senseless, because you will fail as did those who tried it three centuries ago; that is one way of writing yourself out of equestrian history !

Therefore, learn what is right and don't ruin yourself by trying old, rotten false gimmicks. The body of knowledge accumulated is enormous, and to learn it takes years.

Judging requires the highest expertise called for in dressage. In my opinion, judging is a by-product of complete expertise. One does not become a judge because one proclaims oneself to be a judge. Rather, one should be begged to judge because one is so expert, because one is indispensable to the dressage community.

The riding community must need your knowledge, your evaluation, not the other way around : judging does not require such abstract qualities as "feel" or "touch". No such nonsense is needed at all.

What is needed instead is knowledge. An expert can judge! Somebody who is not an expert should not judge. Matter of taste belong to the spectator's stands, not in the judge's booth, where expertise, not prejudice, should prevail.

What should a good judge know thoroughly ? He should know both practical and theoretical horsemanship.

And he should never stop learning, because good judging is an evaluation of art, for dressage is an art. It is also a sport, however, for all art is based on skilled, and when you display your riding skills in competition with others, you are engaged in sport. But these skills are only a means to an end.

The goal of dressage is an artistic display of the gymnastic horse in all his splendor, transcending the skill-orientated goals that are the nitty gritty of daily work.

So when you evaluate a dressage horse, that is, a gymnast - a dressage hores is analogous to a human gymnast - you are evalutating a work of art. In this connection, I like to define art as nature seen in the light of its own significance. Thus it is incorrect and ceases to be art when equine nature is sacrificed to artifice.

Consider the dog : his beauty may be seen in many ways, but certainly not as he may be presented in a circus, wearing a little lace dress and carrying a pink parasol, because it is unrepresentative of a dog's true nature. That sort of sight is sad.

Horsemanship is incorrect unless it displays what the horse naturally offers through his intrinsic beauty and energy. So a good judge will learn what makes a horse beautiful when fully developed, will know the goals of gymnastic development, not just the rules that goven dressage competitions (though he must know these, too). A good judge will possess skills of observation, so that his impartiality depends neither on memory or gossip.

I know I have the mental capacity and ethical commitment (and I know other judges have too) to separate knowledge of past performances and friendship from what I see in a particular presentation. One must judge what one sees in the competition, not what is seen in the warm-up ring out of the corner of the eye. One must be ethical and fair.

A judge must be quick. One higher levels, one often has but a few seconds to formulate a mark for certain movements. One who doesn't know dressage can easily comes up with a mark. How?

Just by assigning one! One can fake anything.

The key is knowing the relative importance of the various things to look at as they relate to the horse's gymnastic development. Only in that knowledge can one accurately and assuredly reward the correct tendencies and punish the wrong ones.

The insight required into the horse's development takes years of theoretical study to develop. But the judge must also be aware of conditions peculiar to any given competition. A horse will be irregular in a muddy corner, he will shy at paper flying across the arena on a windy day.

The judge must understand that the horse's protective instincts are too strong to be dealt with by man. Of course, at higher levels, we expect more obedience, born of greater trust and deeper partnership between horse and rider.

A judge should empathize with the rider, and that is one reason why a good judge usually has had an outstanding riding career. Those without competition experience will not empathize to the same extend with what goes on during each ride. When I judge, I feel as if I were transported from my chair and into the saddle, riding along with the competitor. (That may sound corny, but it is true). One almost feels the scores in the seat of the pants rather than coming from one's mind.

It is a very important asset when judging, and it comes from extensive riding.

A judge should be dedicated first to the art of dressage and only then to the show that employs him.

He cannot when invited to judge at the Heavenly Tapestry Valley Dressage Association's very first dressage show score everyone generously so the poor dears are not discouraged.If they ride 28 % tests, they must receive 28% on their score sheets.

Otherwise, a peculiar result may occur : in the first Heavenly Tapestry Valley dressage show everyone scores in the seventies, and from then on their scores diminish with each competition as sophistication grows, until they arrive, as a good group with a great deal of instruction, monthly clinics, and whatnot, at tests in the high forties and low fifties, and they say "Gee, instruction sure does not help !" it is much fairer and makes much more sense, of course, to start at 28 % and see whether anyone climbs to the fifties with proper instruction.

In other words, one gains nothing by pretending. If a trot deserves a seven, it should get a seven, but if it deserves only a three, even in Heavenly Tapestry Valley.

A community isolation from the mainstream of dressage should not alter one's standards. Fair and expert judging is kind in its severity. I think it is truly kind to give a novice on the wrong track a very low score and to encourage him to find out how he might better it. I don't believe in promoting a false image of oneself and one's accomplishments.

Dressage competitions are based on riding standardized tests. These tests, when correctly written, adequately measure a horse's gymnastic developement.

They should guide the rider in determining his daily work.

Most important is the statement of the test's purpose, but it is surprising how few riders read and take to heart that directive information. For instance, the Second level dressage tests are : "to determine that the horse has acquired, in addition to those qualities of the First level, a degree of suppleness, balance and impulsion".

This statement is equally significant to the judge, who must distill his impressions into a number from zero to ten. A judge always works on two scales, from ten to zero and from four to zero.

I start with the top grade and chip away at it downward. However, if any of the attributes emphasized in the statement of purpose are missing, the score instantly drops down to four, insufficient. Then, if additional faults are in evidence, the mark goes even lower. But if the purpose of the test is promoted before me, I go from ten down.

So when you ride a test, be certain you know and can fulfill the purpose of that test.

The purpose of the First Level test is, "to determine that the correct foundation is being laid for successful training of the riding horse, that the horse moves freely forward in a relaxed manner and with rhythm, its spine always parallel to the track of the prescribed movement, that it accepts the bit and obeys simple aids of the rider". so first of all, the horse must move freely.

If the horse does not move freely, if he hitches or is not level, with one hind leg stepping shorter than the other, then he dos not fulfill the requirements for sound gaits at First level. Thus the highest mark he could receive is a four.

We might see a horse who moves freely forward but those movement is not relaxed or rythmic. "Relaxed manner" implies that the horse's entire body takes part in the movement.

It means the whole horse must be relaxed, including the jaw, which must not be open with gnashing teeth. Nor should the lips be pulled up, vibrating and flapping in pain and irritation. This shows not a relaxed horse but one in agony.

Lack of relaxation, to say nothing of pain, is contrary to dressage. You may prove you can navigate something around if you really have to, but it is not dressage.

A horse moving in rhythm neither leans in around the corners nor slows at the corners while speeding up down the long side. The footfalls must be like the beat of a drummer in an orchestra. If not, right down to a four, even if it is a novice group, for otherwise they will never advance. If we accpet changes in rhythm and irregularity of the gaits as standard and reward such with sixes and sevens, we may soothe rider's egos, but we will at the same time harm the art of dressage. And a judge is committed to the art of dressage, not the rider's egos.

Similarly, if the horse's spine is not "parallel to the track of the prescribed movement", the best mark will be a four.

If you are on a twenty meter circle, the horse's spine must be an arc of that twenty meter circle, neither straight nor, even worse, counterflexed. He must be straight on the wall and bent around the corners. In the lengthening on the diagonal, if you lengthen but the horse is not straight, again a four at best. And if the horse just runs (remember he must keep the same rythm), down to a three.

And if he throws his head and stiffens his jaw, the score slides to a two. You receive a two not because the judge wants to hurt you but because he wants to tell you a story and must tell it with a number.

He is telling you that you must learn to go straight on the diagonal, and that later you may be able to do that and lengthen rather than hurry, and that maybe after more appropriate work you will do all that with a truly relaxed horse.

The horse must "accept the bit and obey the simple aids of the rider". If you ask for a left lead canter and you get right, an insufficient marks results. The standards of judging may not be compromised, and they are based on the determination to promote classical dressage and not circus. A judge must know what is gymnastically sound and how it looks.

A horse develops in a logical progression. Over the long run, you start with a green horse who will, you hope, progress to Grand Prix over fie or six years. There is also a progressive process every day as you work, with relaxation the first step. Without relaxation, nothing can nor will happen correctly. The horse's entire gymnastic development depends on whether he can relax and use his muscles properly to move his skeleton.

Only muscles can move the "bag of bones".

Relaxation is first mental, then physical. A horse in pain or one who fears you will neve relax his body. With a green horse, you may spend the entire day's work just on relaxing him completely. A trained horse with his accumulation of trust and sophistication, will relax automatically; by th etime you have saddled him, petted him, talked to him, and so on, he knows who you are and what is to be done, and he knows everything is all right. You needn't work on relaxation because it is there ! Occasionally during especially difficult work you might lose that relaxation even on an advanced horse. Then you must instantly return to relaxing him.

Once a horse is relaxed, we can help him learn to carry a ride properly. A horse is relaxed if he will move in longitudinal bending. A relaxed horse will flex totally towards the bit. You always hear the expression, "your horse is on the bit, your horse is not on the bit". Well, only a relaxed horse can flex toward the bit and be longitudinally bent. When the horse is ridden from behind and stabilized (not pulled, yanked, jerked, or held, but stabilized) in front, he will learn to step deeper and taller toward his center of gravity, thereby becoming a shorter- and taller-moving horse: that is manifested in longitudinal flexion.

We can make an analogy between the horse's spine and a riding whip or a long piece of wood. Push the two ends toward each other and the whip will form an arc, or you rpiece of wood has become a bow, and this bow now has the strength and elasticity to propell an arrow. Thus, the longitudinal gending, or the horse on the bit can now provide constant energy for propulsion.

That's all part of relaxation. Only a relaxed horse can accept your aids.

Riders are very often but mistakenly glad to see their horse arch his neck, regardless of how it is arched (whether too high or too low or behind the bit or stiff). Have you ever seen a horse with an arched but stiff neck, looking as though he were nailed to the bit ? That kind or arch does not imply a horse on the bit.

A relaxed horse accepts the aids and moves in longitudinal flexion wth total absorption of the driing aids. And the acceptance fo the driving aids is easy to detect. A horse running away sideways from the leg or speeding up is not responsive to the aids; one who reacts by engaging his haunches without speeding up is.

A relaxed horse takes part in the movement in his entirety.

Another analogy : two people can lift and carry a board across a room, but the board will not itself have moved, only be transported.

A horse can similarly move his back and body from point A to B with his four legs, but if he does not use his entire musculature properly, he will not develop as an athlete.

Relaxation is the bread and butter without which you cannot advance to stage two, balance.

How do we test for balance in a dressage test ? By asking for lateral bending. You work on the horse's lateral balance on circles, serpentines, figures of eight, half circles, anything that bends the horse laterally.

The horse's spine should parallel the arc on which he moves. Your daily training logic should include balance work, moving the horse on these circular patterns. Balance is also improved by transitions from gait to gait, from a simple trot to walk to the more sophisticated canter to halt. Just as this work on arcs and transitions develops balance, it is also a test for balance, an thus arcs and transitions are written into our dressage tests.

Every movement in a test is required for a specific reason, and a good judge knows the reasons and judges the movements accordingly.

Next after you have improved balance is work on rythm, the establishment of regularity of the footfalls in all gaits. We test this by asking for transitions within the gaits, lengthening and shortening the stride without altering the rhythm.

For many riders, feeling the rhythm of the walk is the most difficult, because they do not take the time or have the patience to be instructed, and because most riders don't sit correctly and cannot feel the movement of the haunches. With a stiffened and hollowed lower back and buttocks pushed behind the back, you have no chance to feel where the horse's limbs are.

With your lower back immobilized, paralyzed in a stiff position, you will never have a chance to know whether the right or the left hind leg is stepping up or how high it is stepping, because that information is not allowed through your back.

I don't want to go into equitation here because it is not my purpose, but you must learn to sit so as to be able to lengthen and shorten the horse's stride with absolute security of rhythm. Those without a good sense of rhythm will not easily succeed.

Also you must produce rhythmic gaits without losing longitudinal flexion, without coming off the bit, and with continuing acceptance in the haunches of the driving aids.

The fourth stage, built upon all preceding ones, is impulsion.

Do not confuse impulsion with speed! It is not speed at all, but controlled energy, in a way the very opposite of speed, for it is manifested in slower yet more suspended action. Speed is the enemy of impulsion! Impulsive motion is slow but energetic with larger movement in the joints, as opposed to mincing and choppy, deteriorated motion. ("Revving the horse up" is no help. I see it all the time at shows and it just ruins impulsion.).

A horse with impulsion will display rounder, more fluid, and more continuous action and will develop supple joints and an elastic musculature. There is a subtle vibration in the impulsive horse's body.

The fifth and last step as the horse develops is engagement of the hindquarters. The horse, now relaxed, balanced, rhythmic, and impulsive, can shift his center of gravity further back and carry the majority of his weight on the hindquarters, thus freeing the forehand. The forelegs and shoulders, free from the burden of carrying will display lightness and elegance. Engagement is manifested in the balanced, rhythmic flow of the gait; the horse travels suspended in the air rather than hugging the ground. An engaged horse will produce with minimum energy maximum motion. The forehand is not to be raised by the rider's hands !

Do not pull them up! The horse puts his head where it belongs as he balances.

The lightening of the forehand should be the consequence of the withers bouncing up.

This mania of trying to ride a horse with a "Grand-prix neck", a horse who moves with Training level hindquarters, is abominable.

The tall arch in the pulled-up neck, broken at the third vertebrae, supported by the lower neck muscles (looking like a goiter) creating a false swan neck and hollow back while the hocks push way behind the horse : this looks is common and tragic.

The well trained horse rises at the withers, and his neck and head, being in front of the withers, coincidentally rise. Not because you pulled the head higher but because your horse put his head there. Your horse should take four years to put his head there, it should not be pulled there in four weeks.

If you develop your horse according to this gymnastic system, you will find that at first you spend all your time pursuing relaxation and hardly progress into other areas.

As you advance, however, the emphasis will shift. You will arrive at a stage where you will create relaxation and balance very quickly, and you will be able to spend most of the time on rhythm. Later when rhythm comes easily, you can concentrate on impulsion. By then he will be firmly on the aids and not running away from your leg.

At this point there should be a total harmony between you and the horse, you don't know where you and the horse begins. You are welded together, your muscle is his muscle, your mind is his mind, when you trot he trots, when you make a larger circle, he makes a larger circle: your mind controls his limbs. On a finished horse, you may spend the entire day's lesson working on improving engagement.

The Grand Prix test is not designed to test the horse's relaxation, but if the horse is not relaxed, the judge will give you a nasty score. But with a tense horse you shouldn't be riding a test for engagement!

In summary, a word of caution : now you know the gymnastic development, the progressive attainment of relaxation, balance, rhythm, impulsion, and engagement.

Remember that though separate comcepts, they are interdependent. Relaxation becomes engagement as a matter of degree. In a way, they are essentially the same thing on different levels of sophistication.

When you train your horse, you can do so referring to this basic system. When the horse is judged in competition, he will be judged according to this system.

Therefore, if you neglect the foundation of all dressage, the creation of a relaxed horse stretching longitudinally toward the bit already you will receive insufficient mark at First level.

If you haven't the horse relaxed and on the aids at Third Level, there is still hope for improvement, but if you are showing at Third level and still have not understood what you are colled upon to excel in, then something is wrong with your horse because of your lack of knowledge.

The scoring based on this progression of five training concepts is more lenient towards the lower levels and more punitive at higher levels. The judge evaluates all five interacting concepts and the resultant total picture, yet he knows that each movement is primarily designed to test one of these concepts. For instance, at Second Level, the horse is asked to perform shoulder-in at the trot. This gives the judge the opportunity to see the first glimpses of collection and engagement. He can see purity of the gait or other requirements in other movements elsewhere in the test, but this is his best opportunity to evaluate collection. Each movement in each test has one particular emphasis, exactness, obedience, balance, rhythm, and so on. The good judge will know what he is primarily watching for in each movement.

Another progression of sought qualities in judging (and, for that matter, in riding) is headed by purity of the gaits.

You must know the definition of pure and adequate gaits. To be pure, a gait must be regular, rhythmic, even, energetic, elastic, and relaxed.

Without pure gaits, there is no gymnastic accomplishment, and to improve a gait takes much work.

With the establishment of pure gaits, you then must concentrate on transitions. Transitions contribute most towards development of balance. Transitions should be decisive, and the last step of the original gait and the first step of the new gait must be pure, as pure as the preceding and following steps. The trot to walk transition should not be a trot becoming mincing followed by a jig and finally a walk.

The horse should go directly from trot to walk with ample, bold strides in both gaits. Retaining the purity of the gaits in transitions is extremely important.

After purity of gaits and transitions comes the exactness of the patterns, less important particularly at lower levels of development. If a twenty-meters circle becomes eighteen meters, it's not much to worry about, especially if the trot is good and the bend is proper.

The patterns are tools, means to an end.

Horsemanship is not engineering with its emphasis on absolute precision. We want to see whether a horse is balanced, whether he is supple enough to bend, not whether he can execute a perfect circle of twenty meters diameters.

A weaker judge might emphasize exactness of the patterns because its recognition is easy and takes no depth of knowledge of equine gymnastics.

Giving a score is not difficult, anyone can do it and justify it. An ignorant person can score a movement and can easily isolate some detail to justify the mark.

However, only one who knows what to look for and in what order of importance can truly evaluate a ride, for he knows what is important and how to recognize it. Thus, there may be nothing wrong with giving a lot of fives.

~There is nothing wrong so long as you know why the movements do not merit sixes or fours !

But without knowledge, you just give fives because here you are judging and you panic, not knowing what you are seeing, unable to evaluate it, giving fives because you dare not do anything else.

On the other hand, one often finds oneself giving a three followed by a seven, then a four, another four, and maybe another seven. If you know what you are looking for, it can be like that. A good judge does not concern himself with either the disparity or uniformity of his marks in a given test, for he marks only what he sees and how it conforms to his standards based on knowledge and experience.

So the rider who is training his horse daily in preparation for competition must have in mind, an keep in mind on the day of the show, precisely what the judge judges and why.

The judge is impartial; he judges on an absolute rather than a relative scale; the number he produces from his impressions are based to a large degree on the statement of purpose written on each test; and these statements of purpose are in turn based on the basic, natural and established progression of training that each horse must follow to fulfill his gymnastic potential.