So, I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating – I grew up as a dressage rider. I’ve done a little of everything from saddleseat to hunter to western, but I would classify myself first and foremost as a dressage rider. I was very privileged to have been taught by a very patient, very knowledgeable trainer who was schooled in the classical French tradition. I’m not trying to engage in generalizations, but I think there is enough distinction between the FEI competitive dressage (German) method and the classical (French, Spanish, Portugese method) for me to use short-hand here. Someday I’ll write up my thoughts on those distinctions. Right now I would prefer to just rant a bit.
So, as I was saying…by 14 I was familiar with the methods of Baucher et al. This trainer taught me a great deal about working in lightness and never using opposing forces in my riding (i.e. kicking and pulling). I was very familiar with neck and poll flexions, half-halts, working in hand, etc…. As I say, in retrospect, I consider myself a very lucky teenager.
Years later, after having spent time in Europe, I returned to the US and rediscovered my love of horses, and dressage in particular. And upon my return I was thrilled to find myself riding and working at a pretty big barn with some top riders. I quickly learned that the majority of dressage riding and training that occurs today (and is winning) is a very aggressive, push-and-pull method that I had been aware of, but never realized it was being rewarded so much in our show rings of late. My training was disregarded and my ideas were dismissed. So, I did what any person who wants to get ahead does; I adopted the new methods. I quickly learned how to use a great deal of force to set my hands and kick the horse ever faster onto his forehand, until he finally found his natural balance and relaxed over his back. I learned the value of draw reins to quickly ‘fix’ a resistance and that big spurs can rarely be bad. And through it all, I was being fed the spiel: we are helping the horse achieve his maximum potential, we are practicing a sport that is aiding our animal to use every inch of his body correctly and symmetrically. Fundamentally, I agree with those premises, but the end does not justify the means. Having tried those methods I can honestly say that and mean it. And I cannot defend anyone who continues to practice those methods. I will say one thing: horses are remarkably capable of handling anything we throw at them and many a horse that should never have found light and ‘through’ with those methods did in fact manage to. I will not deny that many of the horses that went through that program turned out quite lovely to ride (of you don’t mind having to always have the 2” spurs on), super light in the mouth. You would not know that this horse, exhibiting such an expressive passage, was two weeks prior subjected to draw reins in a double bridle for a couple of intense training sessions.
The horse is an incredibly adaptable animal. The tendency is to want to please the herd leader and will give in to whatever tactic we use, whether it be harsh or gentle (not cruel, mind you). But that brings me back to the point. Just because the end result is as beautiful to watch and achieves the same results in typically less time, it does not justify the corruption of the values and ideals that I hold to be the foundation of all correct riding. Most importantly we should not erode the trust that animal puts in us to treat him with kindness and respect just simply because we can.