I don't know when this blog turned into an 'all dressage, all the time' kind of deal. My apologies, but I just have one more rant to get out before moving on to other things: Can we please discuss Isabell Werth and Satchmo winning the Individual silver medal? And not just in the 'whoa, that was weird, but I guess they deserved it.' But in the 'WTF just happened?!' sense.
For me, the whole WTF feeling started with that split-second image of Satchmo kicking out during the piaffe in his Grand Prix routine. I know that Isabell waved it off as the horse stepping on himself and the blogs and forums were apologetic, exaplaining it away as a slight lapse or spook. But it bothered me. I couldn't quite put my finger on why, but I knew it was indicative of something more. He may or not have stepped on himself, lashing out violently, but it certainly didn’t live up to my ideal of a harmonious ride.
And lo and behold, two days later, in the Grand Prix Special, he flipped out within the first couple of strides of piaffe, running backwards, acting as if he was going to rear up and coming dangerously close to exiting the dressage arena. I take my hat off to Isabell Werth who very quietly regained control of her horse to put in a remarkably skillful finish to the test, with more grace than I can even imagine. But the 75 and change score seriously made me apoplectic. It was here that I knew there was something very wrong in our sport.
As a rider I can appreciate the argument that one mistake in a dressage test shouldn't be able to completely undermine an otherwise lovely test. Horses are not machines and there will always be small mistakes inherent to any ride. I will counter, however, that running backwards, threatening to rear and attempting to exit the arena are pretty damn grave errors. Dressage is about willingness and the partnership between horse and rider. Everything hinges upon forwardness. In that momentary meltdown, Satchmo ceased all willingness to go forward; his resistance was a big, fat “NO!” It is all well and fine to point out that the pair recovered and went on to finish as if the moment had never occurred. A momentary blip, akin to a blind panic attack. Pretend as if it never happened.
But here’s the thing: I went back to review the ride and Satchmo is quite obviously behind the bit as he comes into the piaffe. He is backed off the leg and tense. Frankly, we should have expected nothing less than a full-on explosion. Instead, in a sea of horses that piaffe with their noses to their chest, we see nothing wrong with the picture until something goes wrong. The question is not why Satchmo flipped out, but rather why more horses are not reacting this way. 30 seconds later he manages to execute the second piaffe and it too is behind the vertical, tense and front-heavy. It is only out of habit and obedience that horses perform these movements incorrectly. Some people like to point out that the horse would be unhappy if the training were wrong and cruel, but I find that laughable. I can very pleasantly do many things wrong if I don’t know better. Unless it is causing me undue pain, I can certainly perform squats and lunges completely wrong and very pleased with myself, especially if I lose a few pounds in the process.
I think there are several things at fault here. The first is that the public, inclusive of judges, have lost the ability to ‘see’ behind the vertical (referred to as BTV from here on out) and its corresponding tension and unevenness as faults. Or, far worse, we have grown so accepting of these faults that they are overlooked in favor of their corresponding flash and brilliance. This is completely inexcusable at the judging level. It is a sorry state of affairs when I can watch 25 rides and not see more than a scant few seconds of any horse on the vertical, let alone in front of the vertical (clearly that is taboo in modern dressage). Instead we are subjected to ride after ride of movements executed consistently slightly BTV, ‘showy’ extended trots with giant front-end movement and significantly less push from behind, front-heavy piaffes, uneven passages with too much airtime and don’t get me started on the tense, swishing tails. Just because everyone rides like this now does not mean that it is suddenly correct. Flashiness is no excuse for bad riding. And performing an extended trot without the nose pointed out in the direction of movement is very poor riding. Performing a piaffe BTV is extremely poor riding. It is not bad riding simply because it is not classical. No, it is bad riding because it means that the horse is not thinking forward. He is going forward, yes, but he it is not clear that he wants to go forward and seek the rein contact. It is only clear that he is compelled to -- excuse me, dear reader, if I didn't realize that compelling horses to go forward was part of the dressage 'pyramid' now. /end snark/
But is it any wonder all the horses are BTV? I saw more riders than I can count who immediately grabbed at the bit as soon as the horse lifted his head in the slightest. (Clearly some of them need to ride with my French trainer who positively forbade me from ever pulling backwards on the reins. Use your seat much? Anyone?) The horses are feeling trapped and tense and it shows in the ride. What some see as brilliance, I see as anxiety. So, please let's stop using this term ‘brilliance.’ It is an unquantifiable term that people are using to shield themselves from any discussion of correct riding. As if somehow it is okay to have fundamental weaknesses in training when the horse is so expressive and fancy. No, it simply is not. We need to add specific guidelines to our judging directives that do not allow judges to hide behind vague terminology. In the piaffe and extended trot the nose must point in front of the vertical. In all movements the poll must be the highest point and the nose must never come behind the vertical. The tail must remain quiet at all times. These are directives that will favor correct riding and training, not flashiness.
Which brings me to my second point: there is absolutely no reason why our judging system should allow an error of such magnitude to be outweighed by the relative merits of the rest of the test. A spook is one thing. A rear or running backwards is something altogether different. There should be no ambiguity here. Should any horse in any test rear up or go backwards, without being asked, the rider should immediately be excused from the ring. Dressage is supposed to be the picture of harmony and willingness and the horse should want to go forward. If he resists going forward then there is a massive problem that should not be overlooked by the judge or the rider. This is not the behavior of a happy, relaxed horse and should not be judged as one. Elimination would hopefully ensure that one would go back to the drawing board and find the root of the problem to avoid such behavior in the future. What the judges did at the Olympics was to pretend that a problem did not exist and dismissed such behavior as normal. Resistance is the horse’s way of telling us that something is very wrong and to dismiss it as an anomaly is downright cruel and negligent. When it happen twice in two separate tests...well, I have no words for that. I know it's very noble to imagine dressage exists in some sort of vacuum and that we can only judge the present with no regard for what came before, but someone responsible (I nominate me) needs to point out the obvious here - our silver medal horse is not happy and I hope that this will be addressed.
Look, I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I do know that in no uncertain terms anyone who participates in the sport of dressage, whether you are an international judge or a backyard rider, should be outraged by the results of the 2008 Olympics. We look up to the best of our sport to show us exactly how beautiful and harmonious dressage can be. I want to see rides that inspire me to try and attain the same level of true partnership. I don’t care about mistakes; they can and will happen. But I want to see routines that contain mistakes of the right kind. Let's see some noses come in front of the vertical and some heads pop up. Let's see some bold canters that don't quite collect up enough by the corner. Or some piaffes that move a little more exaggeratedly forward. At least then I know the horse is gleeful and thinking 'let's go!' as opposed to 'holy shit, NO WAY!'