Aug 27, 2008

Piaffe

I think the picture speaks for itself.

On Resistance


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!'

Aug 26, 2008

A Word About Anky

Also, let's just make this clear....I am not out to get one rider or another. Anky is not at the top of my hitlist. It is a rather long hitlist, actually. How much time do you have, fair reader? But so long as judges choose to reward their brand of overblown artificiality and exalt it as dressage geniusness, I will continue to criticize them. I am sure she is a nice person. I am sure Salinero is a lovely horse. They are most likely quite talented and they presumably work hard. But they do not perform dressage in the correct, natural manner -- no matter how many scientific studies Sjef waves in front of our faces and how many championships the pair racks up. What they do appeals to our sense of spectacle and showmanship. Dressage has been practiced for hundreds of years and a horse is still a horse, no matter how breeding has changed certain traits in him. There is only so much innovation in our sport; we have to come to terms with that. Either we want to devote the years of patient training to the discipline and transcend the physical realm, trying to attain an art form or we want to create a show of barely-controlled power. And frankly, I'm okay with the latter as long as we don't make false pretenses about it. And I will continue to criticize her (and everyone else) for it.

I'm all for innovations in our sport. I welcome the input of riders from other disciplines. I welcome differing training methods. But at the end of it all, the result should be similar -- a happy, relaxed animal whose neck and head don't appear artifically constricted, who wants to 'go' where his rider does because he trusts and follows his rider. I will attack the poor training methods of the Western rider and the hunter rider as much as Anky's. The difference is that dressage wraps itself in this cloak of education and enlightenment. Which is only okay when the result is enlightened.

Aug 25, 2008

Gold Medal Grievances


Okay, this may not be the most popular viewpoint seeing as how Anky and Salinero are our Gold Medal winners in the Olympics, but I have a MAJOR problem with any horse and rider combination that cannot halt at the beginning and end of each test. My 5 year old kids on their cranky ponies can halt; how can we allow a Grand Prix rider not halt and remain completely immobile for 10-15 seconds? I do not care that the ride was spectacular. I do not care that the horse is 'hot' and being in a huge stadium with strange noises, etc...are making him explosive. Train him, desensitize him. I don't know - figure it out, but he should be able to halt. Dressage is just a fancy word for training. So, please train your horse to stop, m'kay? And if you can't then maybe he shouldn't be a dressage horse. I frankly don't see any reason that simply because international judges seem to think Salinero is the next best thing to sliced bread, I should also think so. He may, in fact, be amazingly talented. I would even venture to say that I am sure he is. But it's masked behind the tension in the back, the unnatural head carriage, and the 'saddleseat' trot. Everything about him screams artificial, in the same way that I instinctively knew that there was something a little off with those big-trotting park horses in the Arabian show world. It's time to go back to basics and fill in that cracked foundation.

Oh, and one more thing: I would just like to say that we all admit the sport of dressage is overly steeped in contrived traditions. But so long as it is and we all continue to look like posh little dandies at Grand Prix level, then we had better damn well salute the judges upon entering and exiting the arena. And I don't care who you are, if you forget to do it 'well, sorry, better luck next time.'

Aug 14, 2008

LolAnky

Oh hai, I'm Anky and this is how I train my horse.




Iz correct, no? Look at these extensionz.



Who sez the anglez need to be the same in the front and back? Not me.

My Idol


Okay, I am watching the dressage live on the NBC site this morning. I am also pretending to work, but blogging kind of looks like work, right?

I just finished watching Hiroshi Hoketsu's (of Japan) ride. He's kind of my new hero. He is the oldest athlete competing at the Beijing Olympics - at 67. But more importantly he rode in the 1964 Olympics in showjumping and hasn't been back since. That gives me a little hope for my life. But I have been reluctant to write a lot about him because I didn't want it to seem like I thought of him as a novelty. "Ooooh, look the old guy is competing." "Hey, he's not bad for an old guy."

But I just got done watching his performance and he was REALLY good. His horse was more tense than just about anything and they ended up making loads of mistakes because of this. But the entire ride, his horse was listening closely to him, tense but not resistant. Not once was there any tail-swishing. How many pairs can you say that about anymore? There were no yanks or rein-tugging....even when his horse flipped out. He remained soft. And that's something to admire and to want to emulate. It's too easy to grab at the reins when something is going a little wrong (see most other riders) and he rode through the mistakes. I mean, what else can you do? What does tensing up and pulling get you except resistance and an ugly ride? He showed grace, elegance and class. And his horse's brillance showed through in her beautifully expressive piaffe and passage. Her tempo didn't change between the transitions. She just seems awfully hot and couldn't stand the tension in the big arena.

His 62 and change score isn't going to advance him or win any medals, but in my eyes they were my favorite combination so far.

Aug 13, 2008

Hunter - Get it?

Oh fuck me, I need to go home. I've been at work forever today. I don't even know why I am still here.

Oh, that's right - I'm blogging. I guess I can't complain.

Hey, did anyone read the weird article up at Gawker about John Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter? Apparently she grew up in Ocala, riding hunters on the 'A' circuit. I admit that was the first time this story caught my interest. I could care less who the man is diddling on the side, but anyway, Rielle's father was a lawyer who represented insurance companies and was implicated in a scam to electrocute horses for owners to collect the insurance money. And I bet you can guess it already, you clever bugs. Yes, her dad hired a man to electrocute her own horse. That's fucking despicable. I kinda feel really bad for this woman now. She just can't get away from scandal. Maybe she should go move to the country and get away from humanity for a long time. Preferably she should buy a horse and rediscover her love for jumping.

It's a Drinking Song, It's a Drinking Song


Hey, after spending 3 hours watching the individual Dressage this morning, I have only one thing to say: If I took a shot of tequila for each person I saw riding the majority of their test with their horse behind the bit (i.e. poll not the highest point) I would be in a coma now.

Also, one more thing. I love all the wonderful video NBC is posting of the entire equestrian competition. Yay NBC!!! (Whoa! Kill me if I ever do that again.) However, I want to cringe at the people doing the live typing commentary. I don't think I learned one useful thing this morning. I did read a lot about how impeccably turned out riders and horses should be amongst other asinine things. Plus, I got to read them prattle on about how dressage horses at Grand Prix can't get turned out for fear of being hurt and they need to have massage therapists, acupuncturists, and chiropractors to keep them going at the highest level. Oh, and this gem -- they are typically iced on days they practice their piaffe and passage. Jesus people!! I am disgusted by my own sport. Yes, they're athletes, but they're not porcelain figurines. Piaffe will not break your damn horse! That's what muscles are for. Maybe if you turned your horse out to exercise his muscles, he might not need to be iced.

Now I wish I *had* played that drinking game.

Obligatory Olympics Post

Oh, hey, it's the Olympics. Yeah, I get excited as the next guy (or girl, as it were) about them. I love the idea of the Olympic games - pushing the body to the limits and defying the odds. And then, I watch them in reality. Sure, some of the sports are pretty cool, but when I watch the equestrian portion I can get a little disheartened. In general, the eventing was great though I couldn't really blame the reportedly large numbers of fans in Hong Kong who found the dressage boring and slow. I watched several hours of the dressage portion and *I* was bored.

Listen, don't get me wrong, those people are fit and fearless and do a superb job at being all-rounders, but GOD-DAMMIT I don't think anyone practices their dressage AT ALL!! If I had been the judge I would have slit my wrists during the event. Seriously. It was that bad. And I will apologize on people's behalf for everything, but this is absurd. Someone needs to bring the eventing dressage to the next level.

Aug 6, 2008

Deweyblogumnhowe


Okay, stupid title. I know, I know. But this weekend the majority of horseracing fans were watching Big Brown's less-than-triumphant return to racing, myself included. To put it kindly I was not wowed. And I loved how Rick Dutrow's response after the race was basically, "Yeah, I wasn't sure he was going to do it there at the end." (I paraphrase, of course.) Because I was sitting there telling my semi-bored husband that there was no way he was going to win. No way. And then, a second later I'm all 'Well, maybe he can do it.' And then, Big Brown basically struggled and pulled a win out of his ass. An awful lot of good riding by the jockey, I might add.

Anyway, about an hour after the end of the race I found out that the Hambletonian was run a day earlier. I could have kicked myself for not knowing about it sooner and watching it.
I have a real soft spot for the idea of harness racing. That's right -- for the idea of it. Because frankly, I will be the first to admit that I know very little about harness racing. Most of the harness racing knowledge I have is from my beloved Walter Farley book, The Black Stallion's Blood Bay Colt. I'm pretty sure that this book was not intended to be a reference source on all things harness racing, but there you have it...

So, imagine my confusion surrounding the running of this race. Well, let me back up for a second here. First, kudos to Deweycheatumnhowe. He ran a great race in an outstanding time (four-fifths of a second off the Hambletonian record) and is the first undefeated horse to win the race. I think this is a pretty awesome story and I will certainly be following him more closely. It's very conceivable he could finally be the horse to break the 1'50" record and that would be super rad. But my confusion lies in the fact that back when Walter Farley was writing -- in the 50s!! -- the Hambletonian and the majority of other harness races (or sulky races, as Farley referred to them) were run in a 'heat' format. Meaning that the horses had to win two out of three heats to officially win the race. It was a test of speed and stamina. Apparently the format changed in 1980 and I was not informed. Just call me a twenty-something still living in the fifties!

Well, anyway, I can't admit that I totally understand this new format. Wikipedia says that two elimination races are held a week before the final. And somehow this helps determine the winner. Obviously, I am still not clear on this. And a trip to ustrotting.com has not helped, though they do have a fun, but kinda silly guide to trotting that I enjoyed perusing. Did you know that George Foreman owns harness racers? He has a hand in everything, doesn't he?

Whoa! Okay, I'm wandering off-topic. I'll sort this out eventually and post on my findings, but I admit to being disappointed to learn that few harness races are run in the 3 heat format anymore. I'm sure the new format is easier on the horses, but it seems slightly less exciting. I mean, sure, I fully admit to being baffled as to harness racing strategy -- it seems awfully hard to win a race once the sulkies have hunkered down into a race formation -- so I would think the heat format would help even the field, but what do I know? Not much, apparently.

Regardless, I think what I am trying articulate (badly) is that I have this sneaking suspicion that the real reason the format was changed was less for the horses' well-being and more for the clueless fans and the enticement of new fans. It's tough to keep people's interest in or attendance for an all day event. And TV networks might, just might, air a 2-minute race, but certainly not three 2-minute races, spaced out over the course of an afternoon. There's not alot of appetite for such long, drawn-out affairs of endurance. But that makes me a little sad inside because there's nothing I love more than an athlete that has the drive and determination to reach deep inside and pull out a victory just at the moment that they think they have nothing left to give.

And, hey, writing that just made me realize that maybe I was just a little bit harsh on Big Brown. After all, he just came off a grueling Triple Crown campaign, probably feeling far from recuperated and managed to win a Grade I race in a decent time despite his body very clearly demonstrating that he didn't have it in him to win. But he did it anyway. And you know what? I think I can get behind that. As long as he redeems himself (and his trainer) in my eyes by proving to me that steroids were not responsible for his freakish power.

Bunny of the Dead

So it's been 6 months, but who's counting? Right? Yeah, well, I am and the longer I have been away from blogging the longer I felt I couldn't start back up again. I have issues, I know. But the reason I had been away for so long was (as I had mentioned in an earlier posting) that we were in the stressful throes of negotiating the purchase of a farm. As you can probably guess that didn't work out. It came down to a shocker of a last day in which we had to withdraw our offer.

To put it mildly I was devastated. I looked at all the news feeds every day coming in for my blog and just couldn't bring myself to write about anything.

The good news is that I am officially back. And I'll be coming back strong, I promise. The other bit of good news is that I am at work on two horse-y books -- one a novel and the other a book of essays on my thoughts and methods of teaching and riding. So, that's made me less mental. Hey, I can get up in the morning now. That's a good thing, right?!