Nov 19, 2009

Anky Reining, Part Deux

Another Anky reining video.  Embedding has been disabled unfortunately (booooo!), but you can watch it here.  It's her first reining competition and it's funny for me to watch, since I've recently taken up the sport myself.  I feel like I know exactly where all her mistakes are coming from:  the desire to make corrections with both legs when you just need to take your legs off and use the reins.  The getting ahead of yourself (i.e. already thinking about the next movement when you should be focusing solely on the task at hand).  And the hard time you have sitting back sometimes; seriously, it's hard to get that behind the motion.  Well, you're not really, but it is a totally different feeling to that of other disciplines. 

But good job on Anky all around!  I hope to look half as good at this at my first reining competition.  Hell, who am I kidding?!  With my ego, I plan to look as good as her.  :)

Also, what is with people's compulsions to shield top riders from criticism?  (I am assuming that that was the intent in disabling the embedding.)  I mean, dudes...she's a grown woman who has existed in the public eye for long enough that I think she can handle any critiques people choose to throw her way. 

Pony Round-Up

Odds and ends that I've been holding onto for the past week:
  • Interesting article from the New York Times about how racehorse trainers seem to get barred and/or fined for drugs, yet still find an easy return to the track.  Asmussen, Rachel Alexandra's trainer, is cited as a prime example and I have to admit I've always felt a bit uneasy about praising RA's connections knowing that drug charge was hanging over him.
  • An LA Times article that I briefly mentioned in my Zenyatta / Breeder's Cup post a couple of weeks ago.  The debate about whether synthetic has done anything beneficial at all is still raging on -- you all know where I fall on the issue, but it does appear (at least anecdotally) that synthetic didn't really live up to the hype and in some ways quite severely (I'm speaking here of the possibility, cited in the article, that hind-leg injuries appear to be more prevalent to horses running on synthetic versus dirt).
  • Summer Bird will run in the December 6th Japan Dirt Cup.  Good on him and his connections!  I am glad to see he hasn't made an early exit to the stud farm.
  • Today the FEI approved a new doping test program.  Glad to hear it, but will be happier when I see more details on the program.  But.It does appear that riders will be required to keep a logbook of their horses' treatments.  Suck it, Isabell Werth!
  • Speaking of drug testing, there's this phenomenal Onion article skewering the NY Marathon pseudo-controversy as well as performance enhancers.  Totally absurd, but you can't help but get a kick out of it.

Nov 18, 2009

The Wisdom of C.W. Anderson - Part 1

I picked up a ratty old copy of "Complete Book of Horses and Horsemanship" by C.W. Anderson that was languishing in my pile of as-yet-unread children's books, and was delighted to find it was a delightful little read, charming in its selective choices of topics and peppered liberally with wise-sounding axioms, ancedotes and second-hand stories, such as:

"The horse is a dignified animal.  Tell him he is a fine fellow in good English - not baby talk."

"The true horseman sees much and says little.  We can emulate him to some degree if knowing little, we say little."

"There have been many fine horses.  Swaps, the Derby winner from California, and his archrival Nashua, considered by the veteran trainer "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons the most powerful stayer he ever trained.  Bald Eagle was a splendid Cup horse and Kelso was one of the best.  Then there were the great ones of other days.  Those who saw Hindoo, Syonsby, Hanover, and Domino are gone.  And the tracks are so different that comparisons can have no meaning.  There is no way of accurately evaluating horses of different eras; possibly not even of different years.  Only if they could appear on the same track, all in top condition, might we get the answer.  And possibly not even then." 

You can't help but be delighted by the simple finality with which he makes his proclamations.  When I write my book, I should want it to be exactly the same.

Nov 11, 2009

Okay, So How Do We Fix Dressage?

  • Educate yourself.  Read books, read articles in print magazines and on the Internet.  Watch videos and study photos.  Ask questions from people you trust when you may not understand something.  It is so important to first have an understanding of what constitutes correct dressage training and I'm not talking FEI rules here.  I'm talking the centuries of available dressage (or riding) theory that existed far before we set up competitive rulebooks. 
  • Make small changes in every aspect of your riding:  This can be as simple as buying a drop noseband instead of a crank noseband.  Loosen the reins on a regular basis and check to see whether your horse is in proper self-carriage.  Don't overbend the neck in your corners.  If you're an upper-level rider, train in the snaffle more often.  Your goal is to be at or slightly above the vertical.  Don't be afraid to let that poll come up; encourage it to. 
  • Don't be afraid to speak up.  If your friend / trainer / barnmate is doing something that you feel strongly against, discuss it with them.  Question them.  You won't be able to change everyone's mind, but you can voice your opinion.  Keeping quiet just adds to the problem.  If you are unhappy with your trainer, you can say so and you can find a new coach.  You have the power and if you have the education to back yourself up, you have nothing to feel guilty about.
  • Write letters to the FEI, to the USDF, to any high-level trainers and riders you may know.  Express your feelings on hyperflexion.  Don't rant, don't make pseudo-scientific declarations.  Explain simply why you don't feel that it ascribes to the classical traditions of training and its use should not be rewarded.
  • Challenge riders and trainers at clinics and lectures when you see them riding BTV or in more extreme cases of hyperflexion.  Don't take clinics from people who do not ascribe to the same philosophy of training as you.  Don't waver on your dedication to your beliefs, no matter what anyone may say against you.
These are just some of the things that you and I can do on a small-scale that can effect change.  There are probably others -- feel free to leave comments!  Remember, this is not just about banning rollkur.  Sure, if you want to sign the petition going around, then feel free if it makes you sleep better at night.  But banning rollkur at the warm-up in FEI events isn't going to change dressage.  You can still train rollkur up until the final days of showing and then ride differently.  I'm not saying it's not a good idea, but it won't get rid of rollkur. 

What needs to happen is for all of us to write letters to the FEI, to magazines, to high-level judges and trainers which outline the need for a better judging and scoring system.  We need to be able to (and empower judges to) eliminate horses who have blow-ups in the show ring (like the rears and running backwards at the last Olympics); score very severely horses whose noses are behind the vertical (whether by a little or a lot); reward harmony and correctness over flash and showiness.  I admit that I don't have all the answers as to how we put this into place, but someone else can and will do.  But only if we demand it.

Oh, by the way, remember this?  This is how a competitive frame should look:


Clarifications on the Blue Tongue Controversy

Following up on the heels of yesterday's post, I thought of a couple of clarifications I wanted to make before delving into solutions for the FEI.  Firstly, the blue tongue in and of itself is not good, but a lot of people who have been riders all their lives have had horses slip their tongues between bits, over bits, stuck their tongues out to flap in the breeze, etc...  These things happen.  Blaming it on rollkur is going a bit overboard.  At the Syracuse Invitational there was a horse with his tongue flapping in the wind who performed great.  At the paddocks prior to every horserace are thoroughbreds with tongues hanging out, swollen and bluish whether from having tight chain shanks pulling on their mouths or horses biting their tongues out of pre-race nerves.  This is not uncommon and though I don't ever like seeing it, I can't deny that it happens and that it's not one thing that causes these issues.  I don't know that hyperflexion caused the blue tongue, so I'm not going to speculate on that and, frankly, I don't see that as the ultimate issue at stake.  That being said, had it happened to me I would have probably stopped my horse and checked to make sure there was no larger problem at hand.  At the very least I would have stopped and had a walk break.  That Patrik did neither of those things troubles me.

The simple fact that he rode his horse for 90 minutes to 2 hours does not bother me greatly.  If that was indeed the case, then the horse did not appear unduly stressed, breathing heavily or sweaty.  Clearly he was in the kind of condition that would allow him to work for that long.  The thing that does bother me is the assertion that the horse was ridden in rollkur for the entire length of that time, with only one walk break (as explained in their FAQ).  That definitely changes things for me.  I don't think any horse should be ridden in any working frame for that length of time without several breaks.

Syracuse Invitational, Day 2

Last night's posting reminded me that I hadn't yet discussed the "clinic" on October 28th at the Syracuse Invitational.  The topic was "Riding the Top-level Performance Horse in Every Discipline" and was demonstrated by Anne Kursinski, Ian Millar and Courtney King-Dye.  And I could go through the entire event, moment by moment, but that's precisely the reason why I've been holding off on writing this post -- that seems kinda boring to do.  So, let me just give you my impressions of it and why my post on the blue tongue controversy reminded me of that night. 

See, the basic conceit of the evening was to demonstrate how riders in Hunter, Jumpers and Dressage all use the same foundation to training their horses.  The idea was for the audience to watch the warm-up portion of the session to observe the similarities in training and riding.  Straightness, throughness, lateral softness, good transitions, true bends and so forth and so on.  And I don't knock it.  It's all true.  However, I just want to point out that Ian Millar was simply outstanding and completely outshadowed his fellow ringmates.  His reins were droopy, his horse forward and super responsive, and he sat there extremely quietly as if doing nothing.  And yet, the whenever John Madden (the announcer) would direct our attention to the beauty and art of riding, he immediately directed our attention to Courtney King-Dye.

Dressage, in theory, is supposed to equal harmony.  But when reflected into reality, this is not the case.  When will we feel confident enough to acknowledge that?  Ian Millar epitomized all of the tenets of what good high-level dressage should be, and here I was being instructed to worship Courtney.  She was fine, end of story.  The horse looked a tad tense and she looked like she was very active in a workmanlike way.  Not my idea of beauty in motion, but not terrible.  Just not my dressage ideal.  Particularly (and this brings me to the point of the blue tongue controversy) when you realize that her horse was ever so slightly behind the vertical during the entire ride that night.  That's really what gets my goat.  We have gotten to a point in dressage where our we don't even seem to remember what a proper frame looks like anymore.  And the problem is exacerbated by riders showing and giving public demonstrations with their horses behind the vertical slightly.

Sometimes a rider does long and low, stretchy frames.  Sometimes you might ask for a slightly deeper frame than you would compete in.  Everyone does this; it's called training.  The problem I have is when a training frame replaces the competition frame.  When you are a top rider it is your responsibility to educate your audience and ensure they are viewing a correct representation of your sport.  Mistakes happen, no doubt.  But 45 minutes of a horse never coming in front of the vertical should NEVER happen.  On the vertical at the very least, but BTV for 35 min of the entire ride is amateurish.  If you can ride at Grand Prix, surely your horse is strong enough to carry himself properly.  If not, you have no business doing demonstrations or showing.  You need to stay at home and put some more work into the horse. 

Ian Millar's horse, by comparison, was lovely to watch because his frame was up, nose poked out more often than not.  Sure, he wasn't as collected as Courtney's horse, but his movement was free and joyous to watch.  Dressage is present in a variety of riding styles; it is the harmonious elevation of a natural way of going.  And if you ask me Ian Millar's jumper embodied that expression in a way that Courtney King-Dye's horse did not. 

This though, is the deeper problem within dressage itself and is what leads to people riding deeper and deeper and eventually trying rollkur.  It is the absolute fear (for lack of a better word) that the horse should ever approach the vertical, let alone come above the vertical.  We are so busy softening and suppling that we seem to forget to ride up and out.  And if the general public only sees riding like this, then not many people can distinguish between what's right and wrong. 

Nov 10, 2009

On Blue Tongues and Other Controversies

Ah, yes.  It is positively viral; the roar heard around the world directed at Patrik Kittel, with the full ire and venom of an audience who feigned absolute innocence of such a phenomenon heretofore.  Okay, most of you probably already know I'm speaking of the infamous "blue tongue" event at the World Cup Qualifier in Denmark.

Firstly, I just want to say that the absolute hatred being directed towards Patrik Kittel is shameful.  He is being scapegoated by just about everyone in the equestrian industry and it's a very unfortunate position to have to be in.  I don't condone what he did and I think his riding was reprehensible.  BUT.  As I have discussed before, Patrik is certainly not the only rider training in this manner.  He is one of many, in fact.  He is doing nothing that hasn't been seen before.  Only now spectators have suddenly awoken from their dressage reverie and just about declared, "OFF WITH HIS HEAD!"  I admit I find that a bit unfair.  Frankly, he is just another symptom of a broken system.  This is a system that seems to find no fault to the rollkur system of training even though it basically goes against every basic tenet of classical dressage training.  A system that turns a blind eye to such an incident in the warm-up of a major international event, even though a complaint was allegedly lodged against what was occuring.  A system that rewards such training methods simply by giving high scores in the show ring.  (Is not dressage the art of training?  So, awarding any score to a horse trained in the hyperflexion manner is rewarding that style of training.)

The problem is not Patrik Kittel.  He deserves to be punished, of course, but we all share responsibility for the "blue tongue" incident.  We share it when every time we revel in Anky's wins.  We share it every time we don't speak up about any trainer or rider whose horses are always behind the vertical (and that goes doubly for all those collective cries of "When you ride at his/her level, then you can critique him/her.  Otherwise keep your mouth shut!" every time the average layperson dares to critique a professional rider)  We share it every time we assume that dressage implicity equals beauty and oneness and lightness.  Dressage is the same as every other discipline; there is the good and the bad and we must not think we cannot criticize a person simply because dressage is an exalted art. 

And might I point out that with the exception of a couple of riders walking out on a long rein, there is NOT ONE rider riding in the "blue tongue" video whose horse is at or in front of the vertical.  How did we get to this place in this sport?  Rollkur is just the natural extension of our collective amnesia as to how dressage is supposed to be ridden.  Hypeflexion is despicable, but there is a larger problem in our sport and it has been left unchecked for far too long.  Why did it take a blue tongue for us to realize that?!  Patrik is not the problem.  Dressage is the problem.  Even rollkur (in and of itself) is not the problem.  A governing body that does not take action against all riders riding even behind the vertical is the problem.  A scoring system that can overlook terrible training techniques is the problem.  It's lovely that suddenly everyone stood up and took notice of our ailing sport, but scapegoating one man is not how we will solve this.  And frankly, banning rollkur is going to be nigh to impossible as well as just a symptomatic fix.  I'll post tomorrow about what I think we could do specifically to change dressage, but then again, I covered it before here and here.  It's not rocket science.  It's requires a complete overhaul of our sport and specifically our scoring system.

If you would like to watch the video, it is here.  And the filmakers FAQ is located here.  (Also, you best believe that as a spectator -- unlike the filmakers -- I would have so been in an uproar about what I saw to anyone who would listen.  I find their explanation -- the incident had already been reported and journalists aren't supposed to interfere -- is an insufficient response.  Believe you me, I would have caused a major scene, lodging more complaints, filming, as well as verbally shaming him every time he passed.)

More Zenyatta

Finally!  Steve Haskin has published a really lovely Breeder's Cup Classic recap.  One of the only truly recaps that just exudes pure joy without falling back to comparisons between her and Rachel Alexandra.  In this case, I would rather just dwell on the positive and inspiring, not the inevitable infighting.  Definitely worth a read for a story that captures the mood for those who couldn't be physically present.

Yes, I Am Also a Nerd

Who else is ridiculously psyched about the fact that the horse genome has been mapped out in full and will be published in full in Science?  This could have an amazing impact in the way we understand and treat equine diseases.  It's terribly exciting and I'm hoping I can get my hands on a copy of the Journal. 

I Love Cats

Nov 8, 2009

It's About the Campaign, Not the Horse

It's official!  Zenyatta won the Breeder's Cup Classic, making history as the first female horse to win that race.  I admit I was a bit surprised - not necessarily because she won, but because she had never been tested against boys before and you just never completely know how a mare might perform in that instance.  But she won.  And impressively.  Her owners and trainers should be commended for finally putting her up against a higher class of horses.  Not that she didn't race good fillies and mares.  I just don't see the point of segregrating the sexes, especially when you've got such a spectacular horse as Zenyatta.  It was beyond time to challenge her at a higher level. 

As to who should win Horse of the Year honors...well, I still believe that title needs to go to Rachel Alexandra.  She won the Kentucky Oaks by the largest margin ever recorded for the race.  She won a triple crown race from a post position that no horse, regardless of sex, had ever won from before.  She won twice against Summer Bird, the only other horse that could pretend to have a shot at the title.  She is only 3 and managed to be the first filly to win the Woodward and against older male horses.  Okay, she didn't show up for the Breeder's Cup, but I fully respect and agree with that decision.  It has been proven on enough occasions that dirt horses with no prior races on synthetic or turf are at a disadvantage on synthetic surfaces.  And though I haven't read it in full yet, I recently skimmed the results of a study just published that synthetic has not been proven to be very useful in the battle against racing fatalities.  Unfortunate, but not unexpected.  You don't solve problems by treating the symptoms.

And so the point remains....Rachel Alexandra has performed magnificently over the course of the year at a far younger age than her rival.  Look, it's ridiculously unfair to have to compare these two super-horses.  You cannot fault them on anything.  They are both brilliant girls and the fact that they are racing in the same year should make us take pause and be grateful at having the chance to be connected with both of them.  We always moan about the lack of talent and public appeal, but now we have it and instead of lauding them, we are picking sides and pointing out the rivals' faults.  It's silly.  I do believe Rachel Alexandra deserves to win HOY, but not because Zenyatta didn't win well-enough.  If I have to admit it, I believe it's because Jess Jackson chose to push Rachel Alexandra beyond her limits before he really needed to.  He was never content to let her rest on her laurels; he risked her losing very early on.  Zenyatta is 5 and has only been racing in California against fillies up until now.  And I have to ask why.  That's what ended up hurting her in my opinion.  Her campaign was waged far more cautiously than it needed to be.  Not by her fault, obviously, but her relations should have been quicker to push the mare.  She had nothing to lose and everything to gain from it.  And she proved that yesterday by winning the BC Classic.  Imagine if she had been doing this all along throughout this year...  Then, there would be room for debate as to who is horse of the year. 

Nov 2, 2009

Judging the Hunt-Seat Horse -- A Lesson We Could All Stand to Learn

So, as I mentioned last week (and if you’ve been following my Twitter), I attended the Wednesday seminar entitled, “Judging the Hunt-Seat Horse” being offered at the Syracuse Invitational. I have to admit I walked into the class expecting to be bored out of my mind. I mainly registered for it just because it seemed like the most interesting of all the seminars being offered all week and I wanted to feel involved with the show in a greater capacity than simply as a spectator. What I discovered about halfway through, though, was that it was actually a very fun, interesting course run by a couple of thoughtful, opinionated hunt-seat judges – Greg Franklin and Diane Carney. They both train out of stables in Illinois and I hope to have occasion to perhaps interview them for the blog at some point.

The audience wasn’t just a bunch of hunter snobs, but rather a unique mix of 4-H’ers studying for their judging certificates (and their moms), Cazenovia College students of all disciplines, a young girl whose family raises Arabians, a young man who had a Western riding background and an adorable little girl who came with her mom to learn how to better train her pony. Can I mention again how adorable she was?

And so began the lecture. After introductions were out of the way, we got down to business and for the most part Diane led the bulk of the discussions. It seemed pretty apparent from the start that her intention in teaching this class was to give the average horseperson (okay, yes, the average hunt-seat rider) better insight into the rationalizations for scores and placings and to gently remind everyone that being a judge is a very difficult and demanding position. It was obvious that above all they really wanted to dispel some lingering misconceptions about the hunt-seat scoring system, namely that a judge played favorites and/or that scoring was not founded on a sound, rational system. If anything, I think Diane spent a little too much time trying to defend the system from a non-existent firing squad. It immediately made me suspect that she was going to tell us judging was not subjective. She did not (of course), but even so she spent such a long time trying to build the case that hunt-seat judging was so very structured and rigorous that it kind of was lost in the fray a little later when she stated matter-of-factly that, yes, judging is, in fact, subjective. If they had gotten that aspect out of the way firstly and then discussed how judges had to act reasonably and responsibly in spite of the inherent subjectivity to their sport, I think it might have made a bit more sense. More on that later, but I do want to just note that despite my critiques they were extremely candid about their jobs and responsibilities and tried to provide a thoughtful discussion about the inherent personal choices involved in judging.

For instance, Diane made the point that her judging standards (and presumably all judging standards) stem from her personal values as a horsewoman. She is a stickler for the rules, first and foremost and that informs nearly every scoring decision she will make. If the rulebook says only one courtesy circle, then she expects only one. She expects the correct lead upon entering the ring and beginning the course. And so forth and so on. She readily acknowledged that another judge may be more or less lenient than she on certain aspects of the rulebook.

She then took us through the minor and major faults listed in the rulebook and what she thought should be the judging rationale on each aspect. Again, while I appreciated what she had to say on the matter, I still feel like it was a bit of equivocation on the issue. Sure, they could tell me all day long what their opinions were on each fault, but it didn’t make it ‘correct.’ There was no 100% correct or incorrect. Well, not entirely. A rail down is pretty clear, but I think you get what I mean. As Diane and Greg finally came around to saying late in the afternoon – this is totally subjective. One judge’s ideal is not the same as another’s. What is important is that each judge be fair and consistent in their own set of values. And moreover, in some ways, the scores are not the important part of the judging. At the end of the day, you want to ensure that the horse who deserves first is placed first, that the horse who deserves second places second, etc… That resonated with me deeply and made an enormous amount of sense. Yeah, as long as I (as a theoretical judge) have a value system, judge all the horses consistently against that system, ensure that the horses place in the correct order according to that value system, and, most importantly, I can give my explanation for every decision that I make, then I have succeeded in being the best judge that I can be. I liked the candor with which they described this process. More importantly, I like that they each made the declaration that a good judge has an opinion. It may not be a popular opinion, but it is a clear, decided opinion. What say you readers? I think I could excel at this judging stuff.  :)  Okay, all joking aside, it is 100% true and I was glad that they spelled it out so clearly to the audience of mainly younger exhibitors. You may not always agree with the judge’s decision, but it is an educated decision and it must be respected.

As I mentioned earlier, I almost wish that the structure of their course had been changed around a bit. I really think that I would have been hooked FAR SOONER if Diane and Greg had simply stated from the beginning: “Look, hunt-seat judging (like a lot of other equestrian disciplines) is almost entirely subjective. We want to explain how we, as judges, work within the confines of such subjectivity. Just because we base our scores and placings on our opinions and on our personal values as horsemen, that does not mean that there is not a clear rationale behind every single one of our choices. And that is what we want to talk about today – the rigorous structure that backs up each and every one of our decisions.”

Ultimately though, I suppose it didn’t really matter because by the very end, I completely understood all of the above and more. I had a far less biased opinion against the hunt-seat system. Hell, I think I even came away thinking that hunt-seat judging is fairer than dressage scorings. I questioned Greg about how he approaches the start of every new class. You have an ideal in your head, but in the end, few people will approach that ideal. What happens if you judge, for instance, the first rider a little harshly and then realize later in the class that, in fact, the horse and rider combination actually better approached the ideal than the rest of the competition? He was perfectly candid about this and noted that it does happen and that you are perfectly able to change the placings around after the fact (though before any ribbons or announcements or whatnot), especially if you decide that a particular horse deserves to place higher than another. In some ways, I wish that we could do that for dressage. I know we all like to pretend that competing in dressage is a competition against yourself. But that’s a real crock of shit. We pretend that because the scores are calculated mathematically at the end of the test that each ride is judged in a perfect vacuum of objectivity and pure, absolute visceral reaction. The problem is that that simply is not true. The dressage judge must use the same basis as what Greg and Diane outlined to me. It is just as subjective – each judge has a different set of standards, a different ideal of perfection. So, not only are our judges grappling with the same issues, they also lack any control over the final placings. What if that one horse and rider combination really didn’t perform spectacularly, but did display the overall sense of togetherness, lightness and submission that should be representative of the sport?  Just like in hunt seat there should be an overall rhythm and pleasantness to the ride that demands to be compared against the other competitors. Why not? Would that really and truly ruin the sport? Or would it perchance just encourage riders to work more on how the individual movements in a test work together as a whole and flow more smoothly and elegantly together instead of just executing a series of movements as if in a vacuum?  Surely we all learned a lesson from last year's silver medal-winning Olympic ride in which the horse managed to rear up and run backwards?  I am certain that such a ride would have been excused from the ring in hunt-seat.  And rightly so.  So, maybe we can all stand to learn something from our fellow disciplines and be open enough to do so.