Sunday 31 August 2014

Sticking to the rules in dressage

Amongst many horse lovers, dressage is getting an increasingly bad name. When I go out to clients I am often struck by their willingness to get help from a riding instructor, but their immediate rejection of an instructor who specialises in dressage - 'I don't like dressage', 'the horses always look so forced', 'I don't want anyone doing that to my horse'. And these views are entirely understandable. 

It is sad that a common view now is that dressage aims to produce horses who move in a spectacular way, whilst looking somewhat tormented. It is not, in my opinion, the rules (and aims) of dressage that are causing the problems, it is lack of adherence to the rules - sorry, but a lot of the problem is down to the judges. 

The first 2 points in article 401 of the FEI rules illustrate this well:


1. The object of Dressage is the development of the Horse into a happy Athlete through harmonious education. As a result, it makes the Horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the Athlete.

These qualities are demonstrated by:

• The freedom and regularity of the paces.
• The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements.
• The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, originating from a lively impulsion.
• The acceptance of the bit, with submissiveness/throughness (Durchlassigkeit) without any tension or resistance.

2. The horse thus gives the impression of doing, of its own accord, what is required. Confident and attentive, submitting generously to the control of the Athlete, remaining absolutely straight in any movement on a straight line and bending accordingly when moving on curved lines.

Some would argue, quite fairly, that judgement of these points are subjective, and will always be open to disagreements and interpretation. But really, could anyone say that the above horse is 'giving the impression of doing, of its own accord, what is required'? Or that there is harmony, lightness and ease?  

The FEI rules also state that 

'Abuse of a horse using natural riding aids or artificial aids will not be tolerated'

another one where the judges seem to be somewhat out of sync with the general horsey public. That the horse and rider pictured above should come 4th in the WEG dressage Grand Prix Special is, in my opinion, deeply concerning. People will justify the scoring, saying that pictures like the one above represent 'just a moment in time', but how many of these moments are tolerated, and how uncomfortable does the horse have to be, for how long, before it is reflected in the scores? 

It's a strange world where humble 'happy hackers' would not actually allow a good number of the world's most successful competitive riders within a mile of their horses, but seeing pictures such as the one above, this would certainly be my view.  

Thursday 7 August 2014

How to put horsey people off science?

A few days ago, I was given a newspaper cutting – in fact I received 3 copies of it as a few people had seen it and thought I might be interested. The headline was

‘Not straight from the horse’s mouth – only its eyes and ears.’

Below that, the catchy line

‘Scientists have discovered the secrets of equine communication’.

Having just last week finished preparing a weekend’s worth of teaching material on equine body language, of course I was interested.

My first thought was it seemed a bit of an odd headline, implying that horses only communicate with their eyes and ears. Horses communicate in many ways – through scent, vocalisation, through body language involving their entire outline, their tails, ears, lips, head position and so on. If scientists had just proved that they only communicate with eyes and ears, what had I been writing about, finding pictures and videos of for the last month? 

And, to be picky, at most the scientists could have discovered a secret of equine communication – equine communication is rich and sometimes very subtle, and there is much we still don't know. 

Turns out, a title along the lines of  ‘Scientists have confirmed one aspect of equine communication’ might be more accurate.

This is not a criticism of the research, but of how it is presented by the press. There is a worrying divide between those researching equine behaviour and those working in the equine industry. The research in this case, understandably, does not live up to the headline and then many of those with experience with horses read on for a bit and think 'I knew that already' or 'that's totally obvious' and go on to dismiss the scientists and their results (yes, I’ve had several emails and messages already scorning this research), and both sides lose out. 

And horses lose out. Because a lot of great research is going on in many areas of equine behaviour, health and welfare that equine industries, and therefore horses, would really benefit from. Anything that turns the general equine industry off science, and discourages them from reading what the researchers have to say is a bad thing, in my opinion.