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:
Article 401 OBJECT AND GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF DRESSAGE
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.