Judging Dressage

WM NubebridleDressage isn’t perfect, but what part is baby and what part is bath water?

Watching the Dressage competition at the Olympics was inspirational. And horrific. There were impeccable riders with fluid bodies and invisible cues. And riders who were brutal, with hard hands and cruel methods. There were horses who were light and brilliant; who moved with such freedom and elegance that it took my breath away. There were horses whose bodies were so filled with tension and resistance, that I choked just watching.

In other words, pretty much the way I feel when I see high-dollar horses compete. There have always been two ways to train and ride, and one look at the horse’s eye tells the truth.

Social media predictably exploded: Some defend abuse and some deny it. Some just like to pour gasoline on the fire. Rumor, guilt by association, and out-and-out lying stand beside positive training. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be critical and ranting has a real value. If enough of us do it, horses will benefit. Still, tearing the entire sport down from the cheap seats is too easy.

But let’s be clear. The problem is not dressage. Or eventing or racing or reining. The problem is that we lose sight of the thing every horse-crazy girl knows. You always have to put your horse first. Obviously the biggest challenge going up the levels in dressage is to lift our own humanity, along with our horse’s movements, to a more balanced and beautiful place.

A few weeks back, I got a call from my local dressage chapter looking for volunteers and I was ready to scribe the next Friday morning. A scribe sits next to the judge and writes down the comments and scores for each movement in the test. It’s like taking dictation but there isn’t much room to write and tests move right along. I’ve scribed for international judges and learner judges and always come away with something valuable to take back to my clients.

Each rider comes in for a brief warm-up, greets the judge, and when the bell rings, enters the arena. Some of the rides are smooth and sweet. Some come apart and we’ve all been there. Some of the riders are cool and relaxed with lots of experience. Some are new and giddy to be out with their horses. There were pre-teens and women of a certain age and everyone in between. Some horses are fancy with lively dramatic gaits and some are steady and kind partners of no particular bloodline.

There were no cruel bits or bloody spurs. I saw no horses behind the bit and each rider did their best to keep quiet hands and soft legs. Everyone wore helmets. The horses were well-groomed and well-loved and the riders polished their boots. Because pride of appearance is the first way we show respect to the discipline we love.

We shared pizza for lunch and people congratulated each other. This judge was somewhat quirky, which I don’t have to tell you is totally normal for the horse world. But her comments were consistent, she didn’t give away any free marks, and if some riders were unhappy but they were good sports about it. In the afternoon the judge showed me photos of her own horses. I think she was missing them.

Toward the end of the day, during the obligatory afternoon thunderstorm, a rider finished her test with the usual salute and released her reins. Her smile was as bright as the tall stockings on her horse. It was her second test that day and an improvement over the first. She blurted out, with so much wild enthusiasm that it bordered on shrill, “Thank you! Thank you for coming!” We almost flinched at the howl of good will!

Driving home I thought, “This is my dressage.”

Dressage isn’t owned by millionaires or elite breeders or any particular country. The vast majority of dressage riders in this country ride below second level, on horses they’ll keep forever. They own this sport as much as anyone else.

Some years I have clients who compete and I’m on the other side of the judge’s table. Sometimes the horses I work with never compete but practice dressage, working to gain strength and suppleness and balance. Riders might ride in a different saddle or not always wear tall boots, but they all agree that riding a twenty meter circle is a lot harder than it looks.

Dressage literally means training; that’s our commitment. We try to improve, not to please a judge but to help our horses

I don’t mean to sound biblical, but doesn’t most disagreement boil down to good and evil? Isn’t the challenge always how to live up to our best potential? I don’t deny the dark side of dressage. I hate hyperflexion and cruelty; horses never stand a chance against human ego and greed. At the same time, watching a young girl and her horse quietly navigate a dressage test is a fine and beautiful thing.

Dressage will change for the good of horses. We’ll demand it. Change comes slowly, but I hold hope because of this girl and her good horse. Amateur riders with a horse and a dream are the reason I refuse to hand my beautiful sport over to the haters.

Back at the Olympics, the woman who won the individual gold medal in dressage wore a helmet. She and her horse didn’t have an easy start in the beginning; she needed courage and wits to match his fire and sensitivity. They forged a partnership out of chaos. Sound familiar? For their final test she was nervous, aware of the distance they’d come and her desire to do well. But once they started moving, she said, it was as if her horse held her hand.

A gold medal rider in two Olympics is talking like a horse-crazy girl. That’s my dressage, too.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

 

54 thoughts on “Judging Dressage

  1. Your posts so often touch my heart. Thank you! I’ve been processing ‘relationship’ with new eyes this month. I rode a lot as a youth but have not had a horse for 35 years. As I re-enter the process of relationship building, I realize, I didn’t relate then, I manipulated. I obeyed the instructions of my teacher and my mare did what I asked…but neither of us understood. I loved as a teen loves but didn’t really have a clue. Ah, what an adventure I missed. Excited, nervous and challenged as I enter in this time. Thanks for inspiring me!

    1. I think what you describe is the door we all enter through. The deal is that there is so much more, but it’s the human half that has to evolve to do better. How exciting for you to be in this wonderful awareness. Great comment, Billie Jo and bon voyage!

  2. Yes. Indeed. Thank you for putting this in writing.
    I specialize in teaching the novice dressage rider with the untraditional horse. All they want is to connect with their horses and feel the flow that comes when that body to body communication is in sync. Dressage is how I can help them get to get to that place. One of my students rides western. Doesn’t matter. It’s all about communication, empathy and kindness. (And all of my riders wear helmets, whether in a dressage saddle or western. Thanks, too, for continuing to push on that issue!

    1. Terry, we do the same job. All my riders ever want is a better relationship with their horse. That’s magic. Thanks for your comment. We are dressage.

  3. Lynell Abbtt

    As with this one , I look forward to your posts, Anna, and the insightful comments that follow Thanks to all!

  4. Suzanne in NC

    You wrote “and one look at the horse’s eye tells the truth”. You know some of us have been “eye reading” impaired for most of our lives. Thanks to your writing, I think I’m beginning to get it. My experiences have improved dramatically with my horses since I’ve started paying attention to their eyes and facial expressions. So amazing to me that I did not notice it for quite a long time. I think I have quite a way to go on this eye thing!!! But thanks for bringing so many things up that were not obvious to some of us!

    1. Yay, for your vision improvement! Thank you for giving it a shot and leaping to another level with horses. I am thrilled to say there is always a says to go on the eye thing. I love that part. Thanks Suzanne.

  5. I haven’t gotten to watch any of the Olympic dressage riders’ tests, but I know I would feel the same way – some would be inspirational and some would be horrific. Isn’t it wonderful that the rider standing on top of the podium wears a helmet? HURRAH!!! As for comments on social media, I just read an interesting article last night on why NPR is discontinuing allowing comments on their online articles (see here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/08/17/npr-is-killing-off-comments-thats-great-news/). Haters gotta hate; that’s why I rarely read comments on social media anymore. There is enough negativity in the world. But I will read you and your commenters always!

    1. Interesting article; they’re smart to do that. I’ve had that happen once or twice… gotten hijacked. But I’m not NPR and love the comments here. But then, we all seem to sing in the same choir here. Thanks Michelle.

    2. Maggie Frazier

      I completely agree! I attempt to comment on articles that relate to the issues I feel strongly about – but as the article on the link above – it gets “captured” by one or two who leave no room for people who care about the issue itself!
      In my opinion (my own opinion) the whole Twitter & Facebook “phenomenon” allows people to (figuratively) just open their mouth & let whatever enters their head to spout forth with no consequence. Sorry – I realize there are many people who enjoy social media. I’m just not one of them. (old fashioned, maybe)
      And YES – to see someone in that position actually wearing a helmet? About time. As someone on this site called it – brain bucket? Yup.

  6. Amanda Gilbank - Weird Horse Girl

    This brought tears to my eyes. I love this sport. I love taking my ex-racehorse/ex-pacer down centre line and feeling her power, connection and concentration. I love when my idols get teary eyed when talking about the love for their horses. I love that dressage changes for the good of the horses. Bless you, Anna, for being another horse-crazy girl. (we never grow out of it)

  7. Amen to that! I watched afterwards via video on FB, but cried happy tears and tears of outrage. The little dutch gal who chose to stop and not ride her horse when he felt off to her was heartwarming. The English gal who won gold – awesome job and an even more remarkable story. Loved it! You’re so right about change – the squeaky wheel will get the grease!

    1. Did I ever think I would read something as beautiful as your lines, Anna! I was a working adult when I sat on my first horse, Now three horses later… fully retired and still living/loving every nuance each one taught me. Gave to me! Not “glory times in the dressage ring” (only a few good 1st level tests) but all the moments together and with sensitive teachers who spoke so rightly, “You are addressing his mind, not his body…be gentle with him.” How beautiful…we were together there!

      1. Good for you, Barbara. And First Level tests aren’t just the easiest…Keep it up, sounds like you are on the right path. Thanks for commenting.

  8. And, forgot one very important thing! We gain everything when we learn to read our horse’s expressions. Everything! The eyes and their entire facial expression will tell us everything we need to know if we just take the time to look. Really see your horse! Or, if you’re on their back – then it’s all about “feel”. 🙂 Beautiful Anna, thanks.

  9. Oh, spot on! Sensitively and thoughtfully written. We all have that bubbly girl/woman in us somewhere forever, I pray. My own 6’5″ son came to cheer me on for the first time at about 18, and when I saluted at my final halt, he whipped off his ball cap and began cheering, “That’s MY MOM!! Go MOM!” There were a few scandalized looks and comments, too, overheard later back at the barn. (I think my horse felt cheered on by the carrot man, too) But mostly, there were smiles, and warm looks of delight at his joy. I think you are so very very right in your comments. With recycled saddles off eBay, and beloved campaigners, and mornings kick-started with Aleve, we all continue to reach for a closer Zen with our horses, starry eyed.

    1. Lorri

      What a great comment, Jennifer! I just started showing low level dressage, at 53, with a borrowed pony, and I’m looking for my Zen…

  10. Kate Schmidt-Hopper

    Yes, in competition (especially FEI International Level) the judging is the problem because they do not uphold their own rules and standards. That said, so many competition riders, including the rides in GP I watched in the Olympics, ride with unrelenting contact and minimum 30 degree angles shown by the curb bit shank, tight nose bands, and often than not, horse’s nose behind the vertical with short necks and slobbering foam dripping from their lips. This is not true lightness and harmony. It makes me sad because in my mind it does not represent the Heart and Art of Dressage and yet is held up as the ultimate representation of the Equitation.

  11. Sarah Jackson

    Anna, I so appreciate what I have learned about the world of dressage from your blogs. I never really knew anything about that discipline, and I love that you provide the reality for your readers that there are good and bad practices in ALL the riding disciplines. .. and the day you describe here in a local dressage event just sounds so lovely, so perfect, what we all seek….softness, respect, and harmony with our horses …

    1. I think it’s the yin/yang of the world, old as dirt. And we all get a vote. I’ve seen dressage help so many horses, it would be a shame to let it be kidnapped. Thanks, Sarah.

  12. As a rider who has indeed had the feeling of a horse ‘holding my hand’ (truly–and not in an wishful, anthropomorphizing way) I believe that Charlotte Dujardin’s sentiments echo those deep inside so many of us. That she has been able not to lose sight of the horse-crazy little girl inside of her is a wonderful thing. I imagine her holding hands with young Charlotte on one side and with Valegro on the other, saying: ‘Come on guys, let’s DO this!’.

    Being a grown-up is so lonely at times. I’m planning on taking little Adrie with me more often.

    1. That’s a wonderful image. Thank you. Even as a trainer, I’ve always got Anna Marie with me. That fear of being belittled for anthropomorhizing should never hold us back, but I fear it does. Great comment, thanks Adrie. Both of you. 🙂

  13. Charlotte’s comments explaining her emotion after their gold medal winning ride (re Valegro’s retirement) made me admire her even more, if possible.

    “I also knew it could be one of the last times with Valegro. I know I am not going to do another Olympics with him. But as soon as I got into the arena, Valegro gave me this most amazing feeling and it put a smile on my face. I knew I was fine. That is what that horse can do. He can give you confidence like I can’t tell you. He’s like a rock. He gives you that hug. If you think how many tests that horse has done in his lifetime, and how many times he has ever made a mistake. His consistency throughout his career has been absolutely unbelievable. I owe it to him to finish at the top, and I’ve done it. I am going to make sure it happens again (on another horse), but he is a once in a lifetime horse.”

  14. I can relate so much to what you were writing … well, up to the schooling show part. My experience scribing at schooling shows has been part what you described, but also hearing the judge moan about how it’s hard to watch so many people pulling so hard on their horse’s face, having the bell rung for a rider whipping their horse too much during their test and having them scream at the judge for ringing the bell, and young kids pushed too fast by their parents or coach to be out riding a test and you’re holding your breath just sure they’re going to go flying off this horse that is too much for them. So, I think the good/bad of dressage can be found at all levels, not just the expensive horse, “we’re on an Olympic team” levels. I think it just depends on the people involved, be it training level tests at a schooling show or international recognized shows.

    1. The judge at my show had lots of corrections for the riders; The horses were tense and hurried, the riders kicked too much. She was right and if you scribe, you know it’s a long day. You’re right. There are good and bad at all levels, and about 25 years ago, I used to pull on my horse’s face. My trainer worked hard with me. I learned and got better…because that’s the way it works. It takes time to get good. Now, as a trainer, I have clients who try really hard to improve; sometimes they get frustrated. If you’ve shown, you know the pressure. And we are all works in progress. The deal is to keep trying and hold a good ride possible in your heart. Thanks for your comment; sounds like you were at a star-crossed show.

  15. Oh and Charlotte Dujardin – she’s my hero! I saw her in a symposium last year and I just kept thinking, “She gets it! And she’s teaching it! And people listen to her! This is so wonderful!” I’m so thankful for her being willing to be so much in the public eye and teach her wonderful horsemanship!

  16. My life for quite a number of years was harness racing & all that comes with it – the haters that open their mouths without the slightest real life experience of the racing world were the worst of it. Refusing to believe that we were dedicated to the horses first & the sport second. Having no concept of the amount of hours spent on training, developing, vetting, feeding, brushing — I will just say that running a string of 5 or 6 pacers is much more time working than most can imagine; it is a labour of love for most of us. Thank you for your reasoned viewpoint Anna; I think you inspire horsepeople to be more open minded & less judgemental with your posts.

    1. Thank you, I hope so. The view from the inside is usually different, and bad horsemen aside, I see a fair amount of racing in my turnout pen. Thanks for commenting.

  17. Lyn Chambers

    Crying………..again.
    I had hip replacement 2 years ago. I was off horses for 3 months. When I got back in the saddle I realized in a moment that I had lost strength in my legs. However, it was the most beautiful moment, because I also realized that my horse was so much more in tune with me than I ever imagined, or than I had previously given him the opportunity to show me. If I just shifted my right butt cheek deeper into the saddle………….he turned right…………and so to the left. I am sure this is an exaggeration but that is truly what it felt like. The feeling was beautiful. I am sad for all those dressage riders and trainers that have traded that feeling for….. whatever fuels them. Since that day I have tried to do LESS of everything……….less hands, less legs. I try to communicate with my horse in the softest way possible. When it works it is completely magical. And of course it doesn’t always work…………..I trail ride….. a leaf, another horse, or whatever tiny thing can take that away in a second but I will always try to get back to that magical place. I always thought dressage was the ultimate partnership between horse and rider. I hope someday it can get closer to being just that. Some have completely lost their way.

    1. I’m smiling, Lyn. Sorry about your injury, but sometimes we have greatness thrust upon us. Meaning it doesn’t matter how it started, but there the communication is. I always think that the thing that works against us as riders is disbelief that less really is more. So counter intuitive. Until something happens and convinces us. Thank you for having the awareness to notice and now it’s yours.

      They lose their way by stopping at the bank. Or watching the time too closely. Thanks, Lyn. Here’s to a whole new universe of riding!

    1. Agreed. And if you check the USEF handbook, it’s against the rules. Each show has an official called a Technical Delegate, and if you inform that person that you see a tight noseband, they will take care of it.

      Thank you for commenting.

  18. Judy Nahkies

    Beautiful article Anna. We were lucky enough to see Charlotte presenting at Equitana, Australia. Amazing to watch how much better EVERY horse she sat on went. She rode them quietly but with such great timing & skill that every horses’s paces improved. I have no doubt we’ll see many more champion horses produced by Charlotte. Such an inspiring role model and she works as hard in the gym off the horse as she does on them – she does squats on a balance ball!

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Judy. She is all that, and two Olympics (and so much inbetween) means she isn’t a fluke. Score a huge one for the Good Guys!

  19. Another lovely post! I recently spent an afternoon at our local county fair watching a friend’s 12-year-old son compete with his horse of 6 months. I am not horse-literate (I raise puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind) but I was struck at the marked differences between some of the competitors. My friend’s son has been trained in natural horsemanship; other young riders were busy yelling and whipping their horses. It was sometimes painful to watch. Keep on educating!

    1. Oh Patti, I think between working with service dogs and this experience, I think you probably are “horse-literate” enough. You’ve seen the sides, the best and the worst of us… dogs and horses. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, until your friend’s son can take my place. Thanks, Patti. And congrats to your friend for starting her son well.

  20. Reblogged this on Busenkelt! and commented:
    Dressyren tillhör alla som kämpar för att utvecklas, för att bli bättre på att samspela med sin häst och framför allt tillhör den alla oss som verkligen älskar hästar och som sätter deras väl och ve i första rumme.

  21. Absolutely beautiful and correct comments! I agree that Dressage, just like everything else has some good, some great and a very terrible moments. It should be, it is about the horse. Our incredible horses. This is my “enter sport of choice”. We should hold that little girl in our heart that took us to where we are.
    Thank you for a really wonderful read!

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