Author Archives: Paul_

Positive developments in the world of dressage

The judges in international dressage championships are now awarding marks of as much as 90%. In order to qualify for Grand Prix Special events horses and riders must have obtained at least 70% in a Grand Prix. And a score of 75% in a Grand Prix Special really is no longer enough to get anywhere near the medal places, while in freestyle competitions the top pairings are getting as much as 90%.
Up to about 30 years ago a horse and rider could win an international dressage competition with a mark of up to 75%.

Can today’s high scores simply be explained away by a benevolent and uncritical attitude on the part of the judges, leading to inflationary marking? No, that is not the case at all.
Over recent decades international dressage sport has seen a significant improvement in the quality and level of the performances. And the performance density is also much greater than before.
There are some good reasons for this positive development:
The seven most successful nations in the field of international dressage train their horses and riders in a methodical and disciplined manner according to recognised principles of classic dressage training. Thankfully, isolated cases of individual eccentricity (see Article no. 1) have not lasted long.

Horse breeding has undergone huge improvements and dressage riders now have access to splendid, high-quality steeds (see Article no. 1) the like of which were hard to obtain in years gone by.

Today, the top riders see themselves as top-class athletes. They know that they can only deliver maximum performance with their horses if they too are physically and mentally in top form. In order to ensure this, the best riders of today also deliberately engage in other types of sport as well as riding, in order to prepare and mentally train their bodies for the saddle.
It goes without saying that the top riders of today honour and respect their horses and make real efforts every day to better understand their partner in sport. They know horse and rider can only achieve success by working together as a team.

Training a sporting horse and preparing it for high-level international competition therefore follows the same lines as for a high-performance athlete. All the factors that affect sporting performance are continuously monitored and optimised: housing conditions, feeding, shoeing, veterinary care (3 to 4 medical/stress check-ups a year), osteopathy support and/or acupuncture, background qualifications of the stable personnel and tournament grooms, planned programme of training and exercise (short, medium and long term), planning of recuperation phases, competition planning and management of mental resilience.
All these measures will be based on and governed by the natural and individual needs of the horse.

Trainers of top horses and successful riders always have in mind, and under control, all those factors and measures that affect the performance and commitment of horse and rider. And what is crucial here is the knowledge and experience of the top trainers. This means the vast knowledge acquired about and from the other half of the partnership, the horse. And the huge amount of experience built up in the individual, humane and efficient training of dressage horses to Grand Prix level, combined with wide-ranging experience in training riders and in results-based coaching for competition events.

All successful riders and trainers know that when it comes to training horses, and especially for sporting events, there are two key factors that will mean the difference between success and failure: TRUST and MOTIVATION!

In everyday engagement with the horse – whether in the stable or when working out in the saddle – attention is paid to natural behaviour patterns and the individual needs of the animal are largely satisfied. Horses are tested as part of their daily training routine but are never overextended.
As a result, these horses trust those who interact with them on a daily basis. And they not only have trust in the day-to-day work done with their rider but they also look forward to it. Because they want to move and because they love it when someone engages with them. And if at the same time they are ridden correctly and well then it can only benefit the horse.
This feeling of trust can then develop into motivation.
Successful riders and trainers know how to promote this trust and motivation in such a way that their horses are keen to present themselves well with their rider at tournaments and in dressage competitions.

The ultimate outcome of all this training and motivation is that judges and spectators at international championships are able to witness and enjoy a dressage competition that is full of dynamism, resilience, expression, balance, sophistication, effortlessness, harmony and elegance along with an impressive display of great collection combined with power and impulsion.

Ralph-Michael Rash
Warendorf, August 2017

Classic dressage training versus modern dressage riding?

As dressage riding has gradually evolved over the years, classic dressage training and the time-honoured principles governing the training of horse and rider have been called into question time and time again. Based on the personal experience and subjective conclusions of individual riders and trainers an attempt would be made every now and then to proclaim a fundamentally new method of some kind.
In the world of dressage sport, for example, we have recently seen moves being made by some participants to turn the traditional principles of dressage training upside down.

The history of equine dressage training is closely tied to the history of humankind, especially here in Europe.
The oldest known document on horsemanship was written some 400 years before the birth of Christ.
Within a thousand years of the time of Christ things had progressed beyond merely training horses for military service. As a result, equine dressage training gradually developed into an art form.
During the 16th century an advanced culture of horsemanship grew up at the courts and ruling houses of Europe and a number of famous equestrian schools were already in existence by this time. The exercises and performances that were developed back then are broadly consistent with those that are used in the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special events of today, apart from movements involving ‘school jumps’ and ‘airs above the ground’.
In the 17th and 18 centuries the foundations were laid for the system of equine dressage training that we now have in Europe. The great masters of the day were Pluvinel, Löhneisen, de la Gueriniere, von Hünersdorf and others. Their performances clearly indicate that the natural disposition of the horse must be recognised and respected and that the natural movements had to be perfected through dressage-based gymnastic exercises and training. The setting of the forehand in front of the hindquarters, the shoulder-in and the balanced seat have now become key elements of the classic riding technique.

In the 19th century a greater understanding of animal psychology and the natural behaviour of horses began to have an ever greater impact on equine training methods.
The ‘back mover’ was defined: the back as the centre of movement of the horse and the importance of a relaxed back musculature. Maintaining and enhancing swing in the trot and gallop became a requirement. Emphasis was placed on providing steady support with a delicate rein hand. Properly understood forward riding and straight-line work now at last became the mainstays of the European training system. The turning movement was clearly defined and the relationship between the flexing of the haunches, the use of the back and elevation was properly described. The relative stance of the animal was also postulated.

The 20th century then eventually became typified by the world of tournament sport and at the start of this period civilian riders were allowed to participate in these tournament events. The horse became increasingly regarded as a partner for leisure and sporting activities.
There was now available a great store of experience in and knowledge of equine dressage training that had been built up and passed on over some 400 years. This body of knowledge was then systematised and made available to civilian trainers and riders as a set of rules and regulations.
A process of international harmonisation also took place.
Since the 1948 London Olympics the world of equine competition has developed with a pace and momentum that is unparalleled in the history of the sport. And this also applies to dressage.
The breeding of horses has advanced enormously in recent decades. The dressage rider is now able to obtain a well-built ‘uphill horse’ with a harmonious topline, well angulated hindquarters, nicely laid-back shoulders, a good base of the neck and a light poll. Most of these animals have a lot of energy and resilience and they make the work of training much easier for the rider. However, these horses also need the rider to be very smooth and supple in the saddle and to deliver well coordinated and sensitive aids and commands. These dynamic and resilient horses can only be confident in their own movements and in their own energy below the rider, and can only achieve the required degree of balance, when: the back is relaxed, the nose is vertical, the poll is relaxed, the stance is relatively upright and the sensitive hand of the rider releases his mount forwards at exactly the right moment. Then and only then can these horses deliver their full potential and thrill the rider, the judges and the spectators! Then it can be said that they are being trained and ridden in accordance with the traditional principles of classic horsemanship that have been passed on down through the generations.
The development and history of classic dressage training has had its share of ‘mavericks’. There were always those self-styled masters who thought they had found better and easier ways to achieve the desired ends. In the 19th century, for example, François Baucher would rein his horses tightly in, turning them ‘on their head’ as it were, with a very close neck. He believed that this method would make them compliant and that this would prove to be a quicker way to train them successfully. But this technique ultimately failed. In his old age Baucher changed his views and said that coming up with this method was the stupidest and most reprehensible thing that he had done in his life.
Nearly 150 years later we in the classic school of riding again find ourselves facing ideas and methods of this kind. At the end of the 1990s the term ‘rollkur’, later also known as ‘hyperflexion’, suddenly appeared from nowhere to confront the world of dressage. By 2010 we were also seeing many horses that were trained in this way taking part in some of the major trials at international championship level. With a very tight neck, a stiffly set back and the hind legs moving more in an upwards direction than towards the animal’s centre of gravity the collected trot is not smooth in its sequence and the quality of the canter stride and walk is much reduced. The horses rarely give the impression of being relaxed and confident. And it continues to be alarming to see that horses being handled in this way are still often highly rated by the judges.
Yet the classic school of riding has managed to stand firm against this trend. This is because the principles of classic dressage training, as handed down, are not some dogmatic relic from a bygone era. Over some 400 years the classic style of riding has gradually evolved in steady alternation between theory and practice. And it continues to develop today, constantly striving for new knowledge and the even greater perfection.
The Olympic Champion at the London Games in 2012 presented her horse in a most impressive manner: a strong vertical stance, a relaxed backline, in relative elevation and with a smooth tail carriage. That all spells good riding in line with traditional principles.
After London came the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Caen 2014 followed by the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016 and at all these events we were seeing more and more horses being presented in an expressive and dignified manner at the hands of riders who were supple in the saddle and sensitive at the rein. All the medal winners at Rio instructed their horses in accordance with the traditional principles of classic riding. The judges awarded these performances marks of as much as 80% and more. Traditional dressage is back on the right track again.
The classic style of riding is not a national system – it is international. The guidelines that have been handed down to us belong to every horse enthusiast who is involved in dressage training around the world.
Classic dressage training is not inconsistent with the modern sport of dressage!
Based as it is on a doctrine that has been passed down over the centuries classic dressage is timeless, contemporary, alive and thriving.

Ralph-Michael Rash

Warendorf, March 2017