If you have at any stage in your equestrian journey, experienced an existential crisis of Hempfling-like proportions, then you have the horse’s best interest at heart. The equestrian industry has fanatics on every conceivable end of the spectrum of crazy, inevitably induced by a love for all things equine. If you still have some manner of sanity, you will find yourself hopping between these extremes; as my history teacher at school used to say – “the pendulum swings” – extremes are a part of life; they help us find our center, our ultimate truth.
In our South African Dressage rules, there has been an effort to explain exactly what it is that judges look for in a horse performing a dressage test. It is human nature to try to quantify that which we find beautiful and mesmerizing. We do this in every aspect of life – we try to define love, fear, the meaning of life. We struggle to just accept that some things are not meant to be explained, but rather assimilated through raw, sensual, fully immersive experience. Nevertheless, we are human, and we try to “bottle” and recreate what we deem beautiful and thus competitive dressage emerged. If, however, we wish to truly combat the issues seen in modern competitive dressage, which harm our horses, we need to make changes where we can.
The above image is an extract from our SA Dressage Constitution. DSA wishes to conform closely to guidelines set out by the Fédération Équestre Internationale – most of these guidelines are no longer available to the general public.
The major issues which can be seen in competitive dressage have to do with three concepts. The first is the term “on the bit”, which is a term invented by the competitive authorities which under no circumstances occurs anywhere in any text presented by any historical equestrian master. The term was incorrectly translated, possibly because there was no single term for what it should look like, and possibly because the German and French schools could not agree on the idea of activation and relaxation of the jaw. The French classical masters believed that a mobile jaw was integral to the complete mobility and relaxation of the horse’s spinal processes and subsequently, the rest of the horse’s body. The German classical schools rejected this principle, partly because of who the message came from and partly because they believed that certain aids (side reins, firmly fitted nosebands) were necessary in order to attain obedience from the horse under all circumstances. Each school of thought had its reasons for believing what it did, but neither could contribute to competitive dressage in any way which the modern competitor would accept as possible to execute or possible to judge objectively. Thus, the term “on the bit” was born and horses have suffered ever since this. The elements of classical horsemanship are voided by this term, as the idea of “lightness” and the idea of a horse being “on the bit” can never exist in harmony. “On the bit” started as a noble idea – the idea that the horse should “seek the bit”, implying that the horse should “seek the hand of the rider” or look for the contact once it is relinquished. What it has, however morphed into, is the idea that “on the bit” is synonymous with the term “poll at the highest point” and “nose slightly in front of the vertical”.
This brings us to our second point. If a horse’s poll is at the highest point and his/her nose is slightly in front of the vertical simultaneously, it CANNOT be “on the bit”. The poll at the highest point is the ultimate level of collection and with collection, should come LIGHTNESS. To imply that the horse is still seeking the bit with the same level of intensity at this level of collection, as it was in a stretched position, is absolutely absurd. So which one is the correct one?
Where the constitution becomes totally confusing, is this gem;
‘A horse is said to be “on the bit” when the neck is more or less raised and arched according to the stage of training and the extension or collection of the pace, accepting the bridle with a light and consistent soft submissive contact.’
The key term here is “according to the stage of training and extension and collection of the pace”. So there seems to be some understanding of the variation on what should be offered by horses at various levels of training, but then the sentence is nullified by the very next sentence. “According to the stage of training” should recognize that a young horse which has been under saddle for only a year, should not have its poll as the highest point in competition. “According to the stage of training” should understand that what is mechanically beneficial for a horse with a low-set neck is not necessarily what is beneficial for a horse with a well-set-on neck. Do we demand that the poll be at the highest point for a horse with a long back and low-set neck? Do the people who implement these rules understand the concept of developing a horse’s back, as well as their balance over time, or are they merely trying to create a box in order to syphon out the beasts who cannot meet their requirements.
How can we help develop the horse if we cannot even agree on what it is we are looking for in a well-developed horse? Perhaps we can start by addressing sentences which contradict each other in our constitutions. Perhaps we can demand that judges consult the masters in order to have an understanding of the tradition and reasoning behind what we now see in our dressage arenas. Perhaps instead of relying on the rules, we can question them critically, so that what we judge is not the horse, but ourselves, what we have learned in order to develop the horse, and how we are applying these principles as equestrians.