Here is an opening line for you: There is nothing wrong with dressage. Not if you read the dressage rule book. Good dressage, good riding, is ethical, healthy and pleasant to watch.
I have lived now for over three years in Germany. Coming from the small horse country of Finland, the home nation of the world-renowned dressage guru Kyra Kyrklund, I have been lucky enough to get used to a riding culture, which is very clear, logical and light in its communication language with the horse. The years in Germany have taught that there are many ways to do the sport. Sometimes I see that the more or less experienced riders are puzzled – what is good riding, how should it look like in the training phase? What's good, what's bad?
Whatever the style or school of riding, there are a couple of universal facts which all good riding have in common:
- Gravity and the laws of physicsGravity is a fact. There is no trainer who can deny its existance. Gravity is not present only when the horse and rider unwillingly part ways, it is felt on every stride the horse makes and it has an impact to everything that we do.Gravity causes strain to the horse's body. When the center of gravity doesn't lie in the middle of the horse's body (i.e. The horse is not in balance), the body will experience onesided or even very local strain. The bigger the mass, faster the speed, stronger the asymmetry, the bigger is the strain. In the worst case this will cause the horse discomfort, pain, injuries and even loss of years in the sport, at least a diminished ridability.It is the rider's task to make sure that his/her body weight is evenly distributed on both sides of the horse by sitting upright, straight and in the middle of the horse. Additionally it is the rider's job to direct the horse to use its body evenly, so that the mass is evenly spread on all four legs to avoid the problems described above. An unbalanced horse, who experiences problems with gravity, will feel stiff and asymmetric to ride.
- AnatomyAnatomy and biomechanism are undeniable facts. The healthy movement of the horse and the way that horse's muscles work are studied subjects. A horse is an animal that carries most of its natural weight on the forehand. In the riddenwork the horse needs to bend the joints of its hindlegs and lift its ribcage and front into self-carriage with greater muscle work to avoid any excess strain of the front limbs. For the horse to be able to avoid discomfort and pain in the process it is very important that the horse is able to work in self-carriage with a certain level of relaxation and mobility in the neck that helps the horse in the balancing work. The horse can never be asked to do something that is anatomically or biomechanically impossible to achieve.The human anatomy is a subject yet better known. A rider has to sit upright and physically neutral to be able to maintain the health of the body on a moving horse. The natural curves of the spine make it possible for the rider to take the movement of the horse, when combined with enough of balancing angulation in the lower limbs.Riding can not be anatomically incorrect without causing health issues to the rider and/or the horse. Anatomically incorrect riding is unethical in all its forms, whether it is the rider who forces the horse to work against its own health or the trainer asking the rider to work in a body position that is destructive.
- Learning theoriesThe learning theories of animals are a well known and studied subject. Classical and operant conditioning and the mechanisms involved are simple enough to comprehend and the knowledge is openly available. An animal learns through well-timed reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is most commonly used as a tool in horse training. Here the well-timed release of pressure has a remarkable impact in the learning process. Also some positive reinforcement is being used to get the desired results. Good animal training uses only very little or no positive or negative punishment.Good riding is always logical, clear, simple and regardless of the style of the training done by these principles of learning theories. Every single desired response of the horse is reinforced with the chosen mechanism. Only then can the riding be called good and ethical.
Good riding is easy to recognise. Firstly it looks effortless. It doesn't seem to cause the animal nor the trainer any significant stress. It results into fairly quick and straight forward learning and desidered results. Both rider and horse progress in the work and are doing physically and mentally well and painfree. Both better their physical condition, get more toned in their bodies, stronger, which makes it possible for them to relax also within the more demanding body work. As a result the good riding looks controlled, elastic and light on all levels of training. The lack of these features can never be explained by style differences, only by the lack of skills.
This blog will be about good riding, the building blocks involved and the bits and pieces around the subject.