Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Blow by Blow Comparison

It's been a busy  week. I've been in correspondence with Rod Miller and we've had some great conversations. Like me he is trying to build a reference tool that can help riders bridge the language gap between the western terms and dressage speak.

Several clinicians are giving clinics on cues and aids for Western Dressage. Now remember, the competitions are going to be judged by Dressage judges. So I think it will be a good exercise to go through some of the things said in these clinics and compare them with how that dressage judge is trained to judge. 
 "My legs don't say to go forward, my seat does that."  The clinician then demonstrates leg being used to ask the horse to "come off the bit" and bring it's face to the vertical at the halt.

Oh dear.  So many disconnects here I hardly know where to start. Please understand this isn't about whether the cues are right or wrong. This is about will the judge and competitor be speaking the same language.

First your dressage judge will want the horse to go instantly forward from the leg. Some dressage trainers want to horse to go forward even before the leg is used  - they want the horse to feel when they start to take if off the horse and go forward then. This use of the leg is debatable but I'll leave that for the Dressage Forum on COTH. Yes, seat is used FIRST, a split second before the leg, but forward from leg is bible. True, if the horse goes forward correctly, the dressage judge is going to assume correct use of the aids no matter what the rider actually does. The problem is that a horse that drops behind the bit in response to the leg is going to lose points every time the leg is used.

The term "off the bit" is never good from a dressage judge. The horse should seek contact. Now this contact can be so light it's the weight of the rein, which is why reiners and especially vaquero horsemen use heavy reins. See Eitan's comment about the weight of a running martingale providing a constant contact for the horse. What is most important to the dressage judge is that the horse be willing at any time to telescope its neck and stretch through the topline to find the contact. As a test of this there are movements in regular dressage tests that ask the horse to stretch the reins out longer in lower level tests, then come back to a more upright carriage without losing balance or impulsion or changing tempo.  This same horse can be perfectly happy working on a totally loose rein. It will not dive its nose into the ground looking for the bit. The rider establishes a connection and the horse partners to keep it.

Here's a full description with a good picture.  http://tackandtalk.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/building-a-better-equine-athlete-3/
The horse should stretch through his whole topline and reach down and out with the nose, not curl down and in. So bringing the nose in in response to the leg is going to make it hard to show what the dressage judge wants to see.

And let's get it over with now. For your dressage judge the near vertical head position is a result of collection, not a trained response to the bit, and they can tell the difference. When the muscles around the poll and jaw are relaxed the horse will softly chew the bit when asked for more impulsion by the legs and seat and the head hangs off the atlas vertebrae like wet laundry on a clothesline. As the neck and shoulder elevate as the horse becomes more collected, the weight of the head brings it more in line with the vertical, but the nose should always be slightly in front of the vertical. Holding the head in by use of muscles in the neck is the result of unnecessary tension. Muscles have to be contracted to do it that aren't being used for anything else or need to be relaxed so other muscles can work to best advantage. Do winning Grand Prix horses pull the nose in too much? Often. Do they lose  points for too short a neck or coming behind the vertical - yes. You don't see any 100's in the scores, even of the best horses. In dressage good work can erase bad moments in a test.  That doesn't mean that the judges of these horses aren't marking down tension or coming behind the bit.

BTW, when a dressage rider takes up contact and gently asks for the horse to come onto the bit before moving off, the result should be that the horse relaxes the muscles around the poll and softly moves the bit in its mouth. In a Grand Prix horse prepared to leave the halt with full impulsion that relaxation may bring it close to the vertical. In a young horse simply chewing the bit softly is enough.  Either way the poll should remain higher than any vertebrae behind it and the horse should never duck its head and come behind the bit. The crest of the horse isn't the reference point. It's the three vertebrae right behind the poll. If our Western Dressage rider goes up the center line, halts, and the horse goes behind the vertical the dressage judge is going to show it in the scores.

So already our poor dressage judge is looking for a different response and we haven't even started moving yet. I'd welcome comment from other trainers out there.

Still to come.

Turn to say go
leg to move shoulders
lean to weight seat bone

1 comment:

  1. you have me feeling sorry for the WD judges already, :o)
    I think that there needs to be some development and education of what the event is wanting to do.

    But to comment on some of your observations, having a horse behind the vertical is not desired in any western event either.

    I also believe that the nature of western events require a horse to carry a different frame with different points of breaking. I know that i see both competitive western horses and dressage horses breaking at the poll and the withers. the difference I see is that a dressage horse breaks up at the whither and a western horse breaks down at the whithers, both require a shifting of weight to the hind end if done properly but both can result in front end heavy if done poorly.

    breaking up properly develops an elevated shoulder and a break in the back at the loin and a loading of the hocks,

    Breaking down properly at the withers requires a rounding of the whole back to help move the balance point forward removing weight from the shoulders but not really loading the hocks.

    So with that said is it possible to have a judge judge the quality of movement regardless of frame? I know I have my doubts since neither discipline can agree amongst themselves as to what is correct. :o) so trying to get a consensus between disciplines will be very tough.

    I can not wait to hear what the poor judge is going to encounter once your horse starts to move. :o) maybe with discussion the verbiage can be better understood. good job!