Friday, February 17, 2017

Jumping in the fray: Bits and Dressage, a story of development and principle

There seems to be a pretty fun kerfuffle circulating in the horse world right now, and I can't help but leap right out here and disagree with just about every damn person who's written something. What's the fuss about?

A petition to British Dressage to allow bitless bridles in dressage. (This story was picked up by Eventing Nation. It is also not the first time such a petition has been discussed or proposed as this 2015 article in Dressage Today reminds.)

I had been blissfully ignoring the whole damn issue until I read this post on Aimee of SprinklerBandits blog. Go read it real quick. Don't worry, I'll wait... after all, I apparently have a lot of words to compose on this topic.

Done? Good. Now...  In response to Aimee: She states that the reasons to use a bit in competitive dressage are for communication, balancing the horse, and control. I agree that bits are integral to communication in dressage, however I disagree completely that their requirement is also about holding the horse's balance or having control over the horse. In fact, I disagree with that on a pretty fundamental level.

Mainly my disagreement with the need for a bit to establish control is based in the fact that the point of the development of dressage training was to show that you could train the horse in such a way as to NOT have to exert control with the bit (as they needed to do in traditional warfare. No one in the middle ages would have suggested taking a horse into war without a huge ass spiked nasty leverage bit. Pretty sure I wouldn't have wanted to either. It was necessary.).
One for each of my massive freight train war steeds, plz and thnx. 
Response to Aimee's point aside, I believe bits are integral to dressage, and I think I have some good points. First, a couple of counter points to the common "but bitless bridles!" discussion to launch me into my main pro-bit argument:
1. Nose pressure is NOT bit pressure. The communication is 100% different. Can you train one to mean the same as the other? Maybe? But... that's kinda counter to the whole thing. To me this is death of the bitless bridle argument because...
2. Lightness and effective communication are the ultimate goals and proof of dressage training.

Let me explain #2 in more detail:

Back to that development of dressage thing...
Yeah. This... remember this?
Contrary to popular belief, the start of dressage was not to train military horses and riders. Nope. It was developed as a way for blue-blooded noblemen to prove and show off their superiority. Did this bleed over into the military? Uh, yes. As noblemen were in charge of the military, bleed over of training techniques was a natural progression. However, military practices changed pretty drastically from the 1500s to the 1700s. As did other things. Like sanitation practices and men's fashion (anyone for a pair of men's high heels?). The ties between the development of dressage and the changes in military riding style are a bit tenuous until much later in history, after dressage was well established.

Fun Fact! Dressage until the 16th century was mainly practiced in high walled indoor "schools" with windows up high so the horses wouldn't be distracted, and in parades and ceremonial displays by and for the wealthy and powerful. It was considered a type of riding separate from, but related to, that required in warfare.
William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle's riding school at his Bolsover Palace, built in the early 1630s. (Fun Fact! This place is still around, and they do riding displays there! Someone go and tell me if it's cool.)
Sons of the wealthy were sent to schools to learn from masters (such as Grisone, Pignatelli, de Pluvinel (you've heard of him. Right?), and La Guérinière) the skills of fine horse training, later horsemanship. By the 1600s, a nobleman's ability to train and ride a horse effectively was seen as an indication of excellent leadership skills. Yeah, that's right!  Dressage made you cool and desirable. It also, apparently, made you good at your job. If your job was leading men into war and governing nation states.
Diego Velázquez say "Toddler good at making horse do cool stuff. Toddler make good king someday."
(Actual true story. This is legitimately Spanish propaganda of the 1600s. Don't make me pull out my footnotes. I WILL DO IT! This is not an idle threat.)
The popular correlation between a talented rider taking a highly strung animal (often one unsuited to warfare due to its hot temperament) and managing to convince it to dance around like a fool without force, and the qualities desired in a man capable of making good decisions when people's lives are at stake isn't so far fetched. After all, how many of us have said something along the lines of "my horse has taught me patience," or "my horse teaches me to think rationally," or simply "my horse requires that I think, not react". I know my horse has made me a better and more conscientious leader. People during the 1600s definitely agreed, and they would know as most of them had dealt with a hardheaded horse or two.

Now stay with me because I'm getting to how this development relates into the integral tie between dressage and bitting horses.

As dressage training was explored and developed, the masters discovered the key to this sort of training was lightness. You couldn't haul a horse on the bridle, intimidate it with spanks on the ass, and expect it to calmly and happily perform countless piaffes and levades in front of your adoring crowds. Instead, the horses had to be systematically trained to accept the barest of aids from the leg, seat, and bit.

Driving for ultimate lightness led the masters to begin to lessen the harsh bits of the time. Gradually removing the spikes, twists, high ports, and immense size and weight (horses often had to have teeth pulled to accommodate the massive curbs designed for ultimate control in warfare) from their leverage bits. They started to discover that when a horse is properly engaged and relaxed, you can feel that relaxation in the hand. The horse softens to the bit... goes "on the bit." The goal of training became to achieve this ultimate lightness in the hand. A voluntary submission of the horse to the bit, without pressure.
François Robichon de La Guérinière demonstrating the slack curb rein and ultimate self carriage in a piaffe, though I am reasonably certain La Guérinière is actually the dude on the ground at whom the horse is rolling it's eyes. It's most likely a nobleman under Guérinière's instruction in the saddle.
François Robichon de La Guérinière is credited as the inventor of the double bridle, uniting the cart horse bit (the snaffle) with the bit of the highborn and educated (the curb). Why? Most likely Guérinière was intrigued by the amount of communication you could convey through the combination of bits. With the snaffle bit, a rider could give fine motor commands to the horse, dictating how to high to place its head and at what degree to carry its bend and flexion. With the curb, the rider could explain to the horse exactly how far out it should extend its neck, and keep the snaffle from restricting the motion of the nose inward. The eventual goal of all "high school" riders was to ride effectively on the curb alone, with a light feather touch on the curb and a slack snaffle rein.
Baucher on Parisan in the Passage. Note the slack snaffle rein and light contact on the curb.
The idea of using a severe tool to such a degree of fine and light communication appealed to the point of dressage: to convey a superior skill in critical thinking and leadership. At the same time, riders using these tools in this way could encourage their horses to relax, sit and arch their necks in a such a way as to develop the high degrees of collection and self carriage required to complete upper level dressage movements. Their judicious application of the bit in junction with the aids of their bodies shaped the collection and lightness that is the goal of dressage training even today.
Some modern horse in a double bridle. Three guesses which one.
Photo by Redline Photography
In the years after Guérinière, François Baucher came onto the dressage scene. He was a controversial trainer and instructor, but for reasons perhaps more political than you might realize. Credited often for inventing both early rollkur and the one tempi changes, he was disparaged for his lowly birth and his time spent training horses to spectacular feats for the circus instead of stroking the egos of the rich and famous. However, Baucher is the man who gave us the theory of "leg before hand." His time spend with exceptionally hot circus horses and thoroughbred types led him to believe balance and relaxation was the key to training. He based his personal training on the theory that a horse cannot relax with a tense jaw, poll, or neck.

The bit was integral to Baucher when it came to releasing this tension. He instructed the on the use of "flexions" off the bit to teach a horse to release this tension and allow forward movement to flow through. Later in his life, he remanded some of these teachings, realizing overuse of the bit and flexions could back a horse off and restrict it's desire to move forward. Still, the feel of the bit in the hand indicated the relaxation of the jaw and poll of which Baucher never rescinded importance.
James Fillis, a student of Baucher's developed the "fillis hold", a way of separating the action of the curb and snaffle reins to an extreme degree. This illustration shows the use of the snaffle rein to create a flexion of the poll, as described often by Baucher.
Today, relaxation is touted often as the key to good dressage training. However, instruction of the feel of the horse on the bit is often distracted by talks of headset and talk of proper "poundage in the hand" needed for "good contact." That discussion flies in the face of development of the sport and the principle of less reliance on force and heavy handed communication on which the training was founded.

Personally, I think the feel of the bit in the hand on good contact is absolutely necessary to the sport. The communication conveyed through a truly light and relaxed mouth is sublime and effortless. The horse carries the bit(s) on its own, arching the head and neck to engage the abdominal muscles and drive the hind end under to allow more power generation. The contact in the hand is alive, vibrating with the energy between rider and horse. There is absolutely no pulling, maybe only a feather of weight in the hand. Sometimes even a slack in the rein.

Once the training of the horse and/or rider has reached a degree where each understands the concept of collection, the frame needed and the cues from the rider's body, the bit may be unnecessary. (Though a look at this video and the one prior makes me wonder just how much harder one must "shout" to be heard bitless, even on a trained horse.) But for competitive dressage, the goal should be a level playing field where all competitors work to display their mounts training toward the goal of lightness and obedience with as close to near imperceptible action of the aids as possible. I, for one, appreciate seeing a test where a rider has all the tools at hand, but needs only the lightest hand to achieve results.
No dressage master here, but I can vouch the feeling on that bit was absolutely relaxed and sublime.
What are your thoughts?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Things we do that aren't dressage

Skeptical ear asks, "Should I ask why we aren't schooling our changes instead?"
While I work on organizing my thoughts for some more dressage-focused posts, I wanted to share some recent clips of moments spent outside of the sandbox, both on and off the horse.

Like time spent pretending to be much younger while playing in the field...
Or cuddling hard on sleepy, sunny, Sundays...
"How about we nap instead?"
Or galloping full out with minimal brakes...
Dressage horse? Pfft! Piaffe this!!
Yep. Today I'm just here to share photographic evidence of that time my horse spooked at a pile of hay in the dark, then ate it. Because that sort of thing is important.
#noshame #itwasdelicious
And while we're on the topic of food, here's that time Pig thought he was sneaky for stealing a bag of carrots from the tack room...
"I'm a real life Danny Ocean. Just better looking... and sneakier."
See, dressage training isn't all boring circles and transitions. We do a whole lot of other things. Like navigating tiny frozen streams...
And indulging our inner art critic while enjoying the stunningly beautiful Maryland sunsets...
That sky, though. Amirite?
Plus, it's very important to stretch out our back from all that heavy duty collection work!
Yeah, "stretching". I wish yoga was this much fun...
And we can't forget to take time out to play with friends...
After all, it's all about building relationships and memories. What's the point in the training journey if you don't enjoy time spent with your partner?
"Hi Lady! Got carrots?"
As our training gets more and more demanding, it becomes obvious to me that the whole process is aided through the quiet and relaxed moments out of the ring. That's where we build our trust in each other, and that's a priceless thing when you've hit a tough moment in the ring.
Plus, with views like this who can resist!?
Do you find time spent outside of the ring pays off when you go back to work?

Monday, January 16, 2017

2016 Year in Review

I know a lot of people have been complaining about 2016, labeling it as a year best left in the dust. While I can see the point of those statements, I think it's best to appreciate every year for what we did and learned rather than writing it off. So with that: Here's 2016 in review!


We kicked off the year with a visit from the vet, confirming Pig's suspected diagnosis of "being real old." We developed a comprehensive conditioning and treatment plan to get the old man back in full work after his substantial time off at the end of 2015, including estrone shots, hock injections, and lots of hill work.
Hello year; Goodbye money
Of course some of that was put on hold when DC was hit with one of the top 5 blizzards to hit the Northeast in US history! Of course, I had to write about how the huskies and I enjoyed the experience, complete with plenty of photos of happy snow dogs.
The world always needs more snow dogs.


By the start of February, I was starting to worry about how little muscular improvement I was seeing from Pig. But I wrote about what I was doing to support his development, and gave myself permission to rethink stifle injections at the end of the month. To help me better track the improvement, I started posting each ride recap as a haiku. Honestly, best idea ever.
Also had to start riding in the morning before work to avoid the hell-traffic that was DC post apocalyptic snow storm. 
My mind wandered while we laid down some repetitive rehab work, and I wrote about methods of shortening reins, imagined Irish myths in the epic blizzard melting mists, and compared Pig to a cartoon character.


The realities of planning for show season hit me this month, and I debate whether I should show in the double. Deciding to give the whole thing a test run at my barn's winter schooling show series seemed like a good idea-- though Pig disagreed. Still, I learned a lot from that test and poured myself continuing to strengthen Pig's hind end. Mainly by channeling my inner Ingrid Klimke.
Looking like a BAMF
Show season beckoned harder. I broke down awards I could go for, and took a couple of lessons with Stephen Birchall. During the first, Pig attempted to toss me through an open window while executing a particularly exuberant change. During the second, I tossed on the double and we worked hard on furthering our work with some foundations.
Well, that's one interesting diversion on the path to success... 

Our first show snuck up on us in April. I prepped as best as I could. Pig started on Adequan, and we planned to show in the double. Of course, the best laid plans all go astray sometimes. The weather ended up pushing us to haul in the night before, and everything was a rush. The show day itself was frigid with blowing snow, but Pig and I made solid use of our history of training hard in all weather.
A 62% at 3rd? We'll take it! 
We left Morven Park with only one score missing from my Bronze medal, and the feeling that just maybe we might be capable at 3rd. Then we piled on all the horrid color combos we own and destroyed your retinas with this classy photo...
Don't lie. You love it.
Just a week after our show, we once again braided up, this time for a clinic with the indomitable Janet Foy. I can't lie, I was extremely nervous the clinic was going to be a giant disaster, but Pig and I somehow passed Janet's scrutiny.
Horse looks like his brains are installed. No worries. That's a lie.
She was very critical of us, but gave a lot of great feedback and ultimately declared us capable if a touch wild. I wrote up the lessons I audited in two incredibly full posts (post 1, and post 2), but I never managed to write up our lesson. Instead L and Emma and I had a ton of fun in D.C.
Like. A lot of fun.
Pig may have disagreed.
While I recovered from the craziness that was April, my little wolves took over the blog and wrote about their insane lives as barn dogs in the nation's capital. Really, I think they just felt the need to share adorable photos of themselves in downtown D.C.

After the wild days that were April, you'd think May would be quiet. You would be wrong. We started off by calling the vet back out and injecting Pig's sticky stifle. Of course, Pig is extremely ticklish around his stifles so we ended up having to drug the crap out of him. Amazingly, he still found it possible to kick, even though he was so drunk he could barely stand. This horse, man. Dedication is his thing.
"I'm not drunk! I'm just sleeping" -- every drunk and punchy pig-headed Irishmanhorse ever
  Then, for my birthday Pig gave me the gift of a minor colic and the onset of horrible hives (requiring an emergency vet call! hooray!), but I also managed to pull together the photos from our April show. The hives continued right up to our next show, as did an incredible month-long rainstorm.
Happy birthday to meeeeeeeeeeee!
Finally giving in to popular demand, I published a braiding tutorial for my style of big fluffy Dutch braids.
These braids!
And we headed out to Morven Park again, this time to meet with Jan and Penn for PVDA Spring. The nasty weather made it feel more like we were fording a river than performing a dressage test, but we managed to pull out all the scores for our Bronze, plus the scores for our 2nd level rider award. There were many awards (and I won a wine glass and a cheese plate! Score!).
But seriously, guys. The rain was ridiculous.
At the end of the month I wrote out the long history of Pig's injuries, arthritis, and training. Ultimately ending with a love letter to this silly horse, who has never given up on me.
And I love him for it.

All the awards we finished in May arrived, and I wondered how you approach riding when you've accomplished all the goals you set. Ultimately I decided those awards are amazing, but don't mean we have to stop immediately. I said I'd look into leasing him, but let him tell me where we headed.
Spoiler alert, he's not ready to quit yet.
Liz ended up swinging through DC, so I roped her into auditing a Stephen clinic and hanging out with Emma! Obviously it only took a little more pushing to get her to take a mini ride on Pig and go for a trail ride.
Loved watching these two go!
Unfortunately, Liz missed my torture training session with Stephen. While Stephen expressed excitement over Pig's muscling and fitness, he schooled us both at the counter canter for what felt like the rest of our lives.
So much cantering. It's a damn good thing this horse and I were at peak fitness!

I wrote a bit about the unique markings that can be found in the thoroughbred lines, pointing out where they appear on Pig. Then, I released the amazing family photo's taken by Allison of Ponytude's husband during our busy April.
Because these "kids" make my life awesome.
Finally, Emma, Megan and I wandered out to Virginia to watch the Olympic qualifier at Great Meadow. I had way too much fun stitching together a slow motion video of the rides and posted it.

This month was outrageously busy, but I didn't manage to post much. What I did get out was a piece about the process of being awarded my bronze.
Yay lapel pin!

Finally I got around to posting some quick updates. Then I wrote about a quick jumping session I got to do with Pig, even though his jumping days are long over. He had so much fun!
Somewhere in those updates I might've mentioned kicking ass at another dressage show...
At the end of the month, I started recapping my early August endurance ride experience with Liz! We rode 30 miles through the West Virginia mountains, and I learned a ton about a totally new discipline.
Q and I had a blast!
Photo by Becky Pearman

After much delay, I finally finished my endurance ride recap. This ended up getting picked up by a bunch of Facebook pages, Horse and Eventing Nation. My blog traffic exploded. Though my time was still short, I managed to squeak out a quick post about how Pig and I's training was going, hinting at the good work we were laying down.
Do we look like a pair messing around with piaffe/passage? Cause we were...

I wrote nothing. So sorry, guys. Life got a bit crazy.
Just imagine that it looked much like this...

I started reflecting on the year early, by looking at how cyclical our training had become. Then I wrote about the development of my understanding of the dressage frame. Both may have just been an excuse to post some old photos of Pig.
And some other ones from our summer show!
Photo by Redline Photography
I continued writing love letters to my ridiculous horse, showing the world just how cuddly he can be. Then, the fluffy posts were over. Stephen was back and we had to get back to work. Our lesson was mostly theory, but it's been helping Pig and I continue to make positive progress in all parts of our training.
Stephen is basically our relationship counselor.
Speaking of positive progress, the year ended with a look at our goals for 2017. I came out and said we're pointing ourselves at 4th level, a thing I said wasn't possible earlier in the year. What a crazy ride!
Cheers to you, 2016!!