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...
Whee!
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...
"THE GROUND IS LAVA"
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...
#huskyromps
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?