Having recently talked about the concept of “what's in this for our horse?” I started to think about just how much we ask from top level dressage horses. Our sport is beautiful and a horse with talent and heart truly loves what he does in the arena. However, when you watch riders having to compromise on harmony and lightness in order to show power and activity, are we asking too much?
It is that we are so concerned about not making a single mistake that we put too much pressure on ourselves and on our horses? When you see the atmosphere that we ride our horses in, horses that are built with the power and sensitivity to go to Grand Prix, it’s amazing that they even let us enter the main arena.
Horses are herd animals and we ask them to leave the rest of their mates, head off solo into a stadium packed with people, big screen televisions, judges tents, and flags. Then, beyond that, we expect them to perform a very skilled and difficult test, to perfection. There are few riders, with exceptional talent and experience, who can achieve harmony and lightness with power. However there are loads of others who are given a horse with amazing ability, but may not have the patience, or experience, to produce it without compromise. So are we asking too much?
Should a horse that shows all the correct requirements of a well trained horse be forgiven if they make a few mistakes? This is theoretically the idea, but in today’s dressage world it has become so competitive that even the slightest mistake can mean the difference between a placing or not.
For example, you can perform a really harmonious and accurate test that shows self carriage, but you make a mistake in just one movement, worth a coefficient and it strips your percentage and puts you well down. Alternatively, a horse that is being ridden very strongly and held in place, can perform very rigid and accurate movements with power and win, because he was showing power, but with tension.
A tense horse can give an active and powerful impression, while a calm horse must produce activity and power through correct training. Wonder which one takes more time, patience, and talent to achieve? It is much harder to ride a test with the horse keeping his own balance, than it is to pull him in and hold him in place. Yet the former horse may make a very tiny mistake and that split second will put them out of a placing. One might say that if a horse makes a small hiccup or misses a change, that the training is to blame.
However in truth, a horse doesn’t understand if he has made a mistake. He doesn’t know that if he mucks up that canter pirouette even just for a slip up, he has just cost his rider the competition. Of course if the horse takes off, or bucks, or shows clear miscommunication, then that is obviously something that must be taken into account. But if minor mistakes, that can just be made in a split secon by a pair who have shown that in the general way of going they are superior, does the punishment fit the crime?
We watch riders pushing their horses, redoing exercises again and again to get perfection, and sometimes seeming tense in the saddle just to make sure they get it right. It’s of course becaus there is no second chance if they don’t get it right. You have six minutes and within that time frame if the horse misses a stride, coughs, squats a fly, it’s game over.
I love to see a pair when they hit every marker, complete the test with perfection. We all know the feeling of watching an amazing test and then the horse trips on the final centreline and our stomachs drop. If our sport was to give extra marks for horse attitude and relaxation, would this mean that we could work more on rider/horse relationship and less on getting that movement executed at all costs? Or should the warm-up be taken into account? Should the horse and rider be judged on their performances outside the main arena?
When a rider wins a championship they stand on the podium and receive their gold medal, so we must always ask ourselves: “what’s in it for the horse?”
By Sarah Warne