French National Dressage Championships

While everyone knows that dressage is not well developed in France, it seems there might be some hope for the future.  This weekend  the French National Dressage Championships were held in Saint Lo, rather than Saumur, which made it easier for us to attend.  One indication of change was the number of non-French bred horses participating at Grand Prix.  In the Pro-Elite Grand Prix class on Saturday, out of 15 horses only 3 were bred in France, indicating the realization of French riders that quality of gaits is important in today’s competition..  The remaining 13 horses were either German or Dutch bred.  Since the the French concentrate their breeding program on producing superior jumping ability,  the quality of gaits is not generally considered, though there are a few breeders who have begun to breed specifically for dressage, using for the most part, German-bred horses.

What was interesting watching most of the top dressage riders and horses in France at the Pro-Elite Grand Prix level (in France the Pro-Elite are separate from the Amateur-Elite) were differences in technique and expectations.  For example, overall the horses were longer in the neck, more elevated in the withers and softer in the contact than you typically see at international competitions.  However, I think there was in general, less engagement and expression, as a result of the softer connection.  The horses overall responded quite well to the aids and seemed supple in their work, and relatively calm.  There was not a dramatic difference in the quality of horses competed, but the overall influence of the training and riding is where the final result differed.  While it is always difficult to marry the softer contact with the power and expression that wins, it is possible.   The dressage community became, in my opinion, too much about high quality gaits, expression, even if mechanical, and audience appeal,  I believe there is a trend back toward athletic horses working in more self-carriage, resulting in a lighter contact, and a more fluid expression of the gaits and movements.  Here I think the French have the knowledge and desire to present horses in this manner.  What for me is missing, is the power and expression which comes from a better connection,  out of which develops the lightness of self-carriage.

However, the DIFFERENCE that was most noticeable was the judging.  At Grand Prix and not a CDI, there were five judges.  At the lower levels there were three judges.  At even most local shows, there is a minimum of three judges, so much less chance of politics getting in the way.  The scores were anything but inflated, with the best rides scoring in the high 60’s.   The high profile riders were NOT given a “boost” based on momentum or past performances.  I believe they were judged on a level playing field, and a bad ride got a bad score.  Also, while most of the horses were of good quality, there were of course differences in athleticism and gaits, but overall I believe the judges scored the training (use of and response to the aids) and movements (correctly ridden and with good transitions) rather than the WOW factor of the horse.  For me, this was refreshing to see.

Overall, it was an interesting afternoon, encouraging about the direction of dressage in France, and satisfying to realize the  we are not the only ones searching for a ride that shows training which  results in a straight, balanced, supple and elevated horse who goes forward without being forced.

For anyone interested in watching the winning ride, you can view it at this link:http://youtu.be/1shfS28JO8Q.   This horse won I believe on the quality of his training, the presentation of the rider and not spectacular gaits.

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Da Capo – First Week

It was interesting to begin working with an untrained horse.  By that, I mean a horse that has accepted to have a rider on his back, and reacts to the request to go forward and can turn with varying difficulty according to his “handedness” (laterality).  So now I will relate what I felt as I got to know my horse a little and how I feel he will respond to training.  So, let’s begin.

On the first day of riding, I was focusing on determining (1) if he was nervous, had a high energy level, was lazy, and what was his  level of responsiveness,  (2) his laterality (or handedness) and (3) finally how his laterality affected his balance and way of going.   All of this information helps me decide what sort of character he has, how naturally  crooked or straight he is, and how naturally balanced.    What I discovered about my horse is that he is not “hot” but is a little unsure, and definitely takes a “look” at things.  He seems to be of a good character and willing to work in the sense that he is responsive to the “driving” aids.  He is not too crooked naturally, but is definitely right-handed.  He carries his weight left and shifts to the right, that is to say, he pushes from his right hind to his left shoulder.   I did not feel he had an inclination to buck or run away,  but could get a little strong.

Over the next few days of riding I began to attempt to apply some simple aids to help him move easily forward by working with the issues of his laterality.  For example, he is heavy to my leg and seat on the left, and rather empty to my leg on the right and not moving forward to the right rein.  Since he knows very little, and only moves forward from the leg, (there is no sideways or bending yet) I began with the following work:  Going left, I tried to maintain a connection with the left rein, keeping my left leg on the horse, and then working  with a slightly elevated right rein and slightly active right leg to prevent the shifting to the right.  To my surprise he reacted quite well to this work, and for a few strides was softer  on my left rein and leg, and took a little contact right, and gave me a place for my right leg. However, it was only for a few strides at a time, which is normal, but a good sign for the training to come.    Going right, I maintained my horse straight to the left rein, seat and leg, and worked softly with the right rein and active right leg to ask him to lift the right side of his body, rather than falling right, and move forward.  Again, a good response, and a few strides of a feeling of even contact and even pressure against my legs.  At this stage, I cannot ask for more, but work to develop more strides of this response.

As the days progressed, and the more responsive he became to my aids, I was rewarded with the development of some strides where there was a feeling of a “pushing rhythm” rather than a horse just trotting over the ground.  He developed a little swing and some suspension.  During the moments he does not push, he falls a little behind the contact, but I work, even at this stage, not to let him got too low.  This is tiring for him so I work only for short periods and reward with a little walk but still asking for a forward energy toward the contact.

Obviously in one week you cannot expect to do more than introduce the aids, and analyze the responses and reactions of your horse.  These responses give you a reasonable expectation of how easily your horse might learn, and hopefully a little hint of his potential.  In my case,  I am very happy that he felt better and became calmer each day, and indicated to me he has a good work ethic and is athletic.  I am optimistic about his trainability.

He will be relocating to France next week, and therefore will have some time to settle into his new surroundings (and learn a new language!!!).  I will resume posting as soon as we begin his work with pictures and explanations of new developments.  Most likely I will start with lunging, and will explain what we are looking for, what equipment we use, and why.

I am looking forward to this new journey, and hope those who join me through this blog will find it interesting, if not educational.