Face Behind the Vertical
A "modern" deviation from the classical ideal.
by Erik F. Herbermann
In this essay, we will be evaluating one of the characteristic signs of modern dressage which points to deviations from the classical ideal: that is, the horse being ridden, deliberately and methodically, with its face behind the vertical and with its poll not the highest point, this attitude being used as a means of establishing control.
We are not dealing here with those circumstances in which any of us can occasionally find ourselves: those moments when, either due to our own attentiveness or because the horse has failed to respond to the driving aids, the horse loses impulsion, drops behind the vertical with its face. A clear driving aid from seat and leg to re-establish a bright, forward going gait, in conjunction with a good half-halt to maintain the rhythm and to set the horse up in better balance, normally corrects such a temporary aberration. The horse will then go, as it should, with the poll high and with its face in front of the vertical once more.
It is quite a different story when "face behind the vertical" becomes a deliberate and integral part of a philosophy and method of riding, which it appears to have become today. And that is the issue on which we will be focusing here.
The "face behind the vertical" blight is indeed a travesty for horsemanship, especially since it seems that rider will simply not make it on the competition scene (they will hardly be recognized as dressage riders at all) unless they demonstrate this insidious fad. In fact, it is now so common and so deeply entrenched that we have come to think of it as an entirely normal and acceptable part of dressage riding. Look at most of the photos in the magazines. Look at dressage posters. Look at the printed T-shirts. It even appears on a German postage stamp!
It doesn't take a genius to figure out why the inventive showman has sought to appease the judges by presenting them with this clumsy facade in order to get passable scores. First of all, it is because riders are so severely penalized if the horse comes above the bit, and secondly, it makes the horses easier to ride.
To elaborate on this second point, if we try to ride the horse with its poll high and its face in front of the vertical without its being solidly and honestly "on the aids" (working properly through its back and being balanced, supple and willing), then at the slightest difficulty or provocation, it will immediately come above the bit. If, however, the horse is being deliberately ridden with its face behind the vertical, it can be ridden with a fairly poor, or even incorrect set of aids, and still look pretty good. It gives the rider an extra margin of safety so that, even though the horse is not going terribly well, it is less likely to show that "unforgivable faux pas" of raising its head above the bit. Now granted, on the surface this may appear to be a real bonus, but for the true horseman, it is a non-starter!
That detail which seems to be overlooked is that having the face behind the vertical is a far more serious fault than having the horse above the bit. The latter, though hardly desirable, is at least an honest manifestation of the horse's way of going, while the former is nothing but a pathetic contrivance, an illusion which not only appears to be fooling many riders but is, at the same time, a reflection on the compromised, uninformed standard of judging (after all, horses are consistently winning while clearly showing this serious aberration form the classical ideal).
Just to insert an historical anecdote: it is interesting to note that both Fillis and Baucher (1800s) also resorted to the "Face Behind the Vertical" concept. But though both men were certainly acknowledged as very influential horsemen in their own time, it has also been thoroughly established that neither one of them worked along classical lines. Rather, they were highly adept at clever manipulation of the horse. Their work was built on a basis of debilitating the horse, stripping it physically and mentally of any ability or will to resist. In this way they rendered the horse to the status of an automaton (a furry motorcycle if you will). But the most significant aspect of this anecdote for us today, if we wish to avoid repeating mistakes made in the past, is that towards the end of his riding career, Baucher finally realized and sadly professed that his forced methods were a serious violation of the horse's nature.
For many riders, it can be confusing and frustrating to know who to believe and what guidelines to follow. There appear to be so many conflicting opinions. But our task can be made somewhat easier if we learn how to let the horse's nature guide us: we must listen to the horse. It is, nevertheless, important for us to realize that it takes an enormous amount of adequate experience, often requiring years of study, in order to even begin to recognize the details which differentiate right from wrong or better aspects from less good ones. As with all fields of endeavour, the tiniest nuances usually make the world of difference. How else could the expert recognize a natural diamond among synthetic ones? It is precisely in an individual's highly developed perception for subtle details that the chasm lies between the true connoisseur and the pretender or the layman.
How can we best avoid making inappropriate choices when we are struggling with limited experience?
************************************Francois Baucher (1796-1873) was a French riding master whose methods are still hotly debated by dressage enthusiasts today. His methods diverge from many earlier masters, however he still has a strong following of riders and trainers today. Baucher also took great pride in his ability to produce a horse quickly, claiming to have trained horses the airs within months. Baucher wished to "annul the instinctive forces" of the horse. To do so, he gradually applied both driving and restraining aids at the same time, until he was using a great deal of spur and hand, his theory being that they should cancel each other out and the horse should stand still. The horse is not allowed to escape the aids, and finally realizes that he is dominated, submits, and is "tamed". This technique was termed the effet d'ensemble. (bio courtesy of wikipedia)
James Fillis (1834-1913) was a well-known English born French riding master. A student of Francois Baucher, he introduced his instructor's methods to his home country as he trained horses for 12 years as Ecuyer en chef of the St. Petersburg Cavalry Riding School. He then went on to train in a German circus in 1892, during which time he performed for the Grand Duke Nicholas in Russia, and was subsequently offered a position to train the Russian Cavalry. (bio courtesy of wikipedia)