Calm, Forward, Straight

Calm, Forward, Straight

Friday, March 11, 2011

We must listen to the horse...

Today I'm starting a series to share an article from (now defunct) Dressage and CT (combined training) magazine, originally published in 1992. It tackles the topic of modern vs. classical dressage. It speaks frankly about this sometimes contentious topic. Most importantly, it's written from the point of view that preserving the nature and well being of our horses is of the highest priority. It's also pretty long, so I'm dividing into a number of posts. Enjoy :)

Face Behind the Vertical
A "modern" deviation from the classical ideal.
Part One

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)


  1. The behind the vertical "fashion" is well-entrenched, although it's encouraging to see forces in the dressage world massing against it. It's all about force, and control, and a horse cannot work properly from behind when in this posture - no wonder you see all that flashy movement in front as it distracts from the lack of engagement behind. And not to mention the physical, and emotional, damage being done to the horses.

    Will enjoy reading more of this article.

  2. Kate -

    I've heard it called forcemanship ;)

  3. I'm so glad you're writing about this. I went to the World Dressage Masters last year in Florida and every horse was behind the vertical. When the rules say otherwise, it strikes me so odd. Aside from all the debate about rollkur, etc., what about the simplicity of this just being incorrect? Why are judges ignoring or rewarding it?

  4. The "face behind the vertical" blight is indeed a travesty for horsemanship.

    I couldn't agree with this statement more. It's hard to believe that the judges allow this travesty of behind the vertical to continue or for that matter to have started in the first place. Unfortunately, being rewarded for incorrect movement and the basic torture of the horse has become the norm in the dressage world. (I've seen it in the hunter jumper world too by the way)

    It's another aspect of our throw away society. By that statement I simply mean that it's easier to make up this piece of machinery quickly and when it breaks throw it away and get a new one. It seems all anyone cares about these days is instant gratification and promoting themselves for money and fame. Dressage has lost its way from the basics of where it started and where it should be.

    I'm happy to see that a lot of us "amateur" riders have realized how wrong this sort of training actually is. My fear is that since the top name riders blatantly employ this sort of riding and get rewarded for it the young riders coming up will still emulate them. We need more informed trainers to steer them down the right road and the judging just has to stop encouraging this sort of behavior.

    Great post.

  5. thank you for posting this. i never read this magazine and am interested in reading the rest of the series!

    it is upsetting to know that, even after all these years, nothing has changed - if anything it has gotten worse.

    don't know if it is covered in later posts, but i should mention that, while boucher's more radical and offensive theories are often used as a justification/explanation of the beginning of this practice, it has actually been around a lot longer than that. it also doesn't take into account the drastic differences between his 'first -' and 'second manners.' he can also be credited with one of the gentlest and most effective methods based on NOT forcing or clashing the aids ever (hand without leg, leg without hand, etc..) no trainer has all the answers, but it's not really fair to blame boucher, particularly since the french school has evolved a more humane method and the german school (or at least those who claim to represent it) continues to advocate this method.

    sorry, didn't mean to get all defensive ;-) great post. i'll be back for more!

  6. jme-

    I think Mr. Herbermannn was making the point that not everything old is good, and he did mention that Baucher regretted some of his methods later in life. I added the bio excerpts - (directly from wikipedia) with links to the entire bio, for some clarification about who was mentioned in the article. :)

  7. Good reading, and discussion! :-)

  8. thanks for sharing. I see this method, spur and restrain at the same time, in the western pleasure world. I don't believe they are trying to attempt what Baucher was, I think it is more out of ignorance since it is the younger riders that do this. More often than not I see the horse fight in confusion. Rather sad that this article is almost 20 years old and now we have the likes of Anky being touted as the greatest dressage rider of today. Sigh.

  9. Good reading,
    Love that Erik.

  10. Very good article. I think that a lot of this stems from people, riders, trainers, rushing horses. It takes time for the horses to develop the proper muscles and the confidence to carry themselves correctly. Right now, Jackson is carrying himself a little low but his tendency is to get high headed. As he learns to relax and stretch to the bit, then I can bring him back up. It doesn't all come at once and you have to adjust for each horse. Some duck behind the vertical, some do the camel... it's a process. It takes patience. You can't force a frame - the horse needs to be relaxed and happy. (sorry to rant, I guess you touched on something I care about a lot!).

  11. I am going to be reading these carefully because I ride western and I have never ridden dressage and I don't even understand it! Your articles will help me figure out what dressage is all about and what exactly is going on between horse and rider. I LOVE LOVE LOVE watching it. Amazing, beautiful.

  12. "How can we best avoid making inappropriate choices when we are struggling with limited experience?"

    This is exactly what I struggle with every day.


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