Thursday, October 13, 2011

Doing More Than Riding

Here's another post that may get me in trouble. And when I say "may" I mean "will". It is not my intent to offend anyone, but someone, I'm sure, will take this the wrong way. Here goes nothing... Hold on just a minute, why do we say "here goes nothing"? What does that even mean? English is a weird language. Here goes the whole thing...

My particular favorite equestrian sport or discipline, is Dressage. There are people who will snort with defiance at the mere mention of the word. Others scoff at how "boring" it is. Some will lambaste Dressage aficionados for their participation. Dressage isn't for everyone, which is fine. Good riding and good horses are a pleasure to watch no matter their classification. The equine world is vast and varied and that is what makes it so interesting and entertaining. However, Dressage appeals to me personally, in a lot of ways.

I have never been the type of rider that was satisfied with just riding for riding's sake. Even as a young girl, riding my pony, Ivy, around town, I yearned to do something with her beyond just going for a ride. My Mom used to do her paper route with her horse. Oh how I wished I had a paper route! I wanted to ride my horse to the store, do a little shopping and ride home. I wanted to ride my horse to school. I wanted a job for my horse and I to do. It's not that I didn't enjoy riding, because I certainly did. Ivy was a wonderful little horse and we canvassed every inch of the neighborhood, exploring, trying out new trails, riding down the street, checking out the beaches, and seeing just how far we could get. She was game and I was looking for adventure. Yet, as time went by I found myself not just wanting to go for a ride, but wanting to work on something. I guess that's why I became a horse trainer and not just a horse rider.

When I started riding in local horse shows, that hunt for something more was satiated slightly. With competition came goals to meet. We did Western and English classes, jumping, games, equitation, trail, costume... everything that was offered. There was still something missing.

It wasn't until I truly started to understand Dressage that I became interested in pursuing it. Dressage is much more than just following a pattern. It's not even until relatively recently that I have come to appreciate Dressage thoroughly. For those that don't like it or have negative things to say, I have to point out that not all Dressage is done correctly. As in any equestrian event, there are people who take things too far, or in the wrong direction and it spoils the perception of the sport. And yes, I will admit that watching Dressage tests at a show, especially at the lower levels, can have about as much thrill as watching fingernails grow.

The appeal, for me, is in moving up the levels, advancing the horse's fitness and suppleness, and doing more than walk, trot and canter around the ring. I'd rather watch Dressage tests all day than watch a Western pleasure class. It's like watching the equine version of the Stepford Wives. I realize I am making a generalization here, because there are some really good Western pleasure horses. It just doesn't appeal to me. It would bore me to the point of having to bring a good book with me to read while I rode. The top Western pleasure horses all look like drones. They are beautiful animals but look like they've had lobotomies and are wearing concrete shoes. Please refrain from snacking me because I said that. It just isn't in my genetic material to be satisfied with riding a horse around and around and around going as slow as possible.

I think that with competition, the original design of the sport is lost. A Western pleasure horse is supposed to be a horse that you could comfortably ride all day long. With the modern Wp horses, it would take you all day to ride anywhere. Instead of showing horses that are comfortable to ride, they have made them slow enough that you could build a house of cards on top. Relaxation has been replaced with unresponsiveness. Instead of a horse that carries his head level with his body, the horses look like they can hardly carry their heads at all. It's not just in Wp that the competition has trumped the purpose.

Modern, competitive Dressage horses have undergone an evolution as well. The horses getting the high scores today are the ones showing exaggerated gaits. The gaits have become more important than the harmony and calmness that once was Dressage. Mistakes in tests, disobedience, even leaving out entire parts, is forgiven if the horse has spectacular gaits. It should not be so. But so it is.

Look at what has happened to the Tennessee Walking Horse. Here was a horse with a naturally smooth gait that could be ridden over uneven terrain and go great distances for many hours and the rider wouldn't feel like a tossed salad. Now, the gait has been outlandishly exaggerated through often cruel and inhumane methods to the point that it looks bizarre. Watching a "big lick" TWH makes me cringe. The horses don't look like horses anymore. They've become a kind of spastic kangaroo.

I do compete but not at the risk of my horse. If he needs a harsh bit, a tie-down, several inches of weighted pads on his feet, having his chin tucked down between his front legs, rowel spurs or anything else that causes him pain, then I'm not going to go to the show. I also like to go to shows where more is offered than just walk, trot, canter around the ring. That's why Road Hack is my favorite class, I get to WTC but also extend the trot and hand gallop. Once, I even got to ride in a Show Hack class which had collected walk, walk, walk on long reins, trot, collected trot, extended trot, canter, collected canter, extended canter, hand gallop, halt and back up. I was like a duck in water for that one.

My sport isn't perfect. There is a lot of undesirable stuff that happens through ignorance or pursuit of prizes. The root of Dressage, training a horse to be responsive, supple, well balanced and happy, is what I find intoxicating. I like my horses, eager, yet controllable; comfortable to ride, yet with expression to their gaits; calm but not dull, and well-balanced, yet maneuverable.

I'm sure someone reading this will be put out by something I have written ("Hey!! I'm a Western pleasure rider and I am definitely more interesting than fingernails!") but this is my blog, with my opinions and thoughts. I haven't meant to pick on anyone, but only to point out that some of our riding has gotten out of touch with its original intent, just like I got out of touch with the original point of this post.

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