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©C. Curley – Effective Equestrian, LLC 2020

Update:  This is a re-write of my recent article titled “Three Gold Medalists”.  When I published the article, I was warmly supported by my colleagues and friends, but also seriously retaliated against by those associated with some of the methods below.  This is part of the Classical and science-based dilemma of dressage.  Those with financial interests in the sport, who adhere to outdated knowledge, or have little knowledge at all;  those who push horses along for the sake of competition success;  those who naively value ribbons and medals as criteria for skill, regardless of the circumstances of the award; and those who think of the sport as a mere country club social event will likely always reject those who offer current learning, shun those who expect riders to think about their actions and the welfare of the horse. 

I literally have been told that I have no credentials, despite being certified by a 3-time Olympic dressage coach and spending tens of thousands of dollars on education in dressage and equine biomechanics.  I have received hate mail from people when I express my opinion of their horsemanship.  I have been slandered verbally and been told that my program is too difficult, and that I expect too much.   I have been shut down when the light of truth became too stark for those who chose to live in the darkness.

Here I will speak my truth and continue to offer my knowledge to those wonderful thinking riders who know there is a better way, those who value the welfare of their horse and have a passion for the spectacular art that is dressage.

The original article has been edited to include more explanation of the biomechanics of the training methods.

I had the opportunity to observe three dressage instructors giving lessons at the same time.  Each one was a USDF gold medalist.  There were definite differences in their journey to the gold, and each one put in the hours, the sweat, and the tears to get there.  Of that I am sure of and do not belittle any of them for the work it took.

One was the scheduled clinician.  In the background were the two other instructors.  It was an interesting view of the different approaches to training dressage, the differences in rider posture and frame of the horse were stark.

The first instructor was more classically trained.  She was teaching a second level rider.  The horse had a good rhythm, stepping through but was unstable in its posture and tended to come above the bit and hollow at times.  The approach was to keep the tempo, rhythm, and cadence, with good impulsion and work on the adjustability and stability of the frame.  As the frame became more stable, the suspension and thoroughness over a more relaxed back was apparent.

Teaching classically in this way is more correct in that it aims to equalize the balance of the horse, back to front and side to side.  As the balance develops and the horse strengthens over time, more and more impulsion can be added to give a powerful suspension to the gaits.  This can take much time, often years to reach a point that this correct movement becomes second nature to the horse as an athlete.

The second instructor was more self-taught and was mounted on a third/fourth level horse, who tended to giraffe the neck and drop the back.  The approach was to hold tight to contact, with the horse’s nose nearly to the chest at times and drive quite forward with a strong seat.  The instructor was overheard explaining that this must be done to stretch the back. 

It is a myth that forcing a neck posture on the horse develops the back.  The equine back muscles are too complex to stretch and strengthen in this way, but this method is perpetuated by those who teach that to get the back engaged you must drive the hindquarters under by locking the frame in place.  In actuality, the result is a false frame, with a hollow movement that is inefficient, usually leading the rider to kick and spur to keep the frame from dissolving.  This is akin to hyperflexion or Rollkur and is unfortunately all too common in today’s training. 

The third instructor was also mounted on a young training level horse.  She was educated in a common German style.  The horse was trotting as fast as its legs could move.  The horse was reaching well under with the hind legs yet due to forward drive the balance was on the forehand.  The rider kept driving more forward and was overheard saying that the horse needs to be more off-the-leg.

This method assumes impulsion first before anything else.  The theory is that driving the hindquarters under creates the power necessary to create lift in the forehand. The problem with this method is, especially with young or green horses, the balance is naturally on the forehand and they don’t have the body coordination to correct for it.  Once the impulsion exceeds the ability of the physique to control the balance, the horse can only race faster and faster to keep the hind from overrunning the forehand.  This creates a great deal of stress on the forehand structure and over time often leads to soundness issues.

It was quite a juxtaposition of technique.  Each instructor informs a part of the process.  Each one believes they are preparing the horses for the athletic demands required based on their personal level of knowledge and their own cognitive bias’.  Knowledge related to understanding the kinematics of the movements is becoming more and more accessible, and focusing on development of the horse for soundness, contentment and longevity should be paramount.   What happens when you focus your training on correct biomechanics?  More brilliant movement.  It is just that simple in principle, but takes great courage, determination, and knowledge to execute.  Are you up for the challenge?

©C. Curley – Effective Equestrian, LLC 2020

Carole Curley