A few days ago I posted some reflections from the mounted demos at the GDF. I thought I went sufficiently far out of my way to explain that my thoughts were based on observation, that they were my own, and that they in no way constituted a criticism of any of the highly accomplished individuals who gave so generously of their time to share their training methods with the most discriminating audience they could ever imagine (yes, even more so than seven Olympic judges). I was therefore quite surprised (eyebrows up, lower jaw down) to receive something akin to an admonition from my favourite particle physicist in the whole world, David Stickland. Ok, he is the ONLY particle physicist I know personally. But I like, respect and admire D-Stick for making a tangible (or perhaps a better word would be ‘calculable’), positive impact on the sport of dressage using nothing but the hard facts of results and his very fit brain.
David has kindly given me permission to share his email with you on this blog, and I am posting it here today because I believe that his argument is both valid and valuable – though I don’t entirely agree with him. As you surely already know if you read my blogs with any regularity, I believe in dialogue as a necessary step in furthering one’s understanding of anything more complex than determining if the cat is black, white or black and white. A note on D-Stick’s reference to someone named Andrew: in his message to Astrid and myself, he also copied renowned equine behaviourist and past GDF presenter Andrew McLean. I am still waiting for Andrew’s permission to publish the interesting and enlightening response he sent as an answer to D-Stick’s email. I hope to bring it to your eyes as early as tomorrow, but I do need to give Andrew time to wake up and read my request. It’s already tomorrow in Oz, but it’s very very early in the morning, and I sent the request only today.
Here is D-Stick’s email (which came with the subject line ‘I beg to differ’) to Astrid and myself regarding our shared perception that Helen and Ingrid presented more empathetic, adulation-worthy demos than the other presenters at the 2012 GDF:
“Hi Astrid and Karen,
at the risk of invoking the wrath of Karen in a blog (Something I vowed only two days ago to avoid at all costs!), I’d like to register a different opinion to what you both wrote in the last few days. Of course I say this not as a statistician or based on my analytics, but on my personal understanding. I admit that I am formally outside of my expertise in this case!
Astrid wrote this:
It was interesting how Cornelissen hit the nail on the proverbial head of her riding system when she said “I want to have the speed control whenever, wherever and for as long as I want” while Klimke and Langehanenberg were more the silent partners aboard their horses, softly nudging and convincing them through trial and error to do the job. On this level I have to agree with renowned Canadian blogger Karen Robinson
who wrote that she saw a diference in “riding as domination” and “riding as cooperation”.
Firstly, I loved the demonstrations of Adelinde, Patrik and Helen and I learned a lot from each.
I maintain that Dressage is about control, that is exactly what it is. Of course I totally agree with the humanitarian perspective and that this work of rider and horse must always respect the mental and physical well being of our horses. But fundamentally dressage means exerting a “total” control over what the horse does. He is asked to pay all his attention to what we ask him to do and to respond to our aids in pre-programmed ways etc. The programming is the training; it is certainly not “a one size fits all” process, but the competent rider and trainer work with the horse to understand how best to achieve what the rider is asking of the horse. I refuse to anthropomorphize the horse and pretend that he wants to do this. He “wants” (Andrew may challenge even my use of the word “wants”) to stand in a prairie and eat grass and if he is a stallion have a herd of mares and if she is a mare have foals and be in charge of the herd, and not be eaten themselves. This is the reality of horse psychology and of the human invention of this sport of dressage.
Speed control as Adelinde described it are to my view a succinct statement of the early training process: “I ask you to do something, you keep doing it till I ask you to do something else”. It is one of the requirements of being able to move forward to higher levels. I did not see Adelinde “dominating”, but I saw her requiring a response, and in the words and actions she used she explained that getting this response was a task of understanding of each horse, and working with them, but at the end of the day training is the development of the desired response to the stimulus. (Patrik said and did the same things, and so did Helen – I am sorry but I missed Ingrid’s presentation)
There are and have been great riders of both gender’s and very different physiques. Undoubtedly they have different assets that they use to “dress” their horses. The good ones (for my definition of good) all work with the horses they are on to get the best they can, and they work in subtly different ways with each horse. Domination is an emotive word, it is being used here in its negative connotations, the inference is that “I bend your will to mine without regard to your wishes”. I think the word is totally out of place in this context, and certainly with these riders. We all know that some people do ride like that, but I did not see that in the riders we watched last week. I saw professional humane riders who know what they want to achieve, who use the tools they have to try to reach that goal and who adapt to the physical and mental abilities of their horses.
Anyway, that’s my two cents….”
One thing I pointed out to D-Stick in response to his message is that Astrid’s use of a quote from my blog is taken out of context. I did not say that Adelinde was demonstrating a ‘domination’ method of riding the horse she brought to the GDF. I said the demo lacked interest (which I still maintain), and that the only memory I took away from it was her repeated use of the term ‘speed control’. Here is what I wrote, verbatim: “The only term I really remember from her ride was that dearly beloved Dutch catch phrase, ‘speed control’, which in itself – as an expression – puts me in mind of riding as domination, rather than riding as cooperation.” I do believe there must be a better expression out there than ‘speed control’. What’s wrong with ‘responsiveness to the driving and restraining aids’? Before this descends into nothing more than an argument about semantics, all I want to point out is that my criticism was of the language, not the riding.
Something in D-Stick’s email made me feel (rightly or wrongly, but perception is 100% of reality, after all) that I was being accused of straying into PETA territory, that I am in denial that there is any kind of domination over the horse in ‘correct’ training. As a life long rider, and past trainer of various wily and wild specimens, I would hardly lump myself in with the PETA crowd. In fact, I’m sure the Noseband Brigade would find that I do up my crank noseband too tight for their standards. I also eat meat, including wild game. No, I’m definitely not up for PETA’s next Paul McCartney Award.
The main message I was attempting to convey in my post was that if there was an image I would like to take from this year’s GDF and try to emulate in my own riding, it was what I saw in Helen’s (and Ingrid’s) approach to training. I’m more than willing to agree that all riding of horses is a form of domination. But let’s be straight about it: some riders are more dominating than others.
D-Stick mentioned something else in his email that gave me pause. He referred to horses not ‘wanting’ to do dressage for a living but preferring to hang out on the prairie and eat grass. On that point, I am not in agreement. The horses we breed and ride today are about as similar to the horses from which they descended – the ones on the prairie eating grass – as we are to cave men. Breeding has not only selected for physical traits; it has also selected for temperament. I would not dare to commit the crime of anthropomorphising, and I would never say that any horse ‘wants’ to go in a 20×60 rectangle and make lots of circles. But I am pretty confident that the horses we ride today are more predisposed to going along with that kind of activity than a Przewalski’s Horse would be.
A few months ago I heard an interesting program on the radio about an experiment
conducted on farmed foxes. Over a 40 year period, captive foxes were selectively bred based on their predisposition to interact in desirable ways with humans. In just a few generations, litters of fox pups were being born that in the earliest stage of life sought ‘the favor of their human handler’. Horses aren’t as clever as foxes, but we’ve been breeding them for a lot longer. I think I remain on the safe side of ‘anthropomorphising’ by arguing that the horse that will greet me at the barn this afternoon is happy not only to see me, but to go for a ride. Am I dominating him? Sure. But, I argue, our relationship also depends on a degree of cooperation.
A final word on the folks at PETA: I have been meaning to make a comment for a while now on PETA Germany’s charges against Matthias for inhumane training methods (a la roll kür) and against Paul Schockemoehle for keeping Totilas in inhumane conditions. Now, I have heard from a reliable firsthand witness that the Schockemoehle stallions live in something akin to dungeons, with no turn out or interaction with other members of their species. And if that’s true, there is no excusing it. Schockemoehle is in the business of making massive amounts of money from breeding fees, and the least he can do is provide them with the kind of care we all know the horses would ‘want’ and deserve. But the day that the equestrian world’s actions are dictated by outside interest groups is the day we wave goodbye to horses in sport. Before we go nodding our heads with PETA about Totilas, we should be prepared to show that nothing we do with our horses would receive the hairy eyeball from PETA, don’t you think?