I recently rewatched a YouTube video, “Dressage Disaster: Heartbreak for Howington & Putten” at the Tokyo Olympics. Reading some of the comments, there was a split between those who believed it was just one of those things that happens with the pressure that competition horses are under, and those who viewed it as abuse.
Whatever your views, the causes are evident in the preceding movements and this month I am sharing my thoughts as a trainer on what is going wrong. You can watch the video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3-YqN_TVVU . The particular section I am reviewing is from the start to around 30 seconds.
In the first instance, the problems start in the extended trot. The rider has a tight hold on the reins, blocking the horse through its mouth and poll (picture below). This results in the horse being unable to correctly lengthen its frame in the extended trot, leading to a compressed neck, blocked back and disengagement of the haunches.
This disengagement of the haunches makes collecting the horse back from the extended trot difficult. There is a backward pull on the reins, and you can see the rider being pulled forward out of the saddle. This blocks the horse further, which can be seen in the action of the horse’s hind legs (5 seconds, picture below). At 7 seconds, she shortens her reins further and at 9 seconds makes a backward pull with her left rein, disrupting her horse’s steps and further contracting the horse’s neck.
To bring her horse to piaffe, she makes a backward movement with her right rein (15 seconds), which can be seen in a sudden movement of her horse’s head to the right. This is followed by a direct pull backwards with both reins, and the rider using the spurs to try and maintain the piaffe steps. The horse is now completely compressed between the bit and the spurs, blocked in its back and disengaged in its haunches. In this position, the horse simply cannot sustain any kind of mobility in its back, legs and haunches, and the piaffe stops.
To try and regain the piaffe steps, the rider uses the spurs more, and also makes another couple of backwards movements with her reins (22 seconds). As the horse backs away from the extreme pressure of the bits, the rider increases the use of the spurs and makes another backward movement in her left hand. Trapped between the rider’s unyielding hands on the bits, and the pressure of the spurs sending him forward, the horse takes the only other option available, to rear up.
In a correct piaffe the horse should be light in the fore hand, the head and neck are elevated. This set of photographs from Philippe Karl’s Twisted Truths of modern dressage shows classical masters in piaffe on various types of horse. In all the photos, the horses have elevation and freedom in the forehand and lightness in the reins and on the bit, and importantly, they are slightly in front of the vertical.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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