Saturday, June 28, 2014

Saturdays with Suzanne: Today's Dressage Saddles

Today's dressage saddles

I am not a fan of the newer dressage saddles these days. Compared to the saddles we learned on in my youth, today's saddles seem "orthopedic" to me. They are big and bulky like overstuffed sofas!

In comparison, our saddles then seemed almost close contact. If there were knee rolls, they were very small. There was no such thing as a thigh roll or leg block.

Riding was about balance, and good position was acquired with long hours on the lunge line. We wanted to be able to move, if necessary, to properly aid our horse. This is invaluable in training.

It's strange, too, how in the past one saddle fit most every horse in the barn. I know people today who still have such saddles. I rode saddles that were 20 to 30 years old and still in fantastic condition.

I don't understand why riders these days seem to feel the need to change saddles so frequently! Neither do I understand blaming your saddle for riding or training woes. That is rarely the cause.

The dressage boom has spawned a plethora of "cottage industries" surrounding the sport. I don't really recognize most of the newer brands, and by the time I do, they have disappeared. Prices have gone through the roof, too. Can the price of raw materials have gone up so much, or are we paying for some exotic idea or sponsor? I actually know riders who are not supposed to run their stirrups up on the leathers for fear of rubbing through the thin, stretched leather on their saddle! It seems to me that we have become more obsessed with having all the faddish "trappings" than we are with learning to ride.

-- by Suzanne May

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Back to work in Texas

Hi there! "Saturdays with Suzanne" has been keeping this blog going while Ted and I plus three dogs and one horse made our way from Oregon to Texas. Dakota stayed behind in Oregon at a lovely private barn for about six weeks before I was able to get him scheduled on Equine Express. He needed to put on weight anyway, and he sure did! He looks lovely now. We had no problems with the shipping until the very end, when on the Saturday night he was supposed to arrive, a huge thunderstorm blew through. The barn I have him at has a dirt road leading to it, and when it rains hard, the road turns to sticky soup almost instantly. There was no way a big rig could get through. We called around frantically and found him a temporary stall at another barn with paved roads, and he stayed there five days until the dirt roads dried out.

Through it all, Dakota has absolutely impressed me with his temperament. He is not a spooky horse. You can just walk him around a new place, let him take it all in, and then he acts like he's lived there all his life. I can't wait to start competing him.

Here's some video of our first lungeing at the new place. If you're wondering why it looks a bit apocalyptic there, it's because the property was built in an old, abandoned pecan tree orchard. It's a great location just outside town; there's a beautiful big arena and even some cross country jumps are available. Plus there are miles and miles available for trail riding. Oh, and the black pitty mix that gets rolled in the second video is ok -- no injuries, and now he gives us a wide berth when we lunge.

Last night I had the farrier out to give Dakota an early trim. The switch from wet climate to extremely dry climate was rough on his feet -- lots of chips and beginning cracks. The farrier cleaned him up and said all was well -- just to keep an eye on him and we may do some extra filing in between trims for the first couple months.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Saturdays with Suzanne: A Definition of Dressage

A definition of dressage

Back in the 1970s, my trainer took up the challenge made by The Chronicle of the Horse to send in a comprehensive definition of dressage. Those were the years--especially after the U.S. won a surprise bronze medal in the Montreal Olympics--when dressage really took off here, and the AHSA (now USEF) reported that dressage was the fastest growing discipline in the country.

Together (since my first language was English and his was not) we came up with the following definition, which was one of two selected by The Chronicle to be printed:
Dressage is a method of training with a logical communication system (aids), with the help of which a qualified trainer, through progressive gymnastic exercises, can decontract**, supple, and develop certain groups of muscles and de-activate others, accordingly, for whatever purpose a particular horse is intended, so as to educate the horse, both physically and mentally, to maximum efficiency and obedience.
**"Decontract/decontraction" (used as the opposite of contract/contraction) is not really an English word. It is French, but we used it at my trainer's insistence. We commonly use the words "relax/relaxation" in the U.S., but as with many translated dressage terms, these words are close, but not exactly what we mean. In dressage the horse's muscles should be "ready, but not tense," which is not the same as relaxed at all. "Relaxed" is not ready. We were called out on this, too, by people writing in, but we never changed it. Trainers who speak six or seven languages and have dressage books in several of them can be rather stubborn.....or is it rather more correct???

-- by Suzanne May

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Saturdays with Suzanne: The Training Scale

The training scale

Back in the early 1970s, my Ukrainian trainer, who had been an officer in the German cavalry, taught the training scale. His father had actually been a direct student of the great James Fillis, who, at one point, taught the horse guard of Czar Nicholas in Russia.

The training scale originated in the early 1900s in the German cavalry, although the great masters before that undoubtedly practiced these principles without actually stating them in a scale or pyramid form.

My husband, Wolfgang May, a German Bereiter, also taught the training scale in exactly the same way. The German words, however, are much more descriptive. Unfortunately, when we try to translate each of them into one English word, a great deal of meaning is lost.

There are six main levels of the scale or pyramid; however, they are all inter-connected, include other aspects of training, and should be thought of as a checklist more than as ends in themselves.

Number one is rhythm, which includes an element of relaxation, although relaxation is not quite the correct word for what is desired. It is, however, the closest word we have in English. The horse must move forward with regularity. This steady rhythm allows the rider to begin shaping and molding the horse into the desired frame.

Number two is suppleness. We want the horse to bend around the inside leg evenly to both sides. Most often the horse bends more easily to one side than the other. This suppling not only requires the shortening and bending of the stiff side, but also the stretching of the soft side on which the horse tends to "collapse."

Number three is contact. Some contact is necessary for both numbers one and two of the training scale, but this is the stage during which the horse really comes "on the aids" due to the effects of performing numbers one and two correctly. The horse becomes not only soft in the hand in its lower jaw, but also gives evenly in the poll. Half-halts can then travel from the horse's mouth to its hind fetlock, thereby affecting balance and submission.

Numbers four and five are where there as been some debate. What we read these days is that number four is impulsion and number five is straightness. What I learned 40+ years ago and what was pointed out to me in actual German texts by both of my German-trained instructors, was that number four should be straightness and number five should be impulsion. This has been brought up and debated at USDF conventions.

To me it is just pure logic. Gone are the days when instructors could or should get by with explaining training methods or teaching as some kind of "dressage mystique". Everything about dressage is perfectly logical. It appeals to the math student in me, and the ability to "prove" a problem by working backwards from answer to question. Is it not logical that a crooked horse cannot move with true impulsion? If a horse is not even on both sides, can the stride be even on both sides? I have never heard a good (logical) explanation of how impulsion could come before straightness.

It is logical, however, that a horse cannot have impulsion without being straight, cannot be straight without being "on the aids", cannot be "on the aids" without being supple, and cannot be supple without steady, even, regular rhythm.

(Some of this confusion may be explained by a simplistic translation of Gustav Steinbrecht's (1808-1885) words in Das Gymnasium des Pferdes (posthumously published in 1886) in which he advocated riding a horse both "forward and straight". It was explained to me that he meant that a rider should continually straighten his horse while riding forward.)

Number six is collection. As before, it is logical that a horse cannot have a shorter, more elevated, frame and stride without impulsion. Collection is not slower. It is more animated and demonstrates the culmination of each and every step of the training scale or pyramid.

As stated earlier, all six steps work together, and while a rider may need to work on each individually at times, they should be thought of as a checklist, too, for each gait and each movement a horse and rider add on their wonderful dressage journey.

-- by Suzanne May