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Friday, August 10, 2012

Warm and fuzzy

Photo: Huffington Po
I've had a bit of a tough week, but consoled myself with a 'time out' and some Olympic dressage. It's the first time in a long time that I can recall watching equestrian events on television, and I haven't seen any dressage in what feels like forever. This year the stars aligned so that the Olympics occurred at a time in my life when I actually have cable. Cool beans.

As thrilling as it was to have the opportunity to watch, I will admit that I was somewhat disheartened by what constitutes Olympic-level dressage these days. I saw more than a few horses working front to back, overbent and tense, with mouths gaping open. I have no doubt in my mind that this is a direct result of Rollkur used in training. Not only was it used in training, but in the warm-up area at the Olympic games, and even on the way to the arena. It is supposed to be an illegal technique, but nothing was done about it by stewards or officials. Shame. I thought I was alone in my disappointment until I read some of the many comments on the FEI Facebook Page . Holy kaka batman, but people are cheesed off! I encourage you to follow the 'Rollkur' link if you are interested in understanding how abusive and ugly it is. It seems like it must be a new-ish thing, as I don't recall it ever being a part of classical training. Of course, I AM old though;-)

I love dressage, or at least what it is supposed to be. When I was first learning about it many years ago, I read a book (two, actually, as I wore out the first one) by Alois Podhajski called The Complete Training of Horse and Rider. I believe it was published in the late 70's, early 80's, and it was a fascinating read for anyone interested, even peripherally, in training a horse. Colonel Podhajski was a pretty amazing dude. He was the director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria during WWII and is even credited with saving the Lipizzaners (with the help of General Patton). Here is his wiki page: Alois Podhajski
Even for non-equestrians, the story of Colonel Podhajski and his Lipizzan stallions is an interesting bit of history. He is a man I've never met, but my familiarity with his writing has given me a great deal of respect for this amazing man. His sensitivity to the horse and his compassion jump off every page even as he's describing training techniques in great technical detail. My point is, this man was my first introduction to dressage and he set the bar on most of my experiences and opinions since. One can only wonder what he would think of today's competitive dressage.

So often, "new" is synonymous with "better". This is one of those circumstances when "old" and "traditional" definitely should be the standard.  Dressage is one of those sports that has declined and fragmented as tradition has been left by the wayside. People are replacing common sense, time and sensitivity with rope halters and games. Don't get me wrong, "natural" horsemanship has it's merit, especially in light of what passes for training so often these days, but it seems to be a response to a need to be more kind in the training of horses. If the principles of classical training were still adhered to not only would abusive training like rollkur disappear, but there would be no need to seek more compassionate training methods. I'm just sayin'.  I won't bore you with the details here, but suffice it to say I spend a lot of time watching and shaking my head. To each his own I suppose. I will say that since I was a kid (back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth) that some things HAVE improved. I love some of the new bits. As we've learned and understood more, we've developed more anatomically-friendly bits that can enhance classical methods; bits by Herm. Sprenger and Neue Schule especially come to mind. And I would be lying if I said my old, lumpy self wasn't excited about the development of flexible stirrups like these: system 4 stirrups. Much easier on the ol' bones, especially the knees. But I digress.

As disheartened as I felt about most of what I was watching, one great story did unfold. The gold-medal winner was a young British woman named Charlotte Dujardin, riding her wonderful horse, Valegro (pictured above). Valegro was supposed to go to Charlotte's coach, Carl Hester (also a British team mate) but he loved the pair of them together, so history was made. Not only is this a great story because this wonderful coach let go of his ego and gave a student the opportunity to shine, but she shone without the use of cruel training practices and she WON. Not only did she win, but she did so wearing a safety helmet. At the upper-levels of dressage it is traditional to wear a top hat. Many dressage riders won't even wear a helmet when they train. I am a HUGE advocate of the safety helmet, and am so pleased that this wonderful young rider set such a great example to other up-and-comers by making safety a priority and doing it with style. The story of Charlotte and Valegro was where I garnered most of my "warm fuzzies" this week, and knowing that conscientious folks still exist gives me hope.

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