Action Needed – Unfortunate Developments in Dressage

Understandings or Misunderstandings?

Emotions are flying high when and where it comes to the competitive aspects of dressage.

On one side, there are spectators hungry for circuslike displays of bigger-is-better movement excitement. These include horsy and non-horsy admirers of our field that is (always has been) the culmination of art, not of artisanship.

Dressage hence – admittedly somewhat like classical music, ballet, or figure skating – is an eclectic discipline and not an ideal draw for a voracious action-focused public appetite. But it has changed into something that bears little resemblance with any classical form of art.

On the other side, there is our international equestrian federation, the F.E.I., and their officials that are in the crossfire. There are issues of dictating administrators unfamiliar with equestrian sports and especially the intricacies of dressage. Its officials duck a wide net of bullets without understanding the difference of competition between humans vs. the age-old competitions among human-horse partnerships.

In the crosshair are also today’s F.E.I. appointed judges who developed through an era where the old training knowledge was watered down due to the sudden popularization of the Art of Dressage into the Sport of Dressage.

Taking Aim and is it All About the F.E.I.?

The recent 2019 European Dressage Championships once again brought to a boil the minds of dressage aficionados and animal rights protectors alike. Pictures of hollow-back, red-army-goose-stepping horses with dragging hindquarters abounded. Rider biceps muscles appeared to have to hold up 600kg of power projectiles as not to let them fall.

No, indeed, this is not the dressage we want to see. Nor is this a representation of the horse-centered optimizing dressage training and riding that has for centuries been praised as extending a horse’s lifespan, fitness and health. 

Yes, the FEI judges (as well as their lower level national colleagues) fail to penalize these inverted horses, speak their riders and trainers. No, this is not new. It has been going on since the late 1980s when a new generation of judges, unfamiliar with the decades of classical dressage development, came to judge at the precise time when riders from upcoming nations using training short-cuts attempted to break the phalanx of the long established cavalry tradition-based countries.

Do today’s judges not see the blatant training shortcuts and lapses? And then, how are they going to mark and defend a sport when 90% of its participants are presenting something that doesn’t even closely resemble its own F.E.I. rules and statutes? That indeed is a big problem and calls for new approaches in the schooling and selection of dressage judges.

Of course this also brings us back to the basics of training and rider/horse interaction and education. Things indeed have changed since the last major use of horses in war times, i.e. post WWII, and the abandonment of cavalries all over Europe (1972 for example in Switzerland).

The commercialization of dressage away from the basic gymnastic preparation for all other horse activities has led to dressage as a sport in itself and, subsequently, to changes in horse selection and breeding. Many of today’s horses pinned highly in breeding classes wouldn’t hold up through a mere 50km ride. Short-backed, long-legged, they may look impressive yet are no longer really bred to carry a rider.

Horse-related products too are being commercialized. Sadly, it seems more important what bling your horses wears and how the colours suit your horse and your jacket than how correct and horse-like its training is.

As in the case of tack being more and more guided by visual appeal the experience and knowledge of skilled master craftsmen who themselves are excellent riders is missing. Professional level riding knowledge is even more rare among tack fitters.

What if the Answer to the Riding Issues lies in Saddle Design?

So, what if there was a somewhat more practical and down-to-earth explanation of what is going wrong in our beloved art/sport of dressage, and why our better bred horses are broken down quicker?

A recent picture from the European Championships showed an eliminated horse presented by a rider who over years garnered our admiration for her love and skill to develop horses along the old classical guidelines.

One time or not, the rider’s weight towards the cantel of the saddle hollows the horse and blocks out the quarters.

Nothing classical about the rider’s seat here. For decades we fought against the barbarism of saddleseat riding with the rider’s weight towards the horse’s loins. Yet today some of the dressage riders who surely know better present us with similar pictures – in fact in the example above with quarters that are all push no carrying; something we know to lead potentially to sacroiliac issues, kissing spine, not to mention stifle, hock, and muscle, tendon, and ligament problems.

Demonstrating the extreme of a hollow horse by riders sitting close to the horse’s loins, not to mention the horrific shoeing practices for saddle seat saddlebred riding.

What then could so deceive such an experienced rider not to feel what is going on? Clearly, in the above picture we see a rider sitting way behind the desired 9th to 10th thoracic process (i.e. right behind the withers).

For Comparison: Note the entirely different rider position with seat weight placed closer towards the pommel of the saddle.

The “@” – the Connection Between Horse and Rider

When we look at today’s saddle construction we notice a huge deviation from the old and established rules for the position of the deep spot of a saddle; rules that were established in order to give the rider the best possible balance and the horse the greatest freedom of movement without being burdened by the rider’s weight. The rider needed to be seated as close to the CoG (center of gravity) as possible.

Simplified, these rules indicated the following:

=> Place the deep spot in dressage saddles in the middle to first third.
=> Place the deep spot in jumping saddles in the middle to last third. 

Despite centuries old knowledge about horse health and tack design many of today’s top brand saddle makers build dressage saddles with their deepest spot behind the center of the seat of the saddle, similar to Western saddles. This will place the rider’s weight somewhere between the 11th to the 14th vertebra. Even the smallest pressure to the top or sides of the T11 and T12 vertebral processes will infallibly make a horse drop its back.

A rider’s “Deep Seat” is to be a light seat and is learned over years of work – no saddle “crutch” can shortcut this.

Most riders’ seatbones exert more downward pressure then two fingers in testing mode lightly applied to a horse’s spine. This holds especially true for female riders. As opposed to the male pelvis, theirs is narrower to the back and wider at the front of their body. Not a pleasant situation for any horse’s trunk.

Instead of being allowed to let the back swing up and down into elastic and shock-absorbing inner quadriceps muscles these horses encounter female riders’ gripping back hamstrings and blocked, downward-drilling seatbones. Maybe one of the reasons why we seem to encounter more female riders using rollkur principles and heavy bits etc. in their training?

The Greatest Punishment is a Sudden Pressure of the Seatbones

Does nobody anymore realize that the scale of punishments grows incrementally?
1) touch of the whip
2) touch of the spurs
3) dropping of the seatbones?

Today’s saddle construction, by dropping and fixing those seatbones in the poor horses’ backs, bears a lot of responsibility for all that inverted riding that infallibly leads to the arm-wrestling and rollkur front-to-back riding of many of today’s less refined and more quick result trained riders.

In fact, a quick internet search brought up dozens of dressage saddles with biomechanically wrong deep spots – deep spots that push the riders further and further away from the horse’s center of gravity.

Random Dressage Saddle search results show few saddles with a proper deep spot between the middle and the 1st third.

Let’s be Specific about Fighting the Money Train!

So, all those of us hell-bent on regaling in the FEI, what about a firstline attack singling out the saddle makers – speak saddle maker sponsors – of our dressage pros and having them go back to the drawing board on saddle construction?!

The bottom line is that today’s saddle construction allows for and promotes “split horses” and rollkur training.

Rest assured, while quite a few riders would have to make schooling their own self-carriage and seat a priority for a while, many of those nasty pictures of leg-whisking, rigid-backed horses behind the vertical will disappear once we again follow the biomechanical demands for a deep point in the middle or first third of a dressage saddle along with a “schooled” balance seat and rider self-carriage.

In short, it may not all be the riders but what they are riding in and what deceives their feel.

copyright Rivkah Roth DO DNM

Dr. Rivkah Roth is the founder of Equiopathy and a natural health practitioner, lecturer and author with over five decades in the saddle as a correction rider (Swiss National License LMS since 1968) and many hours as a National Grand Prix and FEI C dressage judge. Student successes include professional coaches on 5 continents (incl. CDN/EC I to III, ISR I to III, Dutch 3rd Level Instructor, USA, AUS), 1986 Dressage World Championships alternate (CDN), 1986 National GP Kuer Champion (CDN), 1992 Barcelona Olympics Longlist 3-Day (CDN), 2002 Young Horse Dressage World Championships – Verden/GER (ISR), World Cup and WEG dressage horse (CDN), many Nat. and Provincial Champions all levels (CDN / ISR / SUI).