Lessons from the Dressage World

I happened upon some dressage videos on Youtube the other day. I am not a dressage rider, and make no representations of expertise. So this post is not a critique or an expression of any opinion classical vs. competition dressage, rollkur, or any of those other controversies that I have no business commenting upon.

However, I really learned some interesting things about riding skills watching these videos. I am just going to present them in the order that I watched them first of all.

A series of clips of Totilas and Edward Gal in competition, set to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way.

A stallion show presentation of Totilas ridden by Matthias Rath a year or two after the clips in the first video.

A critique of the riding styles of Edward Gal and Matthias Rath by a Alex Gerding, a German dressage coach and Russ Edgington, an American biomechanics specialist. There’s more info about them on their website at Professional Horse Services. This video is really long (over an hour), but well worth it.

There are a number of controversies involved in this story. Totilas was unexpectedly sold by his Dutch owners after the 2010 World Equestrian Games to new German owners and was assigned to Matthias Rath, a much younger and less experienced rider than Gal. Edward Gal rode for some time with Anky Van Grunsven in Holland. She apparently uses Rollkur, which is a highly controversial method of hyperflexing a horse’s neck during training. And that is a whole separate topic on its own which I am not going into here. But look it up if you are interested. Matthias Rath has rather obviously started using Rollkur methods since the disaster of that second video. So neither rider is free of those accusations.

If you watch the third video, these two coaches give a very detailed breakdown of the riding styles of Gal and Rath. This is not about the basic skills of “heels down” etc. This is about how a rider tunes themself to a particular horse. And how they use the aids to support the horse through various movements. The two riders are very different in their styles, and Totilas who is a World Champion dressage horse (three gold medals at the 2010 WEG and the world record highest dressage score of 92.50%), responds very differently to each of them.

Matthias Rath is a strong rider (and I sure hope he has healthy self-esteem, because this video has been seen by a LOT of people!). When the horse spooks, the commentators note that he sits deep, takes a strong hold, and frames with his leg. Which they call a “triple confinement”. Which the horse reacts badly to because he’s used to a totally different riding style. Alex Gerding points out at one point that Rath is riding the horse that he wants, not the horse that he’s actually on. That’s an interesting thing to reflect on. Horses are individuals, so there is not one correct way to ride.

This is something I went through with King in the early days of conflict that I had with him. I am physically quite a strong rider. I used a lot of leg, and my hands have always been too strong. So I was using exactly that “triple confinement” method with King, who is a powerful, light-moving, and very emotional horse, causing highly explosive situations. Over time I did relax and learn to go with the movement more and be lighter in my response. As I lightened up, King did too. It took a long time to get that through to me though. Even when I knew what I was doing wrong, I couldn’t (and occasionally still can’t) overcome that innate response to stress of clamping down hard.

Rath is a high-level dressage rider. He has skills that I will never have. So it’s rather intimidating to see how badly a horse can react to a rider of that skill level. And also to realize how far we ALL have to go to be truly great riders.

Edward Gal’s style is amazingly elegant and quiet. His shoulders barely move, but his hips follow the horse easily. I know that being stiff through my lower body is a weakness of mine (and it’s not improving with age!), and this last video, though very long was really worth watching to get an understanding of why that is important. They also go into quite a bit of detail on how Gal supports the horse’s balance with his reins and his seat. That sort of finesse is far beyond what I’m capable of. But it’s given me renewed motivation to work harder at it.

There is another Becky Hart Centered Riding Clinic in early April, which I will be going to. I learned a lot at last year’s clinic. So I am looking forward to this one even more. I’ll never be an Edward Gal, or even a Matthias Rath (and given the Rollkur issues, I am not exactly interested in that anyway). But I can be better than I am.

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