Dressage Gold with William Micklem: Good Dressage Equals Medals and Money

We're thrilled to welcome William Micklem back to EN with his first guest columns of 2016! This is the first post in his four-part "Dressage Gold" series, which will address the training scale, constants and variables of dressage. Keep coming back this week for the next posts in his series, and be sure to check out the Micklem Bridle, which is part of William's personal drive for more humane training.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro competing at 2014 London Olympia. Photo courtesy of Kit Houghton/FEI. Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro competing at 2014 London Olympia. Photo courtesy of Kit Houghton/FEI.

Good basic dressage training skills are the most important and most powerful skills for the whole horse industry. They are the key to opening doors to fulfilling potential in all equine activities for both horse and rider, and the key to more success and higher prices.

This is true even for horse racing. One of the great secrets of modern National Hunt trainers in Ireland and the UK is their use of horse trials and show jumping riders to school their horses. I know of no top trainer who does not use such riders but they are reluctant to talk about it because they feel it gives them a winning edge that they are hoping not everyone will copy! Higher praise for dressage you could not find.

Dressage For All

Coneygree, last year’s remarkable winner of the UK’s top race over fences, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, is even show jumped by his trainer’s son, Alfie Bradstock, who used to be on the British Pony Event Team. Willie Mullins’ Djakadam, runner up to Coneygree, is the choice of every event rider looking for an international event horse with a ready made competitive dressage. For the reason behind his superb way of going look no further than the influence of international event rider Sam Watson.

If the hugely competitive and well-resourced racing world realize the importance of dressage then it should not be difficult to convince other disciplines.  Of course the wonderful flat work and statements endorsing dressage of top show jumpers such as Billy Toomey, Cian O’Connor, Beezie Madden, Laura Kraut, Scott Brash, Ben Maher, Michelle Meredith and McLain Ward should be more than enough to convince all young show jumpers that their flat work is a non-negotiable top priority.

Even for novice riders, good basic dressage will make them safer and more effective. For example a balanced rising trot is the basis for a balanced position for jumping, and an understanding of how to use aids rather than force to achieve their aims is the key to partnership and accelerated progress.

Novice riders can also quickly gain an idea of training priorities and a roadmap to follow. But beware the brain torture of the over 1,000 dressage books that are currently available to a USA audience. No other sport can match the variety of methods and complications available to the keen student!

Golden Keys

However, as with most activities, when dealing with horses simplicity is a golden key. The oldest (150 years) and simplest statement of training priorities that no one disputes in our modern age is Germany’s legendary dressage author Gustav Steinbrecht’s directive “Ride your horse forward and straight,” only improved subsequently by the equally famous General L’Hotte with “Your horse must be calm, forwards and straight.”

At a similar time another Frenchman, Captain Beudant, carved his name into the training manuals with “Ask for much, be content with little, and reward often.” Advice that has also stood the test of time, together with Xenophon’s “nothing forced can be beautiful” written 2,400 years ago!

In 1886 Steinbrecht also wrote probably the most used paragraph of all time about horse training:“… all [training exercises] follow one another in such a way that the preceding exercise always constitutes a secure basis for the next one. Violations of this rule will always exert payment later on; not only by a triple loss of time but very frequently by resistances, which for a long time if not forever interfere with the relationship between horse and rider.”

This reminds us that as well as key aims it is vital to use a coach to show a step by step method that really works and allows a steady progression to not just a high level, if the rider desires this, but also works for all of the major activities. This is why training of equestrian coaches in all countries demands an understanding of all the main disciplines before specialization.

It also shows the importance of eventing as a catalyst for training that is flexible and complementary. Top level eventing dressage has progressed to such an extent that Carl Hester says that it is as good as pure dressage at the equivalent levels.

Rollkur and Hyperflexion

In recent years the use and examination of the practise of rollkur or hyperflexion (where a horse is ridden in an unnatural shape, with the head very low and the neck very round) reflects well on the dressage community. Not because I enjoyed seeing a horse being ridden in rollkur or looking at the harm it did to both horses and our sport. However it is important to examine new things to see if they are good and in this case it has been done.

In any sport methodology has to evolve.  The essential search for incremental improvements inevitably involves change and an open mind, but this is not something that many in dressage training find easy, particularly as it is a sport that is full of mandatory ‘classical’ principles, revered truisms and largely subjective judging.

Whether we are concerned with the welfare or the performance of the horse the development of the natural paces and outline of the horse is a key performance goal.  But this is often not easy or quick, so it is not a surprise that so many resort to gadgets or strength to get a quicker result. A result that is rarely long lasting or fulfills the potential of the horses trained in this way or guards the welfare of the horse.   This is why the FEI has ruled against hyperflexion, citing that it’s “mental abuse” to the horse and “a result of aggressive riding.”

Last summer, at the 11th International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) Conference, held in Vancouver, the results were presented of a review of 55 scientific articles dealing with the effects of head and neck position on various types of horses’ welfare and/or performance.

The review was carried out by Uta Koenig von Borstel, PhD, BSc, a professor at the University of Gottingen’s Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics in Germany, and Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), Cert CABC, animal behaviour and welfare science professor at the University of Sydney.

The review authors concluded that although some hyperflexion can lead to more expressive movements “the presumed gymnastic benefits are by far outweighed by both reduced equine welfare and undesired gymnastic effects.” 88% of these studies indicated that hyperflexion negatively impacts welfare via airway obstruction, pathological changes in the neck structure, impaired forward vision, and stress and pain due to confusion caused by conflicting signals and the inability to escape pressure. Their summation was very clear: “The FEI rules are there for good reason and hyperflexion is difficult to justify.”

A Happy Athlete

In terms of basic principles there is surely nothing more important than producing what the FEI describes as a “happy athlete.” In practise this is not something that is always in evidence but in recent years Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester in pure dressage and William Fox-Pitt and Michael Jung in eventing dressage have shown that this is not only achievable but without doubt produces gold medal performances.

But the fact that so many attribute their work as ground breaking and changing dressage judging values suggests that it is only fairly recently that happy equine athletes have been recognised and fully rewarded on the score board.

Now softness, lightness and ease are more than just an aspiration but a requirement for high level marks. Much of the credit for this must go to the leadership of FEI Judge General Stephen Clarke who for many years has seen the need for the work in the dressage arena to more closely match the stated aims of dressage listed in the FEI rules, foremost of which is this:

 ‘The object of dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the rider.”

Therefore Stephen continually talks of the judges now wanting to see the work look easy, effortless, beautiful and most importantly natural. As a result of this judges are beginning to put lightness and softness in front of flashy paces.

The most obvious recent example of this at Grand Prix level was the self carriage and softness of Charlotte Dujardin’s Valegro beating the huge power and extravagant paces of Adelinde Cornelissen’s Parcival in the 2012 London Olympic Games. So stress-free, horse-friendly, no-force dressage is now at the top of the training agenda and as a result dressage has never been more appealing.

Running Reins

One area that is not appealing to the public or most dressage coaches is the use of running reins (in effect a pulley giving extra strength) by international show jumpers, even when they go into the prize giving. Recently Switzerland has banned their use at shows and a number of other countries are considering doing the same.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this what is certain is that too many young riders use running reins inappropriately and before they have learnt basic dressage essentials. This was confirmed when German show jumping World Champion Ludger Beerbaum came to teach the top British juniors. He made them all take off their running reins saying, “first you must learn to ride without them.”

The problem for Grand Prix jumpers is that the rules require them to go at 400 meters per minute, but most horses have a longer canter stride at this speed than the standard 12 foot (3.66 meter) stride used by many course designers. Therefore their stride length has to be reduced, something the use of running reins does admirably.

In the process it also means that the natural canter and outline of the horse is compromised. The solution is a small reduction in the required speed and I hope show jumping is open minded enough as a sport to look at this option and then test it in practise.