We Will Face Facts

On February 8th, Hartpury College in the UK is hosting an International Eventing Conference entitled ‘Training for Safety’.  William Micklem is an Internationally known and respected horseman and is a regular contributor to EventingUSA.  We appreciate Mr. Micklem's giving us an opportunity to share these insights with our members.

Regarding Dressage and Jumping
An admirable aim without doubt and some great sessions are scheduled for the day, so the organisers are to be congratulated.  However the description of one of the presentations worries me greatly.  The title is Dressage – the relationship with Jumping.  The description explains that Pammy Hutton FBHS will dispel the ‘myth’ that the higher level of dressage can be detrimental to Jumping.  I hasten to add that Pammy Hutton did not choose this description herself.

Everything Is Fine and Dandy
So does this mean that we can take it as read that everything is fine and dandy with regard to dressage training in relationship to jumping? It certainly suggests there is not going to be much objective analysis and debate about both sides of this argument.  It also suggests to me that some people are blind to reality and have little understanding of the central truth that everything has both advantages and disadvantages.  An awareness of both the advantages and disadvantages allows us to make better use of the advantages and avoid the disadvantages as far as possible.  Being blind to the disadvantages makes us less effective and often less safe. The phrase ‘if you keep doing the same you’ll keep getting the same result’ also comes to mind.  It is just beyond logic and flies in the face of the evidence to believe that we cannot do better with our dressage in relationship to jumping, especially cross-country jumping.  It is also irresponsible to run away from the fact that some types of dressage training are without doubt dangerous for horse and rider….what ever level the training is at.

An Accident Waiting To Happen
This is not an opinion it is fact.  Let me give an example.  There was a very talented but somewhat wild cross country horse at CCI *** that was bought to be ridden by an experienced advanced rider.  The one main task in order to fulfil this horse’s potential was to ‘fix the dressage’.  So an international Grand Prix rider and trainer was engaged to fix the dressage and unfortunately the result was rows and resistance.  After a short period of time the horse learnt to fight the forced shape he was being put in, thrusting his head up and running blind towards the corner of the school.  Not long after this, when going across country, the rider asked the horse to slow down in front of a fence.  The horse switched straight away to his head in the air running blind mode, and literally ran into the next fence.  He fell on top of the rider who was killed on impact.

Acceptance Not Submission

Yes this was lousy dressage training but it goes on, and it goes on at all levels from novice to international.  In both pure dressage and show jumping flat work a “very strong style of riding” is considered acceptable by a number of trainers.  So at the very least the seed could be sown for all people reading the blurb for this conference that aggressive dressage training is potentially dangerous.  This is not splitting hairs and who can argue against the fact that a life may be saved because a particular rider and horse worked in harmony instead of fighting each other in front of a fence.

This is a dual challenge…because we both have to work with not against our horses, seeking acceptance not submission, and we also have to proceed a step at a time.  It all comes back to that famous quotation of Gustav Stienbrecht “...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.” The second sentence of this quote is of the greatest importance in relation to safe jumping.

We need joyful, easy dressage with an absence of forced, over regimented, mechanical work. Good behaviour has to be achieved by acceptance and understanding....not by treating horses as foot soldiers in the two world wars.  If we do this true trust and partnership is lost.  Sadly the type of training given to some riders makes it virtually impossible for them to do nothing even when things are going well, particularly in front of a fence, and this over riding and over complication of method at best distracts the horse and at worst takes away from them the responsibility of taking ‘ownership’ of the jumping effort.  This is the opposite of fifth leg training and is the cause of too many accidents.

A Team of Trainers
We also have the challenge within horse trials of training holistically for all three phases rather than separating the training into three separate boxes with three separate coaches.  Sounds ridiculous I know but this really is the norm.  I don’t mind the use of specialist trainers, especially for advanced riders, but at the very least the trainers involved should communicate with each other and fully assess and agree the priority needs and overall strategy for each horse and rider combination.  (..and there’s another factor which is so very important…too many trainers train just the horse and not the rider/horse combination.)

Therefore each coach needs to really understand the demands of all three disciplines in horse trials.  Unfortunately the true all round horse trials coach is becoming a thing of the past as both coaches and riders follow the modern trend of specialisation.

A team of trainers is fine as long as they are a team not a group of individuals with individual agendas.  In rugby and football, for example, it is now common to have a team of different specialist trainers, but they work to a common agenda and agreed priorities, and they usually work at the same location that allows ongoing communication and reassessment.  This is difficult to arrange with eventing training and makes the value of a genuine horse trials coach even greater.

If The Student Was Your Child, What Would You Do?
As both a parent and coach concerned for the safety of my children I would specifically forbid them to train with several well known dressage trainers because their methods do not allow for what I would describe as cross country essentials and/or they do not take into account the training for all the phases of eventing as a whole.

Sadly once again I can give a specific example of another fatality for which this was a contributory factor.  The rider in question was an amateur, with a suitable horse who in the past was successful across country, taking care of the rider and having a good fifth leg.  The rider had ambitions to compete at CCI ** level and took the preparation seriously.  To this end a series of lessons were taken with two international coaches…one from dressage and one from show jumping…but without any communication between coaches.  The dressage coach concentrated on submission and the show jumping coach concentrated on grids, related distances and even stride patterns, and the rider became more dominant and did less cross country work.  This substantially reduced the horse’s freedom to respond to bad distances and be proactive in front of a fence.

Therefore the round and fall that killed this rider appeared to be totally out of character with the horse’s early cross country career.  He was given less freedom to make decisions and consequently jumped with decreasing confidence and involvement as the rider made mistakes, while the rider in consequence started riding more strongly because of the lack of confidence.  It was a vicious circle that culminated with the horse falling, when half stopping and half not caring when on a bad stride, and landing on the rider.  I have little doubt that this type of training scenario has been a contributory factor in other serious accidents.  So this is not something to be taken lightly.

Prix St George
The ‘higher level’ of dressage referred to by some as a potential danger is Prix St George, the introductory level for international dressage.  Lucinda Green quotes Jack Le Goff as saying that doing dressage at this level is detrimental to a cross country horse….and certainly anything said by Jack le Goff should be listened to because he was an outstanding coach.  However in itself I cannot see that this level of dressage is harmful IF the training is done with good steady progression and real partnership, and IF it is part of an overall strategy and program that allows sufficient time for all aspects of an integrated training programme.  Therefore (1) if the training to a Prix St George level is of the domineering type it is no myth that it will be detrimental to the jumping.  Therefore (2) if training to a Prix St George level prevents a well-rounded education for the horse then it is no myth that it will be detrimental to the jumping.

Speak Up or Shut Up
My own personal moral conundrum is to decide what degree of responsibility I have for riders in the sport.  Increasingly I feel that I should speak out more as we only have to stand by the warm up arenas of international competitions for a short time to witness some well known riders/coaches at best training mechanically and at worst being brutal in their quest for submission.  I have heard no logical argument that this makes cross country riding safer.

If we dismiss this without a mention we discourage a search for better ways and we may well be increasing the risks and reducing the room for error for a number of riders.  In addition some film of this type of riding will be put up on U Tube before long and further damage our wonderful sport.  A sport that I believe does more for raising stable management and riding standards than any of the other major disciplines.  A sport that is full of humane and skilful trainers and riders and wonderful people.  Let’s use riders such William Fox Pitt, Philip Dutton, Mark Todd (his famous Charisma competed at Prix St George level), Tina Cook and Ruth Edge as role models and show that overall we can do better.

So I am concerned that the description of Pammy Hutton’s talk will be seen by thousands and will potentially mislead some of them to just keep repeating what they have always done.  I believe the description should be rephrased A) in a more objective way B) relate to all dressage and C) specifically refer to cross country jumping.

Certainly those coaches and officials who go to the conference have a duty to ensure that the potential dangers of dressage training are raised, otherwise it would suggest that they are blind to the evidence and are themselves contributing to the problem.  I cannot believe that this is the case...so as I said, let's do better...ONWARDS!