One story told often during my early dressage education stuck with me partly because it was amusing but also because it became a cornerstone. And lately with observations of modern dressage, it has become a refuge. As the tale went, an older gentleman who was quite a master of dressage liked to show how light his horse’s rein contact was. To demonstrate (and, who knows, probably to show off to friends) he would buckle the ends of his reins behind the buttons of his vest and proceed to ride several dressage movements hands-free.
I learned to ride with my instructors reminding me of this ideal, wondering if I would ever embody this image as eccentric as it seemed. Aboard my wily pony Sheba, it felt like it would take a lifetime. My feisty mare would have ripped off every button on my vest had I attempted such a thing. Nonetheless, this lightness of contact became an ideal illustrated by stories about and writing by other dressage masters. A rider’s reins should never hold pounds of weight. Even as a kid with unsuccessful achievement of the goal, I understood this to be an inarguable cornerstone of dressage.
Much as I love the vest button story, it has been eclipsed lately by the parable of the frog in the pan. This is the premise that if a live frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out. But if it is placed in cold water that is then brought to a boil slowly, the frog will not perceive the changes and will be cooked. It illustrates how things can change permanently at an imperceptible rate.
It seems to me that we dressage riders have gradually accepted the disappearance of achieving lightness. Several years ago, I audited a clinician who taught the necessity of a brief period around Fourth Level during which the horse makes a heavier contact while he is sorting out the demands for increased impulsion. But that phase should definitely end within a few months, she said.
I was not entirely sure I believed there should be ANY phase of heaviness (were we not always striving to help our horses move with lightness and ease?), but I was willing to at least consider the clinician’s point for a moment. At a recent clinic, however, I could not allow so much. As I watched the satisfied clinician and riders, many who appeared to hold ten pounds on each rein, I could only think that some of our classical ideals have been excused so often that they have disappeared. Lightness became the frog in the pan. We have a new norm.
The horses I watched were indeed talented, fancy, exquisite in many ways. They were all FEI horses working on skills like tempi changes and refining their half-passes, which were already pretty dramatic. They displayed confidence in their riders. But what about lightness? As the horses criss-crossed the arena, their neck muscles bulging against the reins, their mouths gaped open, a few ground their teeth. Riders’ arms became sweaty with effort. Some of the riders acknowledged the heaviness, others seemed to not care. Truthfully, I doubt the excessive rein contact affected their scores at dressage competitions.
But what I found most peculiar was that the clinician never mentioned the rein tension, the horses pulling against the bit.
I left the clinic disheartened, but mostly perplexed. How and when did this new norm establish itself? Was I too keen on keeping alive my childhood stories of classical masters with vest buttons to see how irrevocably dressage ideals were shifting around me?
As the horses criss-crossed the arena, their neck muscles bulging against the reins, their mouths gaped open, a few ground their teeth. Riders’ arms became sweaty with effort.
I was puzzled whether the instructor kept quiet because 1. he genuinely did not notice or care, or 2. he cared deeply but did not want to ruffle any feathers. I thought of my own students, and how it becomes difficult to instill in them the values of lightness when everyone around them is gripped on to the reins as if being towed by the horse’s mouth.
To be clear, it is not my intent to whine or lament or point fingers. I bring up my concern for the new norm because I have faith. I have faith in us riders to pedal the norm backwards, back to training that creates a horse moving with such balance and symmetry that he does not lean against the reins. I have faith that we can restore the crumbly cornerstone of our sport so that we do not even tolerate a “phase” of heaviness.
Sure, I’ll concede that this task can require obsessive perseverance, skill, and resilience. But it’s the right thing for the horse’s body. It’s the right thing for our sport. Let’s take the frog out of the pan while we can. Let’s ride like our buttons demand it. Who’s with me?
About the Author
A lifelong equestrian, Jec Ballou has devoted herself to a thorough, correct and straightforward approach to improving performance for horses and riders alike. In addition to being a nationally recognized educator about equine conditioning and gymnastic development, she is an accomplished interdisciplinary rider, trainer and athlete. She is the author of 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider, and Equine Fitness. jecballou.com.