Between the Hand and the Heel

When Baucher was touring one of the riding schools in Germany, he observed the overly rigid, “traction-ey” contact practiced then as now.  When he asked about this, the rationale was that they wanted the horse “ahead of the the hand.”  He observed that such a practice was “diametrically opposed” to his method, which rests on the notion of the horse remaining between the hand and heel.  Another way to say this is ahead of the heel and behind the hand.

Now, we are speaking in complex equivalents here to try and express some very subtle distinctions between already nuanced concepts, so let me try to break it down a little further before diving into the important differences.

If the horse is “ahead of my hand”, he is pushing against it – through the bit; and now, almost by definition, also resting his weight on the bit (and on my hand) – and therefore also necessarily keeping unnecessary weight on his forehand, versus displacing it to the rear where it ultimately has to be in order for him to collect.

These characteristics describe the palpable heaviness of the “dressage” most people experience in their lessons and witness in the show ring.  I think almost anyone would agree they are rather negative characteristics – certainly in terms of the rider’s experience.  And yet these characteristics are the product of the predominant training method used in competition dressage – and they are not accidental.

So, why, you ask?  Why would anyone actually want to produce a laborious riding experience which does so little to foster the collection and lightness so essential for true high school level equitation – especially if there are other ways of getting there?

There are a couple of reasons.

The first is that “the other” school of dressage – the Baucherist approach, by whatever name – is widely unknown.  There are just a handful of people alive who actually understand the Baucherist paradigm.  Few of them teach, and fewer still compete in FEI dressage.  On the other hand, there are legions who practice at least the beginnings of the historically Prussian manner of high schooling, and most either have never heard of Baucher, or have heard of him, but only as a byword.

The second reason is that even if many of today’s dressage trainers, students, and exhibitors understood the Baucherist alternative, they would still find some unique advantages to the Prussian method if their main objective is to score well at a large number of USDF dressage shows, versus to achieve a high-schooled horse as quickly and safely as possible.

Bear in mind, statistically, “competitive dressage” actually involves very little actual high school equitation.  As of 2009, over 91% of the rides at sanctioned USDF shows were 4th Level and below; over 70% of the rides at sanctioned USDF shows were 2nd Level or below – and the vast majority of these were at Training and 1st Level.  This, of course, excludes the more numerous un-sanctioned schooling and fun shows, which would, by orders of magnitude, amplify the point.

The vast majority of exhibitors will never ride a Prix St. George test, let alone Grand Prix.  Moreover, though they will spend many hours in the saddle notionally conditioning their horses for it, most will never even experience truly collected work.

Therefore, the “object” of most dressage enthusiasts is not really high school equitation per se.  It is to win the classes in which they compete, which, by and large, consist of routines executed at the walk, trot, canter (and eventually a rein-back) – with lengthened strides paradoxically posing as progress along the way.

With such an object as the goal, the Prussian manner indeed has several benefits (which go beyond the fact that the USDF and FEI essentially prescribe a Prussian technique via the sequence and composition of tests and criteria).   Conditioning the horse to push into an exaggerated traction on the reins enables the operator to “cheat” a bit in terms of at least imitating some the characteristics of a high schooled horse without actually having one (nor, necessarily, the skill and tact required to operate one).

How?  It is very straightforward:

1.  Appearance of a Fixed Poll:  With 20 or so pounds of traction on the reins, the poll is going to remain relatively “fixed” – a classical criterion for the finished horse.  But of course, it’s only doing so because it’s in ‘bondage’ – a mechanical and not an academic effect.  We’ve “sub optimized around the metric” (effecting a fixed poll, roughly), but to no productive end other than a score.  On the weight of the reins, the fixed poll indicates a confident self carriage, which will be essential for high school.  As a result of the rider forcing it in such a manner, it has no meaning and no utility; rather, it will only inhibit real high school development later, as the horse becomes accustomed to leaning on the rider for his own balance.  How will you induce a correct piaffe?  (Fortunately, the study of the piaffe is unlikely to ever become a problem for vast majority of competitive riders).

2.  Appearance of a Vertical Face:  Ditto.  We can easily, quickly effect the appearance of the ramener without gaining any academic benefit from it.  In general, however, in doing so, we will have skipped over the essential facets of properly developing the right muscles of the withers area, as well as the poll, thus we will achieve a ‘false’ position, with the highest point becoming the crest of the neck, and horse working in a chronically “over-bent” position – but, really, “mis-bent”.

3.  An Arched Neck:  Again, under the guise of ‘permeability’, heavy traction on the reins will effect an arched neck – albeit, forced and incorrectly placed, with the 3rd vertebrate representing the highest point of the silhouette, not the poll.  In order to achieve the right collection and “equilibrium” (Baucher’s term for the most optimal balanced, coupled with a correct concept of impulsion), the neck must be raised initially – regardless of the position of the face – to help the horse achieve the correct balance, leading to a correct rassembler, enabling then a meaningful ramener.

4.  Appearance of “Straightness“:  Ditto – at least from the withers to the nose.

The problem, however, is that achieving any of these things in isolation is pointless in the context of high school dressage – and thus some 99% of the “dressage horses” out there are incapable of legitimate high school work.  By such logic, we could give stethoscopes and medical degrees to 3rd graders and expect them to be able to practice medicine – since all the doctors we’ve known had them.  But unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way.

Now, if you are an FEI exhibitor and your objective is to win FEI ribbons at the lower levels, you can follow this plan and call what you do what you wish.  But it’s in the interest of “horse showing”, not high school, nor a very quick path towards it, and you’re unlikely to ever actually understand or experience legitimate high equitation using such techniques.  With some additional cheats, you will – at best – someday imitate it.  But more than likely – statistically – you and or your horse will burn out long before this point, because it will be a very unpleasant and laborious experience for both you.

To the work.

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