doing it right vs doing it right

I mentioned yesterday that my friend got on Murray at the end of my ride and I was really impressed with how they did together.  Murray is one of those horses that lets you know pretty immediately when you’re on his shit list.  Literally the second my trainer, the assistant trainer, or our barn manager’s daughter set their butt down in the saddle he’s ready for a fight.  He knows that they are going to ask him to work, and apparently takes great offense to that.  (This actually results in hilarity for everyone involved, as long as they have a sense of humor, because as mentioned previously, I find it funny when horses are cranky for no reason.)  To avoid this when my friends ride him, I always prime them with “just give him a long rein and the benefit of the doubt, and be light with your leg aids.”  The primer works really well, and has even allowed some of my friends to get real work out of Murray by sneakily upping the demands as they go along.

He’s very clear about his feelings

That little aside isn’t really the point of this post.  What I did want to talk about is how quietly and steadily Murray went when my friend (let’s call her B for ease) rode him.  B didn’t do a whole ton, just walk/trot/canter whole arena, but Murray didn’t fuss in the bridle too much or make any velociraptor screams or anything during the transitions.  B complimented him on being so light in the bridle and easy to steer (probably my favourite thing about him – turn your head, he changes direction! Mostly).  If I could achieve that level of steadiness for an entire dressage test I would be pretty happy with it.  And then I was like, jeeeeez what am I doing wrong that I can’t get that level of steadiness?

Tracy is right, ain’t nothing like an upcoming horse show to fill you with self-doubt.

I thought about it some more.  I thought about it a lot, actually, while I was watching B ride.  I should have taken some video or something so I could have visual aids to help with this discussion.  And what it made me think about a lot is doing dressage right vs doing dressage right.

It’s a tough dichotomy.

So I’m probably going to get diverted in this discussion of my horse into some more general discussion of dressage philosophy, and what various trainers/people think is correct vs. incorrect.  To this end I’m not going to use any pictures of people I’ve shot at shows or anyone I know, just myself and famous riders/horses that I’ve seen on the internet.  I mean, if they put their pictures on the internet, they’re out there for all to see, and I feel that critiquing them is fair.  I know it’s a super controversial topic and I’d love to engage in discussion with you guys!  But I also want you to know that I’m not trying to offend anyone or criticize how you do dressage – you have your own trainers and coaches and I’m not you or them.

fakeframe2Not B riding, but this is kinda how Murray looked. Not quiiite tracking up, a little “forced” into a frame in front

Arching up and out, lifting the base of the neckHe looked a lot like this, actually. Credit to Sustainable Dressage because it’s an amazing dressage resource.

So.  Dressage right or dressage… right?  As I said above, if Murray went around like he did with B in a dressage test I imagine he would have gotten a pretty reasonable score for the acceptance of the bridle/submission collective marks, as well as avoiding the ever-present-in-my-tests “fussy” or “above bit”.  I’m struggling to find a photo in my own records of how he was going, it was just not how I tend to like or ask him to go.  It was a nice frame, and at the same time an example of why I don’t really like to use the word “frame” when talking dressage.  Because despite it looking nice, and steady, and pretty much “on the bit,” Murray wasn’t really through or using his back and neck properly.  I like to ask Murray to really use his neck and back when we’re dressaging – and sure, I know I don’t get it all the time, but it’s what I’m aiming for – because I know these are things he needs to strengthen.  And when I can get him really using his neck and back, his whole gait changes for the better, more flowing, supple, and open.

5-21 dressage 8Pic from the same day as above. A much more open, whole-body trot — WAY more how I prefer Murray to go around.

But I also know that at this level having Murray go around a little less through than I typically want isn’t exactly a cardinal sin either.  It’s not like he’s dropping his back and flicking his legs around at GP; this is beginner-novice test and there are lots of acceptable body shapes and frames it can be ridden in.  (I think? This is based on my experience watching lots of different BN tests get similar scores for collective marks and overall scores with, to me, very similarly-ridden tests in terms of geometry and accuracy.)

It makes me wonder.  Maybe I should have plafakeframenned to sacrifice a little through-ness and quality of gaits for some submission and quietness in the bridle?  Would we get a better score if I insisted on less push from behind and accepted a bit less correct use of his neck?  I’m not really in this for the scores but I’m totally kinda in this for the scores (I can’t heelllppp ittttt).  Scores are an impartial third party’s assessment of how well I’m doing in my training, and after all this hard work I’m at least a little invested in what they have to think!  But even more to the point, maybe Murray would be happier if I let up on him a little and asked a bit less of him at shows?  Maybe it would be better for him mentally if I didn’t ask for those really good canter transitions to the right that I know he has in him?  If I didn’t insist that we rode really through and supple and bouncy and properly?  Properly as I’ve been taught, of course.

Illustrating the modern ideal of pushing behind and braking infront An unusually bad illustration of selfcarriage, compared to alternative photo unless you want to prove an erroneous specific pointThis is a weird and interesting line of thought for me.  It’s not like I’m having to choose between Dressage Right and Dressage Wrong.  Nobody is telling me to crank Murray into a frame and ride him front to back (which is incidentally the back-to-front way to do it) and get him to break over at the third vertebra and ride him around with a big hollow behind the saddle.  That would be an easy choice.  There’s clearly no benefit to rollkurrrrring him in either the short term or the long term.  But I wonder what it would mean for our overall training if I were to succumb to that strategy — to let him run around a little more upright and falsely collected.  Doesn’t seem to match my overall training plan.  But… points on a test maybe?

(PC to Sustainable Dressage again)

I mean, I’m not changing anything at this point in the game.  I’m committed to this strategy and I’m not a nitwit, I’m not changing things up a week before the show.  And I know what my dressage trainer would tell me to do: ride the way she’s taught me to.  I know what I want to do: ride the way I know is better for Murray in the long run.  But still.  I wonder.

11 thoughts on “doing it right vs doing it right”

  1. So, to give you my 2cents on the topic, a good dressage judge is going to ding you for tension and lack of suppleness and stretch over the back if you ride Murray with a tight neck and less push from behind. So it’s 6 in one, half a dozen in the other. In my opinion, better to have him moving more correctly from the hind end and sacrifice the head and neck position for now as you work towards getting him consistently steady in the bridle. I’m sure some of our DQ friends will have lots more to say about it!


    1. My feeling is that I ultimately agree with you Allison. It’s just such an interesting thing to think about, because I have literally never thought before about sacrificing throughness for steadiness in the bridle.


      1. I pretty much literally had this conversation with my trainer at my last lesson! I got so many remarks (and lost points!) on our last test for tension in the back & neck. While Dino certainly looked ‘correct’, a good judge sees past that to the lack of throughness and relaxation. So we totally tore down the contact & outline I had been working with and started over with more stretching, lighter contact, and a lower poll, and he’s going MUCH more correctly now, and much more through. A poor judge, however, may give you more points for the higher, tighter ‘neck set’.

        I mean either way if you can avoid primal velociraptor screams during your dressage test, that’s bound to improve your score.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Agree with Allsion. A good judge is going to see right through the shorter neck and “framed up” way of going. You might not win the dressage on a more open stride over a horse that’s more uphill and “collected” (as much as you can be collected for a LL event test) while still going correctly, but in the long run, your way of going is what’s going to work best for both of you.


  3. To be totally honest, when you’ve got a young/green/inexperienced horse, the best thing you can do (and imo, the rider’s RESPONSIBILITY) is ride the test the way the horse needs you to ride it, on that day, in that moment. It’s easy to think “but I need that extra point” and before you know it you’ve blown not only that test, but several to come. For me, I always choose to get my horse as steady and calm and happily forward as possible in the warm-up, and ride the test in the same way. If it means I leave a point on the table for gaits, or a point here and there for lack of brilliance or lack of connection, fine. Because I guarantee you that if I did push for brilliance or try to keep him crammed together, my horse would end up in a tense ball of mush and everything would go to shit. Then I’d go into the next show having to undo the experience I’d just given him. The moment you go into a horse show thinking that that particular day is the priority, you’ve blown it for yourself and for your horse. The future is always the priority.

    And you know what I’ve found? Most of the time (not all, but most) when I succeed in having a steady, relaxed and happy horse, I get those points back in other places and my scores actually end up being better. Even without a perfectly steady connection or any kind of brilliance. That wouldn’t be true as we go up the levels necessarily, but at BN it usually is.

    I see so many people in the warm-up trying to yank and kick and cram their horses into a frame, drilling transition after transition. That’s just not how a happy, confident, willing horse is made. They’re focusing on trying to get that one extra point on some particular movement and not thinking big picture. Always think big picture. Riding for a score sacrifices all the proper work you’ve done to that point. Just be patient and keep doing it right, and ride him the best you can for HIM on that day… the rest will come, and you’ll be able to walk away feeling like you did the right thing for him. That’s better than any ribbon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really appreciate this comment for many reasons, but at least in part because it makes me think that in general I am at least doing something right. Despite wanting to get good scores I have always tried to put Murray’s relaxation first, and just push him as much as I need to to get him to relax. I know it doesn’t quite make sense, but if I let Murray go around with his head all up in the air he gets tense because he can see ERREYYTHING going on, whereas if I can get him a little more focused on the task at hand (which does require some pushing, at least in the beginning) then he is more relaxed overall.

      I hope that by riding the way I’ve been practicing at home (aka the only way I know how to ride) I will still be putting Murray first. You are right: there is a long road ahead of us and it is not worth sacrificing ANYTHING in the future by pushing too much in the present. Thanks for the reminder.


      1. That’s what I would do! You know your horse and you know what you’re doing, so as long as you can always answer the question of “Is this the right thing to do for this horse in this moment?” with an emphatic YES, you’re doing your job as best you can. The scores will come, and you’ll have a better horse in the end.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post and great comments. The first trainer I did dressage with had us do all the shortcuts, and I didn’t know any better (I came from saddleseat). Fake headset, fake connection, etc. It was all about the front of the horse. We got lots of ribbons at the local shows, so the strategy worked (which tells you about the judges’ quality…or lack thereof). When we went to a different trainer we had to unlearn everything. But that is when I started to enjoy dressage – because it was based on proper, sequential training, but with flexibility to address the specific needs of individual horses and riders. All that to say, listen to your trainer but listen to your gut more and listen to your horse the most. They tell us how they need to be ridden.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. great discussion! i’ve been thinking about this a lot too – esp as our dressage tests have been all over the map this season. but ultimately i’m going to echo the rest and say: ride the horse the way the horse needs ridden – and the way you want the horse to go. follow your plan and follow your training.

    my horse is also pretty unsteady in the connection – but that didn’t stop a judge from scoring us really well when she was fluid and through and relaxed and working from the hind end, despite any unsteadiness

    it also can really depend on what the judge wants to see. some judges are going to weight acceptance of the bridle more heavily than relaxation over the back, and vice versa. but since we will likely never know that ahead of time (unless we know all the judges in our area), i again think it’s best to just ride your horse the way you know how to get the best he can offer on that particular day

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think the best answer, which everyone has alluded to is, it depends on a lot of factors.

    I’ve been in a situation where chasing every single point has mattered. Getting my Gold medal was an example. I was on a timeline where if I didn’t get it when I did, I had zero more chances to get it. So I understand the desire to figure out what is the best technique to get the best scores.

    I don’t think you’re talking about cramming Murray into a frame just to make it pretty (correct me if I’m wrong haha but that seems very unlike you). I think it’s more between playing it safe and riding the way that Murray is most comfortable- round but maybe not as through as he is capable of- where he will stay steadier through the test OR you can go for as much throughness as possible but Murray may either come up against you or not be able to hold it the whole time so it will result in some moments being brilliant and some being extra tense, which can add up to unsteadiness.

    I think more often than not a judge will reward steadiness where the horse is round but not through (so accepting contact but not coming over the back), rather than a horse who fluctuates between being super round and through and then getting tense. Yes it depends on the judge, but unless you can guarantee at least half of the movements will be steady AND through, I think the horse who is steady but not through will beat you. To back myself up with numbers. A horse that is performing all movements decently well but is kind of faking it will probably get straight 6s for a 60%. The same horse that is steady and through half the movements for 7s when that happens but unsteady and tense through half the movements for 5s when that happens will also be a 60%. Hence my more-than-half rule for throughness vs steadiness.

    Also remember that in both cases, you’ll get negative remarks from the judge. Unless you’re scoring 70%+, you’ll get negative remarks, primarily because when the judge scores anything under a 7, they are required to put a comment. So you may be coming out like “damn that judge wrote ‘unsteady’ all over my test, I should have ridden less through” but on the other hand, you may be coming out like “damn that judge wrote ‘tense’ and ‘hollow’ all over my test, I should have ridden him more through” so there’s no winning ever in dressage.

    As for making a decision between the two techniques (go for steadiness without throughness or throughness without steadiness), I would say that it depends on the horse. For TC, I ride him the same in the court as at home, going for throughness over steadiness. This is because I don’t care what our score is and I don’t want him to think that there’s any difference about riding in a show vs riding at home. But we’re sticking with schooling shows and the scores don’t matter.

    However, I’m in an ideal situation with TC because he does not ever get tense/nervous/worried due to the work I am asking him to do (he melts down due to scary things or being alone). I could definitely see a situation where if he DID have meltdowns due to work, I would want to avoid a situation where he melted down in the show ring. Mostly because I would not want him to learn that he could do that in a show. I would probably want to make the show ring a fun happy place where he is never asked to do anything more than he is fully capable of. The last thing I want is a horse to learn that I don’t have as many tools in the show ring as I do at home.

    BUT all that being said, I think it really depends on what you (and your trainer) think is the best thing for you guys.

    Wow this is insanely long. Sorry for the novel!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love your novel comment. I read it three times. I’m also TOTALLY the kind of person to CRAM my horse into a fake frame… he is TOTALLY the kind of horse to LOVE that treatment too. 😉

      Numbers and logic here are super sound and much appreciated. And ultimately, I will ride Murray the way I ride at home because that’s the only way I know… I literally don’t know how to “ask” him to be round but not through; only how to ask him how to be round and through and not quite get what I want (cue laughter?). Possibly this is something worth working on for life, but I also agree that I shouldn’t have to ride differently at a show! Right? I believe in what I’m doing and my trainers support what I’m doing so I’ll just keep doing it. Also, I’m not behaviorally flexible enough to do any different!

      The thing is we could get lucky and perform a test that is 100% through and round AND accurate. This morning I did a practice test (Novice A so as to not get Mr. Pony all anticipating of Beginner Novice A) that was all of those things and my heart sung with joy. Or we could get fussy and not totally through but roundish. Or we could get the velociraptor. Not sure. So I’ll just ask as much as I think I can ask of him and go with what I get!


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