I haven’t paid much attention to the dressage show world in recent years. The desire to show was never really there, and much of what I did see was painful. The controversy over Rollkur went back and forth continually, with the poor horses trapped in the middle.
Then there was the fact that the horses that were considered competitive were European Warmbloods: large, often huge, powerful, long-strided horses that tended to cost the earth. I tried, but they weren’t for me. I’m a short person and I like my horses short.
Then this past week, my breed registry’s page on facebook started following the US Dressage Nationals. Two of our stallions were competing (with success), and while Lipizzans have been referred to as the original dressage horse, they’ve been out of fashion for quite some time.
In fact they both won their qualifiers. The big Roman-nosed guy at Grand Prix, the top of the game, and the lovely little cupcake stallion at First Level, which is one of the first rungs on the ladder. We were sharing and oohing over the latter’s video. Such softness; such an attentive horse and such a quiet rider.
Amd then, because I’d had it on my radar, I happened to get the news that the winner at the top level, the Open Grand Prix, was not only not a Warmblood, he was not huge. In fact he was a Welsh Cob: essentially a large pony. And he was competing in a snaffle bit. At Grand Prix.
There is so much amazing in this. Last I looked, the domination of the Big Brown Horse was nearly complete, and the riding was forceful and the horses showed it. To see so many different horses competing in our country’s national finals, which require much work and many qualifying classes to even get into, is quite a change. A good change.
I had heard that the big horses were not quite so big any more, but also that especially for the amateur owner, a wide variety of breeds and types had begun to compete successfully. Even the formerly maligned Arabian (“flighty, crazy, runs along upside down with his head and tail in the air”–which from personal experience I can testify is quite unfair and generally untrue) is collecting his share of the prizes.
I love this. It doesn’t take a 17-hand German import with a thirty-foot stride and a six-figure price tag to show the world what a good dressage show horse can be. Any horse with three good gaits and a good, calm mind, ridden by a skillful rider and trained by correct principles, should be able to do well.
But this weekend’s results are just a joy. This sturdy little guy with the big charisma took home the championship. He’s a credit to his breed and a testimonial to the skill of his rider and trainer. And he did it in a snaffle.
The usual rig for the highest levels is a full or double bridle. The horse wears two bits: a snaffle or bradoon, and a shanked curb. The idea is that when the horse has reached the upper levels of dressage, he’ll have developed extremely sophisticated responses to the rider’s signals. With two bits and four reins, a great deal of fine-tuning is possible through the rider’s hands to the horse’s mouth.
In theory, the rider does most of the riding with the gentler snaffle, applying the leverage of the curb when the horse needs a stronger or more assertive signal. In practice, this can mean that the thin snaffle is sawing at the corners of the horse’s mouth while the shanks of the curb pull his chin to his chest. This is a serious set of equipment, and it’s not recommended for young horses or horses in the early stages of training.
The double is something the horse graduates to in the upper middle levels, as he learns to execute more advanced, i.e. difficult movements. It’s a given at the top levels, just as much a part of the standard rig as the top hat and tails are for the rider.
Every so often you hear, generally in whispers tinged with awe, of a horse who competes at the upper levels in a simple snaffle. It’s extremely rare. It’s a bit of a bravura accomplishment: it means that the horse’s balance and obedience and sensitivity are so remarkable that he doesn’t need the stronger reminders; and it means that the rider is able to guide the horse through all the movements without extra leverage. The degree of difficulty is quite (quite) high.
It’s a big deal. It’s also a big departure from the patterns of the past few decades. It opens the door for more types and sizes of horses, and for riders who may not have the resources to import big-ticket horses from Europe.
It points the way toward a less forceful and more tactful mode of riding and training, and that’s a very good thing for the horses. More than that, it indicates that the judges are looking at the written standards for the movements, which are general for all types and breeds of horses, and no longer rewarding a big trot above all. They’re looking at the finer points, judging the horse on his own merits, and emphasizing correct performance. Rhythm, Relaxation, Obedience (or Submission).
I don’t know what the European dressage industry will think. There’s big, big money in those big horses. Competitors will probably still struggle to win internationally with anything else.
Still. A Welsh Cob won the Nationals this weekend. In a snaffle. Let us give thanks and squee–and look forward to a more varied future for all breeds in US competition.
Oh, and the Lipizzans? Tenth at Grand Prix, fourth at First Level. That’s a proud showing for the short white guys and their riders.
Kind of amusing, too, that when the US Equestrian Federation website was posting stills from the classes, whoever wrote the captions mostly followed the formula “Rider Name, Horse Name.” But with the Lipizzans, it was “Rider Name, Horse Name, A Lipizzan Stallion.” There’s still that little shiver of legend with the dancing white horses.