Sometimes They Do Sparkle

lipizzaner_brdo_20080610 (2)_200I 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.




Sometimes They Do Sparkle — 33 Comments

  1. And then there was the mule(video.

    Most European riders/breeders have long rolled their eyes at riding elephants, for all of the known reasons; and apart from the very select salesmen who made Big Money selling them to the States, I think the rest of the world will breathe a sigh of relief.

  2. Diversity ….

    The music for the Cob was also a nice change, but that was free style, so there you go.

    He sure was foaming though. Stress or the warm outdoors?

    Love, C,

        • You don’t get to that level by having a horse just soldiering through. That horse looked extremely happy and relaxed.

            • Jessica rides beautifully! I will have to disagree with her being all over him.

              I always learned that foaming is something you try to achieve in dressage as it shows your horse is relaxed and in the correct position.


              • There are two kinds of foam – one is the masses of white which is visible from afar, which often is the bad kind – it shows a horse that is nervous and too busy in its mouth. (You can encourage a horse that is nervous and all locked up to chew a little with some sugar – but please, no beetroot! – beforehand, but it should not be chomping madly.) Some bits encourage nervous chewing – copper insets, keys – but they don’t make the horse more relaxed.
                On the other hand, you have the chewing that comes from relaxation – this often shows as a ‘lipstick’ foam – a small amount which might not be visible from a distance. Amounts will differ, but the horse tends to be mostly quiet in the mouth with the occasional mouthing, and you get a little bit of foam even in a horse that isn’t wearing a bit.

                When you ride bitless or lunge in a headcollar and you *still* get foam, you know you’re doing it right.

  3. My childhood horse was a part-Mustang quarter horse, making her smaller than average, so I always root for the smaller horse, too (though I know nothing about dressage). Lovely to see competition based on skill and training, rather than on conforming to someone’s outdated idea of what a horse should look like. And three cheers for the mule and its rider!

    • It’s all very cool, isn’t it? I love the variety of horses and the number of truly pleasant-to-watch rides that have come through on the video feed.

  4. I was looking at Welsh cobs when I was horse shopping (and likely Lipizzans were not very plentiful). There are some bred on the east coast that are breathtaking in their movement and cute as all get out, and the one I rode while ponytrekking in Wales several years ago would have given many a warmblood a run for the money. But then came along India, and well, Lipizzans won out. Those Welshies are a close second.

    It’s great to see the little guys winning big!

    • There are some lovely Welsh Cobs bred in Indiana, and other parts of the country too. Cardi’s grandmother retired here. We’ve bred National Dressage Pony Cup Champions, CDE Champions, In-Hand Champions and now an Eventing Champion. We are expecting five purebred Welsh Cob foals next year. They are a fun and amazing breed. One doesn’t have to go all the way to the East (or West) Coast to find quality Welsh Cobs. =)

  5. I loved the video of the mule — those ears!

    And it goes without saying that a horse bred over centuries to do these movements will excel. But you can’t mass-produce them!

  6. Much of the problem comes from the high-level judges, who only see huge warmbloods, soon begin thinking that no other breed has business even trying to be at that level. Hence, the requirement to know how to judge one breed, and one kind of rider of that breed.

    An Arab doing perfect dressage for its breed type looks different from a Lipp doing the same move looks different from the “standard” German warmblood. To be fair to both breed and rider, a judge should know what constitutes “good” dressage for each. Nothing throws cold water on a rider faster than a test scored by a judge who’s such an expert on European warmbloods who implies your QH-mix isn’t a very good Hanoverian. Duuuuuuhhh.

    At one local dressage show, I was assigned to take one of the I-rated judges to lunch. She wanted to see what was going on at the Arabian show, which was held at the indoor arena while the dressage show was held on the infield of the dirt-car oval, come hell, rain, mud, high winds, and snow. She admitted she never even glanced at Arabs before this, and was amazed at the “pixie horses” (foal-in-hand) that were being shown in the ring while we were chowing down on hotdogs and pop. The jet-setters (there were a few, or at least attempting the image in order to influence sales) would have catered champagne, caviar, and horse-derves at their suites, while 98% of the rest of the participants were just average farmers and suburbanites showing on a shoestring.

    So judges should learn about other breeds doing dressage. Many of them are all-around horses who do trail rides, 4H events, etc. as “family horses” for typical families that have to make a living first, and try to eke out a show season, second. Some of them are “lawn ornaments” who are happy doing whatever they’re asked, and can really “click” when teamed with the right rider and trainer.

    • It does look as if the USDF judges are breed-smart. They don’t always pin Warmbloods over anything else. As witness Cardi’s win. He’s a barnburner of a horse, but he’s half an inch under 15 hands and he’s built like a Cob, just as he should be. Short and sturdy.

      Arabs are doing better and better, too.

      Some of it is size fatigue. Trainers getting older, having more trouble keeping up with the huge horses, especially the young and obstreperous ones. And amateur owners needing something smaller, calmer, and more easily handled and trained.

      That’s how the two Lipps in the Finals got there. Breeder and trainer of Warmbloods helped rescue a Lipizzan stallion. Fell in love with him and the breed, started collecting mares and more stallions, and is now a power in the Lipizzan breed while continuing to produce winning dressage horses of all breeds and types. The other horse she brought to the Finals was a Swede.

      I like that. It’s good to see so much variety, and so much more correct riding and training, too. Good news for the horses, above all.

  7. The movement, build, & gaits, looks to be that of a Hinny not a Mule… Hinny’s have more of the horse characteristics than the mule does. Is everyone sure this was a Mule…? Looks like a Hinny to me.

  8. Ah, thanks, Judy. This post and all the links warmed my little horse-crazy heart. The cob is simply gorgeous.

    I had an Arab mare once who was extremely intuitive and sensitive to the rider’s slightest movement. After I learned how to sit still on her back, I loved riding her. 🙂

  9. Judith – so great to see you write about something else I’m interested in.. I love your book Alamut.. I am studying classical french riding (Ecole de Legerete) to apply to eventing.. I will be down in Scottsdale in Feb for the Scottsdale Arab Show with my ART – I would love to meet you if you come to the show!!

    • Scottsdale is a bit of a hike from here, and I’ve lost my farmsitter, which complicates the getting-away situation. But I’ll see what I can do. I’m glad you enjoyed the post (and the book!). 🙂

  10. Finally judges are starting to see tension in the horse-rider partnership. Hopefully they will also see and mark transitions, which are the signs of good training, correctly. Since Carol Lavell at Devon years ago, I haven’t seen a good canter-halt transition where the front legs were put down quietly from a very proper collected canter. Let’s pray for a rebirth of fine training.

    • Amen to that!

      I was interested to see how many of the rides were a pleasure to watch. There were imperfections, of course, but in quite a number of cases, horses looked happy and focused, and riders looked quieter and more in connection, by far, than the last time I paid attention to a dressage show.