If you could see a videotape of the Olympic horses of the ’20s, ’30s or ’40s, the dressage tests and the jumping tests (except for the height) would appear laughably simple compared to any international competition today. And most of the horses would appear to be only modestly athletic compared to today’s stars.
The reason is that era’s Olympic dressage, show jumping and event horses weren’t bred for that purpose. Some had been bred to race, but most had been bred for the military since international competition was limited to military officers. They were horses who’d been bred for endurance and for a temperament that allowed them to gallop or perform maneuvers among hundreds of horses and to wait patiently wherever they were. They were rarely great movers, although many were superb jumpers.
The purpose of dressage competition then was to test the training of cavalry mounts. Gaits and movement weren’t considered. Now gaits and movement are as important as the training for regular dressage and eventing dressage, and scores suffer if the horse doesn’t float extravagantly across the ground, as most high-level competitors do today — because they’ve been bred to do it for several generations.
What breeders in Europe and the United States have produced is a lot of high-octane horses, horses who can do incredible things physically and are mentally eager to do them, whether you want them to or not. I’m not at all suggesting we’ve bred a bunch of lunatics, but many are rather like driving a NASCAR car or Freestyle Motocross bike.
Unfortunately, precious few people can ride or train these horses. Often their riders are afraid of them, or the horses’ power and quickness make it nearly impossible for them to just stay aboard. Their coping mechanism is to resort to ”training” these horses using a form of learned helplessness (see p. 12).
But there’s an even wider effect, beyond its impact on those particular horses. Breeders produce the horses that riders want, and riders choose the types of horses they think will win, in any discipline. And, increasingly, trainers who can’t develop those horses classically correctly resort to other means. Nevertheless, some dressage judges have responded by enthusiastically rewarding these athletes’ extravagant gaits, overlooking clear training issues. Thus, ”expressive” movement is often trumping correct movement, especially at the extended trot and piaffe. And extravagant movement is too often overwhelming harmony and softness, leading us in a circle back to this question: What’s the point of dressage — or any kind of training’
Does training mean developing harmony and cooperation between two thinking animals’ Or does training mean creating an unthinking obedience of one to another in order to perform’ Is the point to develop a partnership between us and our horses, or is it to make the horse our slave’ If your goal is to have a slave, then your training program involves learned helplessness. And if that’s the case, you shouldn’t be training horses.