Paul Belasik – Why are fundamental problems persisting in elite dressage?

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After working with, and observing the work of so many up-and-coming elite riders, it is perplexing to see that there are still so many fundamental faults in the performances. At first I thought it was endemic to a particular national style that had proliferated through the exaggerated effect of certain teachers. Although this may not have been the case initially, I believe these problems are now universal among many elite dressage riders, regardless of country. I have chosen three areas of concern that, if addressed, could make a huge difference in the overall performance of dressage. Over the next couple of months, I will discuss 1. bend, 2. hollowness, and 3. the inattention to deviations in limb patterns.

If over-bending or counter bending the neck were put into a business model, it would be a very poor investment toward producing high quality dressage horses. What riders gain in the short term (perhaps some increase in mobility of the neck, or some increase in submission, or some increase in the reaction to the bit), is overcome by the negative results that come from blocking the proper action of the back, disturbing the horse’s ability to balance, and inhibiting good mechanics of the hind legs and hips, all of which are the sources of quality collection: one of the most important hallmarks of the best dressage. (article continues below)

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Let’s go back to the basics. If you ask a good dressage rider what it means to ride straight on a circle, he or she will probably fairly quickly get around to describing that the horse’s body bends to follow the arc of the circle. If you push him or her, the rider will probably tell you that the tracks of the hind feet will line up with the tracks of the front feet. The hind foot may track a little under or right on top or perhaps a little over the track left on the ground from the corresponding front leg; but they will be in line. If the footing was freshly groomed and the horse traveled a circle, one would be able to see two lines of hoof prints: the left hind in line with the left front and the right hind in line with the right front. If we connected these dots, we would see two circles like train tracks. Are the circles the same size? No, they are not. If a horse were traveling on a ten meter circle, and its feet were approximately 6 inches (15 cms) apart, the outside circle described on the ground would be approximately 3 to 6 feet or 1 to 2 meters longer than the inside circle.

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When the horse does not extend on the outside or bend inside, it is forced to lean like a bicycle, moving here on one track. The horse is beyond ‘ship straight’—it is actually bent to the outside. The result can be seen in the tracking and balance.

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When the horse is bent correctly to the inside, it is “dressage straight”; this bend allows the outside to extend correctly and the horse leaves two distinct sets of tracks.

more facts on straightness follow

The simple fact that the inside and outside describe two different circles is constantly dismissed by riders and trainers, even though it is crucial for the proper training and development of lateral balance. If a rider uses the outside rein to counter bend the neck or uses it strongly enough to have a braking or retropulsive effect, it will restrict the outside stretch, drive, and particularly engagement of the outside hind leg. The rider will have effectively pulled the bend out of the horse, with at least two very serious effects. One is that as the outside is restricted, the tracks will not line up. The haunches will slip to the outside as the spine line becomes too straight. The major effect here is that the rider has moved the power source off to the side. Like a rear engine car, the horse begins to spin out. The energy slips instead of effectively pushing forward. In terms of dressage, the rider is limiting his or her power to collect by misaligning the power train. The hind end is now out of position or worse, restricted, and cannot engage properly and instead becomes lighter. In the way a sports car fishtails, the horse transfers the weight onto the shoulders: the opposite of collection. There is always an inverse relationship between sideways movement and forward movement or engagement for collection. Poor attention here begins to plant the seeds for all kinds of deviations later on. A game horse will keep trying if the rider insists incorrectly, but it will find a way around the proper form and instead of building proper muscles, tendons, and ligaments, it will put more strain on an already demanding exercise.

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Bending to the outside forces the horse out of balance like a bicycle on the turn.

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The principle of inside bend is unshakable.

The second effect of limiting the outside stretch is that the forced straightness or counter bend will force the horse to lean over to counteract centrifugal force, the same way a rigid framed bicycle has to lean inwards to negotiate a circle. The horse’s center of gravity tips onto the shoulders and the hind legs push instead of engaging and learning to carry, or collect.

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A common problem — the horse is bending right whilst traveling left. When this occurs, rather than shortening the left rein, you may have to let out the right. This happens constantly in riding: riders shorten on the left to correct the bend (so they now have two short reins) instead of allowing the outside to stretch and lengthen around.

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The curve of the horse’s spine must match the curve of the circle.

On a motorcycle, 75% of the stopping power is in the front brake as the mass tips forward and the hind end lightens. When riders start feeling a more permanent increase in the weight of the reins, the object should not be to shake the horse off the bridle by rein manipulation; this is a red flag that the horse’s hind end needs to start carrying more load and possibly applying transitions is in order.

The upper level movements are not mysterious, they are the results of conformation and the fundamentals that trained them, good or bad. A good pirouette comes of out a system of riding and training that has facilitated the dexterity and strength of the outside hind leg and back. If you are skating on a big frozen pond and you want to turn towards the left, what skate will you drive with? This is the same way that the horse will negotiate a circle. It will be the same outside hind leg that will do the most work later in the pirouettes, as it helps to lift the mass and propel it sideways in progressive lifts, pushes, and jumps. If elite riders really understand bend and have the discipline to stop trying to solve everything with the hands, they would practice mastering bend with the seat and legs, both putting it in and taking it out when necessary. They would pay more attention to horse’s back and hind legs instead of just the head and neck. There are a million emotional and historical excuses for why this neck and rein obsession continues, but until riders are trained to become more conscious of the back and hind legs than they are of the bit and reins, this will not get better.

In my next installment, I will discuss hollowness, an epidemic in modern dressage – Paul Belasik

 

13 thoughts on “Paul Belasik – Why are fundamental problems persisting in elite dressage?

  1. This is logical and so important. Everyone should read, understand and carry it out. It is not so difficult to realise this is the TRUE way to do a circle. Shelagh Ball

  2. Thank you. Looking forward to more. Paul Belasik is a gem amount American Equestrians.

  3. Hooray, Hooray, Hooray !
    At last, a prominent person saying it how it is and always has been.
    I take my hat off to Paul Belasik and truly hope to see the next instalments. It will be great to share this with our pupils.
    Thank you.
    Mike Robertshaw.

  4. I feel great relief reading this article! This is what l was taught many years ago by a wonderful German instructor over many years but over recent years I’ve been told this has all changed! Thank you l truly believe excellence in dressage doesn’t change it just becomes richer!

  5. I just watched an I2 ride this morning. Stiff as a 2 x 4 and every time the horse had to complete a corner or circle, lost his back end. (F to A in a corner or other instances). Very disheartening to have heard that the same horse just “won” a large class a few weeks earlier at a larger show. I would have adjusted his score accordingly for lack of CORRECT bend, because the horse can not come through; additionally, you risk their long term health in terms of soundness to train them so INCORRECTLY. The judges need to get real and downscore these horses to encourage proper, slow and methodical schooling to produce true gaits and allow the horses gaits to IMPROVE over the years through the process of training and strength building – not the ability to do tricks.

  6. Great article Paul! We are JNBT Natural Horsemanship Academy in Poland teaching today multilevel program for over 9000 riders worldwide. The worst thing what about you perfectly describe above is not only dressage high sport level problem. This is only less than 5% world horsemanship society. The worst thing is that major of riders threat it as headline of proper riding or training. We faced that on our clinics let’s say every day. How many years rollkur was discused before it has become forbidden? Thanks you for your clear oustanding. It should be open worldwide disscusion. best regards Andrzej Makacewicz JNBT Horsemanship Academy

  7. thanks for this great article and the photos that accompany it; it shows exactly what you are describing in text. I also compliment you on your courageous implication of the current Dressage elite in competitive riding in abandoning some of the fundamental necessities that result is problems in the highest level performances. More courage and knowledgeable explanations of WHY they are wrong like this is what is so needed.
    As a humble rider trying to sort out what is really useful and what is not in the opinions and examples of the “experts” – it helps to know there really are demonstrable reasons for why the old ways are as superior now as they ever were. I sincerely hope more take your efforts to help to heart – even the elite riders.

  8. It has taken me a while to get used to the digital version of The Horse Magazine, mad book person that I am.
    The upside is articles like these, so many at our fingertips now
    . Thank you for your efforts Chris and Roz.

  9. The problem I see in Dressage competition today, are Judges rewarding improper form with high, winning scores. First Level horses have to be over bent to win. Many years ago I quit competing under smal and large R Judges.
    I compete under International Judges and have done very well. I refuse to force an incorrect bend onto a horse for end of the year awards.
    I have trained a number of horses to Grand Prix and they get there when they are ready to carry themselves there, no side reins, draw reins , roll kuer or any magic techniques. Much of my riding is not in a ring, so the horse learns to use his body normally to stay balanced.
    Thank you for a good article!

  10. Brilliant article!! So very important if we’re ever able to save classical horsemanship!!

  11. Excellent article
    Tells it as it should be
    Hope it’s not to late or riders
    Thank you

  12. Pingback: Пол Беласик. Фундаментальные проблемы классической выездки | Happy Horse Training

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