Behind The Vertical

Shear L'eau and Leslie Law

I’m wondering about the trend I’m beginning to see: more and more upper level horses being ridden behind the vertical. I’m not talking about Rollkur. More like 1/2″ to 3″ behind the vertical.

Through sheer dumb luck I’ve been privileged to be around some of the best dressage trainers in the world, one of them the late Melle van Bruggen.   Melle was extremely gracious in allowing me to audit his sessions.  Over the course of three or four years, I watched approximately 240 hours of his instruction.  I could never thank him enough for this gift.  I saw FEI riders and Olympic medalists train with him.  I began to understand horses can move with freedom and true relaxation while being ridden.  I began to understand Dressage.

Recently I visited a friend at a her barn, with a respected dressage trainer in residence.  I was excited to meet her.  She is a lovely woman, clearly careful and considerate of her horse and her students.  She offered to show us her Grand Prix horse under saddle.  We jumped at the chance to watch.  She warmed him up in side reins on a longe line – at least three inches behind the vertical.  I know some trainers do this at the walk, and then the horse warms up, and is in correct position for trot/canter work – no fussing with side rein lengths.  I’d prefer to fuss, but I also don’t have 6 horses to ride a day.

Her horse was on the bit, but behind the vertical the entire time.  His poll was locking on and off, as were his withers, and he was struggling intermittently to lift his back and tuck his rear beneath him.  Certainly he knew what his job was.  He kept trying to do it.

Let me be clear here.  I can’t ride at this level.  It’s WAY over my head.  So it feels disingenuous to make any sort of criticism on something I can’t even remotely do myself.

But if lowly little bad dressage rider me can see this, and understand it interferes with the movement of the horse,  why are so many really GOOD riders doing this?  Do we know?  I’ve taken solace in Dr. Thomas Ritter’s recent series of articles “On the Bit” that he’s generously posted on his blog, Artistic Dressage.  (This link is to the last article in his series.  Click on previous dates to read prior articles on the same subject.)

He meticulously points out how differences in a horse’s confirmation make it necessary for him to carry himself in a different, but still just as correct,  outline as a horse with a more classically suited confirmation.  They look completely different, yet neither horse is off the bit or behind the vertical.

I highly recommend Dr. Ritter’s detailed and thoughtful series.

I’m serious with my question, does anyone know why this is becoming more common in the dressage ring?  Am I missing something?

5 thoughts on “Behind The Vertical

  1. If the horse is “fore the vertical” as Melle would say, the horse is free to express itself and the flaws can be seen. behind the vertical at the walk kills the walk. And Melle would point out a pure walk was a sign of correct traing and an incorect walk bad training. We rarely worked his horsres on the bitt at the walk. And warmed them up at least 15 minutes on free rein.

  2. It takes a considerably longer time to train a horse correctly. Side reins and other shortcuts do not teach the horse to carry himself in a way that will result in proper elevation or positive tension of the upper suspension system. For more information on this topic I recommend Dr. Gerd Heuschmann’s book “The Tug of War” or his DVD “If horses could speak”.
    In my view, the most important factor in the decline of proper riding practice is the time it takes to get to ‘success’, which is – nowadays – measured in ribbons and cups. All this nonsense is then supported by judges who reward a performance that looks more like a circus act than proper dressage. Dressage has mutated from it’s original purpose of being the training that creates a horse, which has learned how to carry himself efficiently under the rider and be obedient to the aids – a true (military) performance horse – to a circus act. Sadly, this is a general trend and hope it’s just a brief phase in history.

    1. Thank you for your recommendations! I’ve seen clips from “If horses could speak” and it’s a powerful piece straight from the heart.

      It saddens and angers me to see horses ridden in so they become *unable*, physically, to relax, and then have to deal with the displeasure of the rider when they do not “perform”.

      At the few local shows I’ve gone to, behind the vertical is considered a flaw, and mentioned in the judges notes. At levels training through 3rd. Strangely (and this may be local to my area?) once into 3rd level, this appears to becomes overlooked?

      I learned a lot from Dr. Ritter’s article: his showing of different body types and how being completely on the bit may even be slightly in front of the vertical is completely correct for certain conformations, was an eye opener.

      I can see the headaches this would cause for judges in the show ring, who would have to defend placing a horse ahead of the vertical above a horse who was completely on the vertical.

      Still…better to defend, educate and deal with the political fallout, IMO. Thanks for coming by!

  3. Could it be due to judging? I haven’t really been involved in the dressage circuit here, but judging standards can seriously affect things like this…remember when high scores for plump horses caused a lot of problems with overfed horses. After that there was a strong movement to educate horse people in the difference between an overweight horse and a well muscled healthy horse.

    1. I think it must be, or the upper level riders would not be winning while riding in this position. I wonder why judges feel pressure to score positively when the horse is ridden in this way? Any judges out there want to respond? (I would respect your anonymity if you chose to do so.)

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