The Art of Natural Dressage

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 01, 2007 1:34 pm 
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I thought that it would be nice to write down here a part of the AND clinic. It's about the history of classical dressage, and why it proves that dressage can be done without bridle too.

The history of dressage
Dressage is about as old as the relationship between humans and horses: as soon as the humans began to ride horses, they wanted the horses to become stronger and more impressive and beautiful - most of all to show off to other people, but still. 8) Xenophon already writes centuries BC on how to make the horse appear more wild and impressive so that your onlookers would be in awe of your capabilities of controlling such a wild creature. His method to reach that though consisted of pushing with your legs while pulling hard on the bridle so that the horse feels claustrophobic, and then release both pressures so that the horse is so releaved to be able to move again that he moves as free and elegant as a dancer. The funny thing is that in most citations of Xenophon only the part that's quote is the part in which he tells about the horse moving as elegant as a dancer once you let go of the reins - people forget the lines before those in which he advices you to first push and pull in order to get the horse agitated. It was a search for collection, but without a real system of training behind it that focused on this high collection.

It's from the fourteenth century onwards that people spend more time at thinking over the system behind horsetraining and achieving collection. From then on also the highly stylized collected exercises are developed, up to the airs above the ground, or the High School/Haute Ecole jumps as they are called. A lot of riders, like Frederico Grisone, use the most awful methods to get a horse to do these exercises, like using straps with nails in them to wound the horse so that he moves very fierce, or beating him with sticks and sharp poles to make his actions bigger or repress unwillingness. The bits used were shank-bits with not only long shanks, but also complex mouth pieces with curbs, spikes and bulging rollers lying on the tongue of the horse. Over the years though, methods became softer and trainers like Gueriniere and Pluvinel realised that you could reach more with rewards than force too. Horsemen started to think about how the horse learns, and which tools to use in order to teach the horse collection.

The bit and bridle as tool
The interesting thing about this period, is that the bit is seen as a tool, a means to an end, not a prerequisite of maintaining collection. If you look at old pictures of dressage riders, you see that they still use hughe bits, but with the reins hanging through:

Image
Antoine Pluvinel

Image
Francois de la Gueriniere

The interesting thing is that this is the start of modern dressage, and that the bit was seen as a means to an end. When you started training a horse, you used a bitless cavesson or halter, and then when you progressed and wanted finer means of communication and a higher collection, you needed more precise tools that you could use with small gestions that wouldn't effect your own balance as rider - and which would still effect the horses as much. Thats where the shank-bit came in. But this bit wasn't meant to steer the horse around with. The reins were used as a tool to communicate, but the bit itself was left alone as much as possible. It was there to serve as a kind of border for the horse: go to deep or too high or too much forward with your head, and you will bump into it. Apart from that the horse was directed through neck-reining - with the bit as a consequence if the horse ignored the cues with the reins on the neck.

Image
Gustav Steinbrecht

Some classical/baroque dressage trainers in the 20th en 21th century still use the bit like this: it's there not to be used, but it's there as a reminder of the horse, an active correction that sets in as soon as the horse does something wrong, with a very good timing because even though the reins are hanging through, there still is only that much room for error. The horse is given the chance to avoid contact with the bit: as opposed to modern dressage riders since Steinbrecht at the end of the 19th century, who teach the horse to 'lean' into the bit by focussing more on the forwards quality of movement. Instead of first teaching collection on a loose rein and then going more forwards like in the past, these riders now take forwards riding with a stronger contact towards more collected movement. But the horse is always 'on the bit'. Not real leaning into it with their whole body, but always taking up contact, always following the bit when the reins give more room into that steady contact between the hands of the rider and the mouth of the horse. The horse learns to accept this constant contact/pressure as normal, and more pressure as a correction.

Image
Francois Baucher

Francois Baucher kind of went back to the baroque dressage: not only did he introduce a lot of flexions in halt as a preliminary stage to riding forwards, but he also went back to the horse staying off the bit, avoiding coming in contact with it as much as possible. This got him a lot of critique from the 'ride your horse forwards' camp, but also a few famous followers, like Nuno Oliveira, who was a advocate of holding nothing but the weight of the reins in his hands.

Image
Nuno Oliveira

The interesting thing is that all these 'hanging rein' riders saw the bit as a teaching tool for the horse, not as a tool to maintain collection. As long as the horse was collected, the bit wasn't there are the reins were hanging through. As soon as the horse left the frame of collection that the rider had chosen for him, he would get a corrections from the bit that he bumped into. And real classical/baroque trainers still follow this line of thought in that they regularly check the state of collection by dropping the reins to check if the horse hasn't become too dependant on the bit - the horse shouldn't follow the reins down like many riders nowadays want, but he should maintain the same collected frame in the same exercise:

Image
Bent Branderup

Some classical dressage riders, like Alfons Dietz shows in his book, even every now and then ride without any bridle on the head at all in order to check the same principle.


Cognitive psychology through the centuries: how do horses learn?
This all shows that the bit was never seen as an important part of the collection itself: it has been a tool to teach the horse the difference between the right and the wrong posture, and a mean of correction the horse for the wrong behavior. This type of teaching with the bit as corrector is based on the way people thought about learning in the past centuries: you correct the wrong, and reward the right by not correcting it but instead of accepting it as normal. That was what people knew about learning at that time: that was how dogs, children and pets were raised and taught alike. If your kid finally knows how to add up 2+2 well, don't reward him too much, or he'd be spoiled and will think that he has done something amazing. He shouldn't have been doing it wrong in the first place!

Since the 1950s a lot of research has been done on how horses, people and animals in general learn, and what the best way of learning is. Researchers like Skinner discovered that the most important thing about teaching an animal, is the timing of your response to the behavior: Your response should come within three seconds of the wrong/right behavior. That is why the bit with hanging reins has been so succesfull in training: as soon as the horse collected and raised his neck, the pressure was off. As soon as he leaned forwards, the pressure was on. All the time the rider doesn't have to do anything more than just keeping his hand in place all the time. He doesn't have to consciously respond to the actions of the horse: as long as his hand is still, the horse will correct and reward himself through the reins.

Another thing biologists discovered however, is that corrections also have a big negative impact on the self-esteem and that there are a lot of negative side-effects for the learner.

When you look really close at the history of dressage, the question isn't really if collection can be trained without bridle or not, but if there are other learning tools available to teach horses with. The answer to that is really quite simple: since the 1950's the answer is 'yes'. Every biologist knows that when you couple rewards to a reward-signal that gives a good timing to the horse, you can teach him anything that you can teach with corrections too - even more and more easy because now the horse is willing to work along with you. In baroque dressage the bit wasn't meant to steer the horse with: they had the reins in one hand and used neck-reining for that. The bit also wasn't used for holding the head and neck up in a collected frame: if the horse had the right neck-set, the reins were actually hanging through and were in no contact with the bit at all. The bit was simply used as a teaching-tool to guide the horse towards collection by telling him what's wrong - the real collection came from the exercises the horses were strengthened with, like shoulder-in, piaffe and passage. And now, centuries later, we know that there are a lot more and a lot better tools for teaching horses. If ancient and modern dressage riders had the goal to ride the horse collected with the reins hanging through, using exercises to teach the horse how to collect, and using the bridle only to correct the horse when he was wrong - then there is no reason at all why the other way round shouldn't work either: not to use a bridle to correct the horse, using exercises to teach him how to collect and using rewards to reward the horse when he gets the collection right.

The question of training collection without bridle
If you look at the history of dressage, the question isn't if training collection without bridle can be done. The question is if you as trainer stick to the old ideas on how learn horses and other animals (and children!) learn, or if you follow the new insights of cognitive psychology on how you can make sure that your horses (and children) learn in a better, more productive and safe way. :)


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PostPosted: Sat Dec 01, 2007 5:03 pm 
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Cool posting!!!! Thank you!!


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PostPosted: Mon Dec 17, 2007 1:02 pm 
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Miriam, I've found your "lecture" very interesting!

Some time after reading it, one discussion on another forum made me think about it ones again. About your distinction between two ways - modern ("leaning on the bit") and classical ("avoiding the bit") dressage.

I wander who came up with the idea of completing the circle of energy by closing it with aids (here: reins)? I guess it was someone from the "leaning" school - because "avoiding" school seems to be more: please, my horse, do it yourself (when I ask) ;-) But I'm not really sure...

And the second thing is - when I start thinking about throughness it somehow makes me think about the circle of energy/aids too. I believe it's deeply related. Because througness means that energy can flow freely and riders aids don't "stuck" anywhere in the horse's body. And this enables completing the circle of energy. But this is rather traditional thinking...

So I started thinking how the idea of throughness could be "translated" into AND way. If one believes that the circle of energy is something that the horse does himself, by himself. Maybe throughness could be the "yes" attitude to humans suggestions, combined with mobilization and relaxation in the right proportions? Or balance, straightness, energy and relaxation interplaying in harmony?

Or maybe it's just an useless term? ;-)
(Well, I don't really believe so...)

I'm really curious what's your thinking about it all :-)
And - thanks again for your nourishing food for thoughts!


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PostPosted: Mon Dec 17, 2007 6:52 pm 

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Wow Miriam! Once again you impress me with all your knowledge and the way you are able to write this down :shock:

This historylesson is definitely another piece of my puzzle, in which I am trying very hard to make the sensible short and longterm choices for my horses.

Thanx a bunch, and I will really think it over and try to figure all the existing questions I have out with this info.......

Great!


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PostPosted: Tue Dec 18, 2007 1:49 pm 
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Klara wrote:
So I started thinking how the idea of throughness could be "translated" into AND way. If one believes that the circle of energy is something that the horse does himself, by himself. Maybe throughness could be the "yes" attitude to humans suggestions, combined with mobilization and relaxation in the right proportions? Or balance, straightness, energy and relaxation interplaying in harmony?


I still believe in a circle too, and I guess that it is like your circle: it's a circle of energy in the horse, more precisely a circle of muscles. When the horse is moving unbalanced, on half (lift, right, upper, lower) is more tense/strong than the other - because that's what causes the crookedness in the first place.

For me the circle of thoroughness is that the horse creates - and finds a balance between - two rings of muscles: the ring of muscles in the vertical plain (over the back, neck, head and the lower part of the neck, chest, belly, legs and up to the tail and back again) and the horizontal plain (the muscles on the left/right side of his body/rump). The true art of dressage is creating thorougness in both circles: meaning that the horse doesn't tense one part of the body more than the other, that all the muscles can relax and tense as much as the trainer asks so that the horse can follow all his cues.


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 1:36 pm 

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I am thinking and thinking.......

Since a few months I have been doing some lessons in longreining with my mare Donanta. For the people who know him, my teacher is Piet Bakker. He made a dvd with NH trainer Ellen Offstad.

I learned this principle:

I walk with her and she is wearing a halter or cavesson. The reigns are really loose, really hanging through. When I ask her to trot and she wants to go to fast I have to let her walk in/against the reigns and quickly let them hang loose again when she responds. In 5 minutes time we had a soft selfcarried trot which was good for me to walk beside :lol: She was not highly collected, but much more carrying and swinging. Her tail came loose.
Piet says that by letting the reigns hang in a bow she experienced great freedom and was therefore willing to offer me that nice trot and later also a nice shoulder-out! I felt the same way. Donanta loved it!

For example with shoulder-out, I had to ask with my outside reign and as soon as she 'gave' her head I had to give all the reigns back to her. Repeat this until she understood that she was to keep in that position for a short while and that I would give her the new sign to end the shoulder-out. Ofcourse she would get a reward for it!
We mostly had superloose reigns. I think it was really appreciated by her. And it felt very good to me also!

Now I was wondering if this 'method' could be used also while riding? It sounds very similar with the text from above about the loose reigns. But in the text I can not find anything about the period of riding before the collection is established. So how did they train the shoulder-in? Also with loose reigns? Does anyone know?

(Ofcourse I read the part of the text about "Cognitive psychology through the centuries: how do horses learn?" I do apply positive reinforcement mostly)


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 2:02 pm 
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Hi Marleen,

it´s not that "letting the horse run into the reins" doesn´t work. Positive punishment (adding a negative consequece to an unwanted behaviour) is highly effective in making the behaviour disappear. This is the reason why it has been used in horse training for centuries. So yes, it is very likely that Donanta does what she is supposed to do after some trials.

But there is a problem with punishment (please don´t understand me wrong here: punishment really only means adding negative or subtracting positive stimuli, and NOT automatically that you are cruel to your horse! ;) ). This is that 1. it can negatively affect the relationship, 2. it might stop any (creative) behaviour and 3. that the behaviour is only switched off as long as the unpleasant consequences are still present. When Donanta realizes that there are no reins anymore, ALTHOUGH she trots faster than you want her to, it´s very likely that she will restart doing this more often. This is just because the absence of punishment for a behaviour which was punished before, becomes intermittent reinforcement. Positive consequences (no pulling anymore) to an unwanted behaviour. You avoid this by punishing again and again (pulling each time she re-tries to run faster). The result is that you will always be dependent on the reins.

The advantages of positive reinforcement are the counterpart of the disadvantages of punishment: 1. the relationship is affected in a very positive way, 2. the horse is encouraged to offer a variety of different behaviours, she will become more active and creative. Concerning the 3rd point, you can fade out the reward step by step, that means that you start to reward more seldom when the wanted behaviour is establishes - this will increase its resistancy to extinction.

To sum it up: yes, punishment works. You reach certain goals. It´s only the question if these are really the goals that you want to reach and if you might not rather reach any goals that are more what you want by showing the horse that working with you is fun instead of showing her that it´s bad not to cooperate.

Warm Regards,
Romy


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 2:28 pm 

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Thanks Romy!
For some reason I had trouble reading your message... it is very complicated with all those terms.

I am confused however.
I see riding pictures here all the time. Often bitless riding with contactreigns. I can not see why riding or longreining with mostly loose reigns is not ok in that matter. Maybe it is because of the frase: "I have to let her walk in/against the reigns" seems like a punishment, but it is meant to be an aid, or a question so to speak. I do not insist of getting the 'right' answer. Constant reigncontact can also be seen as constant pressure, or am I wrong about all of this you think?

However :lol: ......
my question is mainly about differences between riding and longreining with contact reigns and with loose reigns. Can you also tell me something about that?


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 2:30 pm 

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Could you please explain this passage to me again :D

"3. that the behaviour is only switched off as long as the unpleasant consequences are still present. When Donanta realizes that there are no reins anymore, ALTHOUGH she trots faster than you want her to, it´s very likely that she will restart doing this more often. This is just because the absence of punishment for a behaviour which was punished before, becomes intermittent reinforcement. Positive consequences (no pulling anymore) to an unwanted behaviour. You avoid this by punishing again and again (pulling each time she re-tries to run faster). The result is that you will always be dependent on the reins. "


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 2:42 pm 
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I think that letting the reins go as soon as the horse slows down a bit is considered negative reinforcment...so positive punishment in letting her run into the reins (adding pressure) but almost immediately letting the reins go is then negative reinforcment which is used to maintain or build a deisred behavior?

I think, over all, that depending on how hard the horse "runs into the reins" (which could be as soft as taking up contact), that this is a preferrable method to having a bit in the horse's mouth and having a too firm hand.

When I long rein Tamarack in the cordeo, in essence, I'm doing the exact same thing as Marleen, and I do not consider it sub-standard at all as Tam, who is a very sensitive boy, does not feel the least bit stressed by any "punishment" he receives in the form of pressure from the cordeo.

For instance, I cue to go right with a light contact on the right rein...if Tam goes left...he will come into more contact...if he goes right, he come into less contact. In this instance, the technical terms are, if he goes left; positive punishment, and if he goes right; negative reinforcment. One is called "punishment" and the other "negative", and both sound horrid, but in fact, they are both very soft. He does get clicked and rewarded for going right at my "go right signal" which is a light pressure, so the exercise ends with positive reinforcement.

One thing, I am using extremely light lines (In fact they are thin dog tracking lines) as my long lines, so I don't have to worry about the weight of the lines adding pressure when I don't want them to.

So any time we can learn to "slack the rein" in response to a correct guess with the horse, as long as the opposite (horse runs into the rein) is not stressful for the horse, then it does not (in my very humble opinion) harm the relationship with the horse.

So Marleen, if your horse did not fret when guessing wrong (trotting too fast), and obviously enjoyed your response when she guessed correctly (slowed the trot down), then it must have worked ok for her!


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 2:42 pm 
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So sorry for writing too complicated. :oops: Haha, that could be my plan for next year: learning to express myself in an understandable way!

About the punishment thing: I know that the word leads to confusion and I really should have been more clear: adding negative consequences does not necessarily mean hurting the horse etc. But as you see that she is trying to avoid the rein pressure, it is obvious that the rein is not a joy for her. So maybe the same thing (slowing down, bending) could be achieved without a rein, by rewarding her for doing it when you ask?

I neither think that you are wrong nor that reins are bad or not okay. But sorry, I am the wrong person for rein questions... I do everything I do without reins. So I can´t fall into the trapdoor of using unwanted pressure. For me it is very much more easy to do things without anything at my horse´s head, because then I know for sure that he doesn´t slow down, bend or whatever because he has to, but because what I asked him is really a question and he said "yes" willingly...

Still, I don´t think that reins are bad. They are a means of communication and it´s up to the rider what to communicate with them. There are as many good ways as there are people here, so I am sure that someone else can give you a more useful answer.


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 2:45 pm 
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Oh Romy, we wrote at the very same time almost the same answer! :D

Yes, you are a special case! You and Titum do amazing things with no reins!

Others of us have to work up to that...to grow our confidence.

In longlineing Tam, I'm using a cordeo...so I still have reins...just not attached to his head. :lol:


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 2:50 pm 
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Thank you so much, Karen!! And I am so sorry for causing confusion here! It´s just absolutely time that I should take holidays, my head is almost exploding and everything is turned upside down. Sorry if I write nonsense, maybe I should just take a break here. This morning I even wanted to write into my diary that I won´t train with Titum anymore at least until the end of the year because everything goes wrong at the moment... But then I decided to calm down first, drink a cup of tea and then everything will be fine. Hopefully. :D


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 9:41 pm 
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I guess the main confusion here is that the my first post was written actually about dressage without bridle, so with no reins at all. See the title. ;)

The way that Piet de Bakker uses the reins (connected to bit or noseband) is just the same as old classical dressage trainers do: the reins aren't there to keep the head in one place, but are used to correct the horses' posture, gait or movement when that isn't right - or when the horse hasn't responded to the leg/weightcues of the riders first. If the horse does listen to the voice/weight/leg cues, then the trainer won't use the bridle. So the bridle acts as what we in the Netherlands would call 'a stick behind the door', it's a kind of threat. That doesn't mean that it is torture or anything, ;) but it is something that the horse tries to avoid an because he wants to avoid that reincontact, he responds to the more subtle cues. In the end you have a horse who will collect at reins that are hanging through, like you see in old pictures.

So yes, this method does work, as it is exactly what has been used over centuries to teach horses dressage and the correct posture with. And it works on the ground in the long reins just as from the saddle, as the reins aren't an essential part of collection for the horse, but merely a tool to correct wrong behavior with.

Like Ania wrote, the question is if you want to train your horse like that, because with the subtle corrections with the reins, you signal your horse 'wrong, next time try to avoid this pressure by listening to me better' all the time. The horse has less opportunity for his own input, for example, if he wants to now trot faster, or come to a halt, he will be corrected for that or at least urged to go back again to the gait you chose. It doesn't have to be that way, but that is the traditional way of training horses like this, as the reins act as a correction tool - which means that whenever the horse is doing something different than you had in mind, you correct him for that. At least, that's what most classical trainers will teach you.

I know that Blacky did go along with that when we still long-reined, but became a bit grumpy with me and the training sessions. He became very slow as that was an efficient method to avoid contact with the reins with. That's a first aim of long reining because then you can keep up with your horse, and is seen by Piet de Bakker as a positive development, but then I had to use stronger cues for forwards movement because Blacky thought he was smart by just becoming slow so that I wouldn't have to correct him with the reins for speed anymore. :roll: :wink: But you do need to add more energy towards the movements again in order to catch that in your reins again in order to teach your horse to collect himself - in the traditional rein-based way. And Sjors just didn't understand it, being unable to learn from rein-corrections, even when I used the clicker alongside to reward the positive things too.


Last edited by admin on Fri Dec 21, 2007 9:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 9:49 pm 
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marleen wrote:
So how did they train the shoulder-in? Also with loose reigns? Does anyone know?


Still forgot to answer half of your post... :oops: 8)

Clause Penquitt has a very good practical description of how to teach a horse the shoulder in while riding, in the loose-rein philosophy. The general idea is to ask your horse to walk (at first, trot only comes when the horse understands the walk) a 10meter volte in a corner of the arena. When you approach the long stretch of the arena again however, you don't let your horse walk straight forwards again. Instead you keep your body (seat and legs) in the volte-position, but you break with the reins when your horse logically wants to continue the volte again. Your horse after a while will realise that now your outside leg didn't cue for leaving the wall for another volte, and that if he nevertheless does make a volte, he will walk into the reins. So instead of turning a new volte and being corrected by the reins, and going straight and being corrected by both the reins and the legs, he will maintain the bend of his body and walk sideways - shoulder in. 8)
So here too you only use the reins to correct the horse for the wrong behavior, you don't hold the horse actively in the right position with it and the horses' motivation in the learning process is avoiding the rein-corrections and therefore enable you to ride with loose reins.


By the way, I didn't know Piet had a dvd - is it still for sale? It sounds really interesting!


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