Dressage – what the hell is happening?

We’ve all seen and heard a lot about rollkur by now, and I think we can all agree that it’s disgusting. Pretty much everyone seems equally horrified and shocked to see it. So the next question is – why is this method of training being rewarded in the show ring?

If you haven’t watched the video of Edward Gal warming up at Aachen, you should. It’s eye opening. Sadly, he sure isn’t alone in his methods.


What’s more eye opening is the excuses that so many people make for this. “Oh, it’s only for a few minutes” or “Oh, it’s just to stretch his muscles”. Bullshit. This is abusive riding and it’s not ok. The way these horses are trained behind the scenes is very evident in how they show once they’re in the ring. They turn into tense leg-flingers with tight backs, necks bent in an unnatural place, poll low, nose behind the vertical, contact tight, mouths clamped tightly shut with borderline air-restricting nosebands. And yet they are rewarded with good scores from the judges. WHY? This isn’t beautiful, and it isn’t what dressage is meant to be.

The FEI Rules describe the object of Dressage to be “the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider.”. What you see above isn’t harmony, it’s force and dominance. And these are some of the supposed “best” horse and rider pairs in the world, in the eyes of competitive dressage.

There was also uproar last week about the World Young Dressage Horse finals. Something else you must see. The second place horse looked like this:

photo from Horse Magazine
photo from Horse Magazine
photo from Horse Magazine

If that’s what scores well in competitive, top of the line, international dressage, I want none of it. The only word I can come up with is atrocious. I don’t care how much those legs are moving, this is not beautiful. This is not right. Yet the scores were as follows:

9.3 walk, 9.2 trot, 9.2 canter, 8.5 submission, 8.9 general impression. Total 9.02

A 10 is perfection and they think that’s a 9?

As the article states: “If this is dressage, then we must throw the classical principles out the window,” said one enormously successful trainer of young, and Grand Prix, horses… Aside from a clutch of wildly patriotic Scandinavians, I could find no experienced observer who was not outraged.

What is being rewarded here, with judging like this? Are we saying it’s ok to train young horses to be tense, overbent, and man-handled, all for the sake of flashy gaits? Are we condoning the kind of training that breaks down horse’s bodies and minds (enjoy your retirement, Totilas) and creates a false presentation? Dressage should make a horse better. Stronger. More elastic. More relaxed. Since when has it been a contest to see who can get the flashiest leg movement, at any cost?  Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro have been such a breath of fresh air for the sport, incidents like these are a slap in the face to progress.

needs moar Blueberry

This has to change, and if you aren’t outraged you aren’t paying attention. Or you just hate horses. Or you’re completely delusional. Let’s call a spade a spade here – this kind of training is brutality and abuse, plain and simple. We know it’s wrong… the question is: what are we gonna do about it?

38 thoughts on “Dressage – what the hell is happening?

  1. I read about this on COTH… it is terrible. Dressage is supposed to be beautiful and harmonious to watch. Those overbent tense horses just look like they’re in pain. So sad.


  2. Couldn’t agree more. Hopefully, the Charlotte Dujardins, Carl Hesters, and Laura Graves will prevail in the end but it will only happen if the judges stop rewarding horses trained for extravagance but that show all the signs of incorrect training, i.e. kinked neck, front end not matching back end, open mouths with heavy contact and all the other signs of lack of harmony. Well written post.


  3. “The way these horses are trained behind the scenes is very evident in how they show once they’re in the ring. They turn into tense leg-flingers with tight backs, necks bent in an unnatural place, poll low, nose behind the vertical, contact tight, mouths clamped tightly shut with borderline air-restricting nosebands. ”

    ^THANK YOU! Also, I have a hard time understanding why the crowd rewards it so much too. A few years ago at the World Cup, there was a horse there for a demo that displayed all of what you just said. It’s back was like a rock and it flung it’s legs around so much that i was pretty sure it was going to rack itself upside the head at any moment. This was right when the book came out and there were some people around me that kept talking about how awful Rollkur is. Not five minutes later, they are cheering and screaming at this horse and raving about how wonderful it is. My fiancé, who knew nothing about dressage, read the book, understood it, and can identify the horses trained in that manner. He can pick out a leg mover in about two seconds flat and understands how (typically) the wrong training has led to this. Yet, these “dressage” people couldn’t? However, here were these people going nuts over a horse clearly trained in the method that they were just complaining about. The crowd can be enablers just as much as the judges.

    I’d also like to mention how this horse/rider pair that they were saying was so fantastic never accomplished shit (not anywhere near the level they were expecting anyway). I don’t think he stayed sound enough to have that opportunity.


  4. Knowing this is rewarded makes me want to boycot competitive dressage. That’s extreme and is not a long term solution but it’s so disgusting that I want to act that rashly. I honestly can’t even articulate an intelligent response I’m seeing so much red but I agree with you 100%, Amanda. Something has to be done. I don’t know what that something is – that’s the million dollar question – but I hope someone smarter and with more influence than me figures out the answer. I think there is going to have to be a change in horse culture, a reformation of sorts, not going back in time to accept nothing new but reverting back to what is purely constructive for the horse, regardless of if you get “ooohs” for the flash factor. Screw the flash factor. I’d rather watch a happy athlete work with his rider as a seemless team than some ridiculous, tight extended trot any day. The fact that Blueberry and Charlotte are a rare occurrence is sad but I’m so glad they happened in my lifetime to help me still believe that dressage competitions don’t have break their own rules.


  5. The Big Lick comparison is spot on in my opinion. I was a member of a national horse judging team in high school and continued into collegiate judging so I have seen a LOT of different breed/discipline etc. shows I would have probably never attended otherwise (included gaited horses). And also, sadly, a lot of different ways to twist and abuse the horse to fit a mold. It’s so heartbreaking. You can definitely see it in their eyes.

    What’s happening in dressage today is atrocious, my little group of horse friends and I have been discussing Rolkur at length for some time now. I do wonder what can we do? I want to help in any way possible but am truly at a loss for how.


  6. Oh, yeah, it’s pretty bad over here right now. People are discussing it everwhere. And let’s mot forget that they let Totilas (the “wonder-stallion) start, even though one vet wanted to reexamine him because of signs of lameness. He was outvoted by the other vets and the leading member of the jury. And then during the test he promptly started to go lame visibly. Very very sad…


  7. I too am at a real loss for what to do about it, but I think that writing articles like these (this post and the referenced article from Horse Magazine) can help shed light on the situation. Maybe if more people are aware of how their oohing and ahhhing are actually hurting the horses and the sport then something could change. I think getting some new judges in the mix might also help, but I’m so far removed from the upper levels I have no idea how that process works.

    I remember PETA went after Totilas back in 2012…I’m not sure exactly how that turned out, but obviously he still competed afterwords. I personally actually hate PETA because they are generally nuts and take things totally out of context, but maybe they were actually on to something for real for once. (I’d look into it more but…at work…)

    Another great, thoughtful, thought-provoking post. I love how you hit these hard subjects!


    1. I think awareness is the first step. People need to know this is going on, understand what’s happening, and learn to spot it. If people make enough noise, changes will come.


      1. Nice! Didn’t know about that petition. Will sign once I poke around their site more.

        Also in terms of awareness, if some of the the “bigger” equestrian sites could tell it like it is instead of feeding the masses what they want to hear, I would think that would certainly help raise awareness. I was just scrolling down my fb feed and saw a post from a bigger website about Totilas’ retirement and how “his brilliance will never be forgotten”. Oi.


  8. I don’t follow Dressage much, nor do I pretend to know hardly anything about the sport. But I will say I was looking through photos from the recent events you mention here and was surprised and disappointed to see so many horses with high, tight necks and flexed behind the vertical.


  9. I think it bothers me most that anyone thinks this is an acceptable “training method” if you must call it that. The horses eyes show pain in my opinion. The whole thing is terrible and it should not be rewarded under any circumstance.


  10. I see tense horses behind the vertical get rewarded even at tiny, puny little schooling shows here. Once we figure out a judge is scoring that way, we usually don’t use them again. But we’re one GMO in a place that isn’t exactly a hotbed of dressage activity, so it feels kind of futile.


  11. Preach! Even on the local level I see a few people mimic some of the harsh techniques used by international riders…which is equally horrifying. I feel so bad for the horses. 😦


  12. So this is not to say I do not 100% agree with you, but: this happens in every sport. It is particularly prominent in dressage right now, though not as prominent as it was even 2-3 years ago when Anky was winning everything.

    It’s the Big Lick Walkers. It’s the peanut-rolling Western Pleasure horses. It’s the drugged-out hunters, the poled jumpers, the endurance horses run into the ground, the eventers overfaced and reined in with huge bits.

    People will find ways to twist and force horses into any desirable shape or movement that they want. We’re particularly good, as a species, at distorting nature to suit our wishes. We’re not so good at finding ways to let natural beauty shine through.


    1. It does happen in every sport to some extent… some worse than others, for sure. I picked dressage because a) I’m more “into” this sport b) it seems to be a problem that is escalating while nothing is being done about it – from the top down.c) a lot of people don’t seem to be aware yet of just how far-reaching the problem is and d) I don’t think it’s so far gone that it can’t be fixed. I’ve said my peace before about the hunter world, something I long ago gave up on. Outrage doesn’t work with that crowd – money does. Maybe outrage will work with this one.


  13. It is HORRIBLE. I think there are several reasons why the more amateur riders do this to their horses. But I think the main two are 1. people are starting to realise that it is better for the physical health of the horse to work in an outline rather than going around with their heads in the air, and 2. because top riders ride and train like this, people are brainwashed into thinking that is what an outline should look like and that it is better for the horses physical well being than having their heads in the air…

    I think judges need to make a stand and start marking down for these sorts of movements AND the general horsey public should be better educated in what is best for their horse. I feel as a community, the horse world has lots of opinions on what is right and wrong, but don’t understand any of the biomechanics of the horse. I feel it is the responsibility of those of us who do understand these things to try and get this infomation across to those who are ‘clueless’ about how the horse works. Which is one of the main reasons I blog.


  14. There is a problem with the judging. It makes absolutely no sense that judges award tight tense horses comparable scores to those that are relaxed and harmonious.


  15. Great post Amanda. This is what we need to do – spread the word. I signed the petition too. I’ve signed a few of them I think, if I recall correctly.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Yeah, it is common at even low level horse shows. NOW – I have a horse that ducks behind the vertical whenever he can… so I can sympathize with not being PERFECT all the time (I use minimal, consistent, sure as heck not perfect though, contact, he gets lots of time “on the buckle” and he has never been forced into a head position – at least in the 4 years I’ve owned him). Now these high level horses… it is clear they have been trained using rolkur, and they are tense and unhappy. It breaks my heart 😦


    1. I have a horse that ducks behind the vertical as an evasion too, and it’s been so hard to fix. There’s a big difference between that and horses deliberately being cranked nose to chest and then being worked that way.


  17. Thank you!!!

    I wrote a post or two like this around the 2010 WEGs, and got a load of hogwash comments from some self-appointed dressage “experts.” (some of whom still frequent our blog circles – you know who you are ;D).

    If the FEI were to just follow their own standards and guidelines – poll is the highest point being a good one to start – and consistently reward harmonious, relaxed partnerships (Valegro and Charlotte!) instead of flashy leg movers with thrashing tails and hollow backs…

    A dressage horse can be relaxed + brilliant + correct at the same time. Reiner Klimke and Ahlerich’s 1984 victory lap (with dozens of one handed one-tempis) is a fine example.


  18. I hate that we can take something ‘good’ and exaggerate it until it’s so stylized it’s almost unrecognizable yet still be applauded and rewarded. Horses, and animal breeding/showing in general. Ughhh. Dressage is one of the most frustrating ones because you see the contrast between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ even at the highest levels and have to wonder which way it’s going to go. I’d like to think the trend is moving towards the good trainers though!


  19. I ran across this video a few days ago about a German Vet/Dressage rider talking about how current dressage horses are so tense through their back. He showed examples of what is being rewarded in shows and what a good relaxed gait looks like. How these tense horses are not able to produce a true passage, Piaffe, and extended trot. I found it interesting and eye opening on what to look for.



  20. It is truely disgusting. From Intro level on up that type of carriage is already being encouraged. It makes me sick to see the examples that are being set for the youth that are just starting out in the sport. They see the top riders riding their horses from front to back, so they ride front to back, and the judges reward it. Those of us who are bringing our horses along correctly are being “punished” for not having the head set at Intro.


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