We Could Go Sideways (And Faster Too)

Sep 13, 2004 - 10:00 PM

The time has come to set the record straight about dressage: It was invented by fox-hunters.

More accurately, the movements incorporated in this classical form of horsemanship were practiced on the hunting field eons before they were performed in any Renaissance arena with fancy-schmantzy terms like pirouette and serpentine.

Without bothering to research the indisputable proof that these complicated exercises were first developed by folks in pursuit of Reynard, over the centuries “experts” have perpetuated the myth that dressage was perfected by the French.

Oh, please.

Think about it. Discipline? Obedience? The French? As if we don’t know what they really mean by “freestyle performance.” Then, of course, the famous Spanish Riding School jumped on the bandwagon with the theory that Lipizzaners were the true luminaries of dressage.

I don’t THINK so.

The fact is, the very first capriole was performed by an Icelandic pony successfully attempting to avoid being trompled by a wooly mammoth during a hard run in pursuit of a vulpinae (just weeks after it split from its doggy brethren and became a fox.)

Early Pleistocene Hunt Club MFH Homer Sapien duly recorded this authentic but rarely publicized incident in his hunting diary on opening day.

The capriole was also employed frequently during the Ice Age while hunting in mid-January, when hearty Pleistocenian whippers-in were frequently required to bound in and out of 30- to 40-foot snowdrifts. (Think of that next time you start whining about your frosty toes on a winter morning.)

But arena dressage promoters have shamefully obscured these and other clearly bona-fide facts throughout the centuries.

They’ve ignored the fact that, throughout history, foxhunters have become extraordinarily skillful in performing what we’ve always simply referred to as “the moves.”

So a legion of riders and spectators remain ill-informed about the veracity of the sport’s origins. So here’s a historical review of how the “full cry” set developed “the moves” many millennia before people with names like Adolph Hans Fritzenblather translated them incorrectly into complicated manuals using hoity-toity terminology.

It Comes Quite Naturally

Yes, while the latecomers who practice arena dressage may swear by their silk hats that they originated the lingo, it’s time to clarify the undisputed accuracy of the most familiar phrases found within that galloping glossary.

Starting with something simple, translated painstakingly from the original Paleolithic vocabulary, we’ll begin with the hunting field half-halt, a familiar movement to all of us, in which one half of the horse stops while the other half (which occasionally includes the rider) keeps going.

Although arena dressage riders spend countless hours schooling their mounts in this particular exercise, it comes quite naturally to hunting field dressage horses, who regularly employ the movement over coops, hedges and even stone walls.

This is a close cousin to the hunting field half-pass, a somewhat more complex diagonal movement where the horse’s forelegs move ahead of the hindlegs, sometimes by a quarter of a mile or so.

In addition, both of these are near relatives of the hunting field flying change, a rather advanced exercise commonly referred to as the “knock-your-hocks-off” movement. Here, the horse performs a lead switch in midair at a frequency that depends on the slope of the bank, depth of the stream or size of the coop.

Arena figure-eights are a cake-walk compared with hunting field figure-28s, which any foxchaser worth the contents of his rider’s flask masters early on to avoid passing the hunt staff during a particularly heady run.

Hunting field dressage was indeed born out of necessity. Being heavy on the forehand might elicit a tongue-lashing from the entire judging panel during an arena dressage test, but cross the line of a fox while charging through the woods and, believe me, your horse will have to sprout wings out of his fetlocks for the rider to avoid a different kind of flogging while be chased down by a whipper-in.

Unlike arena dressage, hunting field dressage places very little emphasis on achieving the “right contact” with a horse. Arena dressage riders work diligently to present the judge(s) with a picture of perfect elasticity in the link between their hands and the horse’s mouth, using no more than a simple snaffle.

During hunting field dressage, however, “contact” falls into quite a different category. Used primarily for the “halt,” which also takes on an entirely new meaning outside an arena, the “right contact” allows for the use of a far wider variety of bits, ranging from a single snaffle to a bicycle chain. Barbed wire, how-ever, is discouraged.

Hunting field dressage riders are also adept at the exploding canter, caused when the whole pack strikes the line. This movement commonly accelerates into the hell-bent gallop, which, if exhibited in arena dressage setting, elicits a sassy rebuke from the judging panel when–and if–the rider reappears.

Not Really A Chinese Fire Drill

It’s also interesting to note that even novice riders incorporate advanced hunting field dressage movements into the sport almost immediately.

Hunting horses perform piaffes and pirouettes with frequency when hounds are first released from the kennel or the truck, but points are subtracted if they continue the movements every time they check. (Early over-enthusiasm is forgiven; after that it’s just annoying.)

Caprioles, levades and all the other airs above the ground, when precipitated by whips and horns, are scored with greater leniency.

While arena dressage has often been compared to a Russian ballet, hunting field dressage is more commonly referred to as a Chinese fire drill.

But the full cry set has always considered the comparison to be unfair. Because, let’s face it, controlling a horse in a 20 x 60-meter arena is a smidgen easier than controlling “the moves” in a 500-acre cornfield.

Faults are also evaluated from a different perspective in arena dressage than they are in hunting field dressage. For example, standing up in the stirrups to find balance may be frowned upon in the arena, but in the hunting field, it’s considered a “graceful partner-
ship between horse and rider,” as well as a life-saving device while serpentining through dense woods. Nor are points subtracted for using Velcro to attach your thighs and knees to the saddle.

Ditto sitting crooked by collapsing your hips and shoulders, which may draw unhappy faces from a whole panel of judges in the arena but is a compulsory move while demi-pirouetting around low-hanging branches in the hunting field.

While it’s just the tip of the proverbial dressage whip, I hope this explanation has in some small way helped to rectify the long-held fables about the origins of dressage.

And now that we’ve set the facts straight, it’s important to recall the words of famed horseman and author Charles de Kunffy, who wrote in his 1975 book Creative Horsemanship, “All horses can be dressaged.”

Yes, but not all horses can be fox-hunted.

Category: Dressage

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