Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The L Program

Getting up at 4:30 two mornings in a row to do chores is not my idea of the ideal goat farmer's life. However, it turned out to be well worth the lost sleep. I left at 6:30 to arrive at the beautiful Devonwood Equestrian Center before 8 a.m. when the L Program began.

The L program is to train people to judge dressage shows from Training through 2nd level. I have no intention of judging... couldn't if I wanted to as there are showing requirements at various levels before you can become a candidate and I don't show. But auditing sounded like a great way to learn what judges look for and for me to understand why they look for what they do... and hence what I should be doing when I ride/train my own horses. I have scribed at schooling shows for L (learner) judges but did not really understand what they were looking for in the various required movements.

I can't say I'm now an expert but I sure did learn a lot in those two days. One of the most surprising things to me was learning about the "Q factor", as presenter and FEI judge Janet Foy called it. Q is for Quality and is the first thing a judge looks at when a horse first enters the ring. A horse built for dressage with the suppleness to perform the movements brilliantly will start out with an advantage over a horse that is not so conformed. Thus my Morgan with his cresty neck and short strides will start out with a lower starting score than my daughter-in-law's warmbloods with their long strides and elevated gaits. My Morgan can up his starting score by doing the movements well and accurately, especially those movements where the "brilliance factor" (another term for Q factor) does not come into play, like rein backs. Jessica's horses can gain points the same way. Our horses can both lose points by, for instance, being tense and hence not having sufficient freedom of motion and responsiveness to the rider's aids (signals). But, all things being equal, the warmblood is going to outscore my Morgan. This rule comes down from the international body in charge of dressage, the FEI, (Federation Equestre Internationale), and carries over into the U.S. Dressage Federation. So now I know.

An amazing amount of material was covered in those two days, plus we have a handbook with much more information that the candidates have to learn before they can pass their exam. I am happy I don't have to take an exam as I'm still a little fuzzy on much of it. But I have a ton of notes to pore over. I did learn things I should have known long ago... like the proper way to do a free walk and what to look for to see if the horse is really stretching over the back as it's supposed to. I also learned to watch the shoulders to tell if a horse is on the forehand (not a good thing). And much more.

Janet Foy was a wonderful presenter, irreverent and witty as well as informative. Her 30 years of judging experience and many years of showing at the top levels of dressage have given her a huge amount of knowledge which she willingly shared... including fascinating asides into the world of dressage not covered in a handbook. I was interested to hear her thoughts on the amazing Totillas, dressage phenomenon who won gold at WEG. Knowing now about the Q factor, I can see that Totillas enters the ring with a very high score which is his to keep or break. Janet explained that although his front and hind legs do not lift evenly at the trot, as we've been taught is correct, his hind legs are drawn so far up and under his body that he has to earn a 10 (highest score possible). The front legs are even higher, perhaps too high, but Janet reminded us that a 10 is not perfect, it's just excellent. And there's no quibbling that Totillas' movements and gaits are excellent.

The L Program has two more sessions coming up, one in February and one in March. Each will be handled by a different FEI level judge. I will be there, eager to soak up whatever I can... even though it means getting up at an ungodly hour.


  1. This is so interesting! Good for you for going, and thanks for writing about it. Do they stress the importance of relaxation much at all? It seems that all the modern dressage horses are so tense and that everyone uses a flash to keep the horse's mouth closed. My understanding of true dressage is that the foundation of it all is relaxation. I subscribe to the Buck Brannaman school of dressage! ;)

  2. Yes, Tamara, relaxation is the 2nd step in the training scale after rhythm. Without relaxation, you really can't go anywhere as the energy flow is interrupted from hind quarters over the back into the rider's hands. Janet stressed that you cannot use just one indicator of tension, like a swishing tail. There will always be more signs of tension than one: ears pinned, mouth open, dropped croup. Judges have to learn to take in the whole picture. I agree with you about the flash nosebands, but they're not supposed to be fastened so tightly that the horse can't open its mouth. One of the signs of relaxation is a gently chewing mouth producing frothy saliva.

  3. That is one of the signs of my relaxation too.

  4. Thanks for the laugh, Ingrid! Actually, Janet explained the difference to us between what we normally think of as relaxation and what "relaxation" means in dressage. She slouched in a chair, lay her head back as though snoozing and told us there was drool running out of the corner of her mouth. Then she explained that is *not* the muscles-engaged-but-not-tense "relaxation" we want in a dressage horse. "Relaxation refers to the horse's mental state (calmness without anxiety or nervousness), as well as his physical state (the absence of *negative* muscular tension)." My understanding is that the soft chewing of the bit in a relaxed (dressage definition) horse stimulates the salivary glands, hence the saliva.

  5. Part of the problem with the training pyramid, imo, (and this is one of my pet peeves), is that the powers that be have decided we need a one word definition -- in English -- for each step: Rhythm, Relaxation, Connection, Impulsion, Straightness, and Collection. The trouble is, those English words do not convey the same meaning as do the words in German, from which they're translated. I think we should be using the words in German and insist we all learn what they mean. The training pyramid is now sometimes modified to add qualifiers so "Relaxation" has, in parentheses, "(with Elasticity & Suppleness)". Still doesn't do it if you ask me...