Which would you choose if you had to? If I said you can have a brilliant horse or a horse which will perform reliably well, which one would you take? Of course in the ideal world we wouldn’t have to choose, our horse would be brilliant and consistent. In reality most horses are not at either end of this spectrum but somewhere closer to the middle and we have to ride the horse we have on the day. There are horses, and indeed humans, though who definitely tend towards one extreme or another and all too frequently the human half of a combination selects a horse who is similar in disposition rather than one who complements his or her personality.
Personally I am drawn to brilliance over consistency. I value consistency and work at achieving it because I recognise it’s importance. In competition I often feel it to be an injustice when consistency triumphs over talent. I am well aware that this is personality driven and that I am not necessarily right to feel that way. A dressage test was, prior to 1921, a test for military riders and their horses. Now brilliance isn’t what you need on campaign, let alone in battle. Go back a few centuries and nobody ever said “shame, he was killed but did you see that floaty uphill trot the horse was doing?”Even now I strongly suspect army units on parade duty really wouldn’t want many of our top level dressage horses in their ranks. If the dressage test is a test of obedience, control and correct athletic development then the consistent horse deserves to win hands down.
But we have wandered a long way from where we started in 1921 (not that I personally remember) and civilian riders, amateur and professional alike, have gradually transformed the sport into something utterly different. A second thread has been woven into the fabric of what we do. It is as ancient and important as the need for a reliable horse in war. This second thread is the expressive power of the horse in display. Whenever a human climbs up onto the back of a horse that human will feel inclined to show off just a little! Some of us feel inclined to show off quite a lot. Re conjuring under saddle the display behaviours of the horse at liberty is a big part of dressage. It may not have been at the forefront of the mind when dressage tests were initially developed for officers chargers and cavalry mounts but it had been around forever in a broader social context. There has always been an elite prancing around on the backs of beautiful, valuable horses. When we re conjure those display behaviours in half ton creatures we play with fire. I think that is a subtle part of the appeal. When I hear people say dressage is for wusses I just grin and think of some horses I have ridden. I wonder just how long my hunting friends would remain onboard! As a rider I have never been particularly brave but I am adventurous. My desire to experience the sharper, hotter, more challenging horse has often won out over the fear I have felt curling in the pit of my stomach. The need to be a better rider for these horses has driven me to think, to read, to listen and try, when I might otherwise might not have bothered.
When I judge, as I was doing a few days ago, I have to be very very careful not to let my love of brilliance create a higher tolerance for mistakes than would otherwise be there if the horse were less impressive. I cannot have the mindset I would have as a rider or spectator. I cannot say a mistake did not matter in the broader context of potential future greatness. Sometimes I am the judge who allows consistency to triumph over talent and whereas that can seem galling it is also only right. The less brilliant horse is usually a trusting, willing partner to its rider. It tries its heart out and it might not make your jaw drop but it very often deserves its victory. I am always very aware of the two contrasting elements, the context of a test versus the forum for display, and it is a truly wonderful thing when a horse is the personification of both expression and control. That is when the role of a judge is easy. The rest of the time there is always an inner disagreement taking place, which has to be resolved each time in the space of a few seconds.
It is a good thing that there is such diversity of opinion and personality within the ranks of riders, coaches and judges. If we all had the same priorities it would be terrible. I was once told that only by tolerating imperfections in horses would I ever get close to perfection. It was seemingly contradictory advice but it began to make sense over the years. Now I wonder if some of the less brilliant horses might have been more so if they had not been burdened with inhibitions by riders who value control at all costs. I cannot recall the exact quote but Nuno Olivera wrote of there being, in his opinion, subdued horses and educated horses. I have experienced the difference and I know what I prefer. When we take a young colt or filly out of the herd and train it I think we have a duty to respect its personality and offer it an education which is customised for that personality. Hopefully we can allow the brilliance to grow in even the quietest of horses and equally cultivate some self control in the most unruly of horses. This has to be the ultimate test of the rider, to shape the horse’s personality without crushing it. Hopefully then, if we choose to, we will be able to bring it down the centre line towards a judge who will envy us every second of the ride.