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Stressage and the Thinking Horse



Greetings from a hot and sultry Vienna, and I hope you’re enjoying the summer. It’s high time for a thinking horse update – and finding ourselves in the middle of Olympic mania, thinking about the 2012 Olympics is probably as good a topic as any.


Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, and the splendid people at the European Broadcasting Union, I’ve been able to follow pretty much all the action blow by blow, at This is a gift to those of us living in countries where equestrian sport ranks somewhere behind the synchronised toe-nail clipping in broadcast priorities, and is has the added benefit of providing the unadulterated live feed – i.e. no commentary other than the commentary provided at the event. This means you get the same perspective as the people there, and you can concentrate on what is happening without some hysterical idiot commentating on dressage as though it were football or formula 1. (You can already tell, the heat is going to my head, can't you?)


What you also get from this service is is very “up close” sound, which is much clearer that it would be for the people at the event. There are evidently some powerful and very directional microphones at work – and this brings me to the point of this Thinking Horse update.


While watching the dressage, I was amazed a the clarity with which I could hear the horses breathing – or in some cases, trying to breathe. I could also hear when they were grinding their teeth. If you’ve never heard it, tooth grinding in horses sounds rather scrunchy and squeaky. You could almost mistake it for a squeaky saddle – but the squeaky saddle will squeak consistently, and tooth grinding comes and goes. Normal breathing is fairly quiet and matches what the horse is doing; when they are trying to breathe, they sound a bit like Darth Vader with hiccups.


I’m pleased to see that there seems to be a steward whose job it is to try to fit a finger under each horse’s noseband when it comes out of the ring – that has to be a good move. However, perhaps now that their jaws aren’t strapped together so tightly, the horses have enough movement to be able to grind their teeth. The horses are still stressed, the difference is that now they can express it.


As a Brit, of course, I am delighted that the British dressage team have done so well. However, if I look for an example of how I wish dressage would go in the future, it has to be the Spanish team, particularly Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz. There are plenty of examples of how I wish it weren’t, now or ever,  I’m afraid it is epitomised in Adelinde Cornellisen.


The wonderful EBU have made the dressage available to replay – if you go to the “Equestrian” section, and Team Dressage day 2, I would invite you to compare Munoz Diaz (starts at time code 5.44.42) with Cornellisen (starts at 8.55.20) – and start watching right at the beginning, before they actually start their test. Munoz Diaz comes into the arena on a loose rein, letting Fuego look around and absorb the atmosphere. He only picks up the reins when the he sure Fuego has settled. Cornellisen – comes in in rollkur with Parsival fighting the bit. He then goes on to give a fine display Darth Vader hiccups and tooth grinding – so much so, he forgets himself completely when it comes to backing up. You barely hear Fuego breathing, other than the occasional gentle blow and sometimes an intake or letting out of breath as he changes frame. (Yes, he does actually change frame between collection and extension – one of the very few that do!)


I am no dressage judge. I read horses, and observe their behaviour and interactions with people and with each other. It is a total mystery to me how Cornelissen scored a whopping 81% and Munoz Dias only 75%. If I were a judge, I’d have disqualified her for the riding before she even got in the ring. If I were a horse, I know which rider I would prefer to have! What do you think? Come to the thinking horse Facebook page and let me know your thoughts!


What a shame we can’t put a few horses on the judging panel – now that would really shake things up!  



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August 2012

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