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Football, fairness and the Spanish trot


A question of sport


This time I'm not going to talk about horses to start with, but football. Imagine for a moment what would happen if referees started awarding off-side goals if they look spectacular? Or not bothering whether the ball goes in the net - if it was close, and an impressive shot - that's good enough - they call it a goal.


How about tennis? "Great shot, Mr Nadal! It was two metres out of court - but we'll give you the point anyway, because you hit the ball so hard."


It would make a nonsense of sport, wouldn't it? Sports are governed by rules, and you win if you put in the best performance within the rules. That applies to ice skating or gymnastics, just as much as it does to cricket or rugby - but strangely not, it seems, to dressage.


Good news from Switzerland


I'll come back to sport and rules in a moment, but first the good news: the Swiss authorities have banned rollkür. Good news indeed - althougth there is an important discussion going on about how this can be implemented, and what the ban really means. It seems unlikely that one piece of rather woolly worded legislation is going to change the world, at least not while the products of rollkür are winning the big bucks. On the other hand, an official renunciation of a cruel and barbaric training practice can only be for the good - even if it is just a small step.


I'm not going to go into the arguments for and against rollkür, hyperflexion, ldr (low, deep and round) or whatever you want to call it. That has all been well catalogued already. I'm more interested here in WHY is has become popular in certain circles; what happens when you pull the head down to the chest that makes the exercise attractive or profitable for the user.


Cause and effect


There may be many effects - but one is simple: the front legs come up higher. Just as when you lift the tail, the horse picks its feet up (very useful for unloading clumsy horses from the trailer, or leading horses with serious injuries), when the head is down and in, the shoulder is blocked and the leg comes up correspondingly higher.

Stallion strike. Photo: Carol Walker


You can see horses doing this on their own - when preparing to strike with a foreleg, they pull the head right in and down (that's when it's a good idea to get out of the way!).



The Spanish walk requires the front leg to lift as high as possible, which is achieved when the head is tucked in






Where else do we see this exaggerated foreleg action? Well, Spanish walk, is one area. While classical dressage is very sniffy about Spanish walk and considers it "circus" rather than "dressage" - it is a popular exercise in which the front legs are lifted very high and stretched forwards without any corresponding movement in the hind legs.



From Spanish walk to Spanish trot


That brings me back to rules. Spanish walk doesn't appear in any dressage test and neither does "Spanish trot", but that is the best term I can think of to describe what we are now seeing in the competitive dressage arena. Particularly in piaffe and extended trot, extreme front leg action seems to be the order of the day, even though it goes specifically against what is prescribed in the FEI's own rulebook. Please note, this is a RULE book, not guidelines, not "things judges might like to consider" - but RULES.


According to the FEI's rule book:


Article 404

4.5 Extended trot. The horse covers as much ground as possible. Without hurrying, the steps are lengthened to the utmost as a result of great impulsion from the hindquarters. The Athlete allows the horse to lengthen the fram and to gain ground whilst controlling the poll. The fore feet should touch the ground on the spot towards which they are pointing. The movement of the fore and hind legs should reach equally forward in the moment of extension. The whole movement should be well-balanced and the transition to Collected trot should be smoothly executed by taking more weight on the hindquarters.


Ok - that's very precise and clear. Here's a photo of Netto, a celebrated half-brother of the famous Valegro. I chose him because I don't want to get into an argument about riders or methods - my point is about what the horse does and how that relates to the rules, and I'm sure you'll agree this is very typical of the type of display that often wows both the judges and the public. These pictures are screen shots taken from this show so you can see them in context. This is Netto in extended trot:





Let's look at a few points in detail. The rules say "the steps are lengthened to the utmost as a result of great impulsion from the hindquarters". You don't need a degree in physics to know that there is a trade-off between height and distance. If you want the throw a ball as far as you can, you don't throw it straight up in the air, so any height in the front legs not matched by forwards energy is actually shortening the potential stride length.


If the condition The movement of the fore and hind legs should reach equally forward in the moment of extension is going to be fulfilled, the arc described by the fore and hind legs should be the same. Extra height in the forelegs is at the expense of extra reach. Just look at the difference in height between the front and back legs! The length of the stride will be determined by the smaller arc - so all that extra height in the front leg is unequal to the movement of the hind leg, and therefore incorrect.


The fore feet should touch the ground on the spot towards which they are pointing. That is going to be one weird looking trot stride. Look where the fore foot is pointing in relation to the hind foot. The horse will be lying on its tummy if it fulfils this condition!



Article 415 The Piaffe


1.1 In principle, the height of the toe of the raised forefoot should be level with the middle of the cannonbone of the other supporting foreleg. The toe of he raised hind foot should reach just above the fetlock joint of the other supporting hind leg.




This FEI rules for piaffe are even clearer and better defined than for the extended trot. The black lines show where the FEI say the tips of the toes should be - almost on the same level, with the front just a little higher. The red lines show show where they are - not quite enough behind, and WAY too much in front.


Fair play for horses and riders


Adelinde Cornelissen has been bemoaning breeders' emphasis on front leg action, but that's what sells, and that is what they will produce. Horsetrainingsolutions pointed out that the words "pot, kettle and black" came to mind - but at the end of the day, unless the FEI start adhering to their own rulebook, there's not much chance of any substantial change. Either they change the definitions, or instruct the judges to start following the rules as written.


Going back to the football and tennis, what would happen if FIFA and the ITF started allowing their rules to be interpreted as I outlined at the beginning? There would be an outcry from players and public alike, and a very vocal demand for the rules to be observed in the detail and spirit with which they were written.


I think Ms Cornelissen is barking up the wrong tree, and maybe the Swiss are, too. Complaining about the breeders focusing on front leg action and banning training practices will have little effect until the motivation for either and both is removed - and that means playing by the rules. Yes, I'm looking at you, FEI.  If you want to include Spanish trot as a move - define it, regulate it and distinguish it from everything else. If a rider shows backing up when they are supposed to be showing collected trot, it is penalised. Why accept Spanish trot, when you ask for piaffe - and even more importantly, if piaffe is required, why give higher marks to those showing Spanish trot than to those showing piaffe? If Mr Nadal serves a blistering ball, but it goes in the net or out of the service court - he doesn't win a point for it - it didn't conform to the rules, however spectacular it looked. Apply the same standard to dressage, and it's a whole new ball-game, if you'll pardon the pun!


As always, please feel free to post any comments or questions on the Thinking Horse Facebook page!


Jan 2014 

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