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Saddle Fit and Hyperflexion

ByJochen Schleese|April 6th, 2015
Unfortunately Totilas is shown here forced into extreme Hyperflexion!

Unfortunately Totilas is shown here forced into extreme Hyperflexion!

I feel compelled to respond to an article recently appearing in an international publication which so totally goes against everything we stand for which was discussing the (former) wonder horse ‘Totilas’. This is a pretty controversial topic – directly related to Dr. Gerd Heuschmann’s campaign against hyperflexion.

The article was an alarming example of the misinformation that is being presented today to excuse the lack of correct training in the “modern” dressage horse, and some of the specific observations require direct countering. The horse’s general anatomy and means of locomotion has not changed in thousands of years but the lack of education as to what actually improves and protects a horse is on the rise.  What we are seeing being rewarded at the dressage shows is one of the main reasons for this descent into harming instead of helping our horses.  The rules written by the FEI which follow the classical principles of dressage training and movement are being ignored and replaced by flashy movement, particularly the “show trot” that thrills the uneducated audience who are unaware of the harm being inflicted upon the horses. These horses are mostly ‘leg movers’ instead of ‘back movers’- as they should have been trained to be. Modern dressage “for historical reasons” is a deviation from classical training hundreds of years ago. The horse is no longer a necessary source of food, transportation, and fighting wars – their sole survival depends on our egos and in wanting them around for sport and companionship.  As their roles have changed, form now overshadows function.

Hyperflexion at the extended trot.

Hyperflexion at the extended trot.

The hollow, flashy “style” of locomotion is nothing new.  The over-exaggeration of leg movement is being performed and rewarded in the Saddlebred and Gaited Horse industries.  Disconnecting the horse and hollowing its back are exactly what they strive to do as this is the only way a horse can get the front legs moving on a different plane than the hind legs.  The acceptance of this “style” is an absolute contradiction of the original foundation of Dressage.  What will we see next?  Firecrackers and chains around the pasterns?

I do think that modern Warmblood breeding programs are exemplary.  The breeding industry is producing amazing athletes with incredible natural movement.  Understandably these youngsters will exhibit this “style” of exaggerated movement.  They are excited, untrained, and are not carrying the weight of a rider.  It is the responsibility of trainers to develop a horse’s ability to carry a rider.  The ability to connect through the back and engage the hindquarters is a fundamental requirement for any horse in any discipline.  This connection is what preserves, protects, and allows the horse to become a light, harmonious partner.   Left to its own natural state, a horse will travel on its forehand, with its center of gravity naturally forward and behind the elbow, and drop its back away from the weight of a rider (or the pain of a poorly fitted saddle).  In order to carry the weight of a rider and saddle, and preserve the musculoskeletal and tendon-ligament health of its body, the horse must travel in a correctly engaged frame.  The “show-trot” may look fancy, but how many of these horses continue to perform with any longevity without sustaining injuries or without requiring invasive treatments to maintain their performance?

A very unhappy Totilas forced into extreme Hyperflexion!

A very unhappy Totilas forced into extreme Hyperflexion!

The most alarming consideration is that breeders may push in this direction in order to satisfy growing customer demand of the ultimate dressage horse by the standards set by Totilas. The extreme high scores given to this horse by dressage judges will reinforce the trend to reproduce, and maybe clone, this type of a mover in future dressage horses.  The push to rapidly breed horses is causing over-population problems and ongoing dilemmas with slaughter and euthanasia.  To satisfy market demand, horses are pushed harder and at increasingly younger ages with significant physical (and often emotional) harm that they simply cannot sustain.  Judges may perpetuate the physical damage and unethical training methods by rewarding the end-results consistently in the arena.

Horses are the innocent ones in the human pursuit of ribbons, monetary gain, and personal egos.  They have not chosen for us to ride them.  We owe it to them to confront and refute this fad of non-training that is receiving high marks by judges that haven’t read, or who choose to ignore (for whatever reason) the rules.  If we are going to accept this deviation away from classical dressage then let’s not insult the rest of us who believe in the classical principals and who would never accept or give a good score to this new “modern” movement.  Call it what you want but please don’t call it Dressage. Jaimey and Tina Irwin have a long history with Schleese, and also work with us out of conviction because they are true advocates for the health of their horses. The horses they train are still competing in their late teens and early twenties – because they have been ridden and trained properly and because they have always made horse health and well-being a #1 priority.

I welcome your comments!

Jochen Schleese

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