Emperor's New Clothes

“Did you see Robert Hall’s letter in the ‘Horse & Hound’?” How many times did I hear that in Spring 2000? Robert Hall challenged the establishment with his words, which I subsequently hear were ten times diluted for acceptability! Is it true? How big is the problem? Who is responsible? Can so many be so wrong? So many letters for so long. The issue dominated the letters page for many weeks and generated the largest postbag in the history of the magazine.

I always remember, as a child, hearing the tale of the emperor’s new clothes. The clothes were, of course, invisible. However, ‘everyone’ made out to the emperor that they could see his beautiful new clothes and how wonderful they were. Everyone, that is, except a small boy, who dared to say what he saw! Robert Hall has also dared to speak out about what he has seen.

I was fortunate enough to see the advertisement for the lecture-demo, tucked away in the ‘Horse&Hound’ classifieds. It also informed us that Mr Hall would be available for clinics during April. I made the time to attend the demo and to watch Mr Hall teaching pupils at a clinic in Bucks.

I have tried to structure this article broadly as the demo was structured. Firstly, the charge; secondly, the evidence; thirdly, what has caused it; and, finally, a way forward.

# The Charge

Robert’s charges were two-fold: 1. That many, dare I say, most, horses ridden in British….European….World….even World championship dressage are over bent; and 2. That many, dare I say, most, horses ridden in British….European….World….even World championship dressage are ridden with too much impulsion for the movements.

# The Evidence

In support of his first charge Mr Hall produced exhibit one: A file of photographs and clippings from recent horsey journals. Names were, of course, obscured to protect the innocent. The evidence was truly damning and much discussion ensued on the extent of the problem. Grass roots riders felt that the problem was manifest even at Preliminary and Novice levels. A list one dressage judge argued that the problem was overstated: The photos were specially selected to prove the point. And anyway, were just moments in what was bound to have been an otherwise impeccable test.

Surely photographers and magazine editors would not choose what they believed to be the worst photographs to publish; would they? I did my own research when I got home. I trawled through back numbers of the ‘Horse&Hound’ and other assorted equestrian magazines. I was astounded. Photo after photo after photo of over bent horses! I came to horses and dressage late in life. I thought that this tight necked, explosive, exciting way of going was what we were all aiming for. Have we re-defined best practice? Or have we just lost sight of the goal posts? I feel confused. And cheated. But eager to hear more. On came our first guinea-pig rider, Ann Willets, and her lovely young horse, Nabokof. The pair had had a lesson for the first time with Mr Hall before the demo. Mr Hall asked her to show us how they had worked together before their lesson. Ann gritted her teeth, shortened her reins and “rode actively forwards”. Nabokof immediately obliged. He knew all about this. His neck shortened, his back stiffened and he treated us to an extravagant elevated ‘working’ trot. Ah yes we all thought. This is what it’s all about….

But we were wrong! Our conscience, otherwise known as Mr Hall, pointed out what we could all see. The horse was overbent and there was too much impulsion for the working pace. He suggested to Ann that she take up a soft, even contact….and DO NOTHING (Aside: Have you ever done nothing? Believe me, it’s a lot more difficult than doing something!)

“Let the horse put his head where he needs it to be”, Mr Hall continued. He explained that the horse uses his head and neck to balance himself, just as we use our arms in the same way. If we try to artificially position the horse’s head we prevent the horse from using himself naturally. Rather like asking a gymnast to perform with her hands tied behind her back! In keeping with this, Mr Hall abhors the use of all gadgets as they all aim to position the horse’s head.

“How would it feel if we were to go more slowly?” he suggested to Ann. Mr Hall explained how too much impulsion too soon simply pushes the horse out of balance. Rather like the young child running down a hill for the first time: Faster and faster, out of control, out of balance, and many tears at the bottom! Soon the child learns that by going more slowly down the hill he can maintain his balance. Robert explained that it is the same with the horse. By the rider regulating the speed, allowing the horse to use his head and neck as nature intended, and doing nothing else, the horse will remain in balance and self carriage.

The contrast in Nabokof was striking. Mr Hall was in raptures. “This is how I like to see my young horses working. He can go on like this forever!” The horse was calm. The horse was relaxed. His back was swinging. BUT IT WAS NOT EXCITING!

One member of the audience blurted out “but if I ride like this in a competition I’ll be laughed out of the arena”. Mr Hall’s answer was that she should go to the shops and buy some rosettes! But, he advised, don’t compete and expect to win! In a quiet moment at a previous clinic Mr Hall had confided to me that he was unbeatable…because he didn’t compete! A growing band of riders in this country have come to the same conclusion.

# What has caused it?

If you agree with Mr Hall, and it is difficult given the evidence not to do so, it is natural for we humans to ask why and to search for the guilty. Mr Hall was very open in blaming the judges. The judges reward the bad riding; those successful riders are sought out as trainers; who teach others to ride in the same way; this way of riding is seen in photos and videos. Mr Hall argues that whether we aspire to it or not our riding will be affected by what we see and either consciously or unconsciously we will emulate. This is compounded by the observation that dressage is one of the few sports where the same people judge, compete and train others!

If we follow this vicious spiral downwards Mr Hall fears that soon nothing will be left. We will lose the essence of dressage. And once lost it may be lost forever.

# A Way Forward

Mr Hall showed us a number of horse and rider combinations culminating with the grand finale of Trish Gardiner and her Grand Prix horse, Moon Tiger. I was moved. The rider, so quiet and calm. Her horse, so quiet and calm. Changes; easy, almost imperceptible. I watched. I felt. I understood. I could feel calmness in me and I understood what Mr Hall had said about the look-feel connection. When things feel right on the inside, they will look right on the outside!

“But how do we get from Nabokof to MoonTiger?” I asked. “Time”, was Mr Hall’s reply: “We make haste slowly”. As usual, not only are we desperate for success, but we want it NOW. Again I looked through the magazines at home: This time, the words: The reports from dressage competitions and classified ads for dressage horses for sale. “6year old, easy changes, lateral work established…..” I’m not so sure that the answer lies solely with the judges. The question goes to the heart of why each of us is involved with horses and WHY WE RIDE. At the end of the day all riders, trainers and judges have a choice. If we make the wrong choice the only people we deceive are ourselves, our horses and our future. Are the emperor’s new clothes really so stunning? I feel that it is time for some honesty. Thanks Mr Hall for making me think again.

Afterword: “There are three things I tell people. Don’t try, it doesn’t matter and don’t be careful. This is the key to the whole thing.” Robert Hall FBHS All you need is Feel an article about Robert in Horse magazine.