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Any dressage fan with the internet has probably seen the unflattering images of some high-profile combinations presented by German breeder Barbara Schulte.

These photos and videos, which included Carl Hester, raised heated arguments over the motive and credibility of the author, who was accused of discrediting the sport.

To me there’s another side.

Just a few days earlier I’d mentioned to Carl I was writing this column and was planning to discuss the limitations of modern horses in piaffe. In the past, we’ve joked about how breeders had managed to breed the ability to piaffe out.

Despite many horses being born, the number reaching grand prix is still small. Few breeders can claim to have bred several grand prix horses.

Anybody looking for potential top dressage horses will confirm the large number of mediocre horses around; this is after years of careful, selective, specialised breeding. So why is the grand prix horse such a rare, expensive commodity? One that piaffes well is even rarer.

The breed societies and studbooks created to guide breeders, set aims and standards and oversee their implementation lost their way. They are so taken by the hype and glitz of the circus around stallion licensing and young horse competitions, it’s been to the detriment of the sport.

In the early days of European studbooks, the aim was to breed a useful, all-round horse. The stallion selections were done with this in mind, the stallions all showing workmanlike traits.

Gradually, generation after generation, undesirable genetic traits were eliminated and better qualities emphasised. There were significant positive changes to the type, quality and ability of ridden horses.

More recently, discipline specialisation became the norm, but stallions were still selected with their long-term positive contribution and influence in mind.

This specialisation started to go wrong when we found that some stallions produced only young horse stars, with little long-term positive contribution.

In spite of this, these stallions maintained their popularity with commercial breeders. The breed societies should have intervened to steer the ship back on course. Instead, they went a step further and my impression is that, for many, the aim is now just to get a stallion through the licensing.

An optical illusion?

To illustrate, these are two traits that cause me concern.

I grew up believing that a good horse offers maximum results with minimum effort. Today, three-year-old stallions have to create an optical illusion of balance, energy and power, despite only trotting in-hand.

This hyperflexion of the hindleg comes at the expense of strength and ability to brace and support body mass. It looks impressive but it is like stepping in quicksand, detrimental to the horse’s ability to perform collected exercises such as piaffe and canter pirouettes.

The other cause for concern is the breed societies’ insistence on directing towards a hypothetical type. They ignore the fact that Valegro, the world’s best dressage horse — nearly perfect in physical ability — is a completely different type, one that would be rejected in stallion selection. Give me a good cob any day; at least he’ll hack if he fails in dressage.

Back to piaffe. It is unique in that it’s a trot-like movement with no moment of suspension. The body is always supported by a diagonal pair on the ground; if that support is not available with the hindleg the only option left is to take more support from the front. The rider is limited in how much he can change the biomechanics if this ability to sit has been bred out of the horse.

This lack of “braceability” can affect other movements, causing what Barbara Schulte describes as “horse handstands”.

Ref: Horse & Hound; 18 February 2016