I've been trying to catch up on my blog reading and I'm currently reading through several posts by Calm, Forward, Straight about classical dressage and the current popular (and very wrong, in my opinion) method of riding a horse consistently behind the vertical. This post (which is a reposting of a series of articles from the Dressage and CT magazine no longer in publication), struck me as particularly relevant for me right now.
Face Behind the Vertical
A "modern" deviation from the classical ideal.
by Erik V. Herbermann
Modern trainers claim that horses "give" better in their backs when they are ridden behind the vertical. But as we have seen earlier form Fillis and Baucher, the only advantage to this way of working is that the horse cannot as easily resist the rider. Now, our instant gut reaction might be that this is exactly what we want, but for true horsemanship, this is only "Fool's Gold," because where poor riding makes the horse unable to resist, good riding strives to give the horse no reason to resist.
Not only does the artificial "face behind the vertical" way of ridding the horse of its ability to resist not lead to a true state of "lack of resistance" (which can only originate from honest, forward-going work), but it actually blocks off the very avenue though which such correct influences might come into play at all. This blockage occurs on both the psychological and physical planes.
Psychologically: if we rob the horse of its "say" by shutting off its ability to resist, we inevitably also shut off its willingness to contribute, and with that evaporates the potential for achieving the "playful ease and beauty" of the performances. Those coveted fruits of riding, which can only unfold from an honest, trusting, and harmonious partnership have thus been forfeited. The dialogue has ceased. Only the rider's willful monologue remains.
Physically and technically: by riding the horse behind the vertical, with curled-up "empty" necks, we rob them of the proper use of the major locomotive muscles in their backs, which are anchored in the neck. The hind legs are hindered from "jumping freely into the poll," which would ordinarily cause the horse to carry its head with the poll as the highest point. And since the energy is therefore not properly focused out of the hindquarters and reaching forward to the bit, the horses are not honestly stretched in their spines. The connection between the hindquarter and the bit, which is indispensable to correct work, has not been solidly established. Instead of beiong supple and energetic, such a hindquarter is restricted and stiff and cannot develop the appropriate carrying and thrusting energy that leads to correct balance.
The correct balance in the horse should be "held" by the perpendicular balance of the rider's spine, resting partially on the crotch and mainly on both seat bones. If, however, it is held with the hands, such as it often is when the horse is ridden with its face behind the vertical, either the horses barge like locomotives against the bit, up to which they have been forced, or they are artificially light in hand (behind the bit) and are not truly going forward. This is one of the central reasons for the artificial quality of the gaits we so often see.
For our horsemanship to be valid, its critical that we tirelessly strive to maintain the highest quality of the gaits. This is reflected in the absolute purity of the footfall, which is the medium ---the very lifeblood--- of good horsemanship. It is therefore imperative for us to understand the inseparable correlation between the head and neck position of the horse, how this position has been achieved, and the direct effects these elements have on the quality of the gaits.
In a well known book of ethical guidelines, the Master says, "By their fruits will you know them. Can people pick grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles?" We can rightfully draw an analogy and conclude that good work produces pure, beautiful gaits. Poor work produces warping and distortions. So judging by its unmistakable ruinous effects on the gaits, "face behind the vertical" should have no part in our horsemanship if we are at all sincere about following the classical way. "Face behind the vertical" is a tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon in which the basic mathematics is wrong --- how can the equations built on it help but fail?