Skip navigation
28Jul 16

When will the showing world grow up

We're getting very close to Rio and probably every horse owner is hoping for the repeat of 4 years ago when the English dressage team finally made it and beat the countries who used to win it. For a trainer living in Cornwall, but born and bred in Holland, this was received with mixed feelings, however, I've lived here long enough to defend the English team when my Dutch friends reacted a tad prickly.

When I moved here just over thirty years ago, dressage was still in its early development and often down here I was asked to teach on a slope which the rider considered flat. How things have changed. If you've ever flown from Newquay and tried to count the outdoor schools below (I have...) you'll understand what I mean.

The level of understanding has catapulted. Not only the dressage divas but also the more serious event riders arrive these days well-prepared for their dressage test at their competitions.

One of the regularly reoccurring subjects in the dressage world is the use of the double bridle. To be more specific: when to start using it and, at least as important,how to use it. My personal philosophy has always been that there is no point to try a double unless you can do it in a snaffle. Some purists want to push even further and abandon the double bridle completely, considering at cruel altogether. I still think the correct, and I mean CORRECT, use of the double bridle is a beautiful thing to watch and an art in itself.

At our weekly riding club lessons in Holland we used to have to ride with two reins on our snaffle bit and were taught from the very beginning how to hold the reins as if it was a double, with the curb rein sufficiently loose so the contact would always be on the bradoon. What an innocent way to learn, because if you got it wrong the horse would not pay the price. By the time the horse was ready for the double the rider would be able to handle the change with confidence.

When I moved here, I nearly fell over backwards when I met the showing world. All these lovely young horses in doubles ridden with the curb as tight as the bradoon! Often behind the bit motoring around as if there was no tomorrow.

So I felt I was on a mission and when any pupil of mine wanted to show I would warn them I would never teach them again if they put a double in their horse's mouth. Generally they succumbed and generally the judge would make a comment about it. Generally these horses also went up in their placings after the judge rode them.

Why, oh why, can the showing world not take more notice of what, after England is now fully submerged in dressage, should be common knowledge? I so would love for my pupils with their young horses to enter showing classes. I still think it is such a wonderful education tool for a young horse to learn to cope with a competitive environment. It is so much less scary for them to be able to perform in a group rather than on their own at a dressage show. 

More than anything, though, I would love for all those wonderful show horses to start their early life bitted in a fair way. Showing world, please grow up!


Picture: Martyn Humphrey on his lovely mare Damerisk kept her in a snaffle for a long time and see where they are now! A blog about Martyn you can find on my website on the 23rd of April, 2015.


13Jul 16

A healthy contact rein is better than a bent neck and an upset horse

Some years ago I gave the odd clinic for the Cornish Dressage Group. It was thoroughly enjoyable, especially because Derowennek is such a lovely indoor school with its large windows overlooking a beautiful valley. Occasionally an elderly but very fit lady turned up, called Elizabeth and I can't actually remember her surname, who had a small bay horse which she loved very much; that was clear from the moment I met her.

When I asked her what she would like to get out of her lesson, she said that she didn't feel very competent in a dressage arena as she had hacked most of her life. I asked her, like I always do with a newcomer, to show me a walk, a trot and a canter on both reins and to take her time. Most first-timers are always in a hurry, probably because they are trying too hard to make a good impression.

Well, it was just lovely, basic, but so rhythmical and balanced. The little horse's eye was attentive, relaxed and confident at the same time. It really made my heart beat faster for enthusiasm.

I asked the few people watching what they thought of this and, I could have guessed actually, the first response was that the horse wasn't sufficiently round. True, but it did not bother me in the slightest. Especially not as Elizabeth was the last pupil of the day and four of the other seven I'd seen were round with either a broken neck or so grumpy and backward that I wondered where to start in order to make their hour productive without making their world fall apart.

When will it sink in that a round neck does not count when it is not the result of the horse being forward and balanced?

What Elizabeth showed that day was that a relatively inexperienced but forward and rhythmical horse on a contact rein at the beginning of a lesson, with a little bit of help will be a round horse in a correct fashion, still forward and balanced towards the latter part of the session. If she would have had the desire to take up dressage in a more serious way it would have been so incredibly easy for a trainer to turn that into a success. The basics were all there! 

When she asked me how to continue, my return question was what she actually loved doing most with her horse. 'Oh, I shall be hacking most of the time and try to school once a week.' As she was not going to have regular lessons I advised her to continue what she was doing and not change anything, other than to add the serpentine and 15 meter circles, which we had been practicing that hour.

When she left with a big smile, her horse happily following her back to the trailer, I thought, 'Lucky horse...' 


Picture: Sadly I do not have a picture of Elizabeth, but my home-bred little Tegen, then a green four year-old, together with Emily Noszkay, is showing here over poles exactly that forward balance on a contact rein. They turned out to be a great team together, both a touch mischievous and gutsy, which worked well for them during their eventing career together





Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

About Liz Barclay

Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.


My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' with the subtitle 'A Personal Impression of the Development of the Gelderland Horse World' has been received with more enthusiasm than I possibly could have hoped for. Click here to contact me and I will send you a copy. £7.50 + postage, or click here to order from Amazon.