Dr. Thomas Ritter uses technology to promote classical dressage
©By Ingrid Edisen 

Dr. Ritter on Danish Warmblood, Rossini,
owned by Jane Elmore of Denison, TX.  Photo: Sara Stafford.

Forums.  Blogs.  Chat groups. They have names like Ultimate Dressage, Classical Dressage, and Chronicle of the Horse.   Even The Horse Gazette offers such a posting device.  Type in any equine discipline you like into your Internet search engine and you’re bound to find “the water cooler” of the office—the place where folks like to congregate to chat, rant, rave, and exchange views on every aspect of horse ownership and riding there is.    But what does it mean to run one of these groups?  Dr. Thomas Ritter and his wife, Shana, of White Horse Vale Lipizzans moderate one group called Classical Dressage.  It has an international membership (which is free) and offers daily diatribes and archives.  Amateurs and professionals alike all share.  Just reading these entries is a marvelous education in itself.  Dr. Ritter recently explained the whats and whys of his sideline.
HG: How’d you decide to start a blog/chat group on dressage?

Ritter: We thought it would be a fun thing to do when we started our website. It was meant to be an adjunct to the website. I believe we started the group either in ‘98 or ‘99. At the time the concept still seemed to be new - at least to us, but it was growing in popularity very fast. At that time there were only one or two dressage discussion lists. Now there seem to be countless different ones.

HG:  How did you settle on the rules/format?
Ritter:  After observing the vicious personal fights on some of the other lists at the time, we decided to make rules that don’t tolerate that sort of behavior. After that it was mostly trial and error.

HG: How did you “publicize” it?
Ritter:  All groups are listed on Yahoo. If you do a search for dressage, or classical dressage, you get a list of these specific groups. Other than that, we have a link to the sign-up page on our website. That’s all.

HG:  Your wife helps you, I think.  How’d you all divide up the labor involved w/ the project?
Ritter:  Shana does all the technical work on the website, and she set up the discussion list. I write articles for the website and contribute to the list.

HG:  Have any funny stories come out of this?
Ritter:  I can’t think of anything funny off the top of my head. Sometimes I’m amazed at certain people’s ignorance and their unwillingness to learn, although by learning they would make their horse’s life better, and they could enjoy riding more. That makes no sense to me, because I’m constantly trying to learn and improve my own riding. Every ride is research for me, and in every ride I make new observations and learn new things.

HG:  How has it enriched your life (knowledge, contacts, etc.).
Ritter:  It has several positive consequences. For instance, we have met some very nice people through the list. On many occasions, the people who disagreed with me made me think about an issue in more detail than I had before, and I went back to the books to research the “state of the art”, the history on the issue, and where my own opinions came from, where I got my original information. That increased and deepened my own knowledge. Some of the discussions led to articles I wrote for magazines or for our website. So, in a way, those who disagree with me are the most useful members, because they force me to think and rethink in more depth issues that I had taken for granted.
The questions that are being asked and the opinions that are stated give me a good insight into what the dressage community is currently interested in, what the knowledge level is like, what common misconceptions are out there, what the public opinion is on various issues, under what circumstances people have to ride in terms of accessibility to suitable arenas, instruction, and even weather conditions.
The list has also shaped my writing style. If you want to be heard, you have to keep your emotions in check and try to stick to the facts. That’s not always easy, because some people can really be annoying. But it’s good practice.
Writing and explaining things helps to clarify your own thoughts, and it improves your teaching skills, because you have to think constantly about how you can convey certain ideas to another person.
I also see the list as an educational tool. For every list member who posts clearly erroneous opinions, there are many more who share these opinions but who don’t speak up. For every list member who asks a question, there are many more who would like to know the answer as well, but who don’t speak up. That’s why I try to post explanations and clarifications whenever I have time, and I try to educate people on what’s really classical and what’s not, because there are so many who don’t really know what is or isn’t classical, because they have never been exposed to it.
Finally, it has led to some clinics for me. That’s probably the main reason for joining lists for professionals in general. It’s a form of free advertising.

Dr. Thomas Ritter long reining Lipizzan stallion, Pluto III Ambrosia II,  bred by White Horse
Vale Lipizzans, owned by Flor Lozano-Byrne of Seattle, Washington.  Photo by Sara Stafford.

HG:  During the day, how do you manage the chat group (for instance, do you read every entry prior to allowing it to go through?)?
Ritter: I approve posts in the morning and late in the evening, when I’m at home.

HG: Did you need a computer person to assist you in this endeavor or did yahoo groups just whip it on out?  (Just curious...I’m not gifted in the computer area)
Ritter:  Shana did it all by herself. I myself never learned these skills.

HG:  What’s your favorite aspect about having the chat group in your life?
Ritter: I’m not sure there is a favorite aspect.

HG:  Have you ever had to kick somebody off?
Ritter: Yes. We had to ban one or two particularly obnoxious, rude and contentious members. For a while there we policed the list very strictly. Lately, we have been more relaxed, mainly because we don’t have enough time to read all the posts and send the rude ones back with a comment.

HG: Why the title? (classical dressage)
Ritter:  We chose the title, because classical dressage is what we do. It’s the tradition in which we grew up. It’s the tradition and way of riding that we want to promote and preserve. It’s the most horse friendly, as well as the most effective way of riding, and there seems to be a fairly large interest in it.

HG: How do your colleagues view your endeavor with the blog/chat group?  (with amusement? curiosity? disdain? jealousy?)
Ritter:  I have never heard any direct feedback from other professionals. I know that some of them use this and other lists to drum up business for themselves. Others don’t bother, and I assume that they don’t subscribe to lists. So they may not be aware of our discussion list. Our website has a larger audience than the list. Most internet users know us from the website, rather than the list.

HG:  Anything else?
Ritter:  I think one thing worth mentioning is that the internet, and especially these discussion lists, is a double-edged sword. They can be a useful tool for information. But you have to be knowledgeable - or smart - enough to separate the chaff from the grain, the BS from legitimate information. There are a great many people on these lists who can’t ride at all (strictu sensu), who don’t really understand dressage, but who have picked up enough “dressagespeak” to confuse others who are even less educated. These are the people who are prolific and opinionated posters, but who carefully avoid ever posting any photos of themselves on a horse, and who have obviously very limited experience in terms of the variety of breeds and types of horses they have ridden and in terms of actual training they have done at any level. You find them on all lists, including our own. They disseminate false information that is at best ineffectual but harmless, and at worst detrimental to the horse. That’s why they should be exposed by the more educated people through posting the correct information. You can recognize the correct information, because it’s logical and it works.
Another way of exposing the frauds is by asking everybody to post photos or videos of themselves. Then you see immediately who can actually ride and knows what they are talking about and who doesn’t. For instance, if somebody rides all his horses with a dropped back and stiff joints, above the bit or inconsistent rein contact, their advice is not worth listening to - unless you want your own horse to become a leg mover with stiff joints who is always above the bit or inconsistent in the rein contact. If somebody has a poor seat, it discredits everything he posts, because a poor (i.e. stiff, unbalanced, crooked) seat inhibits the horse’s motion, it inhibits the rider’s ability to feel, and it inhibits the rider’s ability to influence the horse effectively. Hence the old adage that the seat is the rider’s calling card.
These lists also have severe limitations, because you are trying to convey a relatively complex set of concepts to total strangers, without knowing anything about them or the way they ride, or about their cultural background. Plus, a lot of riding is so feel-based that you need the horse to teach the student effectively. Therefore, there is so much room for error and misunderstanding on both sides. The student may misinterpret what the teacher is saying, and the teacher may misunderstand how the student is interpreting the explanations, or the student’s knowledge base. There are too many assumptions and inferences that have to be made, but that’s the nature of the medium.

Dr. Ritter can be reached via Thomas@classicaldressage.com.   The website address is www.classicaldressage.com.  He also conducts clinics.
The mailing address is: Ritter Dressage, 731 Lone Cedar Lane, Goldendale, WA 98620.  Cell 360-631-1101.
His wife, Shana’s cell is 360-631-1102, email levade@classicaldressage.com.