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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

The Co-Operative Principle
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter

©2000 - All Rights Reserved

I want to jot down a few thoughts that have intrigued me for a long time, but that I never pursued in a systematic fashion yet.

In 1975, the philosopher of language H.P.Grice published a seminal article entitled "The Co-operative Principle" that created quite a stir on the linguistic scene and generated a large number of linguistic publications that built on Grice's postulates. The basic assumption is that any discourse, whether written or spoken, is a joint effort. Both the speaker and the addressee have to follow certain pragmatic, syntactic, and semantic rules in order to communicate effectively. They have to co-operate. Grice's Co-operative Principle consists of several maxims that appear very simple, straightforward, and common-sensical at first sight. What took me by surprise is that you can actually observe these principles at work on a highly technical level in language when you analyze spoken or written texts. You can find them in any text of any genre in any language. If a speaker violates one or more of these fundamental maxims, the communication breaks down. When you read on, you will think that Grice's maxims are terribly idealistic, that few speakers really follow them. On a broader, social level that is certainly true. However, on a more basic, technical level, they work with surprising accuracy. In a successful discourse, you can relate this success to their observance. When misunderstandings (and real life human linguistic and non-linguistic communication is full of misunderstandings) occur, you can demonstrate that they are generally due to a violation of one or more of the maxims. The degree to which these principles are obeyed and applied is a criterion (not the only one) for the evaluation of the quality of a text. In the equestrian world, they are a criterion for the rider's competence in the saddle (as well as on the ground).

Riding is often quite rightfully referred to as communication, i.e. a type of language that enables the rider to convey his wishes to the horse, and vice versa, the horse communicates his feelings, attitudes, and opinions to the rider.

In the next few paragraphs I will introduce a few of Grice's maxims and try to relate them to riding. In linguistics it is commonplace to talk about speaker/writers and of addressees. Speakers or writers are the authors of statements or texts, who have to package information in a way that it can be understood by another person, the addressee(s). The addressee, in turn, has to "decode" the message, the information that the speaker/writer tries to communicate verbally (and/or with body language). Since we are interested in the communication between rider and horse, we can substitute rider and horse for speaker and addressee.

An important aspect of spoken discourse ("repartee" in technical, linguistic terms) is turn taking, i.e. each participant has to await his turn in the conversation, while giving the other participant(s) a chance to make their contribution. This is as important in riding as in inter-human discourse. Too many riders flood their poor horses with an incessant emission of orders, without ever giving the animal a chance to respond. This is as disrespectful to the horse as it is counterproductive. It is disrespectful, because if the rider does not allow the horse to take his turn in the discourse and to respond to a request, it means that the rider is not interested in the horse's contribution. However, the horse's feedback to the rider's aids is of the utmost importance for good riding. Without it, we would never know if what we are doing is right or wrong, good or bad, or if we are going in the right direction. The horse's response to our aids gives us the information we need in order to choose our next movement or transition, to make the adjustments in our seat and aids that are necessary to improve both our riding and our horse's performance. Without it, good riding is absolutely impossible. It's as simple as that. Not allowing the horse to contribute to the conversation is therefore unproductive for several reasons. On the one hand, we will not have the crucial information we need to improve, and on the other hand, the horse will feel unappreciated and become frustrated with the entire riding process. He will tune us out and begin to resent the rider very quickly. I.e. the rider loses the horse's cooperation, which is synonymous with the end of success and progress. It is the antithesis of good riding, whether it is classical dressage or any other type of riding.

Quality: "Be Informative"
This maxim means that the speaker/writer has to include all the information that the addressee requires to understand. If the speaker leaves out a crucial piece of information, the addressee will not understand what the speaker is trying to say. Applied to riding, this means that the rider has to utilize the entire orchestra of his aids, the full range of nuances that he is capable of in order to create as clear and complete as possible an image in the horse's mind of what he is trying to accomplish at the moment.

Quantity: "Be Brief"
The meaning of this maxim is that the speaker/writer should avoid including unnecessary, redundant information in his contribution. If the speaker rambles on without saying anything new or informative, the addressee will lose interest in the discourse very quickly and stop paying attention. In the equestrian context, the rider has to avoid any and all unnecessary or unharmonious movements and changes in muscle tone. As they are devoid of meaning, they confuse the horse, and the rider loses his horse's attention. The horse appears dull and lazy. In reality, the horse has come to the conclusion that the rider's aids are meaningless chatter and therefore not worth paying any attention to.

The two maxims "Be Informative" and "Be Brief" are in a natural state of tension with each other. Maximum informativeness automatically includes a certain amount of repetition and redundance. Maximum brevity entails leaving out information that some addressees may find important while others would consider it superfluous.

Erring on the side of informativeness means that every addressee will be able to understand the message, but many of the more intelligent or more knowledgeable ones will get bored with it, because the discourse does not move fast enough. Boredom almost always leads to inattentiveness.

Erring on the side of brevity, on the other hand, comes with the price that some addressees will not understand the content of the communication. Not understanding the discourse makes the addressee feel left out. It leads to frustration, and frustration often leads to inattentiveness as well. Every discourse is a balancing act between the two extremes. The speaker has to ask himself: "How much information do I have to include so that my addressee understands what I am trying to say? How little information can I get away with, without losing my addressee?"

The tension between the two opposite demands can be subsumed under linguistic economy.

It exists on many different levels, syntactic, phonetic, pragmatic, and semantic. It is one of the driving forces behind linguistic change. Consciously or unconsciously, it is also a driving force behind our personal evolution as riders. We all strive to become more effective with our seat and aids - and effectiveness is nothing other than finding the perfect balance between informativeness and brevity, as well as lightness, in our aids. The rider always has to ask himself questions like: "How little leg can I get away with, before the horse loses impulsion? How light can my rein contact be, before the cycle of energy is interrupted and the horse falls apart? How small can my aid be for the next movement or transition?"

"Be Relevant"
Relevance is an extremely important principle in linguistics, and entire books have been written just on the role of relevance in language. In the context of H.P.Grice's Co-operative principle, the demand for relevance simply means that the speaker/writer should only include information in his communication that is relevant to the discourse topic. On our Classicaldressage discussion list we had numerous examples in the past where people posted things that were not relevant in the narrower sense of the word to the training of a dressage horse in the classical tradition. It is interesting to observe that the perceptions of what is relevant and what is irrelevant diverges among people. This shows that relevance is a matter of degree, not something absolute. In linguistics that is quite typical. Hardly anything is set in stone, almost everything is a matter of degree or statistical frequency. The same thing applies to riding as well. Based on the circumstances of the individual situation, the specific application of the general principles can vary significantly.

Relevance in riding may not be as immediately obvious as the preceding two maxims. Different experts can probably come up with different definitions. For me personally, relevance in riding has to do with choosing the right priorities in the training of the horse and rider. At any given moment there are innumerable things that are less than perfect and that need to be corrected. However, in real life, we can only focus on very few things at a time (some people can hardly focus on one thing at a time). The educated, thinking rider has to select which problem is the most pressing one right now. That means that other problems will have to remain unaddressed for the time being. This is one of the finer, more artistic points in riding. Sometimes, ringside critics may see that a rider or teacher is not addressing an obvious problem, and they assume that he or she is not educated enough to notice it. What usually does not occur to them is that perhaps the person is fully aware of the mistake, but chooses to put it on the backburner until other, more urgent issues are resolved. In other words, the rider and teacher must have a prioritized list of issues in his head that will all be handled in due time. The top priority item is worked on first. As it improves, its urgency status is reduced and the next item on the list takes precedence, etc. This way, the rider and teacher cycles through the list in a serial fashion.

Relevance applies to all aspects of horsemanship. When working on a certain issue, the rider has to make sure that the exercises he selects are relevant to the topic he is working on. While all movements are relevant to some aspects of improving the horse's gait, they are often not relevant to all aspects. Therefore, the rider must choose exercises that help to improve the aspects of the gait that he is currently focussing on. Sometimes you can observe riders who seem to ride movements, patterns, and transitions completely randomly, with absolutely no coherence among them. There seems to be no unifying theme to their work, and not surprisingly their training never goes anywhere. A thinking rider, by contrast, can always give a reason for why he is riding a particular exercise.

In a lesson, the teacher has to ask himself: "Do I address the student's torso first, or the legs, or the hands? What is the most important thing? Do I address the horse's issues at this point or do I focus entirely on the rider? What is the biggest obstacle for horse and rider right now?"

It also applies to the execution of movements. Especially when we introduce a horse to a new movement, we will usually not get the finished product the first time around. So we have to evaluate the execution. What was good, what was bad? How central, how basic, how relevant are the mistakes? Which ones do we try to improve first? Sometimes we have to sacrifice one element temporarily for another, more primary, more basic element. This is a decision that has to be made on a very individual basis, and in some cases the horse's particular set of strengths and weaknesses can make it necessary to choose an unusual path. Maintaining the spirit of classical horsemanship is more important here than following the letters of a training manual. As yet inexperienced riders often struggle with this choice. They either want to fix everything at once, or they choose the wrong item out of a misunderstanding of its relevance.

"Be Truthful"
The applicability of truthfulness to riding may not be immediately obvious. In linguistic terms the maxim of truthfulness refers to the importance of only making statements we believe to be true. The reason is that if we get caught making false statements we lose our credibility, which is one of the most important social assets a person can have. Obviously, in real life this maxim is often violated in order to deceive the addressee. In less serious contexts, it can be violated in an obvious manner when the speaker tells a joke or teases the addressee.

Truthfulness, credibility are just as important in riding as they are in the social interactions with other human beings. What I mean by this is that the rider's aids must be unambiguous. The rider has to mean what he says. This is especially relevant for timid, fearful riders. They ask their horse to do something, e.g. to perform a transition into the trot or canter, yet their entire being tells the horse: "Stop! Don't move!" They go limp in their waist, tip their shoulders forward, grip with their fists, so that they are killing all the energy that their leg is asking for at the same time. Depending on the personality of the horse, this can set them up for serious accidents.

Manner: "Be Polite"
Truthfulness and politeness are of philosophical and moral rather than grammatical significance in linguistics. The demand for politeness simply means that we should treat other people as we would like to be treated - verbally and otherwise. In an equestrian context, we could substitute "Be Polite" with "Be Kind". As riders we should always strive to achieve our goals with as much kindness and consideration for the horse as possible - without pampering the horse on the other hand. In situations that warrant a reprimand, we should always maintain the attitude towards the horse that: "I'm your friend, but you can't be rude to me." Everything we do should be guided by genuine affection for the individual horse we are riding, not just by the idea of loving the species equus. Continuing this train of thought, kindness also implies that we will not exploit a horse to gain personal fame or fortune, that we will not ask anything of the horse that he is unable to fulfill without incurring physical or psychological damage. In other words, the well-being of the horse has to outweigh any other consideration. is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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