Alphabet Soup: Gee, Was That Cee?

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Checking the letters down the long side: Mothers-Bad-Fathers (with R and P in the middle).

Checking the letters down the long side: Mothers-Bad-Fathers (with R and P in the middle).


Dressage puts our ability to remember seemingly random letters to a severe test, so we lean on mnemonic devices. Forty years ago a Pony Club kid taught me All Kind Elephants Have Cute Mothers Bad Fathers while we were placing the letters around a ring, and I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. I hear others rely on “All King Edward’s Horses, etc.” And, no, there’s no credible source for knowing when, where or why that order of ring letters was established, although there are a lot of guesses.

It wasn’t until I started judging regularly that it dawned on me the “funny” letters in between the main eight are RSVP. Really, nothing could be easier, except you do have to think twice about where the “R” starts (to my left when I sit at C). It does make you wonder whether RSVP came along after the order of the main eight was set. Around the same time I figured out the center line spells GILD, if you drop the X, but I always have to do a quick head slap to place G at the correct end of the ring before I let it roll off my tongue.

I am in awe of people who can memorize a dressage test using the actual letters, and I have a hunter rider friend who can easily recite a test using all the letters, even though she doesn’t need to all that often. I have no trouble remembering tests when I show, but I memorize them by patterns relative to the judge at C, which means I have a lot less to clog my brain in the heat of battle: “Left at the judge, extend across the long diagonal, shoulder-in down the center line, X 8m circle, half-pass to the corner, rein-back at the judge, etc.,” which gets me through the start of Intermediare I.

I’m always trying to recite the Training Scale from memory, but after the wide base of Rhythm, I have to pause briefly to clarify the rest in the correct order. Last week, I heard Denny Emerson recite “Rachel Sees Charley, I See Charley” several times in a lecture, and I finally had it down cold: Rhythm, Suppleness, Connection, Impulsion, Straightness, Collection.

Of course, there are several versions of the Training Scale out there, such as the one where Relaxation replaces Suppleness (“Rachel Rides Charley, maybe?) or where Impulsion and Straightness are reversed. I’m of the school that sticks with Suppleness over Relaxation (a horse sleeping in his stall is relaxed but not supple) and that Straightness isn’t much of use without Impulsion. The German equivalent to Relaxation/Suppleness of losgelassenheit is hard to translate directly to English and combines both qualities.

I heard recently of a dressage game where there is a cone “gate” inside the ring at each letter position. The game is a timed race, running through the alphabet in order, starting with “A.” It was used at a driving competition, and I’m going to sort out how it can best be played on horseback. Big arena, small arena? Only trot/walk? Maybe it can be done unmounted in a scaled-down space? Part of the fun, of course, would be to remember the letters on the center line and which letters aren’t in our dressage alphabet at all.

I’m on the committee for the Youth Dressage Festival in August, and I may lobby to slip this idea into the packed schedule for our “fun day” on Sunday. I wish some GMO fun day long ago had offered this, because maybe I could have pounded the letters into my brain sooner.

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