Tag Archives: classical dressage

Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse: an Introduction to Straightness Training

Lately, my interest in broadening my understanding of various kinds of ground and in hand work has been growing, and I am enjoying learning about ways in which this work could be beneficial to both my training process and developing the relationship with my horses.

In mid February, I had the opportunity to visit Narnia Stables in Ashford, Conn., the home base for trainer Meg Brauch, who was offering a Straightness Training (ST) clinic with lecture and demo. The clinic’s title was “Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse”, and photos promoting the event showed many happy horses in various stages of training. I was intrigued and roped my friend Sally into making the two and a half hour drive down for the afternoon start time.

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Meg Brauch working with Paladin. Meg was kind enough to permit me to “borrow” photos from her Facebook for use with this blog.

Straightness Training is a system developed by Dutch equestrian Marijke de Jong. After one short afternoon session, I am far from qualified to fully discuss the system or its philosophies in any great length, but I did take away that it is inspired by the work of classical horsemen like Gueriniere, Baucher, and those of the Iberian peninsula, and that it is intended as a systematic and progressive system that focuses on developing a horse using humane methods.

Introduction to ST

Meg provided a basic overview of the ST system, where I recognized some clear areas of overlap with other, better-known-to me, training philosophies. First off, most of the unmounted work is done in a cavesson. I was quite impressed with the design of Meg’s cavesson.  In my experience, finding correctly fitting cavessons is a real challenge; they usually do not conform well to the muzzle or sit evenly around the bones of the skull.  The cavessons Meg uses are Baroque inspired and have a piece of padded chain over the nose; I am sure that some people will find this too harsh, and I am sure in the wrong hands it would be.  But in truth, the shape of the noseband better conformed to the muzzle than most of the off the rack cavessons out there, and the weight of the noseband overall was much less than a regular cavesson. It had a greater degree of adjustability as well; one of the horses Meg used for demonstration later in the afternoon was an Anglo-Trakhener, heavy on the Thoroughbred blood, and his refined face seemed fit well in the cavesson. This style also has an option to fairly easily add a bit, which is a useful feature.

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There is a good view of the cavesson here as Meg appears to be asking this horse for LFS.

The ST system is based on its “five pillars”: groundwork, longeing, work in hand, riding and liberty work. The first two steps are done in a cavesson with a single line attached, and in these stages, the goal is to teach the horse how to carry themselves. The work in hand, which we were there to watch specifically, is done in a cavesson with a set of reins clipped to either side, as on a bridle. As horses become more advanced, a curb bit can be clipped to the cavesson along with a set of reins, and the horse is introduced to the concept of a double bridle.

Horses which are trained in the ST system will be introduced to many under saddle concepts prior to actually being backed; the exercises are meant to help develop the horse’s balance as well as to gymnastically work and develop the muscles.  For a youngster, ST can help the horse to understand the rein aids and develop lightness. In the end, the horse should become confident, relaxed and supple in their work. Due to the mental and physical demands, ST should not be started before the horse’s third year. Lightness was a pervasive theme, both in the application of the aids and the weight of the horse in the hand.

For the handler, ST teaches a better feel for their mount’s natural asymmetry and body position in the lateral exercises, and also helps to improve their sense of timing. Meg promised that this improved “feel” transfers over to the ridden work.

Understanding Asymmetry

Now, to really understand the importance of lateral work, you have to also appreciate that horses are naturally asymmetrical. Horses are narrower in the shoulders than the hips, and like humans, are “sided”, meaning one set of limbs tends to be in charge. In our usual handling practices, horsemen do little to improve the situation (when was the last time you led/untacked/mounted from the right or “off” side?).

ST teaches about “eight dimensions of asymmetry”. For me, there was nothing new here, but I really liked the way the concepts were organized. Meg presented the dimensions of asymmetry as follows:

  • Lateral bending (issues here are usually the easiest to correct)
  • Horizontal imbalance (horse naturally carries more weight on forehand)
  • Front legs (Handedness, as in, which leg does your horse prefer to lead with)
  • Hind Legs (the carrying hind leg is more flexible, and the pushing hind leg tends to be straighter, stronger and less flexible)
  • Front/back ratio (the wedge shape of the horse which I referred to earlier)
  • Diagonal (one diagonal pair will be dominant, and usually the pushing hind is diagonal to the dominant front)
  • Vertical (leaning in on an angle on corners)
  • Topline (we want the horse to stretch here and be longer and rounded).

In general, a right bended horse tends to be left forelimb dominant and usually has a pushing right hind. Their concave side is their right side.  Reverse all of these for a horse which is left bended (which seems to be less common overall).

To improve the horse first requires awareness of the asymmetry on the part of the trainer. All beings are asymmetrical, but through thoughtful and steady work, improvement is always possible.

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Meg working at liberty.

Use of the Aids in ST

The pillars of ST work which are done on the ground require the use of the handler’s body language and voice, but several other aids are also important. The first is mental focus—Meg used the expression “inner picture, inner feeling”, which basically means that before a trainer begins any exercise with their horse, they should have a sense of what it is they are trying to accomplish. Related to this is the concept of “energetic aids”, which basically is saying that the handler should be centered, grounded and present, with their full attention on the horse and the task at hand. Finally, for several pillars, artificial aids like a long whip (for driving, slowing or reinforcing) or rein (used similarly to the riding reins, with inside/outside and direct/indirect cues offered) are also included. A direct rein influences the horse’s poll while an indirect rein influences the shoulders, almost like having a lasso around the horse’s neck.

The demonstration section of this clinic was focusing on the work in hand, a pillar which comes after a horse already has a basic understanding of the ground work done with a cavesson on a single line, attached to the nose. Basic circle work and an introduction to the lateral movements should be established through ground work before progressing to work in hand, which is done with a set of reins clipped to either side of the cavesson, as on a bridle. During the ground work phase, the handler works on the inside of the horse.  But during the in hand phase, the handler will transition to the outside of the horse.

The whip becomes a tool of refined communication, based primarily by its position.  It can be used to activate the hind end, or when held in front of the chest, indicates a half halt. Held at the girth, it asks for more bend or forward intention. Pointed towards the opposite hip, it becomes an advanced aid to increase the angle of the haunches in. When kept down by the handler’s side, the whip is in neutral.

Progression of Exercises

In each stage of progression through the pillars, a series of specific exercises is introduced in order. During each exercise, the horse is encouraged to maintain “LFS”—lateral bend, a forward and downward tendency, while stepping under their center of mass with the hind leg.

  • Standstill: Meg says many folks new to ST work tend to gloss over this exercise, because it seems too easy or basic. But mastering the stand still, in which the horse halts with front feet square, head and neck lowered, while willingly flexing left and right, provides an important foundation. It also gives the horse a first introduction of the cavesson and its pressure, and helps to teach them to center their mass away from their dominant fore limb.
  • Circle: Usually done only in the walk, the circle is used to help establish LFS. “We don’t tend to do these in trot or canter, because it is hard to go from the circle to a straight line and keep the horse well balanced,” says Meg.
  • LFS on Straight Line, progressing to Shoulder In
  • Haunches In
  • Renvers
  • Half Pass
  • Pirouette
  • Trot
  • Canter
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I had to include this photo of my friend Carolyn, who seems to be practicing that pesky standstill!

Training Theory

When it comes down to it, what I witnessed at this clinic was the application of highly effective classical and operant training techniques. This is really at the root of most good animal training, whether you are talking about riding horses or training dogs or teaching some exotic zoo animal to engage in a medical exam. ST work is about applying the 3 R’s—Release, Reward, Relax. When the horse makes a move towards doing the thing you want, the handler offers a “bingo cue” (some sort of consistent sound), they release the pressure, and then immediately reward the horse with verbal or physical praise or a treat. There is then a short break to allow the horse to process what he just learned.

It is the timing and dosing of the pressure and release process which is most people’s downfall.  Basically, handlers need to AVOID pressure which is held too much, too long, too often, too suddenly or too steadily, and EMBRACE release which is early, often, quickly administered, long and soon.  Release more than you take. Through this process, the horse learns to carry the posture on his own.

There are three phases of the training process.  The first phase is teaching the horse.  In this phase, we are trying to help the horse begin to understand the exercise, and to develop the new neural pathways which will allow it to be performed. At this stage, the movement may lack gymnastic quality, or be in slow motion, similar to how we might learn a new dance step.  In the optimizing phase, the trainer focuses on improving the quality of the movement and encourages the horse to work towards self-carriage in the body and mind.  Finally, in the improvising phase, the exercise can now be used for a purpose or in a goal-oriented way.

Another way to look at the training and learning process is to understand that in doing any activity, there is the comfort zone (doing what you know and is familiar), the stretch zone (where you are trying something new that is out of your comfort zone but still attainable) and the stress zone (where what you are trying to teach is too much, too soon). Growth occurs in the stretch zone, but not every day can be a stretch day. And when we live in the stress zone… no training occurs.

Demonstration

Meg demonstrated the in hand techniques with two of her own horses.  The first horse was a 6 year old Hanoverian gelding who has had a “slow start” in his training progress due to various injuries. She demonstrated that she held each rein through the thumb and forefinger, so the overall contact was quite light.  The outside rein should cross the neck in front of the withers, but not be more than half way up the neck. The goal is to work towards holding the reins closer to the withers than the head, so that the horse is ultimately coming forward from the hindquarters and into the rein (similar to riding).  However, when the trainer loses quality, they should move their hold closer to the cavesson until the necessary elements improve. The handler’s body should be positioned off of the girth; Meg explained that it is really easy to get out in front of the horse’s shoulder.

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Meg and her horse Renfrew.

This particular horse usually struggles with the stand still, but today demonstrated the position with his feet even and square. Meg emphasized that under saddle, the horse must learn to wait to move until the rider’s cue, and this practice starts here. She encouraged the horse to stretch forward and down using gentle pressure on the front of the cavesson, and then flexed him to the left and right with pressure on the sides.

After a few moments in the stand still, Meg moved on to doing small circles, 8-10 meters in diameter, to encourage the bending of the horse, while still asking for the forward and downward tendency.  When she asked for transitions to the halt, the effort is made mostly from the voice.  The ultimate goal is to use little to no pressure on the reins in the halt, as the horse will usually tend to come up in the neck and lean into this pressure.

Because changing the bend while in motion is fairly difficult, Meg halted her horse and changed the reins over to the opposite side to work in the other direction.

She then proceeded to demonstrate the shoulder in (be sure to not draw the horse’s nose further in than their point of shoulder) and haunches in (the horse is taught to bend around the whip, which provides the cue).

Next, Meg brought in her 19 year old schoolmaster, Paladin, an Anglo-Trakehner. He came to her due to intermittent front end lameness which had ended his competitive career; through ST work to straighten his body, redevelop movement patterns and correct asymmetrical muscling, the lameness has all but resolved.

Meg worked through all of the same initial movements with Paladin, but then also showed us work in trot and canter.  She explained that the classical masters would sometimes introduce half steps in hand before introducing the trot in order to develop balance and strength; in the faster gaits, it is best to do very short bursts to prevent the horse from losing balance. No matter the gait of the horse, the handler should always remain walking, not jogging, to keep up.

Teaching these progressive exercises in the walk and trot with a youngster can help them to understand what is wanted before trying to do the movements with a rider on board. The movements may also be done in the canter, but this requires more collection than a young horse will have; it is better to introduce the canter under saddle first and allow the horse to develop more strength before teaching these exercises in that gait.

Take Aways

When I signed up for this clinic, I was not expecting a full immersion into an organized training system. I am almost always initially skeptical of programs which promote a particular prescripted philosophy, special equipment (ex: buy this halter/video series/magic stick for just 99.95) or come with too many impassioned disciples who all function at only a very basic level. So before I “drink the Kool-Aid”, I like to try to learn a little more.

Straightness Training (http://straightnesstraining.com/) is a pretty comprehensive program.  Its founder, Marijke de Jong, has created an ambitious and heavily trademarked/registered system of instruction, coaching, certification and support. Under the “FAQ’s” page on her website are some interesting threads on integrating ST work with “other types of riding” as well as what the difference is between classical riding and Straightness Training. Here, deJong compares the different schools of classical dressage training (German, Spanish, etc.) to the branches of a tree; while the specific approaches and techniques taught in these different schools may vary, they all have the same roots. deJong’s work is drawing off much of the in hand training approaches used by classical masters. She seems to have studied this subject far more deeply than I have ever attempted to, and it is beyond the scope of this blog for me to do any analysis on the connections here.

I think we as horsemen are all enthralled with the idea of having a horse which responds to our aids with lightness and sensitivity and to have the kind of relationship with our horse that is seemingly effortless and harmonious. Certainly in Meg’s demonstration she showed that with time and care, her work on the ground has allowed each of her horses to respond to quiet and soft aids as they worked through their lateral movements.  Despite being distracted by outside stimuli and twenty auditors, both horses chose ultimately to focus on Meg, with a minimum of fuss and no force.

I think my major, most important take away from this clinic was a reminder that we must all reward more often and for less effort. It is so easy, especially in dressage or equitation work, to drill ourselves and our horses. In doing so, we fail to recognize the “try”, the little effort the animal or student puts forward to improve, because we are too focused on shaping the response to be what we want in a final performance. But in order to get to that evolved, confident and smooth answer, there are many small, incremental steps of growth and improvement. If we as teachers and trainers do not reward these steps, the progress and growth we specifically seek can be deterred.

 

 

Notes and Observations:  Carl Hester at the NEDA Fall Symposium 2017

The northeast dressage community was electrified by the announcement that British dressage superstar Carl Hester would headline the 2017 New England Dressage Association (NEDA) Fall Symposium, held October 14-15, 2017 at the picturesque Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, ME.

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Abby Hardy riding Geoffrey and a previous symposium held at Pineland.

Hester’s influence on the sport of dressage in the UK has been pronounced, and includes leading the team to medals at the World Equestrian Games, Olympics and European Championships.  In fact, at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Hester not only rode (Nip/Tuck) but was the trainer of the other three members of the team:  Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro (who Hester co-owns), Fiona Bigwood and Atterupgaards Orthilia and Spencer Wilton and Super Nova II.

The recent success of the British team is refreshing, as it comes after years of harsh criticism of previous Dutch and German champions, many of whom were proponents of hyperflexion/rollkur.  These horses were criticized for being too tense, incorrect in their movement and otherwise not truly demonstrating the throughness, obedience and correctness necessary at the world class Grand Prix level.  By contrast, Hester is a clear proponent of adherence to classical training methods; he has an eye for a horse, frequently selecting his mounts as youngsters and training them through the levels himself.  His horses, and their riders, fairly dance through their performances.

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Hester spoke to a sold out house; I was only able to attend on day one, but even just spending just one day auditing was enough to grasp clear themes which emerged through demonstrations which began with a four year old and progressed all the way through to Grand Prix.

Here are my top eight take aways from this symposium.

  • Try to keep horses as naturally as possible.

Hester was originally an event rider, and so maybe this is why he still believes in actually turning horses out.  “If you want to keep your horses sound and happy and easy to ride—leave them out,” said Hester.  He notes that youngsters which are not turned out enough often end up being overworked because they are so high that it takes a long time to establish the necessary suppleness and relaxation.  As horses move up the levels and need more energy for their work, they might need to be kept in more.  But even Hester’s most elite horses enjoy time in turnout daily.

To this point, Hester also believes in regular out of the ring hacking for dressage horses, both for mental health and to develop fitness.  Young horses may only work for 20-30 minutes per session but should be warmed up by moving around outside of the ring.  “Horses must be fit, and if you are just riding them for twenty minutes they will not be fit enough,” said Hester.

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My own youngster, Izzy, clearly believes in the importance of sleeping and resting.  Especially when housekeeping has arrived to clean the paddock.
  •  Temperament, a good walk and a good canter are most important.

“I have been proven wrong many times by a horse with not the best movement but excellent temperament,” said Hester.

It is important for a dressage prospect to have as close to a perfect walk and canter as possible, because these gaits are much harder to improve than the trot.  However, a youngster with an unclear walk may simply need more strength. Horses with huge walks and a big overstep can be hard to collect. Riding zigzags up and down hills can help to improve the walk.

  • Less is more.

“All training goes like this,” said Hester, drawing a line in the air with his finger that resembled a rollercoaster.  Sometimes a horse will hit a phase of their training where they get more difficult, and this is not always a sign that the horse is being stubborn.  “Give them a break—a few weeks off,” said Hester.  “They can be tired or muscle sore.”

Hester repeated this theme in numerous ways during the day.  “Your horse isn’t born reading the dictionary—you must teach them the dictionary,” he said in regards to training youngsters.

“If the horse is not on the bit, do not force them,” said Hester. “The horse needs to work out where to put themselves.”  He reiterated this in several sessions.  “Do NOT be obsessed with the horse being ‘on the bit’,” said Hester.  “They will come onto the bit with correct work.”

During the work itself, horses need breaks when they become fatigued; a break can sometimes be as basic as taking a short diagonal while allowing the horse to lower their neck. “The rider must listen and feel for this request from the horse,” said Hester.

Make sure you finish a training session with work the horse finds easy.  Put the “meat” of your training towards the beginning or middle of your work.

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Hearing Hester’s words came at a perfect time for me, as work and school demands kept me from having as much time available for serious training.  Instead, I used the fall to focus on stretching, hacking, cavaletti work and strength building with my top horse, Anna.
  • Increase demands GRADUALLY 

Training must be systematic.  Youngsters should start by working on long straight lines and large circles.  They need to learn to turn from the outside aids of the rider, and be encouraged to reach through their topline in a long outline. A four-year-old might work just twenty to thirty minutes, four times per week, stretching in the walk, trot and canter, slowly building to the development of the ability to bend and straighten.  Once this foundation has been set, as a five-year-old the horse should work on smoother transitions, better balance, and increased lateral suppleness, using leg yield.

It takes time for horses to figure out what you want when you teach them something new.  On the first day, introduce the horse to the new skill; on day two review, then give them day three off.  On days four and five, repeat the lessons of days one and two.  Then go hacking on the weekend.

It. Takes. Time.

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  • TRANSITIONS 

Hester is obsessed with transitions.  He said he does “lots” of transitions per session—hundreds of them.  Big ones.  Small ones.  Between gaits, within gaits.

The trot to canter transition engages the inside hind, while canter to trot teaches the horse to come more forward into the rider’s hand and use their back more.  Canter-walk-canter will work towards getting the horse to truly sit behind and come off of their forehand.  “Listen for the sound of the front feet,” said Hester of this transition.  “You shouldn’t hear them.  These kinds of exercises build the strength to do the next level of collection.”

At the FEI levels, horses must be able to go from the trot or canter directly to the halt.  This starts by teaching a young horse to ride cleanly from trot-walk-halt.  Gradually, make the duration of the walk smaller until it goes away.  “Your piaffe-passage lives in the trot-halt transitions,” said Hester.  Hester recommends using a ground person to verify that each hind leg is squarely under the horse.  “This is how you ensure that each leg aid is activating the hind leg on that side,” said Hester.

For horses which come behind the leg, Hester recommends bringing them back as soon as they start to go forward, rather than waiting for them to slow down.  “You must take the leg off in between asks,” said Hester.  “Telling someone to ride forward when they don’t have the balance will not work.”

If you make it to Grand Prix, the transitions are the hardest part, especially from piaffe to passage and back.  “Good collection makes good extension,” said Hester.  At the lower levels, and for horses without a natural lengthening, asking for bigger strides on the circle can help to improve the gaits.

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Anna is a great example of a horse without much natural lengthening to her stride.  I have been trying to add “hundreds” of transitions to her work, ala Hester,  to try to develop more reach in her step.
  • Know your craft. Really, really know it.

Hester emphasized that all riders should understand the fundamentals of biomechanics and conditioning in the horse.  Riders should also choose a horse which suits their personality.

Self-carriage in the horse begins with teaching the horse to carry their own head and neck in the free walk on a long rein.  The rider should use their arms in a rowing fashion, pushing the neck down and forward.  Keeping the reins moving and looking for lightness in the hand is most important.

When tracking right, most horses bring their nose and haunches to the inside.  The rider must use more outside (left) rein to help keep the horse’s nose in front of their chest. When the horse tracks left, the rider can ask for more inside flexion to help stretch the chronically shortened right side. “When the nose and hips are to the right, the middle of the horse is out,” said Hester. “You need to bring the middle of the horse in.”

Hester made reference to an often misattributed quote of his student Dujardin, which goes something like “short reins win medals”.  “Short reins allow you to ride forward to the hand,” said Hester.  “Long reins will cause you to take back.  During the warm up, some horses will be very strong in the hand and some very light.  Do not mistake lightness for contact.”  The use of a driving rein position can be helpful for horses which curl in the neck in response to the rider’s hand.

Hester said that there is no hard and fast rule as to when introduce the double bridle.  “If the horse is not sure at first, I might hack out in it,” said Hester.  “But if the horse doesn’t go well to the snaffle then they won’t go to the bit in the double.  The horse must be in self carriage in the double bridle for it to work.”

Do not rely on your reins to create the shoulder in, rely on your legs.

To ride an accurate half pass, “put your destination in between your horse’s ears.”  Keep the rider’s weight on the inside seat bone.

Flying changes should be cued with a squeeze of the rider’s heel, not by drawing the entire leg back, especially on a dull horse.

Leg yield in canter can help to free up the horse within the gait; half pass in canter increases collection. In both movements, the horse’s shoulders should be leading slightly.

The half-halt is a forward aid.  “The half halt needs to feel like the horse is happy to go forward, not happy to stop,” said Hester.

Hester does not often use dressage whips.  “If you are going to ride with a whip, then the horse should not be best friends with it,” said Hester.  “But they also shouldn’t fear it.  The use of the whip should create a medium trot step instantly.”

“You ride for thirty to sixty minutes—do it right.”

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  • Be positive.

Training your horse should be like playing a game.  Make the work playful.  Reward often.  “Every time they give the correct reaction, offer a touch on the neck or a small pat with the inside rein,” said Hester.

The rider’s goal should be to put positive tension into their work, and afterwards stretch the horse and take a break.  “With the stretch, the horse shows relaxation,” said Hester.

To this end, rising trot can be a valuable tool.  “Rising trot is not just for amateurs and young horses,” said Hester.  “It can be helpful whenever you are asking the horse for more.  It can be used in the half pass, extended trot, etc.”

Always, always remember that horses are authentic.  “If the horse is difficult because he is stiff, he doesn’t do it to annoy you,” said Hester.  “He does it because he’s stiff, so you need to give him some time and work through it in a systematic way.”

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Sometimes your horse makes it very clear that they did not appreciate the way in which you asked for the flying change!
  • Dressage is not just about the movements.

Hester said that his older horses may work as much as two-three hours per day to develop the fitness necessary for elite dressage.  “But you are not just schooling the Grand Prix,” said Hester.  “You can’t do that. They must get fit through stretching, hacking and loosening.”

The hardest part of dressage, according to Hester, is attending to the care and health of your horse, and keeping them sound.  “It’s not what you invest in the horse, it is what you invest in training,” said Hester.  “Buy what you can afford; they might be two years old, but you can start here and train them.”

Hester said that it can be hard to stay inspired when working on your own.  “Everyone needs to find someone to work with,” said Hester.

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While I have taken inspiration from many coaches, it is Verne Batchelder’s assistance which has proven to be the most helpful with Anna.  

Final Thoughts

The content of this symposium was refreshing in its emphasis on correct, classical training and the emergence of the clear, horse friendly system that has led to Hester’s success.  There are no tricks or shortcuts, just a clever adherence to finding the joy in each individual horse, using their strengths to develop their weaknesses.  The horses chosen for demonstration were exceptional examples of the quality of work at each level.

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This won’t be a popular opinion—but for me, what was NOT refreshing about this symposium was all of the hoopla and rigmarole around it. Ex:  Tickets will go on sale at midnight, to NEDA members only.  Doors will open at 7:30 AM (symposium does not begin until 9:15). You will get a nametag to affix to your chair, no saving seats.  Dressage has a reputation for divas, for excessive wealth, for elitism.  This symposium did NOTHING to eliminate that perception; if anything, it enhanced it.  I don’t know how much came from Hester himself (for example, it is his request that no photographs are taken, out of respect for the training process and privacy of the riders) and how much came from NEDA.  Some of the demo horses came from Florida, Ohio and Maryland, for goodness sake. Of the over one hundred rider applicants, we couldn’t find animals from our membership’s base?  Where were the Irish horses, the OTTBs, the “native ponies”?  It is great to see these methods work well with the genetically blessed horses which were selected (again, I don’t know if Hester had final say and this was his design).  But I would suspect that most of the NEDA membership is not riding horses of this caliber, and it would have been inspirational to see even a modest transformation in a “normal” horse during the course of this symposium.  By the end of the day, I had had my fill of the “fussiness” of dressage.

With that being said, I am appreciative of the hard work and organization which went into the planning of this educational event, a process two years in the making.  We are lucky to have access to this caliber of education in the northeast and I am grateful for the hours of effort from the volunteers which put this together.

Hester closed day one with the following summary.  “Dressage is the art of putting a crooked person on a crooked animal and expecting them to be straight and then move to self-carriage,” said Hester.  “Self-carriage is having the horse balanced on all four legs.”

 

Book Review: Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View

Ridden:  Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View by Ulrike Thiel

c 2013 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 225 pages.

ISBN 978-1-57076-558-2

Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View is an intellectual read, part study of equine biomechanics, part reflection on training philosophy and part treatise on the essential need to commit to the classical principles in all work with horses.  Author Dr. Ulrike Thiel is a clinical psychologist, therapeutic and able-bodied riding instructor, and dressage devotee, and in this book she blends her education, experience and scientific analysis together in a manner which synthesizes a complex topic into a manageable narrative.

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What Thiel does extremely well in this book is providing analogies, visuals and exercises which can help a rider to understand, in human terms, what a horse is experiencing under certain circumstances.  Through these means, Thiel helps the rider to have better empathy for how much most horses are willing to offer to us, despite muddled communication, improper balance and a host of other challenges.  She conscientiously takes the reader through the learning process which a horse and rider must undertake, including overcoming the predator/prey relationship by gaining a horse’s trust, confidence and respect.

Once Thiel has laid the framework for developing the horse/human relationship through mutual respect, she then delves deeper into the concepts espoused in classical dressage training, comparing the horse’s progression through the exercises to the process of learning to ski for a human (among her many hats, Thiel is also a certified ski instructor). Throughout, she emphasizes the fact that horses will forgive the mistakes of humans, but those mistakes must first be acknowledged to be rectified.  The consequences of failing to correct training missteps or rider issues can result in permanent physical damage to the horse.

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From the United States Dressage Federation

After painstakingly laying out this foundation, Thiel turns her analytical focus to what she calls “modern” training methods—rollkur, hyperflexion, or low, deep and round (LDR).  These controversial training methods have been promoted by several high profile European dressage stars (including Olympic medal winners) and Thiel takes direct aim at the methods, their perpetrators, and the FEI for not wholly condemning their use. To write this book and publish it in her native Netherlands must have taken supreme courage, as one of the most famous proponents of hyperflexion has been two time Olympic gold medalist Anky Van Grunsven, who is a house hold name in the country.

It seems clear that Thiel’s motivations are truly to promote humane horsemanship and training methods, in spite of the risk of drawing what surely is sharp criticism.  “The excesses associated with equestrian sports are in the crossfire of criticism…Ultimately, the question we all need to ask is whether the well-being of the horse is being considered as he is used in sports, for pleasure, as a therapy animal, or for other purposes…As it is so often when money, power, and competition play a role, ethics and human assumption of responsibility are left by the wayside” (Thiel, 2013, p. 209).  Further, “I think the horse awakens different needs within humans.  The horse can be used as a tool to fulfill our desire for power and success” (Thiel, 2013, p. 214).

I would recommend Ridden to any horseman who is interested in better understanding why the classical training methods have endured for centuries, and why this approach is still the best way to train the horse to be the most they can be.  I hope that most equestrians that consider themselves to be true horsemen are willing to constantly put themselves under the microscope, asking what they can do better.  Reading this book and taking time to honestly reflect on its content should allow for that opportunity for growth.

I applaud Thiel for being brave enough to write this book, and for taking the time to combine intellectual and emotional rationale—left brain/right brain balance—to advocate for why adherence to classical training concepts is essential for equine well-being.

5/5 stars