Calm, Forward, Straight

Calm, Forward, Straight

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The secret of good riding...

Face Behind the Vertical
A "modern" deviation from the classical ideal.
Part Two

by Erik F. Herbermann

As we come to realize just what a vast and diverse subject horsemanship actually is, it becomes increasingly clear that a whole lifetime of study would be grossly inadequate to achieve any measure of equestrian competence unless we carefully build our work on the hard-fought ground won by past generations of dedicated riders. We absolutely must keep in touch with this great wealth of inherited knowledge and diligently try to apply it in practice if we are to succeed. Not that everything old is necessarily always good, but as the reader will surely agree, we had better be certain about what we are throwing away! We would indeed be foolhardy to ignore the well-established observations about the horse's nature from the past while merrily setting out (with callow, schoolboy enthusiasm) to reinvent the wheel!

Besides seeing the illustrations submitted in this article, it is highly informative for us to study carefully the pictures of Richard Watjen and Johann Meixner, especially when we compare them with more recent photos depicting "modern" dressage. (These well known illustrations can be seen in Watjen's book Dressage Riding or in Dressage Formula by this author, both books published by J.A. Allen, London.)

Watjen - canter

Watjen - trot

Watjen was among the last true classicists. We are indeed fortunate to have such excellent photos of his work available to us, and we should always try to keep the ideals they portray clearly in mind. Note particularly how the horses are going vigorously forward, and note the exemplary head and neck carriage: and honest reflection in relation to the engaged, lowered hindquarters. Comparing our work to such highly respected performances from the past, and studying the well-established literary knowledge that these masters have left behind, is a both rewarding and indispensable avenue for analyzing and correcting our course.

Phases of correct piaffe, #1-4. #5 and 6 are labeled 'faulty.' These famous sketches of Lipizzaners working at the Spanish Riding School, were made by Ludwig Koch, a Viennese painter who studied the horses in motion at the school. They were published in 1928 in his book called Die Reitkunst im Bilde (The Art of Riding in Pictures). Through Koch's work we have an invaluable and accurate record of what correctly trained horses should look like.

The accepted classical standard for the head position of the horse is: "with the horse's face at, or slightly in front of, the vertical, and with the poll as the highest point." This having been stated, we should, nevertheless, always view any external guidelines with a deeper understanding of cause and effect, because a horse could potentially demonstrate even this classical requirement without going entirely correctly. We human beings have such an inexhaustible capacity for synthesizing (falsifying) that we must be constantly on guard to monitor our work and assess its quality and honesty by using natural law as our standard.

In other words, the correct head position should be, exclusively, an end result of the horse's entire locomotive system being supple, balanced, and naturally (unforced) in play. This can only be correctly achieved when we work the horse from back to front and receive, filter, and direct the energy with a quiet, passive hand. In no way should the horse's head be artificially placed by the hands.

One of the most obvious and failsafe signs that the horse is not being ridden in accordance with classical principles, and is therefore not in natural self-carriage, is betrayed by the constant, active fiddling, sawing, crude half-halting, and any other demonstrative "verbal diarrhea" of the rider's hands. How rare it is to see riders working their horses from the seat and leg and with two perfectly quiet "glass of water" hands.

The classical way of working might be compared to preparing a seedbed. It seems only common sense that the gardener should accept that he cannot make a seed grow. He accepts his task: that of being an assistant, a subject, to the little seed. He knows that his task is strictly confined to making the circumstances for the seed as ideal as possible so that it can do that which it knows best: grow into a plant. So, too, the rider is actually only a catalyst, an enabler, who through adequate experience knows how to make circumstances such that the horse begins to trust its working environment and liberates its powers, willingly surrendering them to be usefully directed by our human intellect. That is the secret of good riding: knowing how to free the horse's natural powers while effectively guiding it. We can no more force a seed to grow than we can force a horse to go. Only through patient nurturing and care will each bring forth its delightful blossoms and fruit in its own time.

We must keep in mind that it is the rider who sets the psychological scene. If we think of riding as a battle, then, surely enough a battle it will be! Any strictly physical or technical manipulation of the horse, which dismisses its ability to contribute willingly to the partnership, gets into the adversarial "master-slave" attitude of working and can at best only bare sterile and degrading results. And when the horse is deliberately ridden with its face behind the vertical, exactly those unwanted aspects begin to appear. Why is this so?


  1. This is REALLY good - it's nice to see basic principles of good horsemanship articulated so clearly - thank you for posting these!

  2. I love these articles and think it's a great idea that you've posted them for us to read. Can't wait for more.

    It just amazes me that we have come so far from what is right to what is wrong in a relatively short time. How could anyone think that the modern dressage we see in competitions is the way to go.

  3. Great share! Especially love the diagrams.

  4. wow, i'm really struck by the rider's position in those photos - so nice to see what i consider a more natural position, rather than the forced, behind the motion, driving seat seen so often today.

    and he's absolutely right to call attention to the wrongful tendency to gear our work toward externals (like defining 'on the bit' as a superficial head and neck position, rather than a relationship between horse and hand, etc.) correct position of the head in particular is a by-product of good work, not the source of it!

  5. Kate -

    I'm so glad you're enjoying the article. I wasn't sure how interesting it would be to anyone else. It's kind of long and involved but there is so much wisdom in it :)


    Sadly, it seems to be a self perpetuating system.


    Glad you're enjoying it! :)


    To me, Watjen looks like he's part of the horse - in the horse. I love that Mr. Herbermann values looking at correct work :)

  6. Speaking of horses going vigorously forward- I'm reminded of a video of Anky riding Salinero and how it looked like the two of them were moving in slow motion. Oh, and that horse has no trot, only passage. So weird.

  7. Great information for posting. That over bridled, forced thing I see in so much upper level dressage just makes me shake my head. But then the over bridles, force thing I see in the western pleasure arena of my breed sends me to the very same place. Few of the horses in the arena at upper levels are exhibiting true self carriage.


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