With Horses Everybody is a Student and a Trainer
By Paul Kathen
Very often when a new student comes to my barn I am asked to assess her current status as a rider, - beginner, intermediate, or advanced. My criteria for such an evaluation follows. Until a rider can tell me what went wrong when she has a problem with her horse and what she needs to do to correct it, she is a beginner. The rider who can determine the cause of a problem and correct it, but is unable to feel when it is about to happen and prevent it, is an intermediate rider. The advanced rider can, through her feeling, listen to the horse, detect a resistance coming up, and correct it so that it appears to the spectator as constant harmony between horse and rider.
This works very well unless horse and rider do not speak the same language or either one or both have a limited vocabulary. Such situations require yet another skill, - that of a trainer.
Riding is a constant dialogue between horse and rider. We, the riders, speak through our aids and listen with our seat and hands to the horse. While the horse, through the quality and correctness of its movement, clearly lets us know about its willingness to listen and its ability to obey.
The task of the trainer is to teach the horse the meaning of the aids and to develop it physically so it is able to execute the demands made upon it by the rider. The third aspect of training is to instill in the horse the willingness to cooperate. I do not mean the obedience of a slave, but the cooperation of a partner.
It may seem simple, but it is very difficult. Horses just are not born and do not grow up with a rider on their backs. The best place on the horse’s back to put that rider securely is near their front legs, - the weakest part of their body. So, to protect it, we must teach the horse to move in an unnatural balance, that is with its weight shifted farther back towards their hindquarters. - You read right! It says unnatural!
Let us pause a minute here. We, the dressage riders, pride ourselves in training our horses in a natural way. We read about it, we hear about it, and speak about it. It is true insofar that we do not ask our horses to do tricks or unnatural movements. Everything we teach them to do, we can observe them doing on their own at liberty. However, we do ask them to shift their center of gravity farther back to allow for the extra weight of the rider and to protect their front legs from undo wear and tear.
When looking at the demands made upon the horse in the various levels, we can see that in training and first level the horse can do well in its natural balance. Second level demands collection, - the increased shift of weight to the hindquarters. When looking at the entries at the shows, we recognize that there are many horses in training and first levels but few in second, third, and fourth levels. This tells the story of the difficulty of training a horse to move in collection. It is not that they are bad horses, it is just very difficult. Try it yourself. Just walk naturally. Easy enough, - you can do it all day long. Now bend your knees and walk. That burns! You want to straighten your knees again. So does the horse, and it moves back into its natural balance.
The trainer must gradually strengthen the horse’s hindquarters to where they become strong enough to carry the additional weight without the burn. To do this, trainers draw from the experiences of the masters of the past. These masters developed exercises to work their horses in order to achieve strength, obedience, and ultimately, collection.
At the end of the last century one of these masters, a German veterinarian and rider, Gustav Steinbrecht, wrote a number of notes about horses, their training, and the exercises used in the process. They were collected into a book by one of his students. This book is now translated to the English language and called, “The Gymnasium of the Horse.” Based on this book, the German Riders’ Association developed what is known as the “German Riding Manual.” Most successful riders in the world base their training on the principals found in these two collections. Both books define the system of training and stress the importance of the strict adherence to it. They also agree that in order to teach a vocabulary to a horse, the rider must know the language herself as well as be an advanced rider. She must be able to feel and read the horse so that she can push it against its limit and not through it, thus creating fear and resentment instead of confidence and cooperation.
Everybody who rides also teaches the horse something, - good or bad. It must be our goal to be a good enough rider to influence a horse to perform better. Instructors and books tell us how, but only sweat and time in the saddle enable us to execute what we know needs to be done to improve the horse.
If you are a beginner, take lessons on school horses. If you are intermediate, take lessons on school horses or ride your own horse under supervision. If you are advanced, ride under the supervision of a qualified trainer as much as you can. If you are a trainer, learn from every horse you ride, and find a good mentor to help you through the rough spots. Klaus Balkenhol, Olympic Gold Medalist and trainer of the German National Team, once stated that one lifetime is not enough to learn all there is to know about horses, and I agree.