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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.

Gentleness and Discipline
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter

©2000 - All Rights Reserved

Here is a little excerpt from a recent German publication that takes a look at riding from a Taoist perspective. I like the few short paragraphs, because they touch on an issue that is one of the most frequent misunderstandings in modern day horsemanship.

Wilfried Bach, Das Tao des Reitens. Der Weg der acht Schritte, Kosmos 1998, 60f. The translation is mine:

"The connecting element between the polar forces is attentiveness. It allows the "whole" to grow. It connects leading and following, opening and closing, driving and yielding, but also hard and soft, wild and gentle.

"Our world is subject to the laws of polarity. If I remove one pole, disharmony ensues in various excesses. Only the interaction of the mutually interdepedent energies creates what we call harmony.

"Of course, gentle riding is subject to the laws of nature as well. I am well aware that I am touching on a sensitive issue with the following statement, and that many people will probably reject it. I claim that a truly and exclusively gentle interaction with horses (Yin-energy) is impossible due to the cosmic laws. If I always interact with horses gently, gently, gently (Yin-energy), it will not take long before the horses begin to live the opposite pole, the Wild (Yang-energy), in accordance with the natural laws."

This is a very interesting observation. Many modern amateurs who have the best intentions take their desire for a harmonious, gentle interaction with their horse to such an extreme that they never expect any reciprocation from their horse. While they may respect their horse, they do not expect him to respect them in return. They don't expect their horses to obey their requests, but instead allow them to be rude, disobedient, and disrespectful - something another, higher ranking, horse would never tolerate in a subordinate herd member. They either don't ask the horse to stretch the limits of his comfort zone at all (they are therefore often unaware that their horse is the leader), without which no training can take place, or they back down immediately, if the horse shows anything but an enthusiastic response. I have even seen riders reward blatant, potentially dangerous disobediences with walking on a long rein and a pat on the neck, out of a desire to keep the peace, or maybe out of fear.

These riders fail at being leaders. Their "kindness" and "gentleness" is perceived by their horse as weakness. Only a strong leader's kindness and gentleness is recognized by the horse for what it truly is. If the herd leader fails to fulfill his role, the second in command will take over and provide the leadership that the alpha horse is unable or unwilling to provide, because the safety of the herd is at stake. Without a competent leader, the entire herd is at risk of falling prey to predators. That's why any authority vacuum is immediately filled by the next lower ranking herd member.

The horses of these weak riders are typically the most disobedient horses. They may be sweet and friendly on the ground, but as soon as you try to put them to work even within the most reasonable limits, many of them flat out refuse to even try. If this "antiauthoritarian" approach to horsemanship, this lack of leadership persists, the horses become so secure and comfortable in their role as herd leader that they will not relinquish it to a more competent rider without considerable opposition. At the rider's first request to work they respond with their usual evasion, stalling, threatening to buck or rear, or whatever has proved to be most successful with their owner. Unlike the owner, the more competent rider will not be impressed. Instead, he will quietly insist on his original request. The horse is surprised that the old trick is not working. So he will try to redouble his efforts at trying to intimidate the rider, e.g by rearing a little higher, or by bucking a little more wildly. You can see that this can very easily put the rider, who is completely innocent of the horse's ill manners, at a considerable risk, since the horse will escalate the conflict, because experience has taught him that the rider will eventually back down, if he only acts wildly enough. The longer the horse has been allowed to be the unchallenged herd leader, the more the disrespectful behavior is ingrained in him, and the more he will fight for his alpha status. As always, the secret to good riding lies in preventing problems rather than in repairing the damage.

Only if the rider succeeds in letting all evasions and disobediences backfire, so that they lead to a more strenuous workout, while the rider's initial request always turns out to be by far the easiest road for the horse, will the horse eventually accept the rider as the wiser, more deserving herd leader and yield to his authority. This can often be done without active punishment on the rider's part. The horse punishes himself as all his evasions turn out to be more energy consuming than honest work. If the rider is quick and coordinated enough, he only has to wait until the horse truly believes that the rider's way is the easiest way. The success of this method depends entirely on four factors:

  1. The demand has to be fair, i.e. the horse has to be physically capable of executing it.
  2. The aids have to be unambiguous (no simultaneous driving and holding back, and/or leaning forward, no gripping legs)
  3. The rider has to have more patience than the horse, so that he does not give in before the horse is making a positive effort.
  4. The rider must under no circumstances miss the first signs of cooperation. As soon as the horse makes an honest effort, he must be rewarded. In extreme cases, the lesson must end with the first sign of willingness, no matter how small it may be.

If the rider violates any one of these four cardinal rules, the horse will become antagonized, and the entire situation deteriorates, even to the point of becoming dangerous. Horses have a strong sense of fairness, which means they will accept a deserved reprimand, but they will rebel against excessive demands or punishment.

It is important that the rider maintains a friendly attitude towards the horse. E.F.Seidler addresses this in his book "Die Dressur diffiziler Pferde" (1846, 365, reprint Olms 1976, translation: TR):

"Never leave a resistant horse without reconciliation, even if you had to treat him very strictly on that particular day. Do not put him away until he obeys, but then a friendly relationship must be restored between trainer and horse. Always adhere to the principle: 'The punishment is directed only at the disobedience, never at the horse'. As soon as the disobedience is over, he is our good horse."

Gustav Steinbrecht (Das Gymnasium des Pferdes, 1884, English translation: 1995, 220) elaborates on the same point and states that even with the most talented horses there will be disagreements from time to time, no matter how skilled and experienced the trainer may be:

"Even with the greatest of care and the most serious diligence, no one should dream that it would be possible to reach the goal smoothly and without obstacles. With every horse you take in training, if it appears to be the most evidently suitable riding horse, be prepared for disappointments, embarrassments, and fights; then you might possibly not lose your good humor; and that is really the most important in all of your work. Also note: your horse will make progress only if you and it are friends. Even if you fight against his bad tendencies, his natural obstinacy, your dealings with the horse must always be enveloped in an aura of benevolent friendliness. A bad mood, sullenness, impatience, lack of self-control make any true progress impossible in dressage training."

In situations where the horse seems to react with strong opposition to a reasonable request, the rider has to make sure that above all the horse is sound and that the request is well within his physical capabilities. Checking the proper fit of the equipment belongs into the same category. Then, the rider has to make sure that his aids are correctly timed and co-ordinated, so that the possibility of a misunderstanding is ruled out. If the resistance persists, the rider can reduce the difficulty of the demand. In almost all such cases a fundamental lack of acceptance of the aids, especially the driving aids, can be isolated as the underlying cause of the horse's refusal to comply. Lack of acceptance of the aids is a symptom for a lack of respect for the rider as the herd leader. This disrespect and the unwillingness to go forward at the rider's request is the one cardinal sin that cannot be tolerated under any circumstances, because it compromises the rider's safety. Many riding accidents are ultimately caused by it. That is the reason why Nuno Oliveira says: "Never use force, except if the horse sucks back." (Notizen zum Unterricht von Nuno Oliveira, Nuno Oliveira Sämtliche Schriften, Bd. 3, Olms 1998, 17).

The best procedure in a situation like this is to give the horse the benefit of the doubt: "Maybe he did not understand my aids. Let me try again, and this time I will make sure that I am absolutely clear. Maybe I am asking for too much. Let me try an easier variation on the same theme." In other words, the horse is given every possible opportunity to show a sign of willingness, which is really all the rider can ask for. In reducing the demands, the rider will sooner or later hit rock bottom, the lowest possible demands that even a very young horse can fulfill without problems. If the horse still refuses at this point, he has run out of excuses. It is a clear sign that he does not respect and accept the rider and his aids. This is the point where the rider has a choice. He can either insist on obedience or he has to stop riding the horse. Anything else will not only bring the training to a grinding halt, it will sooner or later result in an accident. Needless to say, absolute consistency in handling and riding is another conditio sine qua non. Without it, the rider will never succeed at anything.

Developing a true understanding of the principle described above and learning to apply it correctly in practice is something that is extremely difficult without seeing practical examples that are handled by a competent teacher. The lack of opportunities for modern riders to watch and take lessons from truly educated horsepeople is one of the main reasons why so many riders make so many mistakes when they meet with the horse's opposition. They either resort to punishment and push an issue in cases where they should seek an alternative solution, if they do not want to lose the horse's trust, or they back down in cases where they need to stand their ground, if they do not want to lose the horse's respect. Either way, the outcome can be desastrous. For this reason, it is generally best to seek the help of an educated professional before it is too late, i.e. before the horse becomes dangerous.

There is a fine line between leadership and tyranny, between gentleness and cowardice, between strength and harshness, between kindness and weakness. Always finding just the right "tone" in the conversation with the horse is an art that takes a lifetime to learn and to refine. This is yet another level on which the rider constantly has to seek the optimal Balance between two extremes.

One of my teachers, Dorothee Faltejsek, writes in chapter 4 of her book "Im Damensattel. Eine Reitlehre für die Frau" (Olms, Hildesheim/Zürich/New York, 1998, translation: TR):

"Praising at the right moment, but also knowing how to be strict when necessary without either pampering or being harsh. If she always finds the right tone in her communication with the horse, she will soon be accepted by the horse.

"The horse's personality demands the rider's concentration. She must be able to predict the horse's behavior and certain subsequent reactions. She must, therefore, be able to react quickly, if necessary, and, I want to emphasize this again, she must always find the right way and the right tone for any given situation.

"One should be determined, tactful, and gentle, but not tentative or afraid. One either possesses the necessary tact, or one does not. In which case it can only be learned to a certain degree, if at all."

There are always many different factors involved, and the rider has to learn to identify them, evaluate them, and differentiate between them in order to arrive at the correct analysis. is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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