- by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©2007 All Rights Reserved
Many riders feel discomfort at the discrepancy between their desire for eternal harmony with their horse and their experience of reality in which perfect harmony is achieved some of the time, but not all of the time. One mistake that happens easily with less experienced riders who have never made a horse is that they take somebody else's description of the finished product and assume that every day of the training process should be exactly like this vision of perfection. Unfortunately, perfection is unattainable, as even a master like Felix BŘrkner admits. All we can do is try our best every day to come as close to this ideal as we can. But if we truly want to learn how to train horses, we must not live in a dream world.
Gustav Steinbrecht (Das Gymnasium des Pferdes, 1935, English translation, Xenophon Press, 1995, 220) reminds his readers:
"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."
This presents a good opportunity to take a closer look at the term "resistance" that surfaces so often in discussions. Nowadays it seems to be used mostly in reference to the horse's active opposition as a justified defence against unfair or contradictory demands on the rider's part, or against a poor seat. "Resistance" therefore has a distinctly negative connotation, and some trainers try to win new clients by advertising their methods as "resistance-free" training. This definition was used by some past authors as well. Borries von Oeynhausen (Leitfaden zur Abrichtung von Reiter und Pferd, 1856, reprint Olms, p. 51, translation: TR) is a good example:
"All resistances on the horse's part originate either in fear of the human, or in ignorance of what the human is demanding of him, or, yet again, simply in the inability to do what is demanded too much, too early, or too often.
"Only when the horse has begun to trust the human, does he begin to
understand what is asked of him in regard to dressage; and only then can the latter enable the horse to perform things that would be impossible for an untrained horse."
However, a survey of the literature, as well as practical experience, show that this definition is too narrow. Consider, e.g., Jean Licart's (╔quitation raisonnÚe, J.Delmas et Cie., Paris 1972, p. 27, translation: TR) understanding of the term "resistance":
"All resistances are, in fact, nothing other than incorrect and persistent muscle contractions that obstruct the movement. Now, these resistances can only be removed by developing the elasticity of the muscles that oppose the movement."
This implies a much broader definition, which may include, but is not limited to active opposition. Licart's focus here is on resistance as muscle stiffness. This stiffness can come from a variety of sources, including discomfort that is caused by the rider's weight, pain due to an injury, poor seat and aids of the present rider, poor previous training that still haunts the present rider, and poor conformation.
The two latter causes are explicitly mentioned by Franšois Baucher as the main causes for resistances:
"The suppling, which will have no other object in the case of a well-made horse than that of preparing his forces to yield to our impulsions, will re-establish calm and confidence in a horse that has been badly handled, and in a defective formation will make those contractions disappear, which are the causes of resistances, and the only obstacles to a perfect equilibrium. The difficulties to be surmounted will be in proportion to this complication of obstacles, and will quickly disappear with a little perseverance on our part."
The translation is taken from Hilda Nelson, Franšois Baucher. The man
and his method, J.A.Allen, London, 1992, p.107. Baucher's statement that the difficulties will "quickly disappear with a little perseverance" is, of course, based on the assumption that the person who is retraining the horse is a master. The average rider will have to invest more time.
E.F.Seidler makes a similar statement in the foreword of his book "Die
Dressur diffiziler Pferde (1846, x, reprint Olms, translation: TR):
"Only mismatches of the forces in relation to and against one another are the causes for horses' being difficult and resistant."
What is interesting here is that both Baucher and Seidler were forced to work a great deal with horses that had either been spoilt by poor training or whose conformation did not make them particularly suitable as dressage horses, which sets them apart from other masters who were fortunate enough to be able to work with more talented horses. Based on their practical experiences, both Baucher and Seidler arrived at a much broader - and more realistic - understanding of resistance. Their definition includes passive resistances, i.e. stiffnesses that are caused by conformational shortcomings, such as a long, weak back, a roach back, a short neck, a thick neck, a very straight neck, a low set neck, a tight throat latch, croup high conformation, straight hind legs, hind legs that are out behind due to the angles of their joints, etc., as well as all the possible combinations.
I personally find this neutral, unjudgmental view of resistances much more appropriate, because it reflects the complexity of the training process best. There certainly are active resistances that are completely avoidable, because they are the horse's response to excessive demands, a poor seat, or poor aids. There are equally avoidable active resistances that are caused by a pushover rider who never makes any demands of his horse, so that the horse rebels when somebody else comes along and changes the rules by asking him to work for a living. But there are also passive resistances that are nobody's fault, because they originate in certain mismatches in the horse's conformation.
The entire process of suppling, balancing and straightening the horse is aimed at dissolving resistances. Any green horse is initially unbalanced in two ways. He carries more weight on the forehand than on his hindquarters, and he carries more weight on the legs of his stronger, stiffer side than on the legs of the hollow side. The stiffer hind leg thrusts more than the one on the hollow side, which leads to a heavier rein on the stiffer side. The horse compensates for any imbalance by muscle tension: stiffness, resistance. That's why training is to a large extent synonymous with eliminating stiffness/tension/resistance, and "resistance free" training is hence a fantasy, unless the goals are set extremely low.
Another factor that plays a role is that to some degree resistance is a matter of subjective feel. A less advanced rider with little tact may think that his horse shows no resistance at all, while a more educated rider will find that the exact same horse feels horribly stiff and resistant: unresponsive to the leg and seat, not allowing the rein aids to go through. The reason is simply that the less advanced rider can feel only 10% (to use an arbitrary number), e.g., of what the more educated rider feels. This can sometimes make communication between the two difficult, because the less educated rider has no way of relating to what the more educated rider is trying to tell him, because he cannot feel any of it. One of the most important goals in the rider's education is therefore to increase the tact, so that the rider learns to feel smaller and smaller nuances, which enables him to address and solve problems long before they get out of hand.
The art lies in being able to see right to the bottom of each instance of resistance and to find the proper remedy, so that the resistances are overcome as quickly and efficiently as possible, instead of becoming aggravated. With this less ideological view, resistances lose their emotional, negative connotation. The rider can then accept them as a natural and inevitable part of the training process, because even the best trainer in the world still has to deal with poor previous training, the horse owner's mistakes, and conformational difficulties. A good trainer can certainly minimize resistances, and when they arise, he will deal with them swiftly and efficiently, and move on. A poor trainer, on the other hand, may never advance to the point where he recognizes that there are problems, or he may sweep the difficulties under the rug and try to cover them up, or he will constantly battle with every horse he rides.
Gustav von Dreyhausen (GrundzŘge der Reitkunst, 3rd edition Wien 1951,
reprint: Olms 1996, 24, translation: TR) paraphrases the view that I have tried to explain here:
"Above all, one has to eradicate the constriction, the discomfort, the stiffness that is the reason behind the resistances. One has to re-establish trust and impulsion, i.e. relax the horse, and then start over with the demands.
"Of course, it will often be necessary to break resistances with seat, leg, and hands first. A horse that inverts and runs away has to learn that bolting does not work, before one can release and drive again. But then one has to show him with releasing, driving, and true impulsion - which is vastly different from bolting - that he is much more comfortable himself as well if he relaxes than if he runs stiffly against the aids.
"Making a correct diagnosis requires a great deal of experience and understanding. We must be able to apply the general principles of equestrian art individually. That is where the difficulty lies. Otherwise, every beginner could train and correct horses with the help of a good book. Riding would not be an art, but an entertainment that is easy for anybody to learn - a sport."
E.F.Seidler (1846, 64f., translation: TR) shall have the last word with three quotes that reflect the intricacies of true training very well, without being dogmatic, without being simplistic, and without being unrealistic:
"A difficult horse can be discouraged from exhibiting unpleasant behavior and can be taught to obey the rider's fair demands in part by timely prevention, such as a reduction of the demands, in part by praising and soothing, but in part also by seriousness, strict treatment, moderate, and sometimes even tough punishment. Yet at the same time, anyone of these remedies can provoke unpleasant behavior, if it is applied at the wrong moment.
"Kindness, lenience, and praise at the wrong time too often teach the horse to disrespect the aids at first, and then to oppose them and to be stubborn. Strictness, tough treatment, punishment and intransigence on the rider's part at the wrong time, causes first distrust, then shyness, fear and agitation, even hysteria, and finally malevolence, and intentional defiance. Applying the aids that are appropriate for the horse's character at the right time and in the right intensity, is the greatest art in training difficult horses, next to the correct evaluation of the conformation. One waits in vain for a good success of a rider who is always lenient, as well as of a rider who is always strict. The belief is unfounded that one can accomplish everything with kindness or everything with tough treatment.
"The praise of permanent kindness and lenience is just as wrong as the criticism of timely correction and appropriate punishment. Principled training is an art, which requires the greatest kindness as well as the greatest strictness to the precisely measured degree, and at the right moment, if good success is to be expected."
E.F.Seidler (1846, 66f., translation: TR):
"Remember: A punishment that is not strict enough increases the disobedience. An exaggerated punishment provokes, and the horse either bolts hysterically, or in response to the provocation, starts to fight again and with redoubled effort. These horses have to be taught a certain degree of fear at first, but they must not be terrified. As soon as they obey, one has to overcome the fear by praising them and patting their neck in order to win their trust."
E.F.Seidler (Leitfaden zur systematischen Bearbeitung des Kampagnepferdes,
Berlin 1837, reprint Olms, Hildesheim 1977, 11f., translation: TR):
"Unconditional obedience arises only out of the horse's complete trust in his rider that the latter will never demand more than the former can give, that nothing unfair will ever happen to him, but that, on the other hand, the rider does not tolerate disobedience."