The Prussian cavalry officer and book author Otto von Monteton wrote in 1877: “After having trained a charger for five years during my turn of duty, who ended up going so well that I have not sat on a better trained horse in ten years, I have come to the realization that if I had to train the same horse again, I would do it completely differently, because with the clarity of hindsight, you see all the detours you took temporarily. The farther one advances, the more one realizes how little one knows.” This is a sentiment that most trainers are probably familiar with, because the thinking rider learns from every horse and every ride.
We learn by observing very closely the horse’s reactions to our actions (both deliberate and involuntary), reflecting on them, drawing a conclusion, forming a “working hypothesis” on where the root of the problem lies and then testing it by implementing certain exercises and aids sequences that address the issue we have identified. As a result, the horse will either get better or worse, and our cycle of observation, diagnosis, and remedy begins anew. This way, we learn through trial and error (sometimes it seems mostly through error) since every horse is always trying to tell us how he needs to be ridden. The challenge lies in interpreting correctly what the horse is trying to communicate.
A good example that probably every rider experiences – especially during the early phases of their education – are the moments when horses suddenly invert, especially during transitions. At first, this seems to happen for no reason at all. But the same mistake usually keeps happening under the same circumstances, or in the same spot in the arena, which provides the rider with ample opportunity for observation. The question one has to ask oneself is: What did I do to cause this? If we look closely enough, we will always find something that changed in our body. A very common scenario is that the rider loses muscle tone in the abdominal and back muscles, tips forward a little bit (which pushes the horse onto the forehand), and consequently locks up in his hips and starts gripping with his hands (which blocks the horse’s back and hind legs). Once we have identified our share in the mistake that occurred, then we can start to prevent it the next time we ride the same transition or pass the same spot in the arena. Other very common causes for inversion are a slight change in the tempo or the alignment of the horse’s hips and shoulders. Some horses are so sensitive to this, that even if the shoulder drifts only a fraction of an inch to the side, the horse inverts.
That’s why one of the most important tasks for the rider is to pay the closest attention to his horse, every step of the way, and to think about each work session afterwards in order to identify what went well, what didn’t go well, what needs to be modified or abandoned, and what can be continued and built upon.
By proceeding in this fashion, the horse becomes our teacher and allows us a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of his mind and body. Our human teachers give us the understanding of the horse’s psychology and the principles of gymnastic training – which is what dressage always should be. They also demonstrate how to deal with issues as they come up in lessons, and they teach us the practical, technical tools we need to solve problems. These tools are the correct, balanced, supple, connected, yet independent seat and orchestra of the aids, the arena patterns, the movements, and – most importantly – reflection. The ability to think has always been considered so important in training military and high school horses that Feldmarschalleutnant v.Holbein, then director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, wrote in the Directives for the School in 1898 that “the rider must not only be able to ride, but also to think, as only a thinking rider can reach his goal with the utmost consideration for the horse in a relatively short amount of time.”
Through observation and reflection, we learn countless lessons, some of a technical nature, some psychological, and some almost spiritual. We learn as much about ourselves on this path as about our horse(s) and about Dressage. As our understanding deepens, we realize that to all the different concepts, such as lightness, rein contact, straightness, balance, suppleness, impulsion, collection, etc. there is always more than meets the eye. We gain deeper and deeper insights into the complexities and the mutual interdependencies of all these aspects of training. We also begin to realize how closely connected all the muscles in the horse’s body are. If the poll or throat latch area is locked up, e.g., the horse’s back, belly muscles, and hips can’t work properly, and the horse may refuse to go forward from the leg. The horse will then only come in front of the leg after the poll has been unlocked through certain flexions, either unmounted at the halt, or mounted at the halt or in motion. These flexions used to be practiced every day by the cavalry. Conversely, a stiffness in the poll is often supported by a hind leg on the same side that is bracing against the ground, and the poll will not become supple, until the hip has become supple and mobile through certain sidestepping exercises, such as the turn on the forehand in motion, the full pass, or the shoulder-in. So, the back and hind legs cannot swing and work properly until the “gateway to the spine” – as the Old Masters called the poll – has been suppled, and the poll will not completely release until the hips are supple and moving freely. In other words, the hand can feel resistances in the hips and belly muscles, and the seat and legs can feel resistances in the poll and neck.
An example that is so common that I see it every day is a horse who counterbends in corners and other turns. The reason for this is that the horse is leaning onto his inside shoulder (often caused by an unbalanced rider who is leaning to the inside himself). This causes him to seek a fifth leg in the rider’s inside hand. It would be a cardinal mistake to try to make the horse light on the inside rein by flexing or – even worse – pulling and yanking on the inside rein. The horse cannot bend to the inside, until his weight is distributed evenly on all four legs, which means in this case that the excess weight has to be taken off the inside shoulder and to be transferred to the outside pair of legs, especially the outside hind leg. As soon as the horse’s body is vertical and the balance is established, the spine can bend. The weight transfer can be achieved by enlarging the turn from the inside leg, with a little support from the inside rein, and shifting the rider’s weight temporarily towards the outside, until the horse is balanced again.
As a result of these observations and experiences, we learn to distinguish surface level phenomena from underlying causes and to go right to the heart of the matter, eliminating the root cause of a problem, rather than wasting time and energy on fiddling with surface level symptoms.
In my own riding, the greatest discoveries have all been the direct result of the introduction to the training system of former Spanish Riding School Chief Rider Karl Mikolka. This system contains the diagnostic and therapeutic tools to access all the muscle groups in the horse’s body. It enables the rider to find out exactly which muscles are working properly and letting the aids go through, and which ones are resisting against the aids and interrupting the energy flow. It also provides the rider with exercises that can then resolve any blockage anywhere in the horse’s body and that can close any energy leak that is opened up, e.g. by a false bend (either a longitudinal false bend behind the third neck vertebra, or a lateral false bend at the base of the neck which disconnects the neck from the shoulders). It allows the rider to proceed in a systematic, scientific way in balancing, straightening, suppling, and strengthening the horse’s body while at the same time developing his understanding of what is being asked of him.
I often wish I could go back in time and start over with the horses I rode before I became a student of Karl Mikolka’s, because now I could avoid many of the mistakes I made back then and progress much more quickly and smoothly thanks to the training methodology he taught me.