Jan 292014

Dressur Rollkur Barock One thing cannot be acceptable only because it is accepted by many Fritz Stahlecker, horse trainer and author of several books and articles  developed with his hand-saddle-hand method (in short: HSH method) a stress-free and non-violent training for horses. In his latest book ” Horses my students my teachers ” he critically analysis the developments of modern dressage. I would like to introduce you to this book, because it fits well with one of the main topics of this blog ( Controversial issues), I find the development in dressage similar frightening and ” diseased” as he does, and because I very much like the philosophical approach of his book. Have fun reading and let the critical thinking begin! Harsh judgements Right from the start, Fritz Stahlecker harshly criticizes today’s dressage scence. With sentences likeCover für Pferde - meine Schüler, meine Lehrer

The horse teaches us that only the things achieved without violence are valid results that deserve applause. The self-healing process of the sick scene is initiated by the FN and must be enforced against all protests

he points out directly the “sick points” of the riding world, or at least almost without exception that of the sports scene. In my opinion, Stahlecker criticizes this world from two sides: On the one side, he highlights the excessive work pressure, which is required of the horses, while on the other side, he criticizes our perception and evaluation of what we see. Let me expalin this in more depth. Performance over all In today’s world, power is placed above all. The grades achieved by a child in school ( the child’s performance), determine his fate. Is the grade point average good enough for the apprenticeship or maybe even university studies? In a system like that, good performance is rewarded. The better the child performs (evaluated with school grades ), the better his future prospects look. Discipline , drill and power become established as values already in early childhood. Later on at work, does not look much better. Commissions for good performance, overtime is normal, even from home one can (and should) work on. All of that is regarded as normal. Noone thinks about this twice. The same can be seen in the ( riding ) sport. Also here , its about perfomring to one’s best (or better): Always, faster, higher, farther, up to or even beyond one’s limits. This way of thinking also applies to horses:

Maximum performance in sports ( … ) going to one’s limits at any cost, even the humiliation of a creature [the horse] is de facto tolerated. ” ( Stahlecker , 2012 Franckh – Kosmos Verlag ) .

Dressur LeistungssportToday’s dressage is seen (and practiced) by most people only as a competitive sport and no longer perceived as what it used to be at the core: the Art of Riding (Reitkunst). The mere choice of words “ we work our horses ” that we use every day, should make us double-think. It’s no wonder that things such as doping scandals and controversial training methods occur in such a setting of hard work and performance. You only see what you want to see Stahlecker believes that we should see more than a sport’s perfromance and an exalted show in the dressage arenas. Instead, we should be seeing a harmonious partnership between horse and rider that show us the art of riding. Stahlecker is convinced that what we see on the show grounds today  has nothing to do with the art of riding. The prevailing performances of sport machines is made acceptable by different players. Firstly, there are the judges http://polpix.sueddeutsche.com/bild/1.1016377.1355769763/860x860/dressurpferd-totilas.jpgand other officials, who judge the riding. Than, there are also the spectators . Interestingly, these two parties often seem to work together. A good example of this good interaction is the stallion Totilas, who had not only huge success in sports, but  who was also highly coveted by spectators and the press. Mind you, all of this has happeened despite people knowing of the controversial training method of Rollkur that have been used (of course there is this counter-movements, but they are shockingly low ).

“ The art of riding appears to require only exercise.However, exercise without true principles is nothing but routine, the fruits of which will be effort , unsafe execution and false jewels, with which you can impress only the half-connoisseur. ” Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere

The art of riding is based on aesthetics and this leads (inevitably) to respect for the natural characteristics of the horse. What we see today is a disregard of the natural characteristics and movements of the horse to an allmost unimaginable degree. Contemporary dressage is more a kind of show or staging. It pretends to show refined natural movements, but instead does the opposite. Let me give you an example to illustrate this: Imagine a paddock and two horses playing and running in it. To every movement they do, their silhouette changes. If the horse sprints fast across the paddock, its silhouette is not round (being collected) but rather long/stretched. Is the horse however aroused and pounces up and down the fence, the silhouette is rounder and shorter (collected frame) . These two “ frameworks ” are fundamentally different from each other and belong to the respective movement of the hors ein that moment. Without stretching, the horse cannot push forward with big movements that cover lots of ground. Likewise can a horse not piaffe if its silhouette is long and stretched. Thats simply impossible. Evo Baracallo Jungpferde toben Unfortunately, in the dressage ring we nearly almost exclusively see horses in extended gaits that dont have a strechted silhouette  in horses. The great movements (usually only with the forehand that go upwards instead of up-and forwards) without being strechted or coming forward, and the rear legs pushing from behind the horse with small steps, is not only unsightly, but also absolutely unnatural and forced. To every extended gait, an extension of frame is needed. Thus, what we see in those arenas are horses that are being asked to move in a certain posture that (in this combination) doesnt not exist in nature. We should seriously question what it is that we want for ourselves and for the horses : Show or actual riding art? Did it have to be like this? According to Fritz Stahlecker, the way the dressage scene has developed is not unreasonable in itself. The force of habit (written down in the rigid guidelines of the German military regulations – “Deutsche Herresvorschrift”) met up with today’s mentality of a meritocracy. It should come as no surprise that doping scandals and controversial training methods are incraesing. Kandare schmerzIn my opinion, the current consumerism in combination with capitalism and egoism of the present time (all these movements are interconnected and mutually dependent). The horse is still , especially in competitive sports, little more than a commodity (consumerism). With its help the rider builds up his prestige. Success in sports on the backs of horses, seperates you from the (common) crowd. It creates an identity. In addition to an identity and fame, there is also the issue of financial viability (the sooner, the faster, the better). What is left behind with this sort of thinking (the health of the horse) is of no interest or simply taken as accepted. What is missing is the humanity, the meaning and connection with nature, and the arts. We are ready to take pain in order to reach our goals. “ In competitive sports,” said Stahlecker, “ the man does uses [a form of] violence against himself. The transfer to the horse was a psychologically obvious step. Elite sport means sompetition, it means violence against oneself “. In the wild, a horse would never exhaust himself to such an extend that it might lead to permanent damage to its health (unless it is in an emergency situation – better a little bit crippeld than dead). However, we force the horse to do so. Violence and art, can never be reconciled with each other, because where the violence begins, the art ends. But why do we need art anyways? Why riding ART? The art and the horse should be united. Each in itself can play an important role in our society. The horse plays an important role in today’s world. We learn from him to empathize more with nature, and to re-discover it. The art takes us back to the aesthetics, an unison and in the end with its perfection, back to nature, as nature is the only thing that is (and creates) true perefection.

The knowledge of the true nature of the horse is the first foundation of the art of riding and each rider must make it his main subject. Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere

The symbiosis between art and the horse, dressage as a form of art (the art of riding) shows an artistic parallel to nature (specifically the “natural characteristics of the horse”). What we are already able to see in the field, will become refined with the aid of the instructor/rider with the goal of perfection. However, and this is very important, perfection cannot be enforced. It must come from the horse itself . Only a horse that wants to be beautiful itself, assumes an appropriate attitude. We can only help him (to want to) do this. Collection au natural And what is in this context almost most important for me: The art cannot agree with violence and coercion. A forced harmony between horse and rider does not exist. A few words about the rest of the book Finally, I would like to say briefly the book also explicitely focuses on the training of the horse and what sort of “wrong thinking” is pervailent with that nowadays. For example, he claims that the young horse should not be trained with a bridle in the first section of its training (resistance and violence are often the result of incorrect training), the curb reins should always be slack – to an extent (the weight of the reins (and therewith the pressure that it applies to the horse’s mouth is much higher than we think) and training with side reins and draw reins should be banned: ” the worst hand cannot induce so much pain in the horse’s mouth as an almost absolute captivation by means of fixed side or draw reins”. More information about Fritz Stahlecker and his method in this movie:

[iframe_loader src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/6k20iTSbCOE” height=”315″ width=”420″ click_words=”Watch on YouTube” click_url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6k20iTSbCOE”]


This article was published on the author’s blog on 8 January 2014.  The original article can be found here

Jul 042013

Ever wondered why you should always mount from the left, lead from the left, why in sports black saddles and brown warm blood horses of a certain size are favoured? Or why people call it horse sports but wear uniforms instead of comfortable sports gear? Ever wondered where sports such as competition dressage and show jumping came from? Then read on, for you are about to find out!
Many will tell you it all started with Xenophon, the Greek war general who was the first (that we know of) to pen a dressage and horse training manual. In fact horse sports did not start there at all; they only started much later in history. You see, up to the early 19th century horses were very important for people’s everyday life. It did not really matter what one did, a horse was almost always part of everyday living and surviving. People were mostly brought up with horses and communicating and working together came rather naturally from very young age. By working together constantly, human and horse would learn to cooperate side by side, simply by trial and error. Repeat what works, get rid of what does not. What people found out many centuries ago is, that when you just sit on a horse without certain preparation this horse will soon start to function less and less. The horses started to get physical problems which of course showed up in not being able to perform up to scratch. What people also found out is that you should wait at least until 5@half; years before you start preparing for ridden work and that stallions, because of their build and stamina, were most suitable. Besides that, all the mares were needed to bring up foals; after all for safe and light communication, one needs horses of excellent social upbringing.


The Friezes of the Parthenon in Athens, which I visited several times as a child, clearly show extremely collected horses on their haunches without bridle!

I imagine that horse trainers would have observed the horses in their herds and discovered what specific qualities those horses possessed that would function best under their riders. What they thus discovered was that those horses that were able to move their bodies in a certain way, were the ones who would perform best and last the longest as a riding horse. So a logical conclusion would have been to ask horses to perform these certain movements, which the best quality horses did, to see if that would improve their performance and withstand being ridden longer. Obviously, it did and the Gymnasium of the horse was born. You can read about it in Xenophon’s book ‘The Art of Horsemanship’ and many books of the so called ‘classical masters’ thereafter.

The art of war
Also, from Xenophon (and even before Kikuli) up to La Guérinière, we see that war training and horse training are interlinked, they are in fact one and the same thing. Within war it is obviously of vital importance to have outstanding communication with your horse that almost reacts to your thoughts. After all, you won’t last long in battle if you have to fight your horse as well as your opponent. Having said that, having a horse reacting to your thoughts is but a start, the next is that you have to have the horse’s thoughts as well. With that I mean that a thinking horse will also expand your lifespan. When being attacked from parts where you can not see but your horse can, would you rather have a horse who only acts on your commands, or a horse that reacts by getting away from every type of danger, whilst – mind you – keeping you on board. The ultimate war horse, called a ‘destrier’ would even protect his rider should he be slain and on the ground, by standing over him or by pulling him out of harms way by his garment.
Another example, this time of every day life. Towns were small and separated by enormous woods through which you had to travel, sometimes days on end. These woods were full of thieves, not all the likes of Robin Hood and his merry men, rest assured. So, if your horse did not want to go down some path and kept snorting and staring, it was to listen to one’s horse and choose a different path which the horse thought safe. The sum up, to have a long life you need a horse with which you have optimal communication, thatis healthy, agile and strong and that thinks! As it obviously takes time to get to this level of partnership, starting afresh with a new horse was not that evident. So the Gymnasium was designed to keep horses healthy, thinking and communicating for the many years to come. From the start of training at 5½ years preferably up to an age of 25 to 30. Still really common in places like the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, for instance.

Xenophon’s thoughts on the subject:
“But whoever would desire to have a horse serviceable for war, and at the same time of a stately and striking figure to ride, must abstain from pulling his mouth with the bit, and from spurring and whipping him; practices which some people adopt in the notion that they are setting their horses off; but they produce a quite contrary effect from that which they intend.”
“For by pulling the mouths of their horses, they blind them when they ought to see clearly before them, and they frighten them so much by spurring and striking them, that they are confused and run headlong into danger; acts which distinguish such horses as are most averse to being ridden, and as conduct themselves improperly and unbecomingly. “
“But if a rider teach his horse to go with the bridle loose, to carry his neck high, and to arch it from the head onwards, he would thus lead him to do everything in which the animal himself takes pleasure and pride.”
“That he does take pleasure in such actions, we see sufficient proof; for whenever he approaches other horses, and especially when he comes to mares, he rears his neck aloft, bends his head gallantly, throws out his legs with nimbleness, and carries his tail erect.”
“When a rider, therefore, can prompt him to assume that figure which he himself assumes when he wishes to set off his beauty, he will thus exhibit his steed as taking pride in being ridden, and having a magnificent, noble, and distinguished appearance.”


This section of the Bayeux tapestry shows the battle of Hastings in 1066. The reins hang slack and often are not held at all. The front and hind legs at the same level suggests terre-a-terre.

Cannon Fodder
This was all fine in man-to-man battle until in the early nineteenth century when warfare changed. Heavy artillery was the new deal and all these horses that were brought up with such care and had so many years of careful training died by the masses. Years of work gone in minutes. Everything changed there and then: it was painfully clear this era of intelligent horse training was over. There was no time for long training and above all, it was not needed! For horses would not come back from the battlefield and if they did, they would often only be good as meat to feed the soldiers. So, to save time they now started the training with foals of 2½ years. Not much preparation at all, just saddle on, lunge and rider on, done. Of course, this would destroy any horse in due time, but who cared? The horse was not meant to last. An other advantage is that a young child of 2½ is much easier to bully around and brainwash than a 5½ year old agile stallion. After all, galloping towards cannon fire does not seem like and intelligent thing to do, and it isn’t. So intelligent, self-preserving horses were not a choice; on the contrary! Now horses were needed that did not think for themselves and complied with every order, no matter how stupid or dangerous. For this purpose the army needed horses that did not offer any objections whatsoever, which became the new purpose of training. Horses who acted like machines to all commands. To reach this goal, stallions were no longer used. Geldings started at an early age, 1½ to 2 years. Mares were used as well. There was a vast demand for horses now as they did not last long anymore. The social upbringing of horses was no longer valued so much, so the foals were taken away from their mother at 6 months as opposed to staying in the herd for years as was common in the past. The training now had one prime directive: complete and utter obedience. Or in other words, to train cannon fodder. To get that obedience it was vital to break any resistance (thus thinking in fact) by a constant demand for precisely that which the horse did not want to do. For instance, a horse did not want to canter, then the riding soldier was commanded to use violence by putting spur and whip to the horse until it cantered and then keep it cantering for as long as the rider wanted. Of course the obvious reason for a horse not to canter would be that his body was not strong, supple and straight enough, nor mature. But again, that did not matter anymore. A horse spooked somewhere? Beat him towards that spot. This was all just preparing for artillery warfare. Or in short, training cannon fodder.


British cavalry rider from 1842, sitting behind the movement therefore hindering his horse, and pulling his horse behind the vertical with the reins.

Being the army and liking things uniform, horses were preferred to be the same height and the same colour. Bay was more available than black; grey was not practical and red blood is such a dramatic sight on a white horse, it could lower moral. In training, all riders would lead from the left, mount from the left because their weapon would hang left and above all, in exercises horses would all need to be ridden in the same head set. Head down would prevent the horse from looking around. It is far more easy to dominate a horse who can not actually look around. Now tell me, by reading this, does it all seem familiar? Of course from the late nineteenth century horses became less and less important in warfare. The lieutenants and generals however kept horses for inspecting troops and keeping fit. Busy bees as these high officers were between battles they would start holding contests to show off how obedient their horses really were. These horses were so obedient that they could pull off movements that almost looked like some high school movements! Of course, trampling on the spot is not piaffe, so levade could never follow as the horse is in contra-collection. The horse would sooner stand on his head than on his hind legs, from this contra-balance. Shoulder-in could only be performed on 3 tracks not 4, simply because it was not really a shoulder-in, but just a form of yielding along the track. For a true shoulder in, a horse needs to be able to lift the shoulders and that is impossible when not being prepared from early and correct training. All the high school movements were gone… a true piaffe and levade is the door to the airs; cannon fodder was never able to reach a performance like that. From this cannon fodder training modern horse sports and school riding developed. It is all about showing how obedient your horse is and what a rider can let him do, inspite of the horse itself. The cannon fodder training is therefore constantly present all around us and riders, just like the soldiers and their horses then, do not think about what is healthy, sane, logical or even fun. They all keep up this training without questioning why, looking at the old master’s training as if they were aliens or even worse… do not even know they existed. I once spoke with a well known grand prix dressage rider about Riding Art and he had never heard of La Guérinière, nor of Antoin de Pluvinel. He did not know what Levade or terre a terre was. I was shocked… to me that is like being a painter and not knowing who Rembrand or Rubens were! Or a chef who has never heard of Michelin stars! What would you think of such painters or chefs? Would you expect any good work from them? Not me.
So to complete this – alas- ever so true saga, I would like everyone to ask themselves one question:
Are you training your horse for the benefit of both of you, or are you training cannon fodder?