Do Less, Achieve More

Welcome to the first of a series of articles in which I interview the well-known German veterinarian Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, who’s also the author of Tug of War:  Classical versus “Modern” DressageDriven by his passion for helping the dressage world to become more aware of the terrible damage being done to horses in today’s competitive riding circuit, Heuschmann has become an international speaker and teacher on the biomechanics of the horse.  Dr. Gerd Heuschmann’s work has been a key influence in backing up my theories of cruelty inflicted on horses in competition, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk with him – and to share the experience with you.

Joni:  What you say about good functional connections between the head, neck, and back in the horse was discovered 100 years ago in people by F.M. Alexander – the originator of the Alexander Technique.  It’s very exciting for me as an Alexander teacher and horse trainer to see how your teachings on the biomechanics of the horse support what I’ve been saying – and doing – for 15 years. I’m particularly interested in your theory that good training encourages the base of the horse’s neck to lift and move forwards up and out of the shoulders.  That takes on the responsibility of supporting the rider’s weight, leaving the locomotion muscles free to do their work.  Would you elaborate on that?

Gerd: This question is key! Good riding creates a balanced horse.  Balance means you keep the whole body working well as a unit.  In this, there’s no difference between a warm blood or a quarter horse, or between an American, French, or German trainer. The centre of movement in a horse is the back – the long back muscles are made to move the horse, not carry a rider.  Yet the rider sits on the horse’s back.  So we need to use different parts of the horse’s body to bring his back up into balance. Another key, is the rider’s contact with the mouth. The back can’t be supple and the hind legs can’t step under if the mouth, poll, and neck aren’t supple and relaxed.  If the mouth isn’t soft the nose on the vertical and the jaw relaxed the neck can’t flex laterally, and the horse won’t open his throat-latch and search for the bit. So the key is for the poll to be supple, flexible, and soft.  Then you get the rest.

Joni: The problem with our current dressage trend is our public’s roll models; Left is the winner of the 2008 Olympics. When you take a long hard look inside the horse’s mouth you see it goes against all the rules of training? Yet she wins are the judges blind? The worst for me is that even though the horse can’t bend anymore the rider is still pulling wrapped up in her own success. The poor horse’s tongue is purple it is trying to suck it up away for the bits and the jaw and poll are locked in defense.  Purple tongues nowadays seem to be the norm!

Gerd: Yes we have so many injuries to the mouth and jaw coming into the clinics. You will hear me say time and time again, IT IS YOUR PULLING THAT BUILDS OUR FINE EXPENSIVE CLINICS! As a veterinarian who is interested in orthopedics you see the results that destroy suspensory ligaments, the sore backs, the sore polls, broken jaws!  Wounds in the tongue.  The worst is the tight dropped nose-bands, when the rider pulls the nose bands presses the horse’s lips against the teeth; this is a very common injury. All these things, and when you see this you have to think about your own role. What are we doing, we veterinarians? I don’t want to be one member in this circus who is producing poor animals, making a big show and killing them. This is not the aim of dressage. I love the philosophy behind classical dressage and I think our judges have to change and the time has come! And what I don’t like is that my colleagues and I, we veterinarians, just repair and do not ask why we have so many suspensory problems, why do we have so many back problems. We are used to fix the problems. Our clients come and say, “He is not bending to the right do something,” so we repair, we never ask why. It’s like being a doctor working in front of the torture chamber of Sadham Hussein, they nearly kill the guys, you repair them again and when they are healthy you send them back, this is our world this is what we do. And all the well meaning osteopaths physiotherapists massage therapists are all the same they are just repairing. Nobody is asking why they just see the back is stiff and make it supple. It is a bad thing in my opinion and that is why I refuse to do it.  

It is hard for us Germans with our books and tradition on training horses to look at the development of modern dressage, because we should know it is against all the rules of dressage. When you look at the rules of dressage written by the FEI you think you are in heaven then we look at the competition its unbelievable what they are doing it is the very opposite to the rules THEY have written. 

1.The object of dressage is the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse. As a result it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible but also confident attentive and keen thus achieving perfect understanding with the ride

2.These qualities are revealed by:

  1. The freedom and regularity of the paces.
  2. The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements.
  3. The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hind quarters, originating in a lively impulsion.
  4. The acceptance of the bridle, with submissiveness throughout and without any tenseness or resistance………...

Joni: How did we every move from this to this? 

Francois de la Gueriniere Anky/Salinero in Windsor doing the final halt in the Kuer.  They won the Bronze! Patrik Kittel Windsor.


Joni: Alexander discovered as did Francois de la Gueriniere in the horse that for a human to achieve good posture, the neck must be free and allowed to lengthen up out of the shoulders.  Then the head can move forwards and up allowing the back to lengthen and widen and only them can the lower body release down in an opposing stretch to the ground.  In developing my training techniques, I took Alexander’s approach and applied it to horses and riders together.  It’s been a powerful way of re-educating riders to work with the way their bodies and their horses’ bodies naturally move.

Gerd:  That’s right. I, like you, work with many damaged horses that have mostly draw rein experiences.  They’re compressed even further by riders with stiff seats and ridged hands. I learned that if you offer a very soft contact, not caring about the head and neck position, and you try to get the hind leg with a listening seat, the horse engages behind and start to chew.

Joni:  Many riders come to my workshops trying to use Philippe Karl’s technique of relaxing the jaw as described in his book and badly misinterpreting his technique. The first thing I notice is they have no awareness of how they are using their hands and how the horse is reacting in his mouth. I put this down to a short fall in our riding education. Riders need, as we both agree, to do less and feel more; to think and give the horse more time and space to react. This is the first lesson I teach on my workshops. Without this training these frustrated riders, feeling nothing is happening,  start to force the horse and as Philippe said to me “then the horse defends in the mouth his whole body goes into contraction and it is all over, you may as well put the horse back in the stable.” With the horse and rider in a battle of wills I find it better to start with what you refer to as first grade of bending; neck bending. To do this I use voltes. When you bend the horse with the outside rein, the voltes stretch the outside of the horse and work the inside hind leg.  That relaxes tightness and one-sidedness on the horse's hollow side, and as a natural consequence they starts to stretch their and neck down to the ground, seeking the contact, softening the jaw and chewing.  Then you can go on to the second-grade bending; poll bending which is where Philippe starts. The best thing about starting with first grade bending is that one don’t have to be a very experienced rider to do this. Philippe said to me on this subject of the mobility of the mouth that is ridiculous that trainers ignore the mobility and softness of the jaw and tongue. Many trainers get it more at the level of piaffe, but it should be at the beginning not the end of training!

Gerd:  Yes!  This is very similar to my training, and its key. And this misinterpretation you mention – it’s a big problem.  When these concepts we’re describing are misinterpreted, the training doesn’t work.  Then the trainers get frustrated and start forcing the horse.  Many people feel that they want to work on the horse actively, and there I see a problem.  In reality, the more you come forward in your own education as you are suggesting the less you need to do, not more.

Joni:  I want to tell you – your DVD “If Horses Could Speak” is a godsend.  I play it for my students at the beginning of every workshop I teach.  Everyone’s in a completely different space afterwards, and I can reach them; it opens their heart.  Before, I had problems with riders asking me why I wasn’t putting the horse on the bit.  What they’re used to seeing, what they think is on the bit, was actually behind the bit. See photos above. So they thought they were more advanced than this, and that made them write me off.  It is so difficult for me when they have roll models like the above where the horse as yielded as much as he can and the rider is still pulling and few have even noticed that its tongue is purple. It’s been wonderful to have you on my side, with the authority you have as a veterinarian and an international speaker.

You’re right, Joni.  We have to create more understanding.  We have to educate people and make them aware that this is important.  It’s difficult because in our society the emphasis is on showmanship.  But the rider has to start to feel, to wait, and to think, and not to do if they care about their horse and want to keep it sound.

Joni:   And to enjoy and love what they are doing, and their precious relationship with their horse.

Gerd:  That’s it!  Do you remember the quote from Xenophon? The horse should be your friend, not your slave. I heard this from a cowboy in Montana!  He needs to be your friend, and then he does everything happily for you.

Come back for next month’s article, Part II of the interview, where Gerd and I talk about leg movers, back movers and flexion of the haunches.

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