Keep It Simple!

In this second article covering my interview with internationally-famous speaker and veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann, we talk about the biomechanics of horses – and why we see so many terrible injuries in today’s competitive dressage riding.

Joni: You travel all over the world teaching and lecturing. What are you seeing out there?

Gerd: I’m seeing people doing what I did during my professional riding training as a young man, before I went to veterinary school. I made all the mistakes – pulling in front, squeezing with the leg, the flying trot. I did it all, and I thought I was right! I don’t blame these young riders. They want to win. I do blame the judges and the organisations behind the judges. The judges give 10s for bad riding, so why shouldn’t riders do it? The reason, of course, is that it injures their horses. A hundred years ago, they said – be careful with the flying trot because you’ll harm your horse. And now it’s this flashy movement that everyone is thrilled by.

Joni: The flying trot is when you see excessive shoulder movement, with poor engagement behind?

Gerd: Yes. Moorlands Totilas, the horse who won the European championships, is a leg mover, and they decided to put another layer on it. Now they call it the flying trot, but it’s just a circus lesson. And our judges give them 10s. It’s unbelievable.

Joni: After the competition, there was a question about this horse’s soundness. Do you know what it was?

Gerd; I have an idea what it must be.

A horse is like a bridge, supported on four pillars. The bony structure of the bridge – the thoracic and lumbar spine – is very thin. It’s only the size of a woman’s wrist. A horse’s weight is about 250 kilos. When the rider mounts, another 60-plus kilograms lands on the back. So we have 300 kilos pulling downwards. How can the horse carry this weight without destroying the bones in his back? You might say, we don’t ride on bones, we ride on the horse, and the horse has strong muscles in the back and abdomen. So these muscles carry the rider. But the back and abdomen muscles are made for locomotion, not weight-lifting. So if these muscles shouldn’t carry the weight, what does? It has to do with the head and neck axis. To raise the back muscle, you need to create an opposing stretch from the forehand , through the horse’s back, to the hindquarters.

In the beginning, a young horse learns how to stop hollowing under the weight of the rider and stretch his head and neck out of his shoulders down to the ground. That starts the front wheel moving anticlockwise, and begins developing the fore-to-hind stretch through the back.

After a year’s training doing transitions and turning, the horse learns to take his weight back a little more. The hindquarters circle turns in anti clockwise direction, lifting the back through the opposing stretch. As his hindquarters develop, the hindquarters wheel comes into balance with the fore. This is very important, because as the hind wheel grows – as the hindquarters strengthen to balance the stretch – you get the forehand elevated as a gift. And then when you have the hindquarters, the horse starts to chew automatically, which releases the head, neck, and jaw. So go back to the training basics: rhythm, suppleness, soft hands that offer the bit to the horse so he takes the contact. There’s no rule saying you have to pull hard on his mouth and stiffen your horse’s back so he can hit himself in the chin with his knee! The more you pull, the more you lose the back, the more you lose the hind legs, and – do you see? – you turn the circles in the wrong way.

If you compare the two photos below, you’ll see on the left the smooth, flowing motion of a classical trot. This horse is a "back mover" – he’s well balanced, collected, and even though he’s performing at a very high level, he looks natural and relaxed.

On the right you see a "leg mover"– just look at it! It’s ugly, tense, and contracted. The fore and hind wheels are both spinning anticlockwise. This breaks the muscles’ connection through the back and neck. When you train a horse this way, you don’t just destroy his legs – you destroy his mind and spirit.

An example of exemplary trot mechanics, "flowing" through the horse’s back. Front circle moving anticlockwise, back circle moving clockwise creating a balance apposing stretch through the horse. Notice that the lines of the front and hind legs are parallel. Anky Van Grunsen on Salinero. A trot extension where the diagonal sequence of footfall is clearly disrupted. This is an example of a "leg mover" performing a "show" trot. Note the red lines indicating the height of the front and hind legs. They’re clearly not parallel. This is incorrect – and a terrible strain on the horse’s body. Because the horse is being pulled in and down in front, the circles both rotate anticlockwise; there’s no chance of engagement behind. You can see that the circles of movement are both anticlockwise because there is no engagement behind. This "showy," leg-throwing, toe-flicking trot causes terrible wear on the horse’s body. It’s a common cause of leg injuries, especially in young horses doing dressage. It has nothing to do with classical dressage, because it’s created without collection. As you can see in the picture, the hind legs are out and the croup is high.

Now look at Moorlands Totilas, photo right. Do you see how in these two examples of the flying trot, the wheels are both moving anticlockwise instead of in opposite directions? There’s no opposing stretch, so there’s no good functional connection between the head, neck, and back. This leads to all the injuries we’ve been talking about.

We have to be very, very careful not to lose one of the most beautiful parts of our European culture: our tradition of training horses in classical dressage. We need to admit we really don’t ride classical dressage any more. We need to think about this and come back to our roots. We need to calm down and restart.

Joni: We have such a hard work ethic hammered into us. We believe we have to work hard, it’s complicated, and it’s difficult. But actually – this is so important! – It’s very simple. You just have to be quiet inside, and listen to the movement. Respect the horse, work with the horse – it’s clear and easy, but the world makes things so complicated and elitist. The irony is, it’s all an illusion.

Gerd: Yes, yes, it’s so simple. The experts like to make us think it’s difficult, but it’s not difficult at all. It’s easy to understand the biomechanics if you slow down and take the time to feel riding, not just do it. What’s hard is to fight with the horse!

Joni: My workshops are very hands on, and that helps people realise how simple it really is. I start by showing them how the horse’s body and the rider’s body are both naturally out of alignment, and how that causes most of their problems. It’s so easy to see when you know what to look for! This helps the rider slow down, and it moves them out of their heads and into their senses. When they stop thinking so much, and instead realise how they can feel the horse’s body and mind, they calm down. And then they get very curious about how to start making changes – and really excited about how easy it is to do! How do you help people see how simple it is? What do you tell them?

Gerd: It starts with understanding the physiology of a young horse. You know how it feels the day after a hard workout. Your muscles are sore and you feel stiff, like a piece of wood. How do you think your baby horse feels after a day of training? A horse is a flight animal. It’s built to run, not to carry weight. When you start riding your horse, you start making big changes in his tendons, muscles, ligaments. Just like you after a workout, he hurts after a training session. Then when you start fighting against the stiffness you caused the day before, you end up with a horse who’s losing his suppleness and the purity of his gaits. His contact clamps up and his back and neck become stiff. In a young horse, each ride creates great stimulation and great muscle pain. This means you need a break between training sessions. How long a break? It depends on what you do. You have to be sensitive and aware of what the horse is feeling. He’s not standing in the stable and thinking, "Today I will be stiff on the right side!" When you feel resistance, there’s a reason for it. And if you fight stiffness, you make it worse. Never pull on the mouth of a young horse! We’ve never had more beautiful horses than we have nowadays. And we’ve never had so many horse physiotherapists, veterinarians, osteopaths, chiropractors. Everyone is working on the horse for problems the rider creates. Yet very few people ask if they are the reason for the problems in their horses. They just look for a solution to the problem, as if the horse was a machine. The horse won’t bend to the right? Call in the chiropractor. If that doesn’t work, ask the vet for injections in the back. If the horse isn’t jumping well and his back is down, they’re sure the horse has something wrong in the hind suspensory, so do some stem cell therapy. We do have orthopedic problems and we do have to treat them, but we have to ask why we have these problems. As long as we stand there and repair and don’t ask why the problems are there, we will not come out of this. 90% of the problems are created by bad riding and bad training. As you say, we have to calm down and start to feel instead of thinking so much and working so hard.

Click here to return to the home page.