Take Time to Feel.

In this third article covering my interview with internationally-famous speaker and veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann, we talk about the importance of taking time to feel.

Joni:  So far, we’ve talked about the importance of the functional connections between the head, neck, and back, and how some riding styles disturb those connections.  We’ve described how the showy, leg-throwing, toe-flicking trot, without collection of the haunches, causes injuries, especially in young horses.   And most importantly, Gerd, you pointed out that when you train a horse in this way, you don’t just destroy his legs – you destroy his mind What I’d like to cover now is, to quote Philippe Karl, some of the “twisted truths of modern dressage.”  

In the last 20 years, the competitive dressage world has become infatuated with winning just for the sake of winning and becoming famous.  As you say in your book Tug of War, more and more riders, including many beginners, want to test their ability against their competitors, prove their skills, and be rewarded.  Participating in shows is their main focus, their path to 'glory', and their horse is just a means to serve this purpose.  Instead of focusing on training, their attention is on the dates of each competition so they can put together their schedule for the year.   In fact, I know riders who say they can’t afford lessons because of how much they’re spending to go to shows. The real task of a rider – training the horse – has taken a back seat.  And more and more horses are developing injuries because they’re trained and ridden incorrectly.  The rising number of equine veterinarians and hospitals is just one sign of this problem. It’s a high price to pay for the rider’s moment of glory in the show ring.  And it’s the horse, not the rider, who’s paying the real cost.

These riders listen to their role models and imitate them.  For instance, I hear them say that until rollkur is proven to be abusive to horses, it’s fine.  The end justifies the means. It was bad enough when rollkur was only practised at home; now we see it’s allowed in competition.  What part of “behind the vertical” do the judges not understand?

Gerd:  Yes – one of those role models, a three-time Olympic winner, is famous for her rollkur.  These people don’t say I’m wrong when I talk about biomechanics, but they call me old fashioned.  They say training has developed and changed and the training of the rider has changed.

Joni:  Riders are use to seeing images like this (photo #1, left) at top-level competitions.  Then when they see Francois de la Gueriniere’s picture (photo #2, below), his riding style is considered old fashioned.  I heard one young competition rider say, “Gueriniere’s horse is an inverted, sprawled-out horse with the rider's hands up around his eyeballs. That’s NOT what I want to do!”   It’s important to realise that the FEI rules haven’t changed.  This new style doesn’t relate to the FEI rules at all! There are so many opinions about how dressage should be, and this causes so many fights and negativity. What I like about your work is that it deals with facts rather than subjective opinions.

Gerd:  Yes.  The facts are important! We talked about hyperflexion, and how these riders argue that the rider’s weight and the horse’s trunk weight are carried by the long back muscle, the shoulders, and the abdominals. They use the horse’s neck as their gymnastic stick, they put it down, up, left, and right, and they believe it’s what makes the horse supple.

Joni:  But when you put their theory into practise, it doesn’t work.

Gerd:  Right! The abdominal muscles do not actively participate in carrying the rider’s weight.  The muscles curve across the abdomen.  If they did contract to carry weight, their attachment to the rib cage would collapse the thorax and affect the horse’s breathing. If the abdominals carried the back, they’d have to be braced.  That only works in the standing, static horse. Let’s look at a jumper or event rider in a lovely forward canter – then you’ll see that the abdominals can’t be braced to carry weight when the horse is in motion.

The abdominals pull the hindquarters under only in the suspension phase of the canter.  You can see it in the photo – everything is up. Now, when the load comes down to the ground in a canter, the horse naturally moves forwards.  And to move forwards, he needs to reach out and stretch, so the abdominals have to relax and stretch. So what happens to the weight of the rider when the horse comes down to the ground? It’s on the horse’s back.  So if the abdominals actually did carry the weight, they’d have to contract, but they can’t, because the horse is reaching out, stretching forwards. But the horse’s neck, on the other hand, is going forwards and downwards.  So what’s carrying the weight?   In this moment when the weight of the rider and the horse’s trunk are coming down to the ground, the top line is what’s carrying the weight. A sensitive rider who sits and feels and thinks will discover in every case that the top line is carrying the wweight of the rider – not the abdominals. At the same time, the back is the centre of movement.  If the rider sits like a clothes peg and squeezes the horse forwards, the horse cannot go.  When you squeeze with your legs you inhibit the natural swing of the rib cage as well as interfering with the horse’s breathing.  So how you develop your seat and your leg contact is the most important thing.  

Every warm-blooded animal, from the mouse to the elephant, has four abdominal muscles on each side of his body. The outside oblique comes from the ribcage and goes to the abdominal facia, which is connected to the pubis bone up between the hind legs at the floor of the pelvis.   When this muscle contracts, it pulls the hip and the hind leg forwards.  This is the muscle we ask the horse to activate when we apply driving aids with our legs. Now, creating a contraction in this muscle makes sense only when the leg on that side is leaving the ground, because it’s only then that the leg can swing forwards.  So the moment the hind hoof is leaving the ground is the best time to get a response. If you use your legs when the horse’s hind leg is standing and bearing weight, the only effect you get is to make the horse dead to the leg, and the whole trunk becomes stiff.  So you must develop sensitivity in your legs, sensitivity to what’s happening in the horse’s body. 

Joni:  Sensitivity is key, yet I find it challenging to help riders to stop over-using their legs.  They’ve been taught that they’ll never ride their horse forwards as well as their trainers do because their legs aren’t long and strong enough.  Besides being a misconception, it’s discouraging for the rider.

Gerd: I agree!  Riders shouldn’t squeeze the horse’s intestines out!   Less leg, less leg, less leg. The softer the better. There’s no need to squeeze a horse anywhere.  Just let him go.  You don’t need to break the horse’s ribs to get him to move.

Joni:  I’ve heard you talk about softening the seat and letting the hips go like Marilyn Monroe.  That’s such a brilliant visualisation!  And I’m amazed by how many riders are appalled by the idea of letting their body move from side to side with the swing of the horse’s movement. They’re obsessed with sitting still. 

Gerd:  It goes back to the natural biomechanical movement.  For example, when the muscles pull the left hind forwards, the left side contracts and the trunk swings to the right.  And vice versa.  If you’re quiet, you can pick up this rhythm of riding in walk and trot.

Joni: Many riders I work with can’t feel the swing of the trunk.  They’ve been frozen into a perfect outline – you know, fix the bits that stick out, like a straying elbow or toe or a collapsed hip.  It’s all so fragmented. Just like the horse, quick-fixing the rider’s position only compounds the problem of asymmetry.  Instead of dissolving the natural crookedness and building a straight foundation, they end up adding new layers of crookedness on top of the old ones. I find it helps to give them more information to so they can see and feel what’s happening.  For example, when the left hind is leaving the ground, the left fore is coming back, and they can see that.   Then, as you say, they can find this moment when they sit quietly and let their legs hang down, watching how they move.  They start to swing with the horse’s trunk and absorb the horse’s lateral movement.

Gerd:   I agree.  The sequence of the classical training scale must remain untouched.  And looseness remains the indispensable prerequisite in each training phase.  It’s only through looseness that..

  1. The gaits remain “pure.”
  2. The horse achieves optimal muscle tone.
  3. Real collection is achieved.
  4. Complete “thoroughness” is attained.
  5. The horse develops his maximum capacity to perform without getting tired.

We owe it to horses to return their dignity to them… TIME is what the horse needs most, and your patience is the most precious gift you can give.” Isabella Sonntag, publisher of the German edition of Tug of War.