To Read or Not Read Old Dressage Books

The Scholarship of Horse Training
… or “Is There Value in Reading Old Books?”

My conversation last month with renowned trainer and veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann did not lead where I thought it would, having started with muscles but ending with books. He said he believed many of the disappointments in modern training are due to students no longer being committed to the scholarship of dressage. In addition to physical practice, he wishes for them to read and study and think deeply. But most riders don’t see the point, he lamented.

Or do they?

I personally have always devoured training books and articles. Maybe because of that I mistakenly assumed everyone did this. In any case, our conversation left me pondering just how important it is—or is not—to read the old classical dressage books.

Without doubt, studying these old texts is vital even for the most skilled among us. For one, it illuminates commonality between trainers of different disciplines. I remember riding in a clinic with reining horse pro Jack Brainard listening to him quote one of my favorite passages of Alois Podhajsky’s classical dressage manual The Complete Training of Horse and Rider. Another time I was listening to Olympian Peter Leone discuss strategies for training jumping horses when he cited timeless advice from General Decarpentry’s book Academic Equitation.

Plugging in to the histories of our respective sports through reading the fundamentals they are built upon reminds us that good training, no matter what specialized discipline you prefer, all progresses from the same foundation. If we lose sight of this, we risk becoming narrow vision and incomplete in our approach.

Secondly, reading promotes conscious engagement with subject matter that many of us professionals handle on autopilot. We deploy our skill sets without conscious effort, almost with our eyes shut. Mastery of any skills, however, relies on periodic practice where they are broken back down in to their conscious parts. Several compelling studies neuroscience have shown that in order to avoid an erosion of mastery level competence, an individual must examine her technique and execution from time to time. By revisiting the state of mind of learning something[ecwid widgets=”productbrowser search categories minicart” categories_per_row=”3″ grid=”3,3″ list=”10″ table=”20″ default_category_id=”0″ category_view=”grid” search_view=”list” minicart_layout=”MiniAttachToProductBrowser”] rather than having mastered it, our skills stay strong and flourish.

Lastly, I agree with Hueschmann that because horsemanship has such a long rich history we owe it to our horses to learn at least a little of it. Otherwise, we can be tempted to believe that the entirety of what we need to know rests in the hands of the latest celebrity trainer or on-line video. Granted, reading books is no replacement for hands-on practice. I would not suggest that any student can become proficient by books alone, nor should armchair dressage riders consider themselves educated without consistent time in the saddle.

But if too few riders revisit the classical texts on a regular basis, we will lose our compass. These deep roots that we must study over and over keep our modern training on course. They are our story for both past and present. And while nearly any reading can benefit horsemen, these early books in particular remain vital because they were written solely for education, not for marketing or profiteering. It is through them that we continue to educate ourselves wholly, lest we rely only on the ideologies du jour. We owe this to our horses and to equestrian sports in general.

These are my thoughts, but I’m curious what yours might be. Do you have books you fall back on?

Should I Run my Horse Around the Triangle?

Jec-Ballou-Trophy

Should I run my horse around the triangle?
Part 1

It seems to be the time of year for irony. Without planning to, yesterday I found myself setting goals for next season. I thought about individual horses, possible adventures, my personal ambitions. Setting goals makes the time with my horses clearer, more purposeful. It inspires me to think about optimizing each horse’s potential.

Students with horses still too young to be ridden often ask what or how much they should do with them. Frequently, the topic of showing them in-hand comes up. As with many strategies in the horse world, opinions differ on the value of showing in-hand. Many breeders and trainers believe it is vital to take a youngster out and get him evaluated by judges as well as teach him how to handle all the commotion. Others believe that running your horse around an arena in front of a judge does not teach him how to conduct himself at a showground.

In my own training, I have vacillated between both of these beliefs and have landed firmly on the side of believing there is enormous value in showing youngsters in-hand. While we’re on the subject of goal-setting for next season, especially if you own a young horse, let me share why.

Even if your interests lie strictly in recreational or trail riding and you have no future competitive ambitions, you will be well served to take your youngster to a show. When you present him in-hand to a judge, he needs to not only look sleek and polished but also to behave in ways that will form the foundation for your future training. He needs to be calm and attentive. He needs to let you control what his feet are doing—stand still, walk and trot obediently on cue and on a straight line. Instead of reacting to stress or excitement, he needs to keep his focus on you.

Granted, plenty of folks show horses in-hand without strictness to these criteria. I would argue that without strictness to these criteria, there is not much purpose to taking youngsters to shows. But if you take the outing seriously and commit the necessary months of preparation, you will have gained a big step forward for your long-term riding goals. I have shown numerous youngsters in-hand and they have all been seamless to break under saddle, to expose to new situations, and to trust me in a moment of potential panic.

As my dear friend and colleague Mark Schuerman says, You can’t expect a judge to evaluate a horse that is not standing still. This sounds deceptively simple. But think about it: if you have taught your horse to stand calmly from an early age in the midst of distractions, noise, and confusion you will have a much safer and reliable riding horse down the road. And, frankly, this kind of confidence and trustworthiness in a horse is a goal definitely worth having.