“We Are the Servants to the Horse”
Again and again, Klaus Balkenhol emphasized the rider’s duty to the horse, at the 2005 USDF National Symposium in Burbank, California. “When we work with the horse, we must be subservient to the horse,” he said. “Training should be done without causing the horse any harm. The well-being of the horse must be paramount.”
Balkenhol titled the two days of his clinic, “The Rider Builds the Horse.” As he coached the 12 demonstration riders at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, he focused on pivotal concepts.
Preserve the horse’s beauty. “Maintain and preserve the horse’s natural brilliance, so he works with us in partnership.”
Ride the horse in self-carriage, so he is light. “The horse comes from himself, not from you giving the impulsion. “We like a horse that looks joyful forward. His ears play, and he is listening. “The goal is that the horse responds to very light aid-giving, so the horse does the exercises practically on his own.”
Balance the work and relaxation. “Take breaks in your work, and the horse says, ‘Thank you.’ You might work for one or two hours, with always breaks in between.” With some riders who encountered difficulties, Balkenhol called for a break, to let the horse unwind. “If you have a problem after 20 minutes work, then the horse needs a rest so the musculature can regenerate.
“Give the horse a rest, so the musculature can rest and regenerate, and be relieved when the horse is relaxed and loose. Supple and loose muscles are more voluminous and stronger.”
Take time to train the horse. “All horses need time. Time in the horse world is money.”
During the entire Symposium, trainer Volker Brommann translated for Balkenhol. “He is my angel, and my shadow,” said Balkenhol about Brommann.
Supple Back, Long Neck
Gerd Heuschmann, DVM from Warendorf, Germany, presented the Symposium’s evening lecture, “Functional Anatomy of the Dressage Horse—Today and the Future.” He addressed the principles of building a horse that is both flexible and strong.
The horse must carry the rider’s weight, and yet lift his back. “We want to have a horse with a supple back,” said Heuschmann. “The horse can only go forward with the back loose—so it is important to have a supple, relaxed back muscle.
“If a horse stretches, tension pulls on the neck and withers, and power and force pull the back up. The topline is not developed to pull the spine forward, so we need the tension on the ligament.”
He pointed out the cervical spine (vertebrae). “When you ride forward and down, the cervical spine opens and lifts the back.” With the back supple and neck lifted, the horse can carry its back and the rider’s weight. Both the cervical spine and the nuchal ligament raise the neck. Muscles of the withers, scapula, and cervical spine lift the neck.”
Heuschmann clarified that “forward and down” does not mean “on the forehand.” “Watch for the active, forward hindleg. The hindleg is the measure of the degree of being on the forehand or not.”
To show the anatomy in motion, on two horses Heuschmann painted the bones of the cervical spine, and the hind leg. “See the real work of carrying the rider is the topline system.”
As each horse stretched, you could see the position of the cervical vertebrae, and observe the rounding of the back.
“You want the back muscle loose,” said Heuschmann. “We need the long back muscle for movement.”
With a horse working in side reins, Balkenhol pointed out, “Adjust the side reins to get the horse deeper, to show the effect of the stretched topline ligament system.”
Purity of Gaits
Balkenhol explained the clarity of the horse’s inborn gaits. “In nature, the horse will always have a four-beat walk, trot of two beats, and canter of three. This is the nature we want to preserve and enhance.”
He said, “There is one method of horse training: the basic gaits must be preserved and enhanced, and the well-being of the horse is guaranteed. “In the FEI regulations, it’s clearly laid out that all the basic gaits must be pure and not restrained.”
About the walk, he advised, “Pay the utmost attention of all the three gaits in the walk. A horse is born with its walk. It can’t be made better.”
He praised the walk of Woodwind, a filly that D G Bar’s Willy Arts worked in hand. “She has a Losgelassenheit walk, and she is content and alert.” (Losgelassenheit is loosely translated as “suppleness combined with looseness and with a complete lack of any tension,” from The Principles of Riding.)
In his lecture, Heuschmann showed photos of horses (not including riders’ faces) to illustrate a clear trot. “The forearm and hind cannon have to be parallel, or nearly parallel. Horses have to trot diagonal.” A horse with a hind end slower than its forehand isn’t trotting correctly. And one with only one leg on the ground—“The hind leg is faster off the ground than the front leg.”
Balkenhol had Steffen Peters exhibit how the rider can adversely affect the trot’s clarity. “Ride him short in the neck, like at the auction. “See how the horse trots in a broken diagonal,” said Heuschmann. “The hind leg is slower than the front leg in the ‘auction trot.’ But it looks impressive.”
About the canter, Heuschmann pointed out that the back is up and round in the swinging phase. “The horse is opening and breathing out on the ground, and the muscle system is relaxing. The rider’s weight is on the back only when the horse touches the ground.”
Balkenhol had riders demonstrate stretching exercises, to prepare the horse for work. “It’s part of classical training and education. Through the systematic gymnasticizing, we make the horse strong.”
The rider can gymnasticize the horse with stretching. “Show the horse the way forward and down. Adjust contact to the horse’s mouth so he is not running against your hand, or too lazy.“The neck muscles pull the withers forward, and the back musculature is raised.”
“Keep the back supple and hindquarters swinging through at all times. Allow the horse to stretch to lengthen.” The horse stretches and maintains hind leg activity. Heuschmann pointed out, “The back is up and the movement is free. The horse will take you with him and let you sit.”
Along with stretching, Balkenhol instructed riders in the half halt. “It is important that early on we give the horse the connection with the hand. Offer the connection, and let him search for the connection. “Only through use of the half halt, you close the seat to transfer energy into the right direction.”
This aid demands a balance between pushing and holding, to maintain the rounded back and “open” neck, and timing in its application. “Always give the half halt before a movement, so the horse concentrates on your aids.
“Start your half halt with application of the rein aid. When the horse comes back, your driving aids make him stay in the tempo before your aid is applied. To bring the horse on the bit, drive a little more with your lower leg, and close your upper thigh. In this moment, the horse will become rounder from the seat to the hand, and be lighter.”
Balkenhol coached riders in collecting their horses without causing tension. His key direction of the horse yielding willingly: “The secret of taking the rein is the giving afterward. That’s the most important moment, when the rider releases the pressure.”
The Content Horse Works for the Rider
To keep the horse happy when you ride, you invite the horse to work for you. Balance your requests with consideration of the horse’s ability, and follow the elements of training scale. “The starting point is always that the horse goes with complete relaxation, and follows the rider’s aids willingly,” said Balkenhol.
The horse that moves with a swinging back is supple and loose, displaying contentment. “You are demanding, yet never demanding more than the horse’s limitations.
“The natural ability of the horse must be preserved and enhanced. We make the horse strong for the work without force.”
Balkenhol also helped the riders enjoy their work, even while riding in front of an audience of hundreds. He made jokes and said, “The rider smiles and sits loose. It is a sport. It is not war.”
About Christine Traurig, he said, “She is very happy and joyful. That gets transferred to the horses.” And with the Symposium’s final rider, Leslie Morse, he noted, “She plays always on the horse and is always smiling and joking.”
Balkenhol maintained a warm, positive attitude when coaching every rider, pointing out each rider’s strengths. About Guenter Seidel, he said, “He can work this horse in a way that is pleasing to the horse. A good rider can work the horse so he doesn’t realize he is working.”
He shared the inspiration of his wife Judith, in Brommann’s translation: “When Klaus has a good time with the horses, it’s a lot because of his wife. For 40 years he has had her criticism of his riding. Only riders willing and able to accept criticism can turn that around into positive thinking.”
Brommann added that something about Balkenhol’s teaching helps both riders and horses want to improve. When he first rode under Balkenhol’s instruction, he was “very nervous. But Klaus was calming.”
“Klaus doesn’t know exactly what it is that he does. He motivates people, and they feel it. Klaus can also ride the horses, and show riders, ‘This is what I would do.’ The security carries over to the horse and the rider.”
Interview with Klaus Balkenhol
Before the Symposium, Balkenhol and his “angel,” translator Brommann, spoke about his instruction and the state of classical dressage. About the training styles of some international riders, Balkenhol said, “It’s not bad that the horse goes round and behind the vertical at some times. The problem is when you stress the horse for a long period of time.”
About the forward and down, he explained that you don’t “throw away” the reins, and always let the horse stretch. “It’s to reassure the horse and that the horse should be on the rider’s aids. Strengthening of the back muscles to allow the horse to stretch so they can then stay on the rider’s aids.
“People want to get better faster. Top international riders need not do this stressing riding. Others see those ‘big guns’ who have had success and they want to do the same, but they don’t have the experience.”
Interview with Klaus Balkenhol - US Riders are Fun To Work With
Brommann said, “Klaus likes to work with the U.S. riders. He likes the mentality of the American riders. They are not as envious [as European riders]. “Klaus has worked with the best riders in the world. He felt there are very good riders in the U.S. and very good horses. Klaus was intrigued by this mentality and the quality.
“Dressage of course is in Europe. He’s collected a lot of experiences competing in Europe, coaching there, and is able to take that knowledge and give the riders here something to look for, whether they compete there or here.
“He didn’t make the success of the American riders. The riders, horse owners, sponsorships—all are motivated to want to become better.”
Interview with Klaus Balkenhol -The Preservation of Classical Training
Balkenhol strongly supports the tenets of classical training as “historically passed on, the correct horse training principles that enhance the horse’s gaits—and preserve his physical and mental well-being.” In classical training, horses express themselves positively, without being pushed to extravagance.
Balkenhol mentioned the creation of a new organization, the Xenophon Society for the Promotion of Classical Riding Culture. “It’s to preserve the classical way of riding. We see not so good riding, and we want to educate people for better riding for the better well-being of the horses.”
Trainers concerned about correct training are speaking out, to support the classical doctrines. With Balkenhol and Heuschmann, others who support Xenophon include Hans-Heinrich Isenbart, Christine Stuckelberger, and Ingrid Klimke. Visit the Web site xenophon-classical-riding.org to learn more about the Xenophon Society for the Promotion of Classical Riding Culture.