Dressage As a Horsemanship

Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Posted by Madeleine Debure

Alice Tarjan and Elfenfeuer (Photo: Lara Ceppi)

Alice Tarjan and Elfenfeuer (Photo: Lara Ceppi)

The Old Masters Training Series premiered its American venture in New York last weekend. Klaus Balkenhol delighted auditors with his classical obsessions for patience and correctness. Intelligence, feel, and a sense of responsibility are some of the essential tools to become one with our dancing partner.

And horsemanship was the main idea during this weekend. Both Frank Henning, the organizer, and Klaus Balkenhol, the Olympic multi-medalists and former US team coach, started by reminding the audience that the horse is never wrong and it is always the rider that has to question himself when things do not go as planned.

“Always, always, always : you always have to take responsibility as a rider for a bad ride”. “If your horse does not do what you want, check your aids and how appropriate is your level of expectations”. “Horses don’t wake up in the morning saying – I’m really going to try to do the best flying change today!” said Frank Henning. And Klaus continued and exposed the meaningful evidence : “You take the rider away from a horse, and the horse remains a horse ; but take the horse away from the rider, what does he become?”

Throughout the weekend, we got reminded our responsibility to understand them and care for them : they are our reason of being, and it is not the other way around.

Hence the lessons were each a demonstration of masterful training : finding what would allow the rider to make his horse understand how to achieve more, more easily. “If the horse is oversensitive to the legs in the changes, stop for a moment, make him work on half passes at the canter : until he accepts the legs and relaxes”. “If your simple changes are not good, go back to establishing straightness and focus on keeping it throughout the simple change”.

Fie Andersen and Rocazino (Photo: Beth Niewenhous)

Fie Andersen and Rocazino (Photo: Beth Niewenhous)

Using the pyramid of training and pinpointing wherever the main problem was, and mostly going back to basics. “Your horse is 11? Right now, you have to ride him like he is 5 and develop lossgelassenheit (suppleness)”. “Piaffe, passage, canter and trot : it is all easy for that mare : you really need to train her walk now, because it shows a lot of tension”.

Klaus reminded the audience of establishing those correct basics from the beginning, in the young horse : “The breeders have improved so much and created horses that look like they are eight when they are only three year old : but the riders haven’t improved as much. You still have to educate the horse in a quiet and systematic way. Develop them slowly.” “Many things are going faster and faster in our world, but it should not be the case with young horses. We have to spend more time developing them, so that they don’t spend too much time at the vet clinic!”.

And, as he is known through his role in the association Xenophon, he stand one more time against Rollkur and other LDR techniques : “ They cause damage in the body and the spirit of the horse ; as we saw one more time at the last European Championship. And if such things keep happening, Dressage might be removed from the Olympics for the benefit of a sport with less polemics, like golf!”

For Klaus Balkenhol, horsemanship is riding with intelligence : a knowledge, but also a feeling, an understanding of the horse tensions and resistance, to allow for a deeper and finer communication. The German master would often ask the riders to smile : “it is not only a way to get more points by showing the judge that it looks easy, but it is also a feeling that impacts positively the horse body itself”. “Be more elastic, keep your elbows supple, and soft hands : this is how you become one with the horse” was he reminding to most of the riders. “Let your legs breathe on your horse side, they should pet him, to create a feeling of oneness” told Klaus to David Collins, riding his 5 year old Hanoverian Bojing.

Jannike Gray and Mercenario FC (Photo: Lara Ceppi)

Jannike Gray and Mercenario FC (Photo: Lara Ceppi)

Klaus complimented him on the correctness of his basics, and that he could just now develop a bit more the sharpness of the response to the legs to increase his durchlassigkeit (throughness). To move as one, if you cannot afford unclear aids, then your horse cannot afford a half hearted response : making David and Bojing work on simple and eloquent walk/halt/walk transitions. It was not about showing off, it was about establishing the rules of the dialogue : “if you ask your husband to bring you some coffee, you don’t want him to complain and drag his feet : you want him to be happy to do so, and promptly!” was Klaus jokingly explaining the audience.

He would refer to the “Bewegung Zentrum”, “the center of movement” to describe the part of the back of the horse that lies behind the saddle and from where the movements should originate : “good riders feel the hinds legs under their seat and the need to activate the back to create motion throughout the whole body”.

Jannike Gray and Mercenario FC (Photo: Lara Ceppi)

Jannike Gray and Frau Schufro (Photo: Lara Ceppi)

Another element kept coming back : the correctness of the contact. At the other end of the circle of the aids is the mouth of the horse and Klaus kept going back to it. “You need to keep the contact and have the horse always stretch into the hands : do not let him go behind the vertical” : asking riders to lift the hands for a second and open the angle of the head and neck, and give immediately, once the contact had been reestablished. “When the horse shortens his neck and go behind the rider hand, there cannot be any durchlassigkeit”. It was a subtle adjustment, but with big results. Such as the beautiful Andalusian stallion Mercenario FC ridden by Young Rider Jannike Gray : the topline would soften, the neck would lengthen and the back would come up, making a wider stride with a slower tempo. “You want the muscles to relax into the work”.

Throughout the weekend, Mr Balkenhol would always come back to making the work “comfortable” for the horse. “Creating a feeling of wellness : this is lossgelassenheit”. “You cannot overtax the horse body and mind”. Klaus would often ask to the riders and the audience : “Do you have time? I have plenty of time” ; it was about giving the horses the time they needed. “His tail is coming up, it means that his back is getting tired : we need to take a break and lengthen the reins”.

Horsemanship is being the coach of your horse and being responsible of the soundness of his body. In that sense, Klaus also made sure that the equipment was properly fitting and took the time to do some lengthy adjustments a few times. He reminded that you need to be able to fit two fingers between the noseband and the head of the horse : “the horse has to be able to slightly move his tongue in order to swallow his saliva : if not, you get a horse that is drooling a lot and that means that his body is not functioning properly”.


Klaus Balkenhol (Photo: Lara Ceppi)

Horsemanship was also for him about questioning what you see and using your own judgment. When the beautiful Elfenfeur (8 year old Grand Prix Oldenburg mare owned and ridden by Alice Tarjan) would pick up a passag-y trot: “some judges like that, this legs action, but I don’t : it is too hard on the horse body”. And he would help the rider relax her mount to reveal a regular and more scopey trot : “...now you should be in the US team!”. The German trainer would also often ask the audience to evaluate a movement or score a gait. And, when asked by a participant about leg yielding, Klaus asked back : “You : tell me before the difference between a leg yield and a shoulder in”. And, as the auditor gathered her thoughts to find a way to explain it right, everyone around felt a bit like they were in a classroom : which is what clinics are.

Klaus Balkenhol questioned himself when Jannike Gray came in the ring riding the sensitive Frau Schufro with a Dy’on Difference bridle that was releasing the pressure at the poll. She said that that bridle was deemed illegal by TDs at shows and she only could use it for schooling at home. Another trainer in the audience said she had been showing in the same bridle all season. Mr Balkenhol ask himself and the auditors : “what is the rule? why does this rule exist? is this rule right?” Lendon Gray, who was present in the audience, jumped in and explained it was not a rule yet, it was still under discussion and was to be voted soon at the USEF Dressage Committee.

She looked up and quoted the veterinary statements behind the idea of changing DR. 121.2. Balkenhol was not sure to agree with the rule proposal : “if it helps the horse feel better, like this mare obviously, then, to me, this is a good bridle”. Some people started to agree, some others pondered. Lendon concluded “I’m just the messenger here : if you don’t like it, do something about it, and express yourself directly to the Dressage committee, things haven’t been voted yet!” For a moment, the indoor buzzed with auditors exchanging opinions and the clinic became a bit of a town hall meeting : which is what clinics can be with a thoughts inspiring master like Herr Balkenhol.