Text extracted from “Reflections on the Art of Horsemanship” by H. J. Heyer © 1968 J. A. Allen & Company Ltd, London. “H. J. Heyer has, in his time, ridden a wide variety of horses both in Europe and in other parts of the world. He regards riding as a very personal affair between horse and rider.” Cover art by Miss Catherine Edkins.
This book is not supposed to be another riding manual–they are a dozen to the dime, nor is it a work on the finer arts of riding. Any attempt to improve on Xenophon, de la Guérinière or Seunig would only, at its best, produce a pointless parallel.
I am, on these pages, simply trying to express a few thoughts of my own on the subject of horsemanship.
Authors throughout the history of equitation had, apparently, very little to say about feel. Masters I was fortunate enough to be helped by, seemed to shy away from the subject, though they are evidently aware that feel must be the mainstay of all riding. Reluctance to discuss it is understandable if it involves mediocre capacities and the masters, of course, realize that to convey a thought by means of words is almost impossible.
Most likely the original meaning is lost or at least contorted. Thus the master attempting to help the scholar talks the language that is both easily set forth and understood…pure mechanics. This system seems to work satisfactorily; no more. We must not forget that the master expressing himself in terms of physical laws and mechanics presents us with a translation, the original being his thoughts.
The scholar, in turn, translates the physical “facts” again into his version of a given phenomenon. This complicated system leaves ample room for misinterpretation and explains the frequent differences of description from two equally good riders in one and the same equestrian function.
The following pages are an attempt to lead the reader, disregarding forms and mechanics, into the center of the subject, and to encourage him to integrate with it and to demonstrate how then, skill, dexterity and efficiency develop automatically–as a by-product as it were.
To help us in our attempting to see and understand the horse from within before trying to improve on it–this is the subject of this book.
What really do we understand under Training in the classic sense? Why Training at all? Is not the horse at liberty a perfectly efficient functioning entity–without the interference of man? Are we so presumptuous as to believe we could improve on nature’s principles and systems? Certainly not! The laws of evolution–weeding out and tentatively testing new directions of development, controlled quantity and quality, the changing environment–demand adaptability and prevent stagnation.
Hence we can assume the sole purpose of training the horse is to make it perform its natural gaits and jumps under the rider–to the rider’s command.
And where do the gymnastics come in? Nature provides all its children with gymnastics in the disguise of play. The foal’s gambols and pranks are exercises. The piaffes, pirouettes, levades and caprioles it performs when in good spirits are the most ingeniously devised exercises for physical and mental fitness–so essential for survival. They are more effective than any practice designed by self-assured “Trainers” could ever be. What is more: they are so pleasant and enjoyable to do!
The thinking rider learns his lesson from nature. He, too, uses those various forms of gambols observed in the paddock to better his horse’s physique and prepare it for life. He uses the authentic methods prescribed by nature, avoiding drudgery, resistance and discontentment.
And how do we go about this task, precisely?
Before setting out to train a horse, let us consider what we are actually striving for. We want to mold a living being into a mount that is as the book says, obedient, supple and trained to fitness and well-being. It is obvious that all these conditions are present in any horse before a human hand has touched it. With one exception… obedience.
This line of thinking leads us to the assumption that all we have to do in schooling a new mount is to teach it to obey our commands. But experience soon, and definitely shows the pathetic results.
A mechanical robot that has been conditioned to go through certain fancy gaits, like a wound-up clock, a machine that most likely would bust a few springs were it asked to perform a dressage test in reverse, a freak useless to and for anything but its learned tricks. A most unhappy creature. The product of human folly.
It is clear to use that we can never recreate those graceful, unconstrained, and happy movements and jumps of the youngsters in the paddocks by means of obedience-education. The reason for this is simply the shortcomings of man who had to be God to be able to pull all those hundreds of strings at the right time and rate to make a job of it.
To reproduce a true replica of the recognized example–the horse at liberty–we can take only one way. We make use of what is left of these original qualities, after the shock of being saddled and mounted, and build up on it.
We feel our way into the pulsating movements of life itself, offering friendship, expecting nothing in return.
Imprinted in our mind is the ideal we are sure to accomplish sometime in the future: The horse-rider combination becoming a near one-unit reality.
The horse will approach us sooner or later for help and then–only then–do we become active, communications commence–training starts.
All of this of course requires a great deal of skill and tact and feel, a degree of feel which could probably be better called intuition.
Let us now go back to that paddock to study the prototypes nature provided us with. Let us examine those movements and jumps through the eyes of a sculptor visualizing his model.
We now see action and its results in a very different way.
For example those sudden halts after a fast movement provide us with a wealth of thought, as to how the terrific strain on the forelegs and shoulders is greatly reduced by flexing the haunches and stepping forward with the hind legs.
We observe that horses prefer the turn on the haunches to turning on the forehand. It is quicker, safer, the field of vision unobstructed and the readiness for instant take off not impeded. The horse only performs turns on the forehand out of necessity when anchored by the head through halter and rope.
We further see contra shoulder-in along a fence, a passage of an agitated youngster or stallion, flying changes, strong trot with greatest impulsion, galloping from the halt, and if we stay for long enough we might see the classic curvettes of two mock fighting youngsters–for the benefit of the girls of course–and we might even be presented with a capricious jump for joy, the capriole.
We study all this thoroughly, try to absorb the atmosphere and let ourselves be absorbed by it. We try to feel the moods for which there are no words but which express themselves in actions. But we must refrain from paying too much attention to pure mechanics.
Technicalities necessitate analyzing, which once started send us through a process of chain reactions producing only question marks or a collection (incomplete) of parts (distorted) which certainly do not resemble a horse.
In training, a horse can only be treated as a whole. One cannot exercise one part without affecting others.
We leave the paddocks when we feel enriched by the experience of having seen life itself, having felt something about the greatness of it and come a little closer, almost in touch with the divine meaning of it.
Having thus acquired a clear mental picture of natural and therefore classic movements we are now well prepared and fortified to approach the next chapter, i.e. we will mount and try to actually feel the pulsating life, get accustomed to rhythm, balance, and rate; acquire subconsciously a feel for temperament, moods and character.
The medium of contact is the seat. Through the seat we give and take, receive and transmit.
An enormous amount of verbiage spoken and printed, has been and will be devoted to the seat wherever horses are saddled. However, most discussions deal with the How rather than the Why and as in most technical discussions and disputes, analysis creeps in, destroying the whole structure which, again, is a wholesome one and must be treated as such.
It is a grave mistake to show a scholar an example and ask him to copy it. The seat is determined by the horse and as many horses there are, so many seats are there.
The classic seat is not an invention to satisfy fashion or pride of achievement.
The classic seat is simply a by-product of good riding, or better; it is the only seat possible when riding within the classic context.
- The rider who aims to be able to be with the horse continuously and in all movements, will be unconstrained (passive) and supple (active).
- The rider who tries to avoid disturbance and endeavors to achieve horse-rider-oneness, will be in perfect balance with himself and his horse.
- The rider who sits steady and comfortably, is able to feel readily and enjoys continuous and effortless communication with his horse, will have the greatest possible contact area with his horse, and will find himself automatically in the classic seat.
The rest is determined by the horse’s grade of development. With increased flexion of the haunches and development of the stretcher muscles on the ribcage, the stirrups will have to be lowered. And the rider’s slightly forward-leaning upper body on a raw horse will come more back to and past the vertical as the horse’s collection increases, appropriate to and in accordance with movement and flexion.
Let us imagine the seat bones are the pivot of the whole mass–horse with rider. Now the rider goes in the forward driving-seat. He braces his back, pushes his pelvis forward-down towards the withers; his legs lengthen, heels down to the ground, calves “breathing” with the pulsating barrel, shoulders slightly more back. This will tilt the whole mass back. Hind legs reach farther forward, haunches flex and lower the croups, forehand lightened.
This is the classic forward-driving seat and only grade of intensity, slight twist of shoulders and shift of hips, an indication of banking or a feather-light turn at the wrists will make the difference between a passage or a strong trot, a turn, lateral flexion, gallop left or right, pirouette or flying change, a levade or a strong gallop.
This classical seat is of course only possible in a forward movement. The mass cannot be shifted nor the scale tilted without the help of impulsion.
The small of the back, being the crossroads of all messages, is the part that tires first. In fact a tired back is only to the credit of the rider. The back must be elastic, not relaxed, with plenty of give in all directions, but with the definite tendency to return to zero.
We are now trotting along completely free of tension. Our horse carries itself and does not need support on the reins. The rider goes with the movement, legs are kept on the horse’s sides through their own weight.
Gripping legs are tiring, prevent any feel, cannot give well-measured aids and make an unsteady seat by pushing the rider away from the horse like closing scissors from a table edge. It is surprising how many riders “grip” and most don’t even know it.
The remedy is to get hold of the pommel with one hand, pulling yourself forward-down, at the same time opening the legs, pushing heels out and down then bring the legs, knees first, on the horse (gently).
This gives us a very steady, deep seat, one with long legs, flat on the horse. We now have all the contact area we could wish for.
The most instructive example of this seat is the monument of Prince Eugene in Vienna.
What we must avoid is what is sometimes wrongly called the hunting seat, with short legs, toes and knees out, seat back in the saddle. Here the rider touches the horse at six points only–seat bones, thigh muscles and calves–thus preventing any feel which makes it impossible to give correctly timed and measured aids. In short, training to any worthy standard is barred.
It will be necessary for a start to correct our seat in the above-mentioned way every two minutes. As soon as we get bounced out of it, we halt, correct and proceed. After a few days we will be able to correct while trotting along and eventually without the help of the hand on the pommel.
It does then become a habit and we just do not feel right should we for some reason forget it.
This all sounds very tedious and unnecessary pedantry but we will see directly how important it is to make this steady, unconstrained, well-balanced deep seat our natural one, in as much that should we lose it, we subconsciously correct it.
Only then can we expect any results from the next stage in our development.
There is a short cut for acquiring a feel for all the mysteries going on under the saddle. Having the privilege to sit on a well-trained horse executing a few school movements, with a master telling you what to do, namely…nothing!
On a horse of mediocre standard it takes longer, but the principle is the same. Here again the motive is, do nothing and more important still, think nothing.
We empty our heads completely, creating a vacuum to make room for impressions.
We forget about legs, shoulders, muscles, reins and what have you (we might have to close our eyes to be able to), and try to catch some of those messages, sent out unceasingly, which went past unnoticed so far because we were too busy thinking about our knees or hands.
Let us imagine that we are standing at the beach, waist deep in water, facing the shore, again with closed eyes. The surf sweeping up at us from behind makes us very uneasy.
The waves throw us off balance, the sea is master of the situation, playing with us, simply because we are not part of it and because of our resistance to going with it.
After a while (with eyes still closed) we get used to the surf, its timing and force, and we now begin to enjoy it, we open our eyes and go with the movement, becoming so confident that we wish for bigger waves.
We intensify our going with the movement as if to push the waves up higher, sending them further on the beach.
And as the wave runs out on the sand and is on the verge to return, we catch it with our hands, ever so lightly bring it back through our arms, shoulders and back to where it came from the “push up” the next one with our back and our hips, like a child on a swing.
If we now interrupt our dream of the beach, we will realize that we have just started to train our horse.
By pushing up that wave, we have created a force which we have allowed to roll out forward and caught it only at the very last moment, to bring it back to create another one.
In terms of equitation this means we have picked up the hind legs, brought them forward under the mass, aided the wave of energy forward with our forward driving seats, the “giving” wrists let out a long forward stride, catching the flow of energy at the last moment. The principle of all training.
As the surf of the beach, every stride of the horse will be slightly different in force, speed and timing.
Whatever we do to correct it we first have to create that extra impulsion; then, and only then, can we force it in either a forward extension or collection with all the myriads of nuances between.