UNCUT: “Up in Heaven” — The Full Interview with Walter Zettl

UNCUT: “Up in Heaven” — The Full Interview with Walter Zettl

(© Kip Mistral 2007. Photo credits unknown.)

[NOTE from KM: Sometimes when I interview subjects, they can be more direct than the publication’s audience at the time might be ready for, so in the past I have erred on the side of caution and eliminated certain content from the final article. However, those honest remarks are the parts I like the best. I asked the charming and gracious Walter Zettl if he wanted to censor any part of our interviews and he said, “No, I’m old…they can think what they want.” So in that spirit, I publish here for your enjoyment the uncut transcription of my recorded interviews, over a weekend clinic here in Tucson years ago. I leave undisturbed the syntax of his speech.]

Walter, how did you find your way to classical riding?

When I was sixteen years old and first came to the academy at Bad Kissingen in Germany to learn riding with Colonel Herbert W. Aust, we had to work with the horses that were left over from World War II.

We had to ride correctly, otherwise the horses couldn’t deal with the work. We would come to the warmup ring, we had the correct methods to progress them gradually in the exercises. We learned to be kind, to ask only what they could understand and do, and they got so beautiful with the classical riding.

This is how we made our first shows in 1948 and 1949, after the war. All the shows were very small, but we rode seriously. The riding in these shows was really much better than what we see in performance today.

With the few horses the farmers had left over from the war, they started to breed with Thoroughbred stallions to begin developing the warmblood. In a few years you didn’t see draft horses too much, you just saw them working in breweries and demonstrating in shows.

Gradually the breeding became “super breeding,” horses so elegant, with the fluid movement of the breed, the good temperament of the warmblood.

In Germany now they went on to make bigger shows, and then there was too much competition, and trainers and riders made shortcuts so that the horses were losing their beautiful movement. The fantastic extended trot, they need a half hour to cross the diagonal, they are throwing their front legs up and down, and in the back they are taking these little steps, otherwise they would fall on their noses.

Then, about four years ago, they say, we have to take the walk out of the Grand Prix!

Because the super hot-blooded dressage horses are so hyper so they can’t walk anymore, so they can’t show the walk.

They are so tense, there are three gaits and they take one out? The trot…the trot is so tight, so probably they have to take that one out too. Now we have only the canter!

So I say why don’t they take everything out and they just do what they do best, throw their legs around!

But WE were taught that the horses must do everything. Dressage is the foundation for all the sports, jumping, eventing. Our horses did all this. Jumping. Land, and do passage. You could really show off. Or stop before jumping, piaffe, and then jump. This variety and the challenge would give the horse a lot of psychological release.

The life of most dressage horses, they stay in a box stall like a prisoner, then they come out in the arena, and they exercise only what they have to show in the show. But in dressage, be careful about doing that. It is like training a dog. When you do it hundreds of times the same the horse will do it, but the brilliance is gone.

It should be a harmonic partnership between two different lives. The horse must respect us but he should never be afraid of us. The partnership is so important in the training, they must trust us. I never asked him something he could not do. My horses would jump against a wall because I never betrayed them, and the horse was so trusting. My horses were never fast, but they listened to me, they could jump, make a pirouette and go over the same jump again the other way.

But whether it is jumping or dressage, the trust is important.

After a show, you go right back to the lunge line with the rider to correct mistakes that sneak in. The basics are the most important, because on that we build up the next step.

The horse must trust us and do everything because he likes to do it. Every force we do with our horses is wrong, force should not exist.

I see a lot of people riding with draw reins, and they are cheating themselves as riders.

With draw reins the horse is forced to get in a frame, and he doesn’t know what the connection is between the driving aids and the receiving aids. And the rider really doesn’t get the feeling between the driving aids and the receiving aids.

The rider is thinking only of the controlling of the neck, they believe when the horse gives in with this draw rein, but what he is really doing is escaping the aids. He is going behind the bit, the rider doesn’t have anything in his hand anymore. The horse escapes his hands, instead of going trusting into his hands.

I am not completely against pulling if it is necessary. If the horse throws his head up, for instance, then pull him back into your hands softly, to help him, give him some confidence. If the horse doesn’t work with the snaffle, then you get a little more powerful, you get the double bridle. But we did everything on the snaffle. The horses had to go Grand Prix all movements on the snaffle, and we used the double bridle only for show because it was required.

Now the question, why aren’t the judges today going by the rules as they are written. Wouldn’t it be more honest to change the rules to reflect the way they are judging? How did this happen?

The judges have a big influence but the money and success is what pushes the horse over the limit.

Do you mind being explicit about this subject and allowing me to publish what you have to say?

At my age now I don’t care what they think about me. If they say I am crazy to fight for the classical training for the horses, that’s fine with me.

I think you are talking about the riding with over bending. This is something that from the first time I saw this, I see that they take everything away from the horse. They make him a machine, I don’t care what they say, the horse goes over the top line, in dressage the horse should never do what they don’t do in nature. In nature a horse never goes with his nose on his chest.

They make those horses helpless. They can’t see where they’re going, they have no life anymore, they make horses slaves instead of partners. And with this force, they kill also those wonderful natural gaits.

The walk is so tense and tight, when they let the horse go they don’t know what to do with him. They say “The horse has to give.” They have the double bridle on, or the draw reins, to keep the horse so low, the horse in nature would never do that.

We have to teach everything from the hind leg, up the back and poll, down into the bit and into my hands, schwung, means the aiding of the power that goes over the back to the front, into the forward movement of the whole horse.

The piaffe that I see almost exclusively today in competition, is nearly straight-legged and the back legs are working irregularly.

The show riders, when they go from passage into piaffe, the horse is immediately completely out of balance, he makes at least six steps before he gets back into balance.

Half-step trot, we are going from normal step into half-step, that means engaging the hindquarters. The horse should always know he has space to go forward. The rider is driving like a maniac, all this power is created but doesn’t go over the back because the front and back are disconnected. They never learn that they could get themselves moving up and down and forwards.

Same in teaching passage to piaffe. As soon as the horse gets out of balance, we correct it. They were the same steps, except shorter and shorter, in the same rhythm. Walk-trot, length and shorter, length and shorter, then the half-steps, our horses were always in position to perform a piaffe.

A rider tells me, “My horse has such a good piaffe but he doesn’t go out into a passage.” I say, “I can tell you without seeing the horse that he doesn’t have a correct piaffe. If you have a correct piaffe, you can go out in a second. That is supple and powerful.”

Let us talk a little more about the industry and the different influences within it.

Those riders now they create this over bending. Because they are very successful, they have so much influence. One very good judge in Germany, Mr. Hess, wrote an article that the judges are the ones who can make the classical training. Or they can also let it go. Those judges now look for only those horses that look so overpowered, but really, truly, they have lost all the natural movements. Walk-trot-canter. As soon as they start to make the horse shorter, the horse goes into half passage steps, it is not a trot and not collected. As soon as the horse goes forward, they think it is passage.

Coming back to the judges, I am sure they see this is wrong. One judge said “I prefer to see a horse on the correct aids and make a mistake rather than to see a horse that goes like a machine and doesn’t make any mistake.” The gaits are not correct anymore.

I don’t know how judges do it anyway. They sit from morning to night seeing one bad horse after another. They should give those people not 70 or 80, but 50. But if a judge did this, he wouldn’t be invited anymore.

With the wonderful breeding they have now, a very big industry, they like to win. So they push the horses, always over the limit in those gaits. In the beginning they win everything, but the higher they come in the work, the more tense the horse gets.

Most champion young horses, more than 60% disappear, they break down. But the breeder, breeds them, sells them, turns them over. It is so hard when we buy horses here [in North America] from over there [more or less meaning Northern Europe], the horses are so powerful, no one can ride the horses. With the strong hands, the horse gets more tense because people try to balance the horse with their hands.

So much money has to change hands in this business. If they ride correct it takes much longer, but the longer way is really the short way. You don’t have to keep changing horses when you have a problem, when you meet with a resistance. It is much harder because you have to go all the way back to fix it. With classical training, if you have the feeling that this is a little too much, then you go back to the previous step to give the horse more confidence and strength. Then he will be ready to progress. If people would take the time to stick to this they would keep their horses forever. But, who would need a breeder then, though, when the horses are 20 years old and still sound and strong?!

Article 401 requires that horses must be relaxed and collected. If the judges would stick together they would have influence. Hess said judges are responsible to bring the riders back to the classical training if they hold to the rules the way they were written. The riders and trainers who take the time for their horses, these are the ones we should look up to.

I heard that someone said, my horse can only do a good piaffe if he is mad at me. What is that all about?

If you tease the horse all the time with spurs, the horse wants to get rid of this like a horsefly. We see all the time the horses wringing their tails, the riders kill the aids the more they spur. Instead we want the horse to respond to our finest aids.

When I was a student I had a horse once that was so lazy. I thought I would need a knife to make him go. I was working so hard, I was sweating. My boss [Colonel Aust] came in and he said “What are you doing?!” I said “This horse is so lazy!” He said, “You are killing him, by driving your aids, you drive him so much, he is doing exactly the opposite. Now look, let him go first on completely long reins. Don’t do anything. Now take up the reins, very, very, carefully, now the mouth is the most sensitive part. Don’t drive so much, just a little.”

After 20 minutes the horse kicked the overdrive in and now I had to hold him back! With all my driving, he became resistant! He wasn’t lazy! Horses who don’t take this stuff, those are the tough ones, they will be great, “Look I will do anything, just show me the right way, but don’t tease me with spurs!” I’ve seen a horse lie down. Those are the proud ones, the good ones.

What they do is make those horses into machines for the ribbon and the money, nothing else.

Do you think horses really enjoy their work in dressage?

When people come to me and say help me with this horse, I say, buy a horse that has just come from his mother, then you can be sure that nothing happened to the poor guy.

But if you want to buy a ridden horse, don’t come to me. I tell my students, I will let you sit on a Grand Prix horse. It is like sitting on a brick. No schwung.

Riders think they have to hold those horses so the horse doesn’t go forward. The heels should be stretched down, the legs quiet. When heels are up, the knee goes up, with the spurs moving all the time. The spur should be used only very softly. But the horse is locked, he is afraid to really go, so his gaits are stiff and jerky.

If I have to drive him, when the horse is not starting at once, I bring him back and prepare him, but I don’t push two or three times, he isn’t listening anymore. I should just have to open my hands a little, use my leg a little, and say now we can go.

So do horses really enjoy this work, oh yes! When he is prepared, nothing hurts him. Gives him more confidence, makes him more powerful.

The best riders have soft hands. It is very hard to work with a dressage rider who thinks that riding is with hard hands and spurs. When they sell the horse they say, “He is not sensitive, you really have to get after him.” When the horse is not sensitive anymore, do I put an electric prod on my spurs? You have to get tougher and tougher. Nobody listens to the horse. You say the horse is going shorter? We have to ask, did I go over the limit yesterday? Does his stomach hurt?

In Germany in 1947 or 1948, we rode two or three times a week in dressage, and the other days we jumped and went into the country. The horses were not stressed. We rode our horses so they were not tense. We put nothing on the legs, no wraps. We didn’t have colic or ulcers. We did not know what a veterinarian was.

When I first came to Canada, the trainer had shots for muscle spasms. Now horses are always in stress, most have ulcers because the stomach is so sensitive to stress.

Horses are so kind and forgiving, they do anything for us. That is why I put the horse’s prayer in my book. They depend on us, we take them from nature. Horses are like prisoners.

Let us talk about lightness…

Lightness. Sometimes people think lightness is don’t do anything. It’s the opposite, feel his mouth, follow it all the time. The horse will like your hands, and like the bit, and go confidently to the bit. If the horse gets tense and tight, it is a sign he doesn’t trust your hands when you take up the reins.

Our boss said go and get a pencil in your mouth, have your friend get behind you and pull on the sides of the pencil, then you will be different. It is frightening. And the poor horse gets claustrophobic from the pressure of the saddle and girth.

When we come to take up the reins, it is always a sign that the horse is afraid of the hand when they tense or they back away.

Give me your hand, close your fist, not so quick, tighten a little bit more, feel how elastic and soft the contact is. It feels nice. That is what your horse wants from you. [In this exercise he had us connect and curl in our fingers and hold the contact that way, while gently and lightly squeezing.]

Because too much giving can be punishment for the horse, they drop out, first they have too much contact, then they don’t have enough.

Horses by nature are flight animals. When I shut the door for him, put him behind the vertical and bit, can you imagine how this horse must feel, from nature his instinct is to flee. Now he gets so much bang in the mouth, he tries to flee and everything gets shut up. He must have the feeling his soul is taken away from him.

The length of the reins is also important, they must be adjusted to the length of the neck. This way I can work with my hands without moving them.

We had to train the horses so every child could ride or a weak person could ride this horse.

First we riders were put on the saddle without stirrups and lunged, then we are put in chute of jumps without a saddle so we can get the feeling of being balanced. Then we went cross country jumping. Only if the seat is correct, can we give correct aids. Every movement we do on the horse’s back, they feel, even a little bit. Then we watched all the lessons. You learn how to do everything so you don’t get to be a specialist.

We could sit beside Colonel Aust giving a lesson and learn the most. We could see the reaction of the rider. Then he let us teach. He took us to the restaurant for him to teach us table manners. How to be friendly and helpful to the new colleagues. Never criticize. Colonel Aust was such a gentleman, and always kind to the horse, he never blamed the horse or let us blame the horse.

We had outside students who came to us, to ride, he always said don’t be cruel, that doesn’t bring us anything. We have to always think like a horse, think what he would do this in this situation. We may have to change a tiny bit our aids then.

I had a horse who could do grand prix in sidesaddle. We had to jump sidesaddle, I did not like this, but the lady had to jump, so we had to teach the horse.

Sidesaddle proves that you can ride using your weight. The seat and weight, and a little bit with the bit. But you have to make the horse sensitive for the lady. This area of work gave you a lot to do.

The sidesaddle on top is completely fat. It is wonderful work. If the horses were bucking, we put the sidesaddle on and they would buck and they couldn’t throw you off.

These big gaits, this extended trot. Where did that come from and why are people stuck on this style?

This is a “show trot.” It starts out with horses born with beautiful gaits. They were in wonderful balance between hind and front leg. They do that more and more, the front gets so exaggerated the back can do only short steps. I show the difference between a leg mover and a back mover in my book. That’s what the people want to see is spectacular movement. The beginner sees this. You buy a horse with the spectacular movement. You show they are never collecting. The horse has the spectacular walk. Now you start, at the lower levels it is wonderful. They go first through the walk. Now the trouble starts when you have to collect him a little.

The poor guy, with a rider that doesn’t have too much feeling, immediately the horse jogs, or Spanish walk, or pacing, where should I put my power? Same as in trot, you have a spectacular trot. Then you have to start to collect this trot, then you get those passage steps, where should the power go when you hold him? A really smart trainer would never buy a horse like that. A wonderful mover yes, but not that “spectacular” movement. I make him spectacular in the collection.

I can’t sit this poor horse, there is so much power. They are cheating the eye, it is an illusion.

My boss taught us that a loose rein can be as wrong as too tight a rein, when you have a loose rein and you have to turn, most riders think you have to use the hand, and they go into the mouth and the horse gets a shock. Holding the two reins should be like you are holding two sticks, follow the mouth all the time on both sides, so it is consistent.

Don’t cheat yourself in the basics. If you don’t, as you go higher up, you won’t collect more mistakes. Every movement we do in the basics is really preparing for the next higher movement. The horse has a great memory, more for bad things than good things. So correcting mistakes can be difficult.

Was taking the walk out of the test, was that taken seriously?

No, but that does make a point about the ridiculous.

I can tell you love all horses and believe all horses can be light if they are trained properly.

I love all horses. The one who comes to my clinics, it is them most important. If it is a child and a pony, or not good looking horses, or a new rider, this rider for me is most important, and I wonder where can I go with him. Go up to the limit because they won’t learn anything, but not over the limit. A beginning rider is as important as a grand prix rider. I show him, you can be happy with your horse together, in harmony.

That is the bottom line, but that doesn’t win at the shows.

That is a different thing. People are too concerned with the spectacular movement. The poor horse can’t go in any collection.

A cold sweat is fear. I see horses with sweat running down, so tense, so frightened. Tense is fright. It goes to the stomach, which is why so many horses have ulcers. We never rode a horse that was sweating in the ring, ever. But now horses come in already sweating.

This really makes you sad. They have spectacular horses. And they are riding so terrible, in the piaffe. They move to the left and the right, the horse moves, in the flying change, the riders move the legs and spurs back to the flank. When they piaffe and passage, they move the legs. The hands move all the time, the heels move all the time.

You hardly see them smiling, they are not happy with themselves. Smile when you ride.

The value—call it dance with your horse. I am stick of hearing that, it doesn’t look like dancing, it looks like torture. They never really did feel what it is like to be with a horse in harmony.

It looks like dancing, when you don’t see any aids. This is classical riding. The more aids you see, the more you know that the horse is not riding correctly.

For a dressage horse, people think if they are in training they can’t do anything else. But you would say take them outside…

Our grand prix dressage horses jumped. We did a little jumping for warmup in dressage.

What would you do with a horse in training? Don’t treat the horse like a machine. Go out. Jump with the horse. You see horses in bandages from hoof to knee. They don’t need that when you ride them correctly, their legs are made stronger from exercise. They don’t get stronger from bandages and shots to relax their muscles.

THE American horse council reports 9.2 million horses, 120 million dollars in the industry each year.

People say I need a new bit. I say it makes the shops richer. Maybe the bit is 1%, the rider is 98%. I give all of the equipment 2%.

That’s a lot of responsibility.

Yes. If you really want to be called a horseman you have to look at it that way. I wonder how many people are willing to do that.

In this day when everything is so quick, we have new inventions, but the horse will always be a horse, he will not change.

Putting a saddle on the horse puts him out of balance. Same with the bridle. We have to take at least one year to get the horse back in balance with us on his back. With exercise, with jumping, going out in the country, so he finds balance in different terrain. Horse has to get used to my hands and legs. Even with the best bred horse, many times he gets out of balance again.

Every horse comes out of his mother crooked. And we’re crooked. He has to be straight when you do the most difficult stuff. Same as us, right hand and left hand. You are left hand and now you have to be a right hand. As soon as the guy gets in trouble, he grabs the left. Same with the horse. Relaxation is the most important. Then we get the horse in balance. Have the right contact. Lead the horse into every movement with schwung.

You can ride a horse without collection but you can’t have collection without schwung. Then the straightness. So many times in jumping, the horse goes crooked. And then comes collection, and all of these leads to suppleness.

Go to two places. Go to where the training is classical, go to where they make short cuts in training. After one year, at the first place, you will see same horses, more mature. At the second place, where is this horse I saw last year? Gone. Next year, classical training, same horses looking more brilliant. Other place, no horses the same. First place no bandages, second place standing in bandages. First place, the helper is still there, why would he go somewhere else to work? Second place, the vet is always there.

Be willing to work hard for yourself and for your horse, to ride classical. Everything else is force and not correct. And the horse will suffer.

If you compare the classical barn and the modern barn, think of the expense involved and the time. The dressage people I’m aware of stay in it their whole lives, even if they think the classical way takes longer. So, if you’re working with horses your whole life anyway, what is the difference?


For more information, see the published article taken from interviews at a weekend clinic in Tucson, Arizona, 2007)



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