Walter Zettl: Up In Heaven…The Language of Harmony

Walter Zettl: Up In Heaven…The Language of Harmony

(© By Kip Mistral. First published in Equine Journal July, 2007. Photograph Courtesy of Premier Equestrian.)

“Now…we take up the reins very carefully,” Walter Zettl speaks softly into the microphone, “The mouth is the most sensitive part. Softer…softer…”. Here at one of Zettl’s winter clinics in Tucson, Arizona, the rider has been walking her horse on the buckle during one of the frequent breaks for the horse. We are all comrades in escaping the desert sun, and those of us observing have joined Zettl under the canopy where he sits to instruct.

The gracious, charming Czech-born Walter Zettl is known and respected as being an advocate for the horse, though he seems also to be an advocate for the riders he teaches. However, what he does seems less like instructing than encouraging. For one timid rider, he speaks quietly and soothingly to buoy her confidence and keep her relaxed, an effect that even carries over to the auditors who take deep breaths and settle more deeply into their chairs. With a younger rider who does not seem to be engaged seriously with her lesson, Zettl is motivational. “Smile when you ride!” he reminds them all, smiling himself. “When you frown your whole body tenses; when you smile, it relaxes. Your horse can’t relax if you are not relaxed. Imagine that there is a glass of champagne in each hand, and after your lesson we will drink it together. Gently…gently.”

Zettl speaks freely about how much he loves teaching, and the deep meaning that his equine and human students have for him. “I have been teaching horses and riders for 60 years. I love all horses. If it is a pony, or a horse not so good looking, I don’t care. And each rider who comes to my clinics, I ask myself “Where can I go with him?” I must take him up to the limit because he won’t learn anything if I don’t, but not over the limit. A beginning rider is as important as a Grand Prix rider. I want to show him that you can be happy with your horse, in harmony together. It should be a harmonic partnership between two different lives.”

And Zettl seems perplexed at the trends in dressage today that work against that harmony. He frequently cites his superb, early classical training and the values he was taught at the riding school of Bad Kissingen in Kronberg, Germany which he joined at 16. “The teacher and my mentor, Colonel Herbert Aust, was so patient and gentle. In eight years, I never once saw him raise his voice or hand to a horse. He was always kind and the horse was never to blame. Only classical training methods were used. The horses were calm, focused and proud in their work. It was unthinkable to bring stress and tension to a horse at Bad Kissingen.”

Since there are so few formal classical academies left today, we are curious as to the formal program for riders at Bad Kissingen. What we hear is surprising. “At this school, dressage was acknowledged as the foundation for all other work,” Zettl recalls with enthusiasm. “But we rode all the horses in all the disciplines—dressage, jumping, eventing. Both horses and riders were prepared very carefully, and we learned the range of disciplines so we wouldn’t start out being specialists in only one of them. The beginning rider was put on a saddled horse with no stirrups and longed. Then, we were put through a chute of jumps riding bareback to get the feeling of being balanced. We also went cross-country jumping, so the horse and rider both learned to manage their balance in different terrain. We rode two to three times a week in dressage, and the other days we jumped and rode out into the country.”

“We even had to ride sidesaddle, and jump in the sidesaddle, which was not my favorite activity. But this is such valuable work. I even trained a horse to all the Grand Prix movements in sidesaddle. We were allowed to watch the lessons in which we were not riding ourselves, and that is when we learned the most in watching the reaction of the rider to the teacher. Then, Colonel Aust started having us teach others, little by little. He took us to restaurants so we would learn etiquette. We were expected to be friendly and helpful to the new colleagues, to never criticize. Colonel Aust was such a gentleman.”

“And our horses, which were military horses left from World War II, became so beautiful with the classical training and the variety in their exercise. We had no choice but to train them classically; they couldn’t have managed the work otherwise. My horses were never fast, but they won because they did everything I asked. In a jumping round, you could really show off. You could jump, land, and then do passage. Or stop before a jump, piaffe and then jump. Or you could jump, pirouette, and jump back over the jump you had just taken. This kind of variety in work is almost unheard of today.”

“And our horses loved it–a horse should like doing what he is doing. All their training was done carefully, so the horses would trust us. My horses listened to me because they trusted me. They knew I would never ask them to do something they could not do and so they did everything I asked. At Colonel Aust’s, our horses were never stressed or tense. They never sweated in the arena. When I see horses today that enter the arena or court dripping with cold sweat, I know that is fear. The horse must respect us, but he should never be afraid of us or that his work is going to be harder than he can do.”

Zettl speaks equally freely when asked about the current controversy surrounding the practice of overbending the horse in the bridle.

“From the first time I saw this, I thought ‘They take everything away from the horse. They make him a machine, a slave instead of a partner.’ A horse should never be made to do what he does not do in nature. In nature a horse never goes with his nose on his chest, he can’t see where he is going. With this force, riders and trainers kill the wonderful natural gaits. They say ‘This horse must learn to give.’ They have the double bridle on, the draw reins, to keep the horse so low—he is helpless. 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.”

The best rider to work with has classical sensibilities, soft hands and wants to learn to ever refine their aids, Zettl insists.

“It is hard to work with a dressage rider who thinks that riding is done with hard hands and spurs. This rider might say “This horse is not sensitive, you really have to get after him.” You have to get tougher and tougher, people think, but nobody listens to the horse. Any force we bring on horses is wrong.”

“One day I overheard someone saying, ‘This horse can only do a good piaffe if the horse is mad at you.’ What is that all about? I see riders teasing the horse all the time with spurs and I see their horses wringing their tails from stress and frustration.” Then Zettl chuckles. “But I have to tell a story. When I was a young student, I had a horse once that I thought was lazy. I was working so hard to get him to go, I was sweating. Colonel Aust came in and 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 on completely long reins. Don’t do anything, just sit there for a time. Now, take up the reins very carefully… the mouth is the most sensitive part. Don’t drive so much.’ After 20 minutes, the horse kicked his overdrive in and now I had to hold him back. He wasn’t lazy at all! With all my driving, I had made him resistant. The strong horses won’t take this kind of treatment from riders. I’ve seen a horse lie down because he couldn’t get his point across any other way. Those are the proud ones, the good ones.”

So, the opposite of being heavy-handed is being light, perhaps too obviously. We ask how to achieve lightness in the interaction between the horse and rider. Zettl has another surprising answer. “Sometimes people think lightness means not doing anything, but too much giving can be as much punishment for the horse as being too strong. First the horse has too much pulling, and then he has too much giving. He will drop out of contact in this case. Try to feel his mouth and follow it all the time. The horse will like your hands, and go confidently to the bit. The horse who gets tense and tight, perhaps backing away, is telling you he doesn’t trust your hands when you take up the reins. That is why you pick them up very slowly and quietly. Colonel Aust suggested that we put a pencil in our mouth and have one of our friends take the pencil in his hands and direct us with it. If you do this, then you will understand how invasive and frightening it may feel for a horse to have a bit inside his mouth. And the poor horses can get claustrophobic from the pressure of the saddle and girth.”

We have been walking along together on a break and Zettl turns to me. “Take my hand, and close your fist. Slowly, not so quick! Tighten just a little bit more, slowly, gently. Now think of keeping this gentle contact with the horse’s mouth. It is comforting, this, isn’t it?” Yes, it was…and I still remember the feeling of the soft elasticity.

“Remember how horses are by nature flight animals. When I shut the door for him to go forward, when I put him behind the vertical and behind the bit, when I pull his nose to his chest, can you imagine how this flight animal must feel, whose instinct is to flee? He must feel that 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 so I can work with my hands without moving them and disturbing him any more than I must. And a too-loose rein can be as bad as a too-tight rein. When you have a loose rein and you have to turn, most riders think you must use the hand, not the seat and weight, and so they go into the mouth and the horse gets a shock. We must be consistent all the time; we must never surprise the horse. In the end, this is just being polite and considerate.”

Now the subject turns to the popularity and significance of the “big gaits” and particularly the “big trot” that we hear about and see so much these days. Why do people seem to love to see this exaggerated gait so much?

“This is what I call a ‘show trot,” Zettl says ruefully. “Horses are born with beautiful natural gaits, in wonderful balance between hind and front leg. But what people want to see is spectacular movement, with the front leg reaching out far beyond the plane of the face. And this means his hind legs have to stay behind to support him, or he will fall on his face. I call this a leg mover; this horse cannot be collected because his back is not a bridge between his front and back legs. Some people like this ‘spectacular’ movement, but I prefer to make the horse spectacular in the collection.”

Back in his clinic, Zettl continues working with a wide variety of riders and horses, but the observer realizes the thesis continually repeated is that the rider must be responsible, accountable and focused on the horse. “Art is hard,” Zettl says seriously and shakes his head. “The hardest thing in the world is to control ourselves. But making shortcuts is cheating the eye, and cheating the horse. And cheating ourselves.”

Zettl is very friendly with the auditors, encouraging questions, and often explains theory by referring to one of the many diagrams in his excellent book. He has a playful sense of humor. “This is a good book,” he says with a straight face, “it took me ten years to write!”

A hard-working Friesian gelding pounds by in his lesson, athletic and fit. His rider/trainer reports that she is having some difficulty in schooling his tempi changes and flying changes. “Think light,” Zettl urges. “Imagine that you are going to heaven, and take him with you.” He works with them first in getting a better collection. As the rider makes small adjustments to her aids and her approach to the horse with Zettl’s quiet coaching, the observers see a transformation taking place. The gelding is achieving more impulsion, getting slower and slower, yet lighter and lighter in the front. As he improves his collection he is able to make beautiful tempi changes that apparently surprise him in the sense that they seem to have come out of nowhere. He is enjoying himself enormously. Zettl cheers the team on with real enthusiasm and excitement. It is clear that the horse and rider have begun to find the harmony Zettl seeks for his students.

As they canter by together, now light as thistledown, this trainer’s heart is all over her face. The horse has put himself in her hand. Zettl exclaims “Up in heaven! Take your horse up in heaven and you go there with him. Up in heaven!”

See for Zettl’s biography and more information.



  1. Terrie Corcoran
    June 3, 2018 / 10:49 AM

    This made my eyes well up. I regret never meeting him. I have his books and DVDs and there was a lovely clinic video of him teaching a trainer on a Percheron Andalusian cross that was so wonderful. I think I watched it 30 times. I think they took if off of YouTube, as I can no longer find it. What a wonderful man, a gift to the world.

  2. Kip
    June 3, 2018 / 12:36 PM

    Yes, we will be losing a great master. But we will be able to see him among the stars, Up In Heaven…. <3

  3. May 26, 2019 / 3:59 AM

    He’s a very good man.. An inspiration too..I learned a lot from him..

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