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On these cold non-riding days, I've been enjoying reading a wonderful book, My Horses, My Teachers, by Alois Podhajsky, who was Director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna for 26 years. Here is a picture of him riding a horse in piaffe - I love this picture - his position is balanced and relaxed, the connection between him and his horse is as soft as can be, the horse is in perfect self-carriage, carrying himself from behind, and both he and the horse look happy. He and the horse are one, doing the piaffe together. What a contrast to so much of what is seen in the dressage world today, even at the upper levels!
This book is not a training manual - he's written other books that are more useful for that - but rather a series of marvelous anecdotes about the horses he encountered in his life and what each of them had to teach him. The theme of the book, that recurs in the description of every horse and the various difficulties and triumphs he and the horses shared, could be summarized by this quote:
. . . I should like to remind every rider to look to himself for the fault whenever he has any difficulties with his horse. (p. 95)Any time he had a difficulty with a horse, encountering a problem with the horse's training or behavior, he would use this as an occasion to reexamine what he was trying to do and how he was going about it, listening to what the horse was trying to tell him with the various behaviors the horse displayed. Usually the answer was to slow down and make sure basic foundational issues were addressed, or readdressed.
An example of his humility in working with horses was his work with Otto. Otto was progressing well, when suddenly he started being resistant to the work, to the extent of rearing and balking and refusal to work. Instead of blaming the horse and punishing him for his behavior, Podhajsky reexamined what he had been doing with the horse, and decided that he had been asking for a posture and movements which the horse was not yet physically prepared to execute - his back and hindquarters were not sufficiently developed to do the work - more time was needed - and the horse was expressing how he felt in the only way he knew how. Podhajsky went back to basics, and took the time that was needed, and obtained excellent results. His attitude throughout was not "my horse is bad and must do the work" but rather "what is the horse trying to tell me and how can I help the horse achieve its potential?". He also emphasizes how important it is not to focus on head position, but rather on the development of strength in the hindquarters and back, so that the horse can carry itself effectively from behind.
In discussing his work with Teja, who hated to have his hind feet handled by the farrier:
. . . the two methods - and all their consequences - with which to obtain services from a horse. On one side there is unconditional subjection by force and punishment with which the rider may reach his goal more quickly but only if he has a good-natured creature with no tendency to fight. The brilliance of such a horse will be lost and he will be indifferent towards man or even hostile. If on the other hand the training of the horse is based on kindness, calmness and ample reward as well as understanding for his personality, the result will be happy obedience on the part of the horse and pleasure in his work. It may take a little longer to obtain progress than with the other method but there will never be that ugly fight between man and animal. The charm and brilliance of the horse will be maintained, even enhanced, and preserved until his old age. (p. 105)He also makes the point repeatedly in the book that the basis of all work with the horse is "forward" and that this must never be lost, and this forward must be developed by strengthening of the hindquarters to allow the horse to carry itself. If forward is lost, as evidenced by sluggishness or resistance - whether slow steps, inability of the horse to carry himself from behind or more extreme resistance behaviors, such as rearing, balking and bucking - then the rider must revise what is being done, often taking steps back to basic exercises to develop forward and to strengthen the horse's hindquarters. Often these behaviors are symptoms that the horse is not yet physically able to do the work that is being requested. Long and low work is essential to establish and enhance forward and the strength of the hindquarters - attempting to put the horse in a correct headset or frame before forward and strength are established will lead to problems. Enough time must be taken to do things correctly and to allow the horse time to develop - failure to do this inevitably results in problems that take even more time to solve and which may damage the confidence of the horse.
And here are a few more quotes to leave you with - this is an excellent book and I strongly recommend it, regardless of what type of riding you do with your horse:
Besides I maintain that if possible there should never be a fight with a horse because he should not be subjected by force but be brought to submit by his own will, which is an entirely different thing. (p. 116)
. . . I realized that it is essential to the thinking rider to find means and methods to render work as easy as possible for his horse. (p. 168)If more people working with horses would adopt the attitudes and approach that Podhajsky took with his horses, more people would have happy horses who were willing and able to do what was requested of them.