Thursday, February 3, 2011

Book Review: My Horses, My Teachers by Alois Podhajsky

This morning it was -4F with a wind chill of -13F, but bright and sunny, and it was about 9F inside the barn.  The geldings are out for a bit in the arena with some flakes of hay - we were able to get them heated water by putting a tank with a heater near an outlet on the side of the arena and running a hose from the barn.  Poor Fred, with his weak hind legs, is very sore from walking through the snow and isn't walking well. The mares (not Charisma, she doesn't go out with the mares) are in Charisma's paddock with some hay.  Dawn is "double-bagged" - wearing her heavyweight Rambo over her medium-weight Brookside blanket.  The GFI of the outlet that serves the heated tank in Charisma's paddock and the hydrant for filling it had tripped and both were frozen up.  My husband broke the ice, reset the GFI - it's working for now - and carried water up there to top up the tank.  The hydrant may or may not thaw out, we'll see.

* * * * * *
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.


  1. I read that book about 10 years ago, I should go read it again. It was a fantastic book with great insight.

  2. Great post and I agree about the picture. Thanks for sharing.


  3. I too red "My Horses, My Teachers" roughly ten years ago, from the library. This is one that I've wanted to re-read and may just be inspired enough to add it to my collection. Thanks Kate :)

  4. Sounds like my kind of horseman for sure. I will have to see if I can locate this book. Guess I need to make myself of list of good horse reads so I don't lose track of anything. LOL

    It is so frustrating to hear anyone blaming a horse. Just as frustrating to see them forcing a frame instead of function. I am a firm believer the answer to every riding problem is forward. I was just thinking yesterday that I need to incorporate some long and low work with Storm. While I would like to have done it from the start, I had to get to a point it was safe to give him that kind of rein but I think we are there and my next ride we'll see if he remembers that long and low we used to do before he went away. I am hopeful this horse with all his spirit can still be reclaimed from his experience of the last two years. For a while, I was not sure that was going to be the case. He was pretty fractured when I got him back. So sad what ignorance can do to a horse.

  5. Rising Rainbow - I think you'd really like it - and he's got lots of good thoughts on how to deal with horses who've got issues of one sort or another.

  6. One of my favorite books. And, as I've said before, I adore the helicopter story.

    True classical masters are rare these days. This book was written by one of the best.

  7. It doesn't matter what kind of riding you do either, this book is for everyone.

  8. Loved this book. Read it right before I started studying dressage - probably a good time for a reread.

    Honor and respect for the horse seems to be a common thread among the classicists.

  9. I've read this book more than once and it's one of my all time favorites. Like Jean one of my favorite anecdotes is the helicopter story.

    Doesn't matter what discipline you prefer, there's so much good information in here it bridges all disciplines.

  10. I read this book every 5 years or so, and just read it last summer. It is a wonderful book, and I love how humble this great rider was.

  11. My sister sent me a quote written by him, soon after she gave me my mare Wa. It's on my sidebar.

    It has given me much hope and encouragement, dealing with such a sensitive horse that has rich"file folders"of abuse, and anything associated with focus in an arena. Maybe reading more of the book would give me more hope, on my quest to acknowledge my horse's language.
    She has taught me so very much...and continues!

    Thanks for the review ~

  12. Love the old masters. I'll put it on my wishlist!

  13. Sounds like a lovely book. Thanks for the review.

    I just added it to my wishlist on Amazon.


  14. Isn't it refreshing to have an authority reinforce that if things aren't going well, look at what you are doing - don't blame the horse.
    I, too, love the softness in the picture. I have heard many people dis the Vienna Riding School for forcing horses to do movements that are unnatural to them. The picture certainly demonstrates how a horse can perform difficult moves, yet show willingness and eagerness to perform.
    This will have to be my next book!

  15. will put this on my wishlist as well !

  16. Kate, thanks for sharing about this book. I want to read it now also. I can learn a lot from such experts.

  17. Add me to the list of people who have added this to their wish lists. It sounds fantastic.

  18. Thanks Kate for the review about this book. I have a difficult time finding horse books that I can read because usually somewhere in the book the horse gets blamed and I have to stop reading. This sounds like a winner to me! I love his philosophy from your excerpts.


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