Jonathan Steffen reflects on the important role that continuity has to play in developing confidence in the saddle
“Heels down! Toes up! Toes in! Look where you’re going! Shoulder-blades together! Inside seat bone forward! Soft hands! LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING! Relax your knees! Lower leg back! Outside shoulder forward! WILL YOU PLEASE LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING, WE ALL KNOW WHAT YOUR HORSE’S HEAD LOOKS LIKE!!!”
Anyone who has studied dressage will be familiar with exhortations like these. We have to balance without being stiff, go with the horse’s movement without wobbling about, and relax our bodies while at the same time providing energy, direction and leadership. Ah, leadership. When I can’t even get my hands to do what they’re supposed to … It can feel at times a little like a cross between doing the Hokey-Cokey and being put through a parade-ground drill. Only you’re usually paying for the privilege.
It can indeed be genuinely demoralising – all the more so because the instructions barked at us by those seasoned riding teachers with sore throats and cold cups of tea in their hands are meant so well. They are intended to benefit ourselves as riders, the horses in our care, and, at an abstract level, the art of equitation in general.
I myself learned to ride in Germany, and if my body ever undergoes a post mortem, the words Der Absatz ist der tiefste Punkt des Reiters – “The heel is the rider’s lowest point” – will be found emblazoned on my heart. It’s a statement of identity. Even if my heel has not always quite got the message.
Riding instructors give their staccato commentaries on how we perform in the saddle, while works on the theory of equitation – which abound as at no previous point in human history – offer pictures, diagrams, analogies, explanations of anatomy, lots of arrows in various colours and thicknesses expressing varying degrees of correctness and incorrectness and, on occasions, reflections on the nature not just of equitation but of moral concepts such as responsibility and trust, empathy and freedom, controlling and letting go.
Continuity over time
What is discussed less frequently, however, is the important role of continuity in the development of horse and rider – whether from novice through intermediate to advanced level or, just as importantly, from a state of malfunctioning, as after illness, injury or trauma, to a state of fitness, competency and confidence.
This may be no surprise. Writing about time, and the effects of time, is very difficult. Nevertheless I should like to dedicate a few words to the subject here in the hope that my observations might be of interest to readers of these pages.
I am sure that anyone reading this article will have had the experience of a setback at some point in their riding career. An injury sustained by oneself or one’s horse, a traumatic occurrence such as a bad fall, or a personal misfortune that has no relation to riding whatsoever may make it impossible to ride for a period of time – and may make the prospect of ever riding again a depressingly distant one. For it’s not just a question of how to get back into the saddle; it’s a question of how to continue, and to believe that you will one day return to where you were before the setback occurred.
The context in which you ride is all-important here, and in this connection I believe that Britain still has much to learn from the Continent, where modern equitation methods may not be truly classical but where carefully structured group lessons are much more common than they would appear to be at many British riding schools.
Although British, I learned to ride in Germany, and I have ridden extensively in Austria and Switzerland as well. I am therefore as familiar with the Germanic approach to schooling as with the British approach, and it seems to me that there still exist fundamental differences from which we in Britain can learn.
Riding and horsecare
It starts with getting the horse ready. While it is quite common at British riding establishments to be handed your horse fully groomed and tacked up, it is much more normal in the German-speaking parts of Europe to have to get the horse ready yourself. This means that you are expected to know how to groom and tack up a horse – which in turn means that these elements of horsemanship are taught alongside the basics of riding. The advantage of this approach, if the training is of sufficient quality, is that the rider has more time to get to know the horse that he or she is riding, and also more opportunity to ascertain if anything might be wrong with the animal (sore backs and cut mouths spring to mind).
The same applies to untacking the horse after a lesson: the effect of being ridden will be communicated to the rider, and much can be learned from the way a horse behaves after you have dismounted him.
Within the German-speaking world, riding establishments tend to be clubs as well as schools. This means that funds generated by membership fees – as well as agricultural subsidies! – can be invested in the building and maintenance of good-quality indoor schools – a necessity in countries with often very hot summers and very cold winters. This in turn produces an environment in which it is easier to perform the demanding movements of dressage accurately without putting undue strain on the horse’s legs and back. More than this, it breeds an atmosphere in which a certain degree of cultivation is natural: riders may not have to salute a picture of the Emperor as they enter the hall, but they are expected to mount exactly on the centre line, with their stirrups on a line between A and C, and their horses are expected to stand still when mounted.
Though perhaps perceived as pedantic to the British spirit, shaped by its three-hundred-and-fifty-year love-affair with the racing thoroughbred, such touches set the tone which makes one think that bit harder about the symmetry of a circle or the straightness of a straight line – considerations which lay the foundations for even the most advanced dressage movements.
Structured lessons over time
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Germanic and the British approach, however, lies in the conception and structure of lessons. For many riders in Britain, dressage lessons are still something you have to go through in order to do something perceived as more desirable, whether show-jumping, eventing or simply hacking for pleasure.
In the German-speaking world, by contrast, dressage is generally thought of as an end in itself. This means that both the horses and the riders are in it for the long haul, and it creates a very different mentality.
It is not so much a question of technique as one of perspective. Regular riding in group lessons may not offer the concentrated input available in a private lesson, but it gives the rider something else – the opportunity to ride and ride and ride and let things fall into place. And the accurate riding of all those circles and straight lines and serpentines – if accuracy of the figure and correctness of the tempo are demanded by the instructor – helps the body to find its own balance, and its own harmony with the horse. If it doesn’t go well today, don’t fret about it: nothing good can be forced. Try again next time and see how ‘going with the flow’ can take you and your horse, little by little, in the right direction. We learn with our bodies over the course of time – whether we have two legs or four.
For many of us, the regular participation in such carefully structured group lessons may not be practicable. But the principle remains. Every action we perform has an influence, creating the conditions for positive or negative outcomes in the future. Every day as riders we are on a journey towards the ride of tomorrow.
This article was originally commissioned by the Classical Riding Club, of which Jonathan is a member. For more information, please visit www.classicalriding.co.uk.