classical vs. modern dressage

Tug of War by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann

For our second book review we've chosen Tug of War: Classical Versus "Modern" Dressage by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann (Revised Edition 2009). While Dr. Heuschmann has a web site unless you speak German you won't get much out of it unfortunately. His Facebook page is similar, all in Deutsch. Dr. Heuschmann's first book is his initial foray into modern day training controversies. He has also authored a second book, Balancing Act, which follows on a similar vein to Tug of War.

Dr. Heuschmann's "About the Author" section says he was educated to become a Pferdewirt, or professional rider and trainer, by the German National Equestrian Federation first then studied veterinary medicine in Munich. He was an equine vet for the German Olympic driving team and later took over a vet practice in Warendorf with colleague Dr. Dirk Remmler; he's been a practicing vet for over 20 years.

This statement from Dr. Heuschmann sums up his book's message, and his career's current focus: "How could judges at this high level let themselves be so easily deceived? Or, is this the new interpretation of classical riding? Who will have the courage -- and the competence -- to steer us back in the right direction? The goal of training should be to further the horse's capacity to perform, and optimize his physical beauty as well as his overall well-being by taking enough time."

Dr. Heuschmann believes that our success oriented society, and desire for accomplishment and recognition, has played the biggest role for the changes we see in today's dressage training methods. In his opinion it has also steered the competitive dressage ring away from classical training methods and principles. Breeders today are able to produce horses of superior confirmation, temperament, ridability and raw talent; horses that were only dreamed of in bygone eras. Young horses can now accomplish feats of athleticism sooner for the higher movements and competition, which is where Dr. Heuschmann questions whether or not we should allow it.

FEI Dressage Rules, 25th Edition, January 2014 -- Article 422 Conditions of Participation, Section 1.4: Horses of any origin may take part in International Dressage Events provided they are a minimum of six (6) years of age. Junior tests: minimum six (6) years; Young Riders/Prix St. Georges/Intermediate I: minimum seven (7) years; tests above Intermediate I: minimum eight (8) years.

Today horses with talent are generally put through the levels by “combining” them. For instance a horse with raw talent and a good mind will be started around 3 or 4 and schooling/showing First and Second Level. When they’re 6 it’s on to Third and Fourth Level. Age 7 is Prix St. Georges and possibly Intermediaire I. Age 8 will be more Intermediaire I and possibly Intermediaire II. Then depending on how the horse is responding and progressing it could start performing Grand Prix movements by age 9. However it usually takes a few years to confirm a horse at the Grand Prix Level, but each one is different. A good article by Bill Solyntjes for Dressage Today covers one interpretation for the path to Grand Prix in more detail.

Classical training puts a heavy emphasis on "the horse's physiology, anatomy, and biomechanics which has not changed over the years," but we’d argue that today equine confirmation has changed, and for the better, and their talent level and ability has changed, it has increased thanks to impressive breeding standards. This supposed imbalance is the heart of Dr. Heuschmann's fight, and further exasperated by the laws of supply and demand which he believes have essentially shortened the training process because the desire for high quality dressage horses has far exceeded the ability to supply them quickly enough. His veterinary background and practice has led him to realize how many injuries are sustained by the sporthorse today, specifically sustained when they are young and still developing but manifest when they're older. Injuries that could be avoided with taking more time or are due to incorrect training methods. As riders we truly have a large influence over our horse's soundness by how we train and ride our equine athletes.

Dr. Heuschmann changed his biomechanics knowledge based on the teachings of French riding master Philippe Karl of Ecole de Légèreté (School of Lightness). Dr. Heuschmann upheld Master Karl and his teachings as a true classical example. In his eyes Master Karl is the epitome of what riding and training should be modeled after. However, fast forward several years, and today it seems Dr. Heuschmann no longer supports Master Karl? Master Karl stated that Dr. Heuschmann "certainly is an excellent veterinarian but [Dr. Heuschmann] makes a serious mistake in thinking himself to be a rider of equal measure." Read the full, and interesting, dialog here.

Dr. Heuschmann has certainly stirred up controversy as well as raised eyebrows all over the global equine industry. However, there is still much to be admired from his musing and teachings. If you wade through all the politics that surround him, he does seem to have the best interest of the sporthorse at heart. 

Tug of War is full of biomechanics and information that help you understand how your horse moves and why. Dr. Heuschmann broke down the gaits, the rhythm and phases and the muscles used; which gait is the most sensitive indicator of bad riding (psst. page 76)? Do you know what and where the longissimus dorsi muscle is? What role does it play in riding and training? What about the “upper contraction system” which is made up of the nuchal ligament and the supraspinous ligament? Could you tell the difference between a flashy leg mover and a true back mover? When is your horse in relative elevation versus absolute elevation, when is he hollow, how about over stretched? Dr. Heuschmann firmly believes, and we agree, that to be considered a true rider and equestrian "one must be educated in the horse's basic physiology, conformation and behavior."

Horse Collaborative wrote a quick article outlining some great take-away quotes from a clinic he gave. We've also had the opportunity to listen to him speak first hand. Without a doubt he does compel a rider to re-look at their horsemanship, riding style, and training methods. Generally speaking we all love and are passionate about horses. We strive to do what is best for our equine athletes, including humane and mindful horsemanship training methods.

So, classical versus modern dressage? Well, change is really the only constant isn’t it? Tradition and classical principles are necessary, it is where we’ve been, it has established equestrianism. But isn't it possible that if we insist upon strict adherence to the hundreds of years of tradition and classical thought we could remain unimpeded by progress? Whether or not you agree with Dr. Heuschmann's assumptions, observations and opinions his book was a good, thought provoking, well written read.

Live. Love. Horses.