Basic Training of the Young Horse

Basic Training of the Young Horse by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke is a must read for anyone either starting their own foal, young horse or retraining an older athlete. Anytime you need to go back to basics, which can be fairly often, this book is a great resource. You can learn more about Ingrid Klimke at her web site or Facebook page. She is a German Olympic Gold Medal equestrian competing in both International eventing and dressage; Ingrid takes after her very respected and successful Olympic Gold Medal equestrian father Dr. Reiner Klimke (b. 1936 - d. 1999).

The Klimke's philosophy is that basic training means developing the horse's natural ability in all respects no matter the intended discipline. It's also about patience and consistency. The education of any horse, let alone the young foal up through adolescence, is so vital to not only their mental well being but also to their physical development.

Ingrid's systematic approach creates a solid foundation for future specialization in whatever discipline you and your horse prefer; she takes the time it takes (even if a horse shows great talent, or perhaps especially if a horse shows great talent). Slowly nurture and develop that natural talent to its fullest without risk of burning the horse out, or injuring them. Think world champion dressage stallion Totilas who was retired in 2015 at age 15 due to periostitis. EquiMed has a great article that gives more information on the condition, but basically it is caused by "overly rigorous training regimens that don't allow the bone to gradually adapt to the concussive force involved in training."

The book's chapters are organized in order from starting the young foal and build on each other into the first competition (if you chose to show):

  • Chapter 1: Basic Education
  • Chapter 2: Lungeing and Free-Schooling
  • Chapter 3: Training Under Saddle
  • Chapter 4: Developing Impulsion from Suppleness 
  • Chapter 5: The Basic Gaits - Assessment and Improvement
  • Chapter 6: Cavalletti work
  • Chapter 7: Jumping Training
  • Chapter 8: Cross-Country Training
  • Chapter 9: Preparing for the First Competition 

There is good detail about the Klimke's recommended training schedule based on the horse's age and ability. For instance they consider the 4 year old to be a novice level athlete and the 7 year old to be near (if not at based on talent and ability) the advanced level. They also don't recommend ridden work before 3 to 3 and a half years old because today's sporthorses tend to grow and develop slowly. But they do stress that education (not "work") should begin as a foal. There are also several well outlined suppling exercises for first year work and second year work, along with teaching and reinforcing obedience to the aids and establishing elastic contact. Cavelletti patterns and other gymnastic exercises are also outlined for cross training use. 

The approach of cross training a horse is refreshing also as too many riders get stuck in the arena working on the same things over and over again, wondering why they don't make progress. Horses like and need a fairly consistent schedule, but they also need a variety in their training to keep them engaged and interested in their work. Cross training is also about increasing overall fitness and is vital for injury prevention, it's "a central pillar to athletic success and longevity." Read more about cross training the equine athlete in TheHorse.com's article.

This book isn't an end all be all book - is there one? - but it is classical equitation in principle and teachings, and it will provide a great foundation for you and your horse. You get "combined theoretical knowledge and practical experience" from two world-renowned equestrians.    

Live. Love. Horses.

Whole Heart, Whole Horse by Mark Rashid

"Time spent with [horses] rekindles feelings that many of us [miss in daily life], but are longing to experience: to be seen, to feel we are heard, to connect." -Forward by Crissi McDonald. 

"Even the strongest things in nature have their weaknesses. And even the weakest things in nature have their strengths. It's a balance."

As humans I think we are constantly striving to find balance in our lives and to connect with something. That special, real connection we create with horses is often the nucleus to our passion for them. However on our way to building a bond with our equine partners we can run into so many issues, and nearly all them stem from unintentional miscommunication, and isn't communication the key to any relationship? Even more so for a species that speaks a different language altogether and has a different perspective on life than we do; horses are a precocial species which means they are relatively mature and mobile from birth, humans are the opposite, or altricial, which means we're born helpless. Finding that ability to communication with each other and that precious balance is what this book is all about. It was such a beautiful and fun read, and his perspective was such a refreshing approach to horsemanship! While you still have to respect John Lyons, Parelli, Clinton Anderson and the like for being the great clinicians and trainers they are ... move over "natural horsemanship" methods! Because Mark Rashid's approach is so much more real and just plain simple. His analogies through his story telling were wonderful; loved reading about The Black. Great, well written book!

"If we understand that horses can't separate the way they feel from the way they act, then we can start to see that unwanted behavior isn't bad behavior at all. More times than not it's just the horse expressing the way he feels at that particular moment in time." -Mark Rashid

Whole Heart, Whole Horse really shows the reader why we should not fear making a mistake with our horse. Why we should instead approach training and working with our horses as (always) an opportunity for growth and to learn from each other. Because if you learn something is it really a mistake?

This book was organized into three parts each encompassing a main topic that was broken down into subtopics within its chapters.  

  • Part One Perceptions
    • Mistakes; boundaries; trauma; and information.
  • Part Two Leadership
    • Speed, direction, destination; energy; and balance point.
  • Part Three Whole Horse
    • Consistency; dependability; trust; peace of mind; and softness.

The first part had some great insights into Rashid's philosophy and how it differed from "natural horsemanship" (or NH) methods. NH basically states that during training you make the wrong thing (or undesired behavior) difficult or uncomfortable for the horse to do and the right thing (or desired behavior) easy for the horse to do so as to encourage it. But through his experience it doesn't always work that way, nor work well because that concept is more about obedience than partnership. Sometimes a horse simply needs to expend excess energy because he cannot separate how he feels with how he acts or reacts; his physical expression is a direct correlation to his inner thoughts and feelings, a mirror for his emotions in real time. We need to be more aware of the whole picture and should not escalate a situation potentially causing further trauma. But it is not to say horses should get away with things either! Boundaries have to be set, but it is how and when you set and enforce them that truly matters.

Misu no kokoro means mind like still water, it is seeing something for what it is without distraction or distortion, a true reflection. As equestrians we need to practice this more often so as to not distort or be distracted by our horse's behavior and misinterpret what they tell us. Essentially a quiet mind will allow us to take in and process what our horse tells us through their body language and behavior. Then in a more true and correct manner that quiet mind will allow us a better response to the situation, if a response is even necessary.

The second part delved deeper into our part in the equestrian partnership and how we could better contribute to the communication and balance of our two member team. We do need to set the example. If we can better provide direction, focus and intent along with clear physical aides/cues and energy we can develop a better balance point for the partnership to thrive around. It is as much about a positive emotional state as it is a positive physical state of being for both horse and rider. Training is really about finding that balance and harmony; it will have ups and downs and that's OK, that's healthy and normal! 

The last part covered the horse and what he needs to truly be soft, and what softness is. You could ask a rider from every discipline what softness is and you'd get varied responses. Rashid define's softness as "the whole horse willingly available at all times no matter the circumstance, discipline, or breed." True softness is effortless, unlike lightness which is primarily technique based.

"Softness comes from inside and is technique, trust, conviction and feel that is exchanged between horse and rider and back again, it is a way to be, a conversation, not something to do."

A horse needs its rider to be consistent so that you become dependable. The more dependable you become to them, the more relaxed and at peace your horse becomes around you. They begin to trust you, then and only then can they become soft. 

"Once they trust you, they can start to feel at peace with you, and once they're at peace, they can be soft."

Whether you're riding for recreation or riding for competition this book has insights that are a must read. However if you do compete --synchronicity had this article by The Chronicle of the Horse blogger (and eventer) Matt Brown come up while reviewing this book -- I think with relation to horses we should also consider the competition aspect and how it can drive us in our training. Today it can sadly be more gamesmanship than sportsmanship. Either way we should practice more mindfulness and awareness of what we do and how we do it, and more importantly why and Rashid's book helps you do just that.   

Whole Heart, Whole Horse was one of those equine books that reaches in and touches you deeply. It was simple, yet so honest that it was hard to put down. As a fairly quick read, go get a copy today! No doubt more of his books will be reviewed in our blog!

Live. Love. Horses. 

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.