“ One thing cannot be acceptable only because it is accepted by many ” Fritz Stahlecker, horse trainer and author of several books and articles developed with his hand-saddle-hand method (in short: HSH method) a stress-free and non-violent training for horses. In his latest book ” Horses my students my teachers ” he critically analysis the developments of modern dressage. I would like to introduce you to this book, because it fits well with one of the main topics of this blog ( Controversial issues), I find the development in dressage similar frightening and ” diseased” as he does, and because I very much like the philosophical approach of his book. Have fun reading and let the critical thinking begin! Harsh judgements Right from the start, Fritz Stahlecker harshly criticizes today’s dressage scence. With sentences like
The horse teaches us that only the things achieved without violence are valid results that deserve applause. The self-healing process of the sick scene is initiated by the FN and must be enforced against all protests
he points out directly the “sick points” of the riding world, or at least almost without exception that of the sports scene. In my opinion, Stahlecker criticizes this world from two sides: On the one side, he highlights the excessive work pressure, which is required of the horses, while on the other side, he criticizes our perception and evaluation of what we see. Let me expalin this in more depth. Performance over all In today’s world, power is placed above all. The grades achieved by a child in school ( the child’s performance), determine his fate. Is the grade point average good enough for the apprenticeship or maybe even university studies? In a system like that, good performance is rewarded. The better the child performs (evaluated with school grades ), the better his future prospects look. Discipline , drill and power become established as values already in early childhood. Later on at work, does not look much better. Commissions for good performance, overtime is normal, even from home one can (and should) work on. All of that is regarded as normal. Noone thinks about this twice. The same can be seen in the ( riding ) sport. Also here , its about perfomring to one’s best (or better): Always, faster, higher, farther, up to or even beyond one’s limits. This way of thinking also applies to horses:
Maximum performance in sports ( … ) going to one’s limits at any cost, even the humiliation of a creature [the horse] is de facto tolerated. ” ( Stahlecker , 2012 Franckh – Kosmos Verlag ) .
Today’s dressage is seen (and practiced) by most people only as a competitive sport and no longer perceived as what it used to be at the core: the Art of Riding (Reitkunst). The mere choice of words “ we work our horses ” that we use every day, should make us double-think. It’s no wonder that things such as doping scandals and controversial training methods occur in such a setting of hard work and performance. You only see what you want to see Stahlecker believes that we should see more than a sport’s perfromance and an exalted show in the dressage arenas. Instead, we should be seeing a harmonious partnership between horse and rider that show us the art of riding. Stahlecker is convinced that what we see on the show grounds today has nothing to do with the art of riding. The prevailing performances of sport machines is made acceptable by different players. Firstly, there are the judges and other officials, who judge the riding. Than, there are also the spectators . Interestingly, these two parties often seem to work together. A good example of this good interaction is the stallion Totilas, who had not only huge success in sports, but who was also highly coveted by spectators and the press. Mind you, all of this has happeened despite people knowing of the controversial training method of Rollkur that have been used (of course there is this counter-movements, but they are shockingly low ).
“ The art of riding appears to require only exercise.However, exercise without true principles is nothing but routine, the fruits of which will be effort , unsafe execution and false jewels, with which you can impress only the half-connoisseur. ” Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere
The art of riding is based on aesthetics and this leads (inevitably) to respect for the natural characteristics of the horse. What we see today is a disregard of the natural characteristics and movements of the horse to an allmost unimaginable degree. Contemporary dressage is more a kind of show or staging. It pretends to show refined natural movements, but instead does the opposite. Let me give you an example to illustrate this: Imagine a paddock and two horses playing and running in it. To every movement they do, their silhouette changes. If the horse sprints fast across the paddock, its silhouette is not round (being collected) but rather long/stretched. Is the horse however aroused and pounces up and down the fence, the silhouette is rounder and shorter (collected frame) . These two “ frameworks ” are fundamentally different from each other and belong to the respective movement of the hors ein that moment. Without stretching, the horse cannot push forward with big movements that cover lots of ground. Likewise can a horse not piaffe if its silhouette is long and stretched. Thats simply impossible. Unfortunately, in the dressage ring we nearly almost exclusively see horses in extended gaits that dont have a strechted silhouette in horses. The great movements (usually only with the forehand that go upwards instead of up-and forwards) without being strechted or coming forward, and the rear legs pushing from behind the horse with small steps, is not only unsightly, but also absolutely unnatural and forced. To every extended gait, an extension of frame is needed. Thus, what we see in those arenas are horses that are being asked to move in a certain posture that (in this combination) doesnt not exist in nature. We should seriously question what it is that we want for ourselves and for the horses : Show or actual riding art? Did it have to be like this? According to Fritz Stahlecker, the way the dressage scene has developed is not unreasonable in itself. The force of habit (written down in the rigid guidelines of the German military regulations – “Deutsche Herresvorschrift”) met up with today’s mentality of a meritocracy. It should come as no surprise that doping scandals and controversial training methods are incraesing. In my opinion, the current consumerism in combination with capitalism and egoism of the present time (all these movements are interconnected and mutually dependent). The horse is still , especially in competitive sports, little more than a commodity (consumerism). With its help the rider builds up his prestige. Success in sports on the backs of horses, seperates you from the (common) crowd. It creates an identity. In addition to an identity and fame, there is also the issue of financial viability (the sooner, the faster, the better). What is left behind with this sort of thinking (the health of the horse) is of no interest or simply taken as accepted. What is missing is the humanity, the meaning and connection with nature, and the arts. We are ready to take pain in order to reach our goals. “ In competitive sports,” said Stahlecker, “ the man does uses [a form of] violence against himself. The transfer to the horse was a psychologically obvious step. Elite sport means sompetition, it means violence against oneself “. In the wild, a horse would never exhaust himself to such an extend that it might lead to permanent damage to its health (unless it is in an emergency situation – better a little bit crippeld than dead). However, we force the horse to do so. Violence and art, can never be reconciled with each other, because where the violence begins, the art ends. But why do we need art anyways? Why riding ART? The art and the horse should be united. Each in itself can play an important role in our society. The horse plays an important role in today’s world. We learn from him to empathize more with nature, and to re-discover it. The art takes us back to the aesthetics, an unison and in the end with its perfection, back to nature, as nature is the only thing that is (and creates) true perefection.
The knowledge of the true nature of the horse is the first foundation of the art of riding and each rider must make it his main subject. Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere
The symbiosis between art and the horse, dressage as a form of art (the art of riding) shows an artistic parallel to nature (specifically the “natural characteristics of the horse”). What we are already able to see in the field, will become refined with the aid of the instructor/rider with the goal of perfection. However, and this is very important, perfection cannot be enforced. It must come from the horse itself . Only a horse that wants to be beautiful itself, assumes an appropriate attitude. We can only help him (to want to) do this. And what is in this context almost most important for me: The art cannot agree with violence and coercion. A forced harmony between horse and rider does not exist. A few words about the rest of the book Finally, I would like to say briefly the book also explicitely focuses on the training of the horse and what sort of “wrong thinking” is pervailent with that nowadays. For example, he claims that the young horse should not be trained with a bridle in the first section of its training (resistance and violence are often the result of incorrect training), the curb reins should always be slack – to an extent (the weight of the reins (and therewith the pressure that it applies to the horse’s mouth is much higher than we think) and training with side reins and draw reins should be banned: ” the worst hand cannot induce so much pain in the horse’s mouth as an almost absolute captivation by means of fixed side or draw reins”. More information about Fritz Stahlecker and his method in this movie:
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This article was published on the author’s blog on 8 January 2014. The original article can be found here