The Art of Riding - Philippe Karl - ebook

The Art of Riding ebook

Philippe Karl



In this new edition, French riding master Philippe Karl writes about training horses from a very personal perspective. The Art of Riding documents the training and development of the Lusitano stallion 'Odin’ according to traditional French classical principles, from young horse all the way up to High School.

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                                                      Philippe Karl

The Art of Riding

Classical Dressage to High School

Odin at Saumur                

The Art of Riding takes a special place among texts on training the horse according to classical principles. This book documents the training of the Lusitano stallion, Odin, over a 15 year period from young horse to perfectly trained school master: from the initial correction of his natural asymmetries, via gymnastic development on long reins all the way to piaffe, passage and canter pirouettes.

Training according to classical principles at the Cadre Noir in Saumur allows the young horse the time he needs to mature as an athlete. Odin becomes an example of a school horse par excellence. He masters all of the High School airs and shines for many years as a star of the Cadre Noir’s presentations and guest performances.

After many years out of print yet still highly sought after, The Art of Riding has now been published as a new edition. It has already been translated into several languages and, as the work of an author who belongs to the international rider and instructor elite, has particular significance – a must for all who would like to ride and train their horses in the French tradition of légèreté.

Copyright © 2009 by Cadmos Verlag, Schwarzenbek, Germany

Copyright of this edition © 2010 by Cadmos Publishing Limited, Great Britain

2nd edition 2015

Design and Layout:, Verden, Germany

Photos: Alain Laurioux, Gerhard Kapitzke, Dominique Cullieret, Wulf Rohwedder

Illustrations: Philippe Karl

Translation: Derek Clark (

Editorial: Ilka Flegel, Christopher Long

Original edition: Une certaine idée du dressage – Odin à Saumur, by Philippe Karl,

© Éditions Belin 2008

Konvertierung: S4Carlisle Publishing Services

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library.

eISBN 978-3-84046-921-3




Why an Iberian horse?

The requirements of balance

Collection: establishing the unstable balance

Collection and conformation

Arrival in Saumur

Natural asymmetry



Effects on locomotion

Consequences for training

Gymnastic development

Characteristics of the basic gaits in training

Pioneers of tradition

Work on the lunge


Gymnastic development

Introducing long reins

The jester

Philosophy of academic equitation

Language of the aids

The seat

The rein aids

Leg aids

The effet d’ensemble

Final considerations

Achilles’ stallion

Lateral suppling exercises

Work on a single track

Work on two tracks

Galas and guest performances of the Cadre Noir

Exercises for longitudinal flexibility


Simple transitions

More advanced transitions


High School transitions

A horse in the media

Work at the canter

Canter departs


Flying changes

Changes in series


The death of Monsieur de Saint-Vual



The piaffe

The passage

The pesade

Canter pirouettes

Preparing for canter pirouettes

Development of pirouettes


The Spanish walk



The future

To Odin ...

‘There is in art, a kind of joy so highand so exquisite that one is forever indebtedto the one who gave it to you’Sacha Guitry

For all those who love him.


On the publication of this new edition of ‘The Art of Riding’ it seems to me to be necessary to provide some explanations for attentive and critical readers – the ones who are dearest to me!

The first edition of this book appeared in 1999 in France under the title ‘Une certaine idée du dressage, Odin à Saumur’, published by Crépin Leblond. The first German edition, ‘Reitkunst’, followed in 2000, published by BLV.

While ‘The Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage’ (published by Cadmos) reflects the current state of my equestrian thinking, research and practice, ‘The Art of Riding’ corresponds to the convictions that I held in the 1990s – 15 to 20 years ago.

The attentive reader will, therefore, be struck by two points in ‘The Art of Riding’ which reflect the immature views I held at the time of writing. The dogmas of official modern riding have deep roots, and one does not free oneself from them easily.

• Uniform bending of the horse’s body

Detailed study of anatomy, movement mechanics and balance of the horse later showed me that uniform bending of the whole horse’s body is unrealistic, and furthermore that this mistaken concept tempts the rider by consequence to use his aids in damaging ways.

• Use of auxiliary reins on the lunge

Although at that time I had already dispensed with auxiliary reins when working my horses, the power of the ‘dressage rituals’ led me to show Odin on the lunge with running reins and in a pesade with side reins. I experienced over and over again, however, that a horse already correctly trained lost some légèreté (lightness) after short sessions on the lunge with side reins, even when they were attached quite freely. This persuaded me to fundamentally reject auxiliary reins except in a special situation in which they represent the lesser evil – in lessons with beginner riders. Even then, they must only be used with extreme care.

It seemed to me sensible to emphasise this development of my thinking over the years; as G. de Levis writes: ‘Time wears away the mistakes and polishes the truth.’

Philippe Karl, April 2009


In 1934, the Master Armand Charpentier said in one of his talks before the Paris riding club, L’Étrier, that,

‘…Xenophon’s teachings are so accurate and correct that even after all these centuries (more than twenty three) there is nothing more to add… The parade horse described by the conqueror of Scillonte could have been ridden by Cazeau de Nestier and the suppling of the neck by the relaxation of the mouth could have been written by Baucher.’(André Monteilhet, Les maîtres de l’œuvre équestre)

Accordingly, it would appear that there can be nothing more to invent in equitation, so it may seem presumptuous and futile to continue to write about this distinguished art. Must many years’ comprehensive experience therefore be simply dismissed?

Wisdom rightly states that ‘experience is a lantern carried on one’s back that illuminates only the path already trodden’. At least the pathfinder gains the satisfaction of illuminating the road for those who follow him, and this is exactly the mission of every teacher who takes his calling seriously in all its greatness and transience.

Perhaps out of cautious reserve, there are many gifted écuyers* who have left nothing behind, and one could say they ‘hid their light under a bushel’. A pity!

As for the rest, their modesty sometimes serves only as a virtuous mask for intellectual sluggishness, or as a comfortable alibi for dubious competence.

No one can expect absolute certainty and infallibility from a teacher. He is entitled, nevertheless, to lend expression to his convictions if he says what he does and does what he says. He who is congruent in word and deed demonstrates a sincerity that should earn him the right to a few mistakes, and at least some goodwill, if not respect. The competence of an écuyer lies in a constant search for perfection in four areas.

*Écuyer is often translated as instructor or riding master; however, this does not fully reflect the particular meaning and gravitas of the term in France. An official rank at Saumur, écuyer implies someone who trains horses and good riders, and it is awarded only to those with long-standing practical experience in all aspects of riding, a comprehensive appreciation and understanding of riding culture and an extensive specialist knowledge of the horse.


‘Theory is the knowledge, practice the ability. Knowledge should always take precedence over action.’

(Alois Podhajsky, The complete training of the horse and rider)

Horsemanship is part of a nation’s cultural heritage, and France is one of the most richly endowed. However, many riders take too literally what General L’Hotte overstated:

‘One does not learn the art from books because they inform only those who already know.’

This results in an often crazy empiricism dressed up now and then with the feathers of snobbery. This trend has its own language – coded, numerical, based on purchase prices, profits, average values, indices, breeding lines, orders, computer lists – a technical jargon that relates more to ‘business’ than culture, and cannot pretend to replace it.

Neglecting the experience of our predecessors means one fails to put one’s own practice in perspective, and impoverishes it by robbing it of technical and historical references. In addition one must admit that, without becoming overly scientific, any useful conception of equitation incorporates a knowledge of anatomy, physiology, the science of locomotion, animal psychology, etc. Finally, our knowledge develops thanks to our nicest virtue, curiosity itself. Every rider’s observations are instructive if they give rise to an objective, unprejudiced analysis.

Of course, education is not the same as competence, and no écuyer can be the pure product of his library. That would require a belief in some kind of ‘spontaneous generation’. Reading, observation, reflection, study of the theory and practice mutually enhance one another.

‘Above all one must ride a lot, without letting the books gather dust on the shelves.’(Nuno Oliveira)


‘In riding, science and art are often wrongly opposed to one another. There, practical know-how, the domain of the artisan and art, the aesthetic object, domain of the artist, come together. But only in High School and sometimes in sport can riding evoke the sentiments of beauty, which is the domain of art.’(Jean Licart, Équitation raisonnée)

At this level, riding becomes a form of expression at least as demanding as dance or music. It is not always the most gifted riders who go furthest, since precisely because they find it so easy, they may become dilettante. One could say that is their ‘Achilles’ heel’, as described in the song of Georges Brassens:

‘He had the gift, that’s true,

I admit, he was a genius,

but without technique, a gift is

nothing more than a bad habit… ’

Only daily, stubborn, often thankless, almost ascetic practice can produce real mastery. Although the professional must remain an amateur in the etymological sense of the word, one who does it out of love, it is not possible to produce excellent performance by being amateurish in any discipline.

Hence, certain artists’ circles should be regarded with caution. They mostly consist of followers of the ‘vaguely brilliant’, and castigate with more pretension than competence the ‘laborious sticklers for principles’. The latter are at least honest workers. Art can only exist with enough virtuosity to free oneself from material compulsions. This requires flawless technique.

Everyone knows that the dance is found between the movements, that music springs from between the notes and that poetry originates between the lines … but at the price of untiring work that enables one to avoid missteps, dissonances and errors in spelling, grammar or syntax.

To the extent that classical horsemanship strives, like the art of dancing, for the ‘difficult ease’ from which the beauty of the movement arises, the rider may profit from meditating on the verses of Claude Nougaro:

‘The dance is this cage,in which one learns to fly’

Passing it on

Without an appreciation of equestrian culture and without competence in the education of horses, teaching is not possible. Riding has the specific feature that the teacher must also be the manufacturer of his educational tools. Besides, we are dealing with a sentient being, where every intervention constitutes an act of training, for better or for worse.

‘Riding and training cannot be separated. By the simple act of sitting on a horse, one is unconsciously training or de-training.’(Gustave Le Bon, L’Equitation actuelle et ses principes)

The teacher sharpens the horse if he works it, and the pupil dulls it if he uses it for his education. If the lessons are given prudently, the rider acquires a feel for the ‘edge’ of the horse without blunting it. Put simply, the écuyer must frequently take back his work, even re-make it.

It is evident that one should be careful not to confuse lessons with educational theory. By way of provocation, seasoned instructors sometimes say with irony: ‘what you can’t do, teach … if you don’t succeed at teaching, specialise in educational theory’.

Educational theory offers possibilities to improve the transfer of knowledge. Concerned with diverse teaching styles and methods, it is absolutely worthy of interest, but one must beware of underestimating the importance of the message itself. After all: ‘What do I care about the bottle, so long as I get drunk?’

Of course, the all too frequently heard ‘watch me … and do the same’ is especially unsatisfactory. A good instructor has wisdom born of experience, and is moderately extrovert and a benevolent disciplinarian, clearly: the generosity one calls a ‘gift for teaching’. To the teacher, this is like the musician’s ear and the dancer’s feel for rhythm. These talents are innate – one can always work on them and refine them, but never create them.

Making oneself understood

An écuyer in the true sense, someone who applies solid equestrian knowledge and experience to the education of his horses and is keen to pass on what he has learned to others, can only agree with the following definition:

‘Equitation, in reality a scientific art, is the more or less skilful application of different sciences. Reducing as much as possible the component of skill in it is the only possible way to advance it and to give riders (while appealing to their intellect) lessons that do not remain superficial…’(Gustave Le Bon, L’Equitation actuelle et ses principes)

Thus in any comprehensive conception of horsemanship, any technique which does not lead to a logical result, which cannot be shown to be part of a method which itself conforms to academic principles, should be rejected as a common trick. This speaks to the intellectual rigour of the rider and his honesty as an instructor – to his credibility.

In the light of his experiences, the écuyer’s knowledge and skills must ensure that his theories become ever more comprehensive, yet more convincing and simpler. He will be interested in educational theory only insofar as he must adapt the exercise to the training of his horse, adjusting his language and his explanations to the age and the intellectual abilities of his pupil.

An instructor who is content to teach only ‘what to do’ produces, at best, trained monkeys on machines. One who tries, however, to teach an understanding of what one does, how, when, why and for what purpose, produces riders deserving of the title, even if of only modest abilities.

The art of riding consists above all of learning to understand the horse: how to use him without abusing him. In this sense it brings out the ‘man of honour’, justifying Wachter’s masterly definition:

‘The art of riding can be summarised in two words: fairness and correctness.’(In French: justice et justesse.)

Through this subtle guidance the pupil becomes truly independent, and the teacher is the opposite of a guru:

‘A good master knows how to make himself superfluous.’(René Bacharach, Réponses équestres)

It is clear that aspiring to the title of écuyer means embarking on a constant search for a level of perfection which everyone knows is not to be found on earth. It is said: ‘One is not an écuyer, one is always becoming one.’

So now, after more than thirty years of enthusiastic practice and passionate apprenticeship on that long road to Rome by way of Saumur, it is time to take stock.

The horse is the raison d’être of the rider and the écuyer’s calling card. It is only right that Odin and his training should be the subject as well as the guiding thread of this account, sometimes technical, sometimes anecdotal. Several reasons justify this choice:

• He was the first horse in my career that I could train all by myself for more than three years from the time when he was started.

• His repertoire is extremely broad: work on two tracks, flying changes, tempi-changes, canter pirouettes, piaffe and pirouettes in piaffe, passage including half-pass at passage, pesade, Spanish walk, work on long reins and in-hand.

• He came with me to Saumur in 1985 and took part in gala performances of the Cadre Noir in France and abroad from 1986. For 12 years he was one of the main attractions of these events as a soloist under saddle and on long reins.

• As an occasional schoolmaster he was a ‘stepping stone’ for a whole string of instructors and advanced amateurs.

• His life story is at the same time atypical and eclectic. Atypical, because he was the first Lusitano stallion accepted by the National School of Equitation – which did not happen by itself. Eclectic, because he appeared in many unusual and sometimes astonishing surroundings: arenas, circus, theatrical stage, TV studio – even in dressage competitions!

In the end, I dare to hope that I may be forgiven for the title of this preface which, while indeed something of a play on words, at least conveys the exact intention of this work:

It is the thesis of a keen student; a horse is the advocate of this cause.

Although this is the fruit of long-standing research, nevertheless, it remains a hypothesis that can only be refined yet further in the future.

‘Every horseman with long-standing experience can make certain comments which were not signposted by his predecessors or which eluded them, because the knowledge and use of the horse represents an inexhaustible field of investigation and observation.’(Alexis L’Hotte, Questions équestres)

One should not take these words of encouragement from General L’Hotte too lightly because, as several anecdotes attest, he was not known for being overly generous with them. So, it is with the gratitude and respect that his work and memory deserve that I would like to dedicate to him these few ‘memoirs of a civilian écuyer’.

Why an Iberian horse?

Sometimes one is fortunate not to have things too easy. Coming from a riding family, I might no doubt have inherited an exclusive taste for a certain discipline, and for this type or that breed of horse. That, however, was not the case. On the contrary, I was forbidden from riding until I had reached an age when I could work and pay for it myself. On the day that I decided to make it my profession and give up my medical studies, it was time to pack my bags. It was a matter of a well-reasoned, even if not so reasonable choice, of a personal aspiration, deeply and very dearly held. A long-standing frustration and my awareness of the handicap of such a late beginning meant that my zeal and my curiosity knew no bounds. Very quickly I found myself more attracted to the writings of La Guérinière and Parrocel’s engravings, than competition results and pictures of dressage horses. An inexplicable question of taste! Thus I found out in the course of my reading that the Iberian was ‘the horse of kings and the king of horses’, the most prized in all the academies of Europe from the Italian Renaissance up to the end of the eighteenth century.

Confronted with this voraciousness, and with tastes close to his own, my first riding instructor, M. Portelette, had the excellent idea to entrust me with Nuno Oliveira’s book: ‘Réflexions sur l’Art Équestre’, and then the happy inspiration to take me to his friend, M. Henriquet. I was immediately seduced. I discovered horses and a style of riding which imposed themselves upon me with the strength of an aesthetic ideal, summarised in one word: roundness – which is also, by the way, the hallmark of good jumping!

From then on, I could not help but be interested equally in jumping and the art of riding. That allowed me to experience for myself how the greatest contrasts in my subject could be resolved: the Andalusian fans considered me a daredevil because I jumped with pleasure, while the competition dressage riders thought me a crazy exotic because I did not scorn Iberian horses or even Lipizzaners … not yet an écuyer, but already a collector!

Certainly, a few engravings from La Guérinière, or showing Monsieur de Nestier riding Le Florido, nestling between a Louis XV armchair and a Louis XVI chest of drawers place many a rider ‘in the right company’, but his taste for antiques will not always stretch to training a descendant of these horses.

• To some these are not ‘proper’ horses. So logically they would have to eat their words if a rider succeeded in achieving genuine and comprehensive results with one. In their defence, it has to be said that all too often one sees mediocre presentations or caricatures of this breed, with would-be riders who abuse their generosity, take themselves for educated masters and, of course, cannot condemn the rest of the equestrian world harshly enough.

• To others, these horses are so easy that there is no merit in training them. Thus it should be dishonourable to work with such aptitude, but commendable to acquire a ‘talented’ German horse with gold! Should one shun a talent for collection if one has ambitions toward High School? I cannot think of anyone who would keep a four-year-old for jumping if he runs under the poles, or try to win at Auteuil with a Percheron!

If one considers modern dressage in the context of the history of equitation, one discovers very quickly that what is held up today as representing the ‘everlasting values’ is perhaps just current fashion. Some examples:

• The extended trot, so highly valued at present, was regarded by the old masters as a vulgar gait, appropriate only for coach-horses. To go fast, nature gave us the canter, a point of view that speaks for itself.

• Also, out of simple common sense, the flying lead change was regarded not as an air, but only as a banal movement serving an utilitarian purpose. And when in the middle of the nineteenth century François Baucher launched his changes of lead at every stride (tempi-changes), while it was the height of popularity in the circus, the supporters of academic equitation regarded this tour de force as a tasteless quirk.

• On the other hand, airs like the pesade have fallen into oblivion. Is there, however, a better proof of the mastery of collection?

Let us live in our time, because we must, but consciously and without disavowing our equestrian inheritance either from arrogance or from ignorance.

Why a stallion?

One is first tempted to answer: because they are born that way if nature did not make them mares.

Then again, I was also from the beginning in an environment where it was, as far as possible, normal to leave stallions entire irrespective of their breed. Of course, there are also exceptions. A few horses turn out to be dangerous and must be castrated, but they are a small minority. The majority, however, do not belong in everybody’s hands, because of the need for a deeper obedience, crafted by an experienced rider.

So it was understood that the cavalry in general could not keep entire horses that would be ridden in ranks with arms and packs by riders of modest ability. After that, out of force of habit and an inclination towards ease and comfort, this practice became systematic.

Fortunately, for several years the best dressage and jumping riders have been turning up at competitions with stallions.

It is without doubt because of waiting too long in selecting stallions for the character traits associated with aptitude under saddle that French breeding, so genetically rich and so successful in jumping has, nevertheless, not succeeded in producing good dressage horses and must submit today to the dominance of German horses in this discipline.

Without getting too philosophical about it, it is a little hypocritical to proclaim ‘the nobility of man’s most virtuous conquest’ and ‘the manly virtues of equitation’, when the systematic removal of the body parts which contribute to the horse’s fire and pride is a discourteous precondition.

In pragmatic terms, it goes without saying one would rather ride a quality gelding than an emotionally disturbed stallion, and a good Selle Français than a mediocre Iberian.

In summary, let’s say that no breed is perfect (that we know) and that all are worthy of study and respect, whether equine or human!

Discovery and purchase

Odin was acquired by M. and Mme. Huré in September 1983. Mme. Huré had at that time been a keen riding pupil of mine for six years, and owned a horse which was not registered but was hot enough to be christened ‘Fogo’ (‘fire’ in Portuguese). I had broken him in for them; Fogo was an excellent teaching horse, but he was getting on, and it was time to begin looking for a successor. They wanted my help in finding a pure-bred Lusitano whose education they would entrust to me.

Several of my pupils had already bought horses from M. Roger Bouzin, whose excellent stud was in Rethel in the Ardennes, so we agreed to meet at his private riding stables in Le Havre to try out two horses.

M. Bouzin, a lawyer, passionate breeder and rider, a straightforward and charming man, welcomed us – M. and Mme. Huré, my wife and myself – with the hospitality for which he is renowned.

The first candidate was four and a half years old, big and attractive-looking. He had been started and already looked a very pleasant horse in all three basic gaits.

The second candidate was three and a half but his conformation was questionable in three important areas:

• He was croup-high and built downhill. Since horses of this breed are generally built uphill and mature only at the relatively late age of approximately six years, one could still hope to see his withers rise. But it was not guaranteed.

• He stood over himself in front and narrow to the base.

• On the other hand, he stood very wide at the hocks.

His gaits were more appealing. A good, long walk. a very expressive, elastic trot, although his canter was modest – a little short and with an inclination to rush. Under saddle he went like a barely started three-year-old, swaying under the burden of the rider’s weight. Two main impressions stood out: a great sensitivity, and more suppleness than strength.

A detailed examination of conformation and gaits favoured the first horse. But the second displayed a mixture of grace and majesty that reflected a very strong personality.

‘His Highness’ certainly lived up to his name: Odin. It was indeed as if the Norse god of war himself had walked into the arena as if into a territory just conquered. There was already something of the dominant stallion in his manner. His papers went a long way to explain these qualities, because they mentioned three significant Portuguese stallions: MV – Manuel Veiga, RA – Ruy de Andrade and CN – Coudelaria Nacional.

I was still weighing the pros and cons when Mme. Huré and my wife, both inspired by the charm of this ‘Monsieur’, overcame my remaining reservations with their enthusiasm. Cold, scientific, equestrian considerations gave way to a certain je ne sais quoi. One doesn’t have to look like Apollo to be a dancing star! The decision was sealed there and then.

Table 1

The first exchanges

Odin had hardly arrived at my stables before he took possession, trumpeted, strutted around and let everyone know that he was ready to deal with any objections. He was kind towards people, but hot-blooded and aggressive with his stable-mates. Even today, it is still out of the question to allow him direct contact with a neighbour, and his rider must keep him absolutely on the aids if another horse comes within a range of 10 metres or less. He requires constant vigilance. In similar vein, horses passing by his box must often make a detour to keep themselves out of range of his teeth. He is very serious about his territory!

In the first months, his owner spent a lot of time on him and got him ready for riding. He began to take advantage of her maternal spirit. To avoid being bridled he first stretched his nose skywards then, later, reared. Tightening the girth disturbed him considerably and he tried to bite. Eventually I had to intervene with some paternal authority – saddling and bridling him on a line, and scolding him audibly at the slightest hint of any undesirable behaviour. He began to understand that there were two bosses in the yard, and that I was not the more accommodating. With all horses, but even more so with stallions who show a strong sense of their own will, one must never forget that they appreciate only those whom they respect. Firmness when required; gentleness as much as possible. And one must not confuse firmness with brutality, or gentleness with vapidity. The horse is to the rider what the sound box is to the strings of the guitar … it amplifies everything, including the bum notes! Don’t they say, ‘Let me ride your horse and I will tell you who you are’?

Before work, Odin was always loosened up on the lunge, and sometimes with a lesson on long reins. Under saddle, some precautions were necessary in the first months. In effect, he was not yet submissive enough for me to ride him in the presence of other horses. Indoors or outdoors, but always alone. All well and good; however he was extremely distracted and called endlessly to the others. In the riding hall he even reared now and then, to look over the wall and spy the horses whose presence he had sensed. In a loud voice I let him know what I thought of that … while simultaneously using an exaggerated opening rein, the leg on the same side and a tap with the stick to oblige him to return to the ground. Very soon he contented himself just with shouting … annoying, but safe.

The requirements of balance

The experiments conducted by General Morris and Baucher, and later confirmed by Captain de Saint-Phalle, showed that all horses are built ‘on the shoulders’. The forelegs of a horse standing freely on all four legs carry an average of one-ninth more of the total weight than the hind legs.

The presence of a rider sitting in a neutral position increases the imbalance yet further, since two-thirds of his weight are also carried by the forelegs.

The natural balance of a horse is, therefore, on the forehand. Its polygon of support is long and narrow, and the centre of gravity is a long way toward the front. The forces of the hind legs are entirely for propulsion. This configuration is very favourable for speed. If the rider stands completely in the stirrups, the forehand carries over four-fifths of his weight. Thus the purpose of the posting trot, the ‘two-point’ seat and the jockey’s position becomes self-evident.

Fig. 1

  Elongated base of support: the preferred balance for speed

  Unstable balance: mobility in all directions, subject to balance and impulsion

The most manoeuvrable horse, and therefore the best trained, is, however, the one who can mobilise himself instantaneously in any direction with such economy of effort that the interventions of the rider remain invisible. This can only be achieved by putting the whole ensemble in an ‘unstable balance’: only under these conditions can a substantial mass (that of the horse) be easily influenced in all directions by a much smaller mass (that of the rider) which is superimposed upon it.

In his Étude des corps superposés (‘Study of superimposed bodies’), Charles Raabe made this remarkable comparison: ‘The juggler who places a peacock’s feather vertically on his nose continually adjusts his base of support to keep the feather in balance. By its movements, therefore, the feather causes the juggler who supports it to move around.’

This is the fundamental challenge of equitation: to establish the ‘unstable balance’ that enables effortless mobility, to abandon it and return to it at will. That defines, in simple terms, the equestrian concept of collection.

Collection: establishing the unstable balance

1.  Elevation of the neck and flexion at the poll

As the experiments conducted by General Morris with the help of Baucher show: allowing the head and neck to fully extend, or elevating them as much as possible, transfers approximately 1/25 of the horse’s total weight towards the front or the rear. The meaning for a horse weighing 540kg, mounted by a rider weighing 75kg, is outlined in Table 2.

Table 2: Overloading of the forehand

The improvement obtained is appreciable, but still not nearly sufficient.

2.  Engagement of the hind legs

When the hind legs step far enough under the body, they carry more of the load and thereby relieve the forehand. The polygon of support shortens from the rear, and the centre of gravity falls in the middle. In this way the relatively unstable balance is achieved.

3.  Standing over in front

If at the same time the horse’s forelegs slant behind the vertical, the horse shortens his base of support from the front. The polygon of support is shorter, but the horse has more of the load on his shoulders. This is incorrect.

‘Goat on a mountain top’

At the price of extreme engagement of the hind legs, a balanced distribution of the weight can be restored. This posture, the so-called ‘goat on a mountain top’ which characterised Baucher’s first manner, is therefore questionable. In effect, instead of generating mobility it blocks the horse:

Fig. 2

Base of support and position of the centre of gravity

  Free-standing horse, with and without elevation of the neck and flexion at the poll

  With hind legs engaged under the mass

  Horse simultaneously standing over his front legs

  In a correct piaffe

• The convulsive engagement of the hind legs opens all the joints and therefore kills any chance of developing propulsion, because only a compressed spring can extend.

• Because of their sloping position under the body, the forelegs can only move with difficulty. The range of movement of the shoulders is restricted.

• At the same time, the point of the shoulder moves back and leads to overflexion of the neck, which in turn causes the horse’s nose to come behind the vertical. A dangerous invitation to the horse to come behind the bit!

The only interesting aspect of this posture lies in the extreme flexion of the lumbar spine that it requires. But this should be rejected, since the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages.

4.  True collection

True collection is, therefore, this equestrian ‘state of grace’ which allows unstable balance to be connected to activity. The ideal becomes reality in the piaffe:

• Vertical alignment of the foreleg in the support phase.

• Elevation of the base of the neck

• Flexion at the poll, whereby the nose stays slightly in front of the vertical

• Active lowering of the haunches through increased flexion of all joints, from the lumbar spine to the fetlock and including the hock and stifle

• The horse grows taller and the forehand becomes lighter, so long as the hindquarters continue to push the mass upward.

Collection and conformation

There are certainly some aspects of conformation that make it easier to realise this unstable balance which characterises collection. Let’s now investigate Odin’s strengths and weaknesses.

1.  Proportion

Most desirable is the ‘square’ horse, with the line from the point of the shoulder to the ischia the same length as the height to the withers. Odin falls into this category. It is self-evident that a rectangular horse has a longer polygon of support which moves it away from the unstable balance.

2.  Top line

The withers and croup should lie on the same horizontal line. If the withers are higher, the horse is built ‘uphill’, which can be of some advantage. Odin, in contrast, is built ‘downhill’: height at the withers; 1.60m, height at the croup; 1.65m. The loins and back slope downwards towards the front, something that tends to put him on his forehand.

3.  Alignment of the forelegs

The ideal alignment of the foreleg is that it stands as an absolutely vertical supporting pillar. Odin, in contrast, stands a little over his forelegs. This defect often accompanies and magnifies the effect of a plungeing top line. It is a definite handicap.

4.  Neck

Recalling the famous weight measurements mentioned above, General L’Hotte reminds us: ‘The same investigations have shown us that a long, although light, neck loads the shoulders more than one that is thick but short ... this is because the long neck is attached lower down.’ It follows, then, that the ideal neck must be attached high with a strong base, somewhat short and becoming finer towards the head. It should form an angle of about 45 degrees with the trunk. One may say that such a horse has ‘a good neck’. Odin corresponds to this definition, except that the top of his neck lacks a little fineness.

5.  Head

Located at the end of the long lever formed by the neck, a lighter head brings less weight onto the forehand. As is often the case with this breed, Odin has a somewhat heavy head with very strong jowls. This is not advantageous, even though he is very expressive.

6.  Attachment of the head

If the parotid gland lies in a distinctive channel, the attachment of the head will be well disposed to flexion at the poll. In Odin’s case this area is somewhat thick which, in combination with his heavy jowls, makes flexion at the poll more difficult.

7.  The back