What is the art of riding? – And why do we ride?
From 12-13th of September, Bent Branderup gave a clinic at Gestüt Moorhof, where I was a working student. This time, Bent’s theory lectures and the riding lessons focused on the different ways of how to improve collection. Whenever Bent talked about his understanding of the art of riding, the room became very quiet and all participants pricked their ears. These were the most inspiring moments for me, too, and I would like to share my notes with you. (I know its’ already November…but better late than never!)
“We have lost many childhood dreams. But the art of riding, the melting together of two beings, that of rider and horse, really exists.” (Bent Branderup)
What is the art of riding?
In order to understand what Bent considers to be riding as a form of art, let’s start with what he thinks it is not. Whoever has been to one of Bent’s weekend clinics knows that he has no respect for most of our contemporary competition riders. When he speaks about dressage as a sport, his usual calm way of speaking and his Danish humour give way to harsh words: “Their only art is to master three pieces of metal: one in the horse’s mouth and one on each heel. I have no respect for that kind of mastery.”
Bent travels all around Europe to give courses in the academic art of riding so that people come to a better understanding of the horse’s anatomy and psychology, and also of the rider’s seat and aids, of groundwork and lungeing techniques. The art of riding requires the mastery of many tools, with the seat being the most important and what Bent calls the ‘primary tool’. Modern dressage saddles with prominent knee blocks prevent riders from acquiring a communicative seat. Bent calls these saddles ‘Sitzprothese’, ‘seat prosthesis’ if you translate it literally, a device without which you would not be able to sit on the horse. It is quite common in the academic art of riding to ride without a saddle for a couple of years in order to learn the proper seat. “If you cannot ride dressage movements without a saddle they are not worth anything!”, says Bent and adds: “These riders need such a saddle because their horses don’t have a supple back and are extremely uncomfortable to sit. But a horse cannot be uncomfortable for the rider if he is not uncomfortable for himself.”
In modern competition dressage, we often see pulling hands and horses that seem to lean on the bit. Horses that are heavy in the hand cannot be collected, because it is physically impossible for the horse to shift its center of gravity backwards like this. Instead of bending the haunches and elevating the shoulders, the horse’s front legs reach too far under the body, it is heavy on the shoulder, and no smooth transitions are possible. “In real collection, you can speed up and slow down just like regulating a gas flame, there are no levels.”
Moreover, Bent points out that a forcefully reached form is always wrong. And just because you can ride piaffe and passage, it doesn’t mean that you have mastered the art of riding. “The art of riding is definitively not just riding dressage movements. And collection is not a laborious struggling on the place, but elevating the shoulders and impulsion of the hintlegs.” With slight resignation, Bent adds: “We live in a strange time, a time in which lightness is not the most important goal of dressage anymore.”
If the art of riding is not the riding of figures to achieve high marks with the judges, what is it then? Bent suggests that it appears when two bodies are in harmony, “when two spirits want to do what two bodies can”. Horse and rider become like the mythological centaur.
The art of riding starts with the development of a common language for horse and rider. The horse has to understand what it is supposed to do and should not be forced. “We have to help the horse, not torment it..” The mental part of horse training is extremely important and is often underestimated. Together with pedagogics, it makes for about 80% of the training. “If the horse doesn’t mentally take part in the training, it will never become beautiful. You see it in their eyes.” Many riders just give their aids more vigourously when the horse doesn’t react. “If you don’t speak Danish, I can shout at you, but you will still not understand me better.” To give loud aids doesn’t help if the horse doesn’t listen. We should give quiet aids and teach our horses the correct responses to these aids. “Aids have to aid! If it didn’t help, it wasn’t an aid.”
Another common practice is that riders want to hide mistakes. Instead of working on real collection, they just pull down the horse’s head. “Somehow, we all know that a collected horse arches its neck, so people pull down the head and think the horse is collected.” Collection, however, is the result of a long training process, in which the horse learns to bend its haunches. We have to learn to let mistakes happen and to live with imperfection. “Every beginning is full of mistakes!” We have to learn to feel the horse instead of wanting to produce something with our seat and hands. “Quite often you shouldn’t do anything, just feel.”
For Bent, horse and rider are like a dance pair. The rider leads and the horse wants to be lead. Thus, the art of riding starts in our bodies, in our seat. If the rider acquires a perfectly balanced seat that always goes with the horse, not against it, the horse can trustfully open it’s back for the rider’s suggestions. A horse with a closed back, however, is protecting itself against the rider. In the moment when the horse mirrors our body, we can stop all other aids and ride only with the seat.
At the end of the course, Bent emphasized that he can tell us what he knows, but he cannot teach us feeling. Again and again, Bent spoke about the hand that has to listen to the horse, about the seat that stops doing anything and just feels what is there. To listen with one’s body to the horse’s body and to learn to trust our feeling. However, we need the theoretical knowledge so that the art of riding can live on. Feeling and technique have to come together. “The art of riding is an extremely difficult art; It requires a lot of knowledge.”
Why do we ride?
“We don’t have to ride anymore – but we can!”
Nowadays, riding does not serve any real purpose anymore. We don’t have to deliver the mail, fight wars on horseback, and most of us don’t have to herd cows. With this in mind, we should re-think the way we train our horses. “To jump over colourful fences or to fidget in the arena is not a purpose!” For Bent, the only goal of dressage is to make the horse more beautiful and more proud, and to improve the basic gaits. “Observe your horse on the pasture and see how it feels. Is it proud? Or is it afraid? Have a look at its hooves, too. Do they wear off equally? If a horse cannot move in a manner that his hooves wear off equally, it would not be able to survive in the wild. And a horse that cannot survive in the wild walks around with a big sign around his neck that tells all the predators “please eat me”. How do you think this horse feels? A horse that can not be let out in the pasture because it would injure it’s legs cannot feel good!” Thus, the goal of dressage should be to exercise the joints of the hint legs so that the basic gaits improve. “It is much more important to find balance in the basic gaits than to ride piaffe.”
Since we all love to ride our horses, we should be aware that sitting on them has serious implications for their bodies. The rider’s weight pushes down the horse’s rib cage and the horse automatically moves on the forehand. Only through collection can the shoulder be lifted up again! If we want to ride, we have to teach the horse collection so that we don’t push down its rib cage with our weight.
To sum up, the art of riding, as it was taught by riding masters of past centuries, helps us to achieve several goals:
Finally, the art of riding gives more balance to our lives, physically and mentally, both rider and horses. Quite often, we start our journey due to certain problems, because our training and being with horses is thrown off balance. The horses and riders that I have seen working according to the principles of the old masters have one thing in common: the riders become more “invisible” and the horses start to shine.
What do you think? What is the art of riding for you? And why do you ride?
I’m curious about your comments!
Have a great time with your horses 🙂
[cover photo credit goes to Nadine Nover, photo is owned by Marius Schneider- Gestüt Moorhof]