Tag Archives: books

Book Review:  Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix

Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix by Carl Hester and Polly Ellison

c 2004 Kenilworth Press Ltd. Addington, Buckingham, U.K. 120 pages.

ISBN 1-872119-49-2

After attending the NEDA Fall Symposium with Carl Hester in October of 2017, I became more interested in understanding some of the philosophy behind his training methods.  I came across his book, Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix, and thought the concept looked interesting; Hester would discuss the process of his training through the lens of his own horses, starting with expectations of a four or five year old and progressing through Grand Prix.  Hester described each of the horses as not being perfect, since the perfect horse does not exist.  Instead, he detailed how he planned to work through their unique challenges.

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This concept related quite well to some of the ideas which Hester shared during the Symposium; to wit, to overcome a horse’s challenges one must use their strengths.  In the book’s introduction, Hester writes, “Difficult horses can become good horses….it is important not to give up until you are absolutely sure it’s not going to work.  If there is a glimmer of hope, it is worth persevering” (Hester, 2004, p. 9). All of the horses he highlights in the book, including his famous Escapado, his 2004 Olympic mount, are in training for the Grand Prix.

The most helpful chapter to me was number two: “Top Dressage Horses—Are They Born or Made?”, in which Hester details what he looks for in a young dressage horse.  In particular, he wants good gaits, with emphasis on the walk and canter, a good temperament, and rideability.  Many of Hester’s horses were purchased by him, either alone or in partnership, and developed through his program.  The man clearly has an eye for a horse, and he coaches that if one can find a quality horse young enough, a top flight horse might well be within the purchasing capacity of many riders.

Escapado at the 2004 Olympics

Throughout the book, I could clearly hear the repetition of themes which Hester is still preaching today. He discusses the importance of not drilling, especially on a youngster.  And that horses must be horses—they enjoy turn out and hacking and sometimes will spook, not to be naughty but because it is the prerogative of the species. One great quote was that overcoming this behavior is “…a matter of confidence, which is built up by repetition rather than reprimand” (Hester, 2004, p 43).

Since this book is nearly fifteen years old, it was interesting to Google the names of the horses which he describes and to learn the arc of their careers. Most were sold but had successful show careers through the FEI levels, some stood at stud, and some are now deceased. Reading a slightly older book like this feels like when you find a new TV series several years in; you can quickly scan ahead and find out what becomes of your favorite characters and decide whether you want to keep watching.

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Overall, this book is an easy read and I think if you take it for what it is—a quick snap shot into the training system of one trainer—then you will find it enjoyable and some comments perhaps useful.  If you are looking for something which is in depth, a robust analysis into a training system for “real life” horses—this book is not that. The horses Hester is working with are genetically blessed and the discussion of each is fairly basic.  The struggles they face surely mirror the same ones faced by riders on “normal” horses, but of course, the scale is tipped quite a bit in their favor.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

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Book Review: Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View

Ridden:  Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View by Ulrike Thiel

c 2013 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 225 pages.

ISBN 978-1-57076-558-2

Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View is an intellectual read, part study of equine biomechanics, part reflection on training philosophy and part treatise on the essential need to commit to the classical principles in all work with horses.  Author Dr. Ulrike Thiel is a clinical psychologist, therapeutic and able-bodied riding instructor, and dressage devotee, and in this book she blends her education, experience and scientific analysis together in a manner which synthesizes a complex topic into a manageable narrative.

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What Thiel does extremely well in this book is providing analogies, visuals and exercises which can help a rider to understand, in human terms, what a horse is experiencing under certain circumstances.  Through these means, Thiel helps the rider to have better empathy for how much most horses are willing to offer to us, despite muddled communication, improper balance and a host of other challenges.  She conscientiously takes the reader through the learning process which a horse and rider must undertake, including overcoming the predator/prey relationship by gaining a horse’s trust, confidence and respect.

Once Thiel has laid the framework for developing the horse/human relationship through mutual respect, she then delves deeper into the concepts espoused in classical dressage training, comparing the horse’s progression through the exercises to the process of learning to ski for a human (among her many hats, Thiel is also a certified ski instructor). Throughout, she emphasizes the fact that horses will forgive the mistakes of humans, but those mistakes must first be acknowledged to be rectified.  The consequences of failing to correct training missteps or rider issues can result in permanent physical damage to the horse.

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From the United States Dressage Federation

After painstakingly laying out this foundation, Thiel turns her analytical focus to what she calls “modern” training methods—rollkur, hyperflexion, or low, deep and round (LDR).  These controversial training methods have been promoted by several high profile European dressage stars (including Olympic medal winners) and Thiel takes direct aim at the methods, their perpetrators, and the FEI for not wholly condemning their use. To write this book and publish it in her native Netherlands must have taken supreme courage, as one of the most famous proponents of hyperflexion has been two time Olympic gold medalist Anky Van Grunsven, who is a house hold name in the country.

It seems clear that Thiel’s motivations are truly to promote humane horsemanship and training methods, in spite of the risk of drawing what surely is sharp criticism.  “The excesses associated with equestrian sports are in the crossfire of criticism…Ultimately, the question we all need to ask is whether the well-being of the horse is being considered as he is used in sports, for pleasure, as a therapy animal, or for other purposes…As it is so often when money, power, and competition play a role, ethics and human assumption of responsibility are left by the wayside” (Thiel, 2013, p. 209).  Further, “I think the horse awakens different needs within humans.  The horse can be used as a tool to fulfill our desire for power and success” (Thiel, 2013, p. 214).

I would recommend Ridden to any horseman who is interested in better understanding why the classical training methods have endured for centuries, and why this approach is still the best way to train the horse to be the most they can be.  I hope that most equestrians that consider themselves to be true horsemen are willing to constantly put themselves under the microscope, asking what they can do better.  Reading this book and taking time to honestly reflect on its content should allow for that opportunity for growth.

I applaud Thiel for being brave enough to write this book, and for taking the time to combine intellectual and emotional rationale—left brain/right brain balance—to advocate for why adherence to classical training concepts is essential for equine well-being.

5/5 stars

Book Review:  From Birth to Backing

From Birth to Backing by Richard Maxwell with Johanna Sharples

c 1998 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT. 148 pages.

ISBN 1-57076-120-5

From Birth to Backing provides a glimpse into the training philosophies of Richard “Max” Maxwell, a UK based horse trainer whose methods are strongly influenced by Californian ‘horse whisperer’ Monty Roberts.  The text is logically arranged into age-appropriate chapters, with an overarching theme woven throughout that each step is essential and must be taken in sequence.  Therefore, Maxwell’s methods are useful to consider even if you are working with an older animal whose performance requires taking a step (or two or three) back.

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Maxwell takes readers through his step by step process, which begins with an overview of imprinting a foal, to introducing basic handling, to developing respect and trust in humans, to ultimately accepting the introduction of equipment and a rider.  While his methods are grounded in the philosophy of Roberts’ “join up”, there are no gimmicks here—no special halters, patented flags on a stick, etc.  All the methods and techniques which Maxwell describes could be executed by any educated and conscientious horse owner, using equipment they already own.

Maxwell is clear to emphasize throughout the book that to be the trainer of a young horse requires confidence and consistency; he recommends seeking outside help if the natural behaviors of a youngster trying to figure out the correct answer will be intimidating to the handler.  However, reading this book is still helpful for those not able to undertake the whole process themselves, for understanding the importance of both a clear methodology and calm, consistent handling could assist the owner of a young horse in selecting an appropriate trainer to establish the basics.

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Maxwell emphasizes that when introducing new items to the youngster, do not approach them timidly or try to “sneak” the new object up onto them.  “March up to the horse with the equipment, allow him to smell and investigate it, reassure him with your voice and place it firmly where you want it” (Maxwell, 1998, p. 73).

What readers may appreciate the most about this book is that the layout is quite intuitive.  Not only is each chapter focused on the particular skills most appropriate for a certain age range, but within each chapter, shorter segments help to break down the content into easy to comprehend chunks.  The text is filled with ample illustrations which help to reinforce the main themes.

While most of the concepts put forth in this book are familiar, one which I found rather unique was that Maxwell does not believe in using a lead horse when starting to hack out the youngster, as he feels that the horse should look exclusively to the rider for their confidence and safety.  Maxwell says, “Very often, riding out with an older horse is an emotional crutch for the rider rather than the youngster.  In my experience it doesn’t actually work that well either—I’ve never found that having an older horse there will stop a young horse bolting or misbehaving if he wants to” (Maxwell, 1998, p. 113).   Instead, he proposes taking your youngster out on solo hacks, and exposing them to as many potentially frightening stimuli as possible, preferably while the horse is still learning their balance under a rider—that way, their resistance will likely be minimal and their confidence in the rider increased from the very beginning.

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Introducing your youngster to as many unfamiliar stimuli as possible, while maintaining a calm, confident demeanor, will help build their trust in a human handler.

Overall From Birth to Backing is a fairly easy read, and its concepts clearly articulated and illustrated.  One of the amazing things about publishing is how quickly a text can start to feel stale, and at almost twenty years old, this book’s photos could use an update.  However, this should not take away at all from the essential message of the book:  establish a trusting relationship with your horse from the very beginning, and from there nearly anything is possible.

4/5 stars

Book Review: Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors

Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors by Jo Struby

c 2013 Rose Dog Books Pittsburgh, PA, 94 pages

ISBN 978-1-4809-0034-9

As a professional riding instructor, I always keep my eye out for new resources and reference materials which can help me to improve the quality of my work.  Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors, by Jo Struby, was reviewed in a recent issue of Eventing USA, the publication of the US Eventing Association, and it caught my eye.  Ms. Struby used to teach at Wetherbee Farm in Boxborough, MA, and while I am sure she doesn’t remember it we had several conversations while I was in high school.  Struby is a former vice president of the former US Combined Training Association and also holds an M.A. in Education, which both have clearly influenced her perspective as an instructor.

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This book is not intended to be read from cover to cover, though certainly one could do so.  Instead, Struby envisions readers to use the book as a reference.  She is specifically targeting instructors and teachers of horsemanship, stating in her forward that she hoped her book would fill a gap in the available literature by addressing the art of teaching horsemanship, rather than the specifics of riding and horsemanship itself.   In this book, Struby has compiled over sixty “teaching tips”, which she originally wrote monthly and sold by subscription from 1996-2000.

Struby’s tips are arranged by category, ranging from philosophy of instruction to curriculum and lesson organization to teaching tools and techniques to student needs and desires.  Instructors looking for insight or inspiration in a specific category can easily utilize the table of contents and locate short, succinct blocks of reference material on a given subject.  Struby is clear that she is not intending to create a text book, and the format of the book feels very much like a collection of shorter articles than one longer, cohesive reference book.  I believe that she was successful in achieving her aim.

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Jo Struby riding Senova (found on Pinterest)

The content in each of the segments is of decent quality and shows Struby’s background in the field of education.  Her material addresses students’ unique learning styles and motivations, as well as how these can influence their progress as horsemen.  For me, though, the delivery was sometimes tedious to process for several reasons.  There are pervasive grammar and typographical errors throughout the text which impeded comprehension and lend an air of poor quality execution to the book.  It is also completely text—visual learners always benefit from quality graphics and I feel there is no reason to not include them in any book.

I don’t have a sense that this book went into a widespread printing, and I had to contact the publisher directly to get a copy.  For the motivated instructor, I think it is worth taking the effort to pick up a copy to use as a reference in order to better apply educational concepts to riding instruction.  It is too bad that readers must be prepared to wade through some of the editing issues and somewhat low quality of production in order to access what is in reality quality content.

3.5/5 stars

Book Review:  Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse

Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse by Paul D. Cronin

C 2004 University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville 274 pages

ISBN 0-8139-2287-9

Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse was originally given to me to review for possible use as a text in a course I teach at the University of New Hampshire.  I had high hopes for the book, as author Paul Cronin is a well-respected protégé of the late Vladimir Littauer and also the longtime director at Sweet Briar College’s riding program.  The content of the book is geared towards the riding and training of hunter/jumpers and is well organized.  Unfortunately, it is also dry and dense, with dated images, and will simply not be read by the Millennials I am now responsible for educating.  If you tell me that you have a Millennial-aged student who will actually read this book….I frankly don’t believe you.

I started reading Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse back in 2014.  I finished it late in 2016.  I was stubborn and determined to get through it.  It is simply not a page turner.

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As a rider/trainer whose interests tend more towards dressage and eventing, I still find a great deal of helpful inspiration in understanding the training systems used by those who are more oriented towards hunters, equitation and jumpers.  In this book, I do think that Cronin clearly and progressively lays out the elements of his system, which is geared to develop the position, controls and schooling of the horse used in forward seat riding.  But starting as early as the introduction, I started to take issue with what I perceived as his derogatory tone towards the classical dressage system and his belief in the superiority of what he calls the “American hunter seat”.  I think I had a hard time letting go of this perceived slight throughout the rest of the book.

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Author Paul Cronin in an uncredited photo. 

With that being said, I found much to agree with in the book as well.  I appreciated his emphasis on the importance of correct and progressive work on the flat to prepare horse and rider for over fences performance.  For example, Cronin points out that “it is not accurate to refer to the short gaits with hunters as classical collected gaits. That is a concept that has a special meaning in educated classical dressage riding.  The hunters are not collected and on the bit but are connected and on soft contact” (Cronin, 2004, p. 33). This sentence is contained in his chapter on “Position and Controls”, in which he details some of the differences in theory and objective between what I would call classical dressage theory and American hunter seat theory.

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Captain Vladimir Littaur was an influential early proponent of forward seat riding.  His book, “Commonsense Horsemanship” was a bible for the discipline for many years. 

Another theme in the book which I appreciated was Cronin’s direct acknowledgement that all horses and riders have their “niche”; not every horse needs to be trained to the highest levels, because not every rider aspires to ride to them.  “Not all horses and riders will be able to achieve the advanced level of control not do they need to in order to experience safe, enjoyable riding” (Cronin, 2004, p. 46).  He further expands this concept in other chapters, including “Evaluating and Selecting a Horse” and “The Philosophy for Schooling in the Modern Hunter/Jumper System”.

The last half or so of the book is the description of a systematic and progressive series of “schooling periods” which takes the horse successively through seven stages of training.  Each phase includes key concepts and exercises to be attained during the schooling period, important concepts to keep in mind and pitfalls to watch for, as well as some sample plans for workouts and training sessions. The most important theme is “systematic progression”.  Each step is to be taken in turn, not sooner, not later. A serious trainer could absolutely use this series to develop a young horse or retrain one who had inconsistencies in previous work.

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Joe Fargis, here on the elegant and athletic Thoroughbred mare Touch of Class (with whom he won the individual gold at the ’84 Olympics), wrote the forward to Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse.  He is featured in photos throughout, as well as on its cover.  Photo credit: Showjumping Nostalgia

My sentiments towards this book softened as I read through the chapters on the schooling periods.  It is clear to me that Cronin is a classical trainer in the style of American forward seat riding, and believes firmly in consistency, patience and slow, steady, horse-oriented progress.  I was able to draw more connections between his concepts and those common to the training of dressage and eventing horses in these chapters than the others (mind you, this was all in year three of reading the book).

Overall, this book really is a good source of information, even if it is written in an “old school” style which makes it a bit dense.  For a reader who is able to thoughtfully digest any of the classical texts on horsemanship written by the old masters, this book would certainly ring true and fit right into that library.  Unfortunately, for the average modern reader of horsemanship books, I am afraid the terminology used throughout the book is too uncommon, the text too dry, and the photos too dated to make it a useful reference.  I suspect that most ambitious modern riders who purchased this book have left it sitting on their shelves amongst the others which they have never quite made it around to reading.  If you are looking for an easy read on progressive horsemanship—this isn’t your book.  If you want to delve into a systematic progression for the training of hunters and jumpers, and enjoy really taking the time to understand the heritage left by Littauer (who went on to influence so many of the great American horsemen of the 20th century), then this text may be worth the time to plod through.

3/5 stars

** Bloggers note: If you like the featured image at the top, it is sold as a decal here.**