Tag Archives: Trafalgar Square Publishing

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

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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: Fit To Ride in 9 Weeks

Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks by Heather Sansom

C 2016 Trafalgar Square Books, North Pomfret, VT, 199 pages

ISBN 9781570767302

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Heather Sansom’s new book, Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks, is not the type of book I would normally pick up.  Over the years, I have seen a multitude of different work out plans geared towards equestrians, and I have not ever done one of them.  As an instructor, though, I am always on the lookout for new ways to help riders connect with better awareness of their own bodies, as well as exercises which they can use to improve their overall suppleness, strength and muscle tone.  Work out plans might not appeal to me—but they certainly do resonate with some of my students.

Sansom is a certified personal fitness trainer and an equestrian coach through Equine Canada, as well as a Level 1 Centered Riding instructor.  She merges her fields of expertise to manage her business, Equifitt.com, and offers fitness and conditioning coaching to all levels of rider.  In Fit to Ride, Sansom shows that she clearly understands the unique demands which equestrian sport place upon a rider, and I found her book easy to read and absorb.

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Author Heather Sansom (from her website, equifitt.com).

Sansom leads the book off in chapter one with a short essay on the critical importance of rider fitness.   She reminds readers that, “the rider influences the horse in ways beyond most people’s immediate perception, and the way a rider uses her body greatly impacts the way the horse is enabled or blocked from using his….the relationship is biomechanical.   Since there are feedback loops…going in both directions (rider to horse, and horse to rider), both species can impact one another….working together with horses is a lifelong quest for harmony” (Sansom, 2016, pp 2-3).   This is a theme which I frequently preach in my own teaching, and it was heartening to hear the refrain offered from the perspective of a fitness professional.

One of the challenges for the human equestrian athlete is that riding alone rarely allows us to develop sufficient straightness, suppleness and stamina, the “Holy Grail” of rider fitness, according to Sansom.  Unfortunately, “the horse’s imbalances and strain issues correspond very closely to physical patterns evidenced in his most frequent rider” (Sansom, 2016, p 4). It is therefore incumbent upon the thoughtful horseman to develop sufficient body awareness as well as fitness in order to allow the horse to develop to their fullest potential.  “In all disciplines, the goals are to enable your horse to understand what you ask and be physically fit to perform it, and then for you to stay out of his way so that he can move in ways his body is designed to move to perform the task” (Sansom, 2016, p 5).  And according to the author, many non-equestrian fitness programs actually focus on strengthening the human body in ways which will prevent, not enhance, good riding.

Enter Sansom’s nine week fitness plan, one which she says allows “you [to] return to basics and do a physical “foundational reset” that will improve not only your enjoyment of your ride but also harmony with your horse” (Sansom, 2016, p 6).  The progressive exercises all have both basic and advanced modifications to address individual rider needs, and are designed to fit into a busy equestrian’s lifestyle (the recommended timing is three 30 minute sessions per week for nine weeks).  Each week’s exercises find ways to address the common needs which all riders have for balance, symmetry, suppleness, cross-body coordination and awareness, as well as stamina, core strength and flexibility.  As the weeks proceed, the plan adds in additional discipline specific exercises.  The entire plan is meant to meld with and be a complement to other fitness activities that the rider might already be doing.

A short video to promote this book.

Sansom understands that riders mostly want to ride, and that supplemental exercise activities are meant to be a chance to “get out of the ring” so to speak.  She mentions that “many times, I find riders with a problem avoid fixing it” (Sansom, 2016, p 15) and that “people who need the stretching the most often have the least patience for it” (Sansom, 2016, p 81)—both things I see as an instructor on an almost daily basis.  If you have tight hamstrings, locked ankles, rolled shoulders—the only person who can do the work to make the problem area better is you.  “Just trying a new exercise to the best of your ability has benefits,” says Sansom (p 15).  This is no different than introducing a basic suppling exercise to your mount; they might not make it to the wall in the leg yield, but the horse will no doubt still receive benefit from attempting the exercise. Sansom certainly does her best to make a persuasive case for why riders will benefit from her nine week plan.

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Sansom (who serves as one of three exercise models in the book) demonstrates the “simple lateral raise”.

From my perspective as a riding instructor, though, the real highlight of Sansom’s book was in chapters two through four, a section titled, “Training the Rider’s Body”.  In Chapter 2, “Good Training is About Building Balance”, Sansom breaks down in clear detail the components of flexibility, core strength, strength and balance, and stamina, areas which all riders must address.  She includes anatomical discussion supported with excellent, clear visual depictions to help readers understand the how, what and why of each type of fitness.  In Chapter 3, “The Important Core Muscles”, Sansom goes into greater detail regarding the specific muscles which help to control the rider’s body while in the saddle.  In this section, I was able to draw many correlations between her work and that of Hilary Clayton for horses.  Again, this chapter is exquisitely illustrated, helping to show how the various muscle groups overlap and intersect with each other and with the skeleton of the rider. In Chapter 4, “The Differences Between Riding Disciplines,” Sansom helps readers to understand how she has grouped disciplines which might seem quite different (roping and eventing, for one example) based upon the type of fitness required of the rider.

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Everyone’s favorite core builder, “plank”, is included in the “Fit to Ride”plan.  Image not from the book.

Overall, Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks is an equestrian fitness plan that has been made as palatable as possible for the skeptical rider.  Sansom explains exactly what the rider can hope to gain by completing her plan, provides options for many exercises to accommodate individual rider strengths and weaknesses and provides superb illustrations throughout the book (including models demonstrating the exercises themselves).  For me, it is worth the read for Section 2 alone, and I think this is a book which should earn itself a place on any serious instructor’s shelf.

5/5 stars