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Minutes of 6th AGM of the International Eventing Officials Club
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“Linking the Steps” Dressage Symposium
With Klaus Balkenhol, Debbie McDonald, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann and Danny Kroetch
Written by Marlene Leeper, photos by Patricia Hogge.
Those fortunate enough to attend this symposium at the Royal Canadian Riding Academyon October 8th and 9th in Cedar Valley, Ontario were rewarded with an informative, entertaining and indeed compelling experience. The credentials of Klaus Balkenhol and Debbie McDonald are certainly well known to dressage enthusiasts but spectators were also introduced to Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, a German equine veterinarian who presented some very interesting and provocative ideas and to Danny Kroetch, a Master Saddle Fitter from Calgary.
Photo left to right: Cara Whitham, Klaus Balkenhol, Debbie McDonald, Volker Bromann & Dr. Gerd Heuschmann
The first day started with a presentation of several lovely young horses in hand. Klaus Balkenhol emphasized that the best environment for young horses is definitely in the herd where foals learn at a very young age to understand the hierarchy of the group and their place within it. He stressed that owners will try too early to determine the path a young horse will take in its career; he prefers the young horse to participate in a number of activities rather than specializing too soon. Klaus commented that it is absolutely necessary to assess the development of each young horse individually to determine whether or not it is ready for the work the trainer wishes to do. Even if a young horse appears strong at a young age , one can’t necessarily proceed as this merely keeps veterinarians busy. He remarked that he has seen many wonderful horses in the competition ring at a very young age who are no longer there at the age of 10. Klaus stressed that it takes time for the young horse to learn the language of the trainer and of course it is imperative for the trainer to understand the language of the horse. Trust, he felt, was paramount. Without it, the soul of the horse can be destroyed. The horse has to be “lucky” enough to find a good trainer ; unfortunately he felt that some of the best horses are being sacrificed for commercial purposes. He impressed upon the audience the absolute necessity of the systematic training of the horse based on the classical methods of training. This requires time and patience, something which is all too often in short supply. He strongly advised against systems that may have short -lived success but which should , in his opinion, be avoided by those who truly love their horses.
Following the horses in hand the audience was treated to the presentation of 3 very nice young horses under saddle at the ages of 3,4 and 5 years old respectively. The very accomplished riders did an excellent job showing these horses at their various stages of training; indeed at the end of the symposium Klaus Balkenhol commented that he was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the young horses he saw in Canada. This was most definitely a testament to the riders and the horses who participated in this symposium.
During the first 2 years Klaus believes that the horse is just getting used to his trainer. He insisted that it is perfectly normal for young horses to lose some of their natural movement at this time. He remarked that many horses are quite unspectacular during their first year. It is the job of the trainer to make the horse strong enough to regain the quality of his gaits at a later period.
Both Klaus and Debbie McDonald emphasized the necessity of allowing the young horse to walk on a loose rein for 10 minutes at the start of each training session. They insisted that it is essential for the horse to go forward, straight and in rhythm, with the rider’s hands influencing but not prohibiting the horse. Klaus emphasized that if you do not have enough time to work with your young horse then don’t start. We MUST, he asserted, always have ample time for the training sessions at this stage. He also commented that if there is a mistake in the extended walk later in the training then there was most certainly a mistake made earlier with regards to the walk.
Klaus was adamant about the negative effects of devices such as draw reins. There was much chuckling when he said he wasn’t a good enough rider to use them! Spurs and the whip he felt were merely training tools and if used properly in the hands of an experienced rider there should be no reason to avoid them. With tongue in cheek he remarked that spurs and the whip do no harm if not used in a harmful manner. He was opposed to the over-tightening of nosebands and the use of the popular “crank’ noseband. He stressed that the tightening of the noseband creates discomfort in the mouth and on the poll resulting in pain and an avoidance of the contact. Klaus indicated that a wide crown piece on the bridle can also make the horse more comfortable. He stated that there is no specific age at which to introduce the double bridle but stressed that the horse should accept the snaffle in all gaits and movements before introducing it. He wished he could change the rules to allow horses to compete up to Grand Prix level in the snaffle. Debbie McDonald added that she trains most often in the snaffle and that Advanced Level horses must be able to do all their work equally as well in the snaffle or double. On Sunday she commented how nice it was to see one of the riders present her wonderful Grand Prix horse in a snaffle.
Both Klaus and Debbie emphasized that the training of the young horses must be pleasurable. Harmony and relaxation should be the “pillars” of training. They stressed however that the rider must be the “captain”, not merely a passenger on the horse’s back. Any aid must be given decisively so the horse knows exactly what you are telling it to do. Obviously as the horse becomes more educated Debbie asserted that these aids would become less visible. While working with young horses both clinicians talked about the necessity of a loose lower leg so that there is no tension in the horse. They wanted an immediate reaction when the leg was applied but if the leg is gripping the horse’s sides they emphasized he will certainly become desensitized to the aids.
During all sessions with the horses there was much discussion regarding the half-halt. Debbie McDonald stated that every rider will have a different manner of applying the half-halt. She said that “no two half-halts are the same”. The essential factor is that the rider must never forget to give or to soften following the half-halt. She frequently urged the participating riders to apply many short half-halts in a row rather than holding for too long a period. Half-halts which persist too long give the horse the opportunity to lean on the rider’s hands rather than developing his self-carriage. Debbie also frequently reminded the riders to ride from the back to the front.
Klaus and Debbie insisted on the necessity of keeping and preserving the 3 natural gaits of the horse at all stages of training. If the purity of the paces deteriorates for any reason they insisted that the trainer must go back a step or two until the quality of the walk, trot and canter is recovered. It is also the rider’s task to maintain a supple relaxed back. They therefore insisted that it is imperative to stretch the young horse into the contact even if the neck is already very good naturally. This can particularly be a problem with young stallions. Klaus commented that 60 years ago horses didn’t have the necks that young horses have today. Now, he said, it is even harder for riders to wait for the horse to develop properly as many horses have the appearance of being so strong at a very young age. Both Debbie and Klaus were insistent about the absolute necessity of many walk breaks on a loose rein to allow the muscles of the horse to regenerate. They wanted the riders to forgive misunderstandings on the part of the young horses. Generally they felt the attitude of the young horse was to please the trainer. If the horse acts in a negative manner they reminded the riders to search for a reason for the disobedience. Klaus stressed that many young horses are affected by their surroundings and as a result become nervous. He wanted the riders to give the horses the opportunity to become accustomed to their environment before demanding too much.
Photo left: Volker Bromann and Klaus Balkenhol
Just before the lunch break the audience was introduced to Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, an equine veterinarian who presented his outspoken opinions about the training of horses. He commented that he is dismayed at some of the practices he witnesses in the dressage arena and he admonished riders and judges to be honest about the negative results of some training methods. He stressed that in nature horses move between 8 to 9 kilometers per day. Most horse suffer in the somewhat unnatural environment they are kept in and many vices, he asserted, result from the confinement we subject horses to in the stable. His research indicated that horses in a stall walk approximately 0.17 km per day, very little of this being in a forward motion. He therefore was concerned about horses that had little or no turn-out before training sessions. He also insisted on the necessity of a long warm-up period on a loose rein to allow the horse’s muscles to relax and he stressed the necessity of rest periods between training sessions. Two days off between training sessions was ideal to allow for muscle recuperation. Dr. Heuschmann stated that most resistances of the young horse, or for that matter of any horse, are the symptom of pain. He stated that he has seen many horses whose backs, joints and minds have been destroyed by improper training methods. He had many illustrations of horses with incorrect walks, broken diagonals at the trot and impure canters. He personally didn’t like the method of trying to “form” the neck of the young horse and he cautioned riders to watch the hind leg activity rather than the shape of the neck. He advocated riding the young horse forward and straight,preferably outside as much as possible. He was in favour of a varied training program where the young horse was not restricted to one discipline. In the first 2 years he stated “Less is more”. He did not like to see spectacular movement during the first 2 years of training.
Like Klaus Balkenhol he was also opposed to use of draw-reins. He stated that when a rider pulls on the reins with 60 pounds of pressure, 600 pounds of pressure is exerted at the poll; draw reins double this effect. He illustrated the necessity of not putting the saddle too far back on the horse as this can have quite a detrimental effect on the horse’s movement. He did not condone certain techniques which force horses into an unnatural frame. Dr. Heuschmann was a thought-provoking speaker who seemed genuinely concerned about the physical and mental welfare of the horse.
Following the lunch break, F.E.I.ponies were ridden by very capable Junior Riders, a lovely horse was presented by one of our very successful Young Riders and a four year old horse performed a new F.E.I. test. Debbie and Klaus stressed upon these young riders the need to praise their horses frequently and also to reprimand them instantly if the necessity arose. Debbie McDonald wanted the riders to insist on sensitivity to the hand and the leg. There are times she indicated that a firmer aid is required in order to get the attention of the horse. She reminded riders however to be instantly soft or gentle following any reprimand. One of her favourite sayings was to “refresh your horse” . This frequently resulted in a far more pleasing outline and a much more active horse. She constantly emphasized the absolute importance of accurate figures as many points can be gained from just riding a perfectly accurate test. She reminded the riders to “look around” and to always remember the importance of the half-halt. The corners, she insisted, were places to prepare the horse and she was adamant about utilizing them to engage the horses.
Communication between the horse and rider must, she said, always be consistent. Once again she reiterated the need for many breaks during the training sessions and at all times she promoted a sympathetic attitude towards the horses. If ridden correctly she proclaimed that the horse will most definitely learn to go in self-carriage. The trainer must not become impatient with this process. We were fortunate to witness an improvement in self-carriage in all of the horses under her guidance. She proved to be a kind, thoughtful and effective teacher.
Photo left: Danny Kroetch and Erin Josey.
At the end of the first day there was a presentation by Danny Kroetch on choosing and fitting the dressage saddle. Dan outlined how ill- fitting saddles affect the horse's movement and he emphasized the necessity of adjusting the saddle to each individual horse. He commented that horses are asymmetrical by nature, often carrying one shoulder in advance of the other. His belief is that a properly fitted saddle can compensate for asymmetry in the horse, enabling the rider to sit in perfect balance. He advocated the use of a saddle with an adjustable tree that can be be fitted perfectly to the horse and preferably the use of an air-panel system rather than wool panels. He discussed how the sweat patterns on the horse’s back under the saddle are indicators of the fit of the saddle and he also underlined some methods of checking the fit of the saddle on the horse’s back. Sunday morning started with another presentation by Dan regarding the choice of the saddle for the rider. He advised that a saddle should provide both support and freedom of movement for the rider. Flap width and length should be determined by each rider’s anatomy. He did not recommend that riders choose a saddle based on the fact that it was suitable for a friend or trainer as everyone’s needs are so different. He impressed upon the audience that there are indeed many factors to consider when making the important and expensive decision of a saddle purchase.
On Sunday morning spectators watched several more advanced horses more advanced under the tutelage of Klaus Balkenhol and Debbie McDonald. At the age of 5 it should be possible to determine if the horse will specialize in dressage or gravitate into another discipline. For 5 to 7 year old horses both clinicians reiterated the need for lots of relaxation periods on a loose rein. They commented that at this stage the trainer should be striving for self-dynamic movement in the horse. Although they wanted forward impulsion and instant reaction to the riders’ aids, they warned against asking too much. If the rider gets too much trot at the start before the horse is listening to the hand, the rider will create a situation where he will have to use more and more hand to control the horse. Both clinicians stressed that the horse will learn over time to go in self-carriage but they wanted the riders to always strive to give the horse a positive experience. Never should the horse feel in a hurry and never should the rider act out of frustration. They recommended frequent stretching of the horse as a reward for something well done and Debbie insisted once again on a constant lightening of the contact.
In the lateral work with these horses both Klaus and Debbie stated that it was imperative not to sacrifice the quality of the trot. Debbie recommended riding the horse in renvers position if the horse doesn’t give the desired angle in shoulder-in. She also preferred that most of the canter work was in shoulder-fore position; however she commented that haunches -in at the canter can ensure that the horse is listening to the outside leg. Debbie pressed the riders to keep the horses under their seat and “connected” to them. She told them not to work on the “big” trot but rather to refine their aids and to perfect the horse’s reaction to them. If the horse grabs the bit when asked for more power Debbie said to bring the horse back and under the seat until it gets stronger. She wanted the horse to feel comfortable underneath the riders and she often reminded the riders not to “drag out” the transitions.
During a session on flying changes both clinicians impressed upon the audience that the key to the flying change is the sensitivity to the leg. The change must result from a quiet aid and the rider should not “shout” the aid if the horse doesn’t listen. If the horse is late behind, they commented that this indicates the horse is behind the leg; if the change is late in front,the horse is against the hand. Debbie told the riders to look in the direction of the new lead to give the horse the idea of the change. Both clinicians advocated the use of the whip in the outside hand to make the horse quicker to the aid. They stressed that riders should not get frustrated with horses that anticipate changes and Klaus commented that it is quite natural for the counter-canter to become a problem when the horse learns the changes.
The afternoon session was dedicated to Advanced Level horses. Debbie stated that at this level there is no time to dwell on mistakes;one must always think forward to the next movement. Both she and Klaus remarked that mouth problems at this level are often due to tension. They pressed the riders to ride forward but to only drive so much that at any given moment they could still give in front without losing the control of the horse. Once again they reiterated the use of the whip in the outside hand for the canter pirouette. It is natural for the horse to move away from the whip which would not be desirable in this movement and sometimes the whip can cause the horse to do an unwanted flying change. Even at this level they stressed the principles of forward and downward to rejuvenate the muscles of the horse. Debbie was not in favour of schooling tight canter pirouettes but was more insistent on the purity of the gait. In the piaffe,passage work both clinicians emphasized quality rather than quantity. All they desired were a few good steps, followed by an instantaneous reward by the rider. It was remarkable to see the influence their advice had on the riders and their horses. The brilliance of these horses was evident under their guidance.
This was truly an educational and inspiring clinic for those who attended. Many thanks to all the skillful riders who participated, to the owners whose wonderful horses we saw, to the superb clinicians whose expertise, humour and grace was much admired, to the organizers whose work was greatly appreciated and most of all to the horses who as always were so willing. Plans for next year’s symposium are already underway... don’t miss out next time!
2006 ”Linking The Steps” Symposium, October 7 & 8. Featuring Mariette Withages, Chair of the FEI Dressage Committee and Jan Bemelmans National coach of the Spanish Olympic and European medal wining Dressage Team.