The Art of Natural Dressage

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 7:27 am 
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Yesterday I was lucky to attend a clinic by Gerd Heuschmann and as I was asked to write a report, I will try to summarize the main points.

Some of you will know Mr. Heuschmann from his efforts to fight against Rollkur or from his studies of equine functional anatomy and biomechanics. He also is the author of the book "Tug of War" and if you want to read some more, there are several links to his work in the Training the neck-back band topic or you can visit his website: http://www.gerdheuschmann.de.

In the morning he gave a detailed theoretical lesson and in the afternoon some of the participants who had brought their horses got riding lessons.


Theory

The theoretical lesson was about functional anatomy and biomechanics. To put this into perspective, Dr. Heuschmann repeated several times that this was only the least important part in the interaction with the horse. The psyche was everything and only when you treat your horse like a friend and not a slave, you can ride him in a healthy way and get a happy horse. I´ll focus on the biomechanics part though, because I think that we already have a lot of info about being a friend to our horses in this forum and that if someone wants to visit a clinic on psychology and horse-human relationship, he would maybe choose another trainer for that. ;)

Dr. Heuschmann focused on the neck-back band and three main muscle groups: the back muscles, the neck muscles and the belly muscles. He explained their way of working and the effects of human manipulations to them (like when a rider is sitting on the horse´s back or using the reins). The horse has two ways of carrying a rider who sits on his back: by using his neck (with the neck muscles and the neck-back band) or – and this is what happens if you pull the reins, make the neck shorter (relax the neck band) and make it impossible for the neck to carry the rider´s weight – with the back muscles. And that only works by contracting them and becoming stiff in the back. But this was just one tiny little aspect taken out of the wealth of information he was giving. I would really recommend reading his book if you are interested in learning more about biomechanics. I already knew some of the things he was talking about (thanks to Miriam and someone I met when I visited a German dressage forum in 2007), so the basics were not new to me. But this clinic added much more detail to my knowledge about biomechanics and it sure did fill some holes in my understanding, like when he explained the work of the back fascia connecting the back muscles to the muscles of the hindlegs.

About one half of his talk was about functional anatomy and biomechanics itself and during the rest of the time he commented on the common practice in the horse world, focusing on what is going on at high level dressage competitions. I will not comment on this here. I know that there are things out there that do not fit with my believes of how I want to treat horses, but for me personally there is much more use in learning what I want to do instead of focusing on what I am against and condemning all those riders for what they do to their horses.

What I really liked a lot in his theoretical lesson was that he emphasized that good riding was not dependent on a certain style. He comes from a German dressage background, but he often cited de la Guérinière or other people from different backgrounds and said that those different styles were not better or worse, but just very different, with different backgrounds and purposes. This is something you see very seldom here in Germany, most riders are convinced that either FEI dressage or Academic riding is the one and only truth and that the other one is the most evil thing you can do. ;)


Riding lessons

The riding lessons were divided into three parts: first he let the rider introduce his horse and ride a few minutes like he usually does, so that we all could get an impression. Then he rode the horse himself and tried to show him how to give the back, become supple and use his body in a better way. After that, he let the participant ride his horse again and tried to help him to get the horse to do something similar to what he had just established.

There were two main exercises that he focused on: sideways movements and backwards - both very slow, the slower the better, so that the back can actually work. He explained how different kinds of sideways movements have different effects on the horse, with leg yielding loosening the hips and the back and shoulder-in leading to more engagement of the hindlegs. He also recommended a lot of forwards movement as a precondition for more collected work, because when a horse is pushing himself forward, he is using some of the same muscles that he needs for bending the haunches. And of course stretching also was a main point in his ridden work. The changes in the horses´movements were amazing.

One thing he never ceased to repeat was that the rider should never ever pull the reins backwards, especially the inside rein, as a pulled rein necessarily blocks the back so the horse can´t become supple. Again and again he reminded people to leave the horse´s head alone and use their seat or if they want to use the reins, use demi arrêts (lifting the inside rein upwards) instead of pulling backwards. He said that those (combined with the much more important influence of the seat) will result in a horse giving the poll, and that you can´t take the poll or make him flex.

In his riding Dr. Heuschmann is a very gentle and nice person. He never punishes the horse out of the blue and tries to keep his aids ever so soft. So if the horse cooperates, he is a very gentle and caring rider. But he sure is a pressure release trainer, which some of the horses had to experience when they did not react to his leg aids or when one stallion did not agree on accepting the rein cues for stopping. I won´t go into this any further, I know that I am hypersensitive to pressure and that probably he is much more gentle than some other trainers, but it was an interesting experience for me and made it clear that, no matter how good a trainer and the things he has to teach, I will not bring my own horses to a clinic unless I really know how he is working. I prefer to watch and listen to what they have to say in theory, and then use for my own horses what fits into our training.

In general Gerd Heuschmann is a very open and nice person. He sure knows that he has something to teach, but never made an arrogant impression. Oh, and he is very caring about humans too: he persuaded me to wear his pullover during the clinic, because he thought that I must be cold (which I was not, but after two hours of sitting there I was happy to have the pullover though). He has so much to teach and if I got the chance to go to one of his clinics again, I would most certainly do it. I think the only thing I really had a hard time with was the constant condemnation of the FEI and high level dressage riders on international competitions, because it created an atmosphere of aggression and condescendence also among the participants (of course they agreed with him) and I feel that especially riders can be so judgemental and focused on what other people are doing bad anyway, instead of trying to focus on what they can do better themselves. That´s not an attitude I would want to develop, neither in myself nor in the children who are learning from my example. But then I am not changing the horse world and probably he is. :smile:


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PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 3:23 pm 
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i have his book ;) lucky you....


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PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 3:31 pm 
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Quote:
There were two main exercises that he focused on: sideways movements and backwards - both very slow, the slower the better, so that the back can actually work. He explained how different kinds of sideways movements have different effects on the horse, with leg yielding loosening the hips and the back and shoulder-in leading to more engagement of the hindlegs. He also recommended a lot of forwards movement as a precondition for more collected work, because when a horse is pushing himself forward, he is using some of the same muscles that he needs for bending the haunches. And of course stretching also was a main point in his ridden work. The changes in the horses´movements were amazing.

One thing he never ceased to repeat was that the rider should never ever pull the reins backwards, especially the inside rein, as a pulled rein necessarily blocks the back so the horse can´t become supple. Again and again he reminded people to leave the horse´s head alone and use their seat or if they want to use the reins, use demi arrêts (lifting the inside rein upwards) instead of pulling backwards. He said that those (combined with the much more important influence of the seat) will result in a horse giving the poll, and that you can´t take the poll or make him flex.


This is simply basic Classical or Academic Dressage.
It amazes me every time still if this is not common knowledge amongst (professional) riders.
But wonderful of him to teach it :)

The reason why I have not read his book nor visited a clinic is simply that I did not expect anything new and indeed because of the emphasis on all that is wrong.
That is info I do not need nor is helpful. I am only interested in what is right (for me).

I shall now read the book as you suggsted it :)

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 4:21 pm 
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Oh yes and for I forget, Thank you for the detailed report! :)

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 4:51 pm 
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Romy, thank you also from me! It is good to know that I am mostly doing the right things with the reins (not pulling back, but lifting upward with only brief, soft, light touches) and a lot of lateral movements...and working in the walk. Lovely!

I am working on impulsion...or "forward" but primarily, still on the ground for that so far.

Nice report!!!!

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 5:55 pm 

Joined: Sat Mar 08, 2008 12:45 pm
Posts: 108
Location: UK
Romy,

Thank you for writing such a detailed report. I have his book and DVD so it was really interesting to hear about one of his clinics.
Quote:
I think the only thing I really had a hard time with was the constant condemnation of the FEI and high level dressage riders on international competitions, because it created an atmosphere of aggression and condescendence also among the participants (of course they agreed with him) and I feel that especially riders can be so judgemental and focused on what other people are doing bad anyway, instead of trying to focus on what they can do better themselves. That´s not an attitude I would want to develop, neither in myself nor in the children who are learning from my example. But then I am not changing the horse world and probably he is. :smile:
Yes, I believe he IS changing the horse world, for the better, so he is to be congratulated on this. However, I wouldn't say you are not - if you are practicing and teaching AND, you almost certainly are, even if on a different scale :yes:.

Thanks again for the report :f:.

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