Conrad Schumacher and Dr Hillary Clayton on The Conformation of the Dressage Horse from the April 2000 issue

At the 1999 National Symposium, Conrad Schumacher outlined his approach in terms of the familiar Training Scale from the German handbook, Principles of Riding, and he made frequent reference to the classical figures of the “old masters.” He said at one point, “We all use the same words. The difference is in what we do.”

Even so, which words and which ideas he chose to emphasize offer insight into the roots of his success.

“The goals in training,” he said, “are to achieve a lot and at the same time to keep the horses happy. We ask the horse to do something that challenges him, something that probably makes him a little less ‘comfortable.’ When he responds, in that moment, we reward him. The reward is the key.”

“Training is ninety percent rewards, eight percent correction, and two percent quote unquote punishment,” Mr. Schumacher reminded. The reward in his system, which the horse can understand far better than a pat on the neck, is to allow him to stretch at the instant he reacts correctly. The stretch “takes the pressure out of the horse” and relaxes him.

With one of the six year olds, Mr. Schumacher asked the horse to be ridden on a twenty meter circle first in travers, then in shoulder-in, then in travers again, and then stretching long and low. His reasoning: the first travers is comfortable for the horse. His hindlegs go “the shorter distance.” Then the shoulder-in is his challenge, and it stresses him a little more to engage. The second travers is easy again, which allows him to relax. For this reaction, he is permitted to stretch – his reward. The horse doesn’t perceive this as being manipulated. He just concludes: “when I soften and relax, I am rewarded.” As a consequence, the horse is inclined to anticipate a reward whenever he softens, permitting him be trained without force in a “friendly” way.

At the heart of this approach is the rider’s ability to initiate a directed stretch at any instant he or she desires. A directed stretch entails maintaining an elastic connection from the hindquarters, through the topline, to the bit. The horse is permitted to descend smoothly and gradually, making a rounded, rainbow-like reach over his back and neck. In other words, the rider must neither “throw the horse away” nor let him hang in the hand. The horse must remain soft, pliable, and in balance.

To teach this “stretch on demand” mechanism, Mr. Schumacher asked his rider to put her horse on a twenty meter circle and on the open side of the circle to expand it outward in leg yielding. He emphasized the inner leg at the girth driving and the outer leg behind the girth, receiving the energy and channeling it forward to the outer rein. When the horse connected into the outer rein and softened, the rider allowed the horse to take the reins (and neck) gradually longer, drawing them through her fingers inch by inch as the horse sought the ground.

[Author’s note: Although Mr. Schumacher did not mention it specifically, try this similar stretch-inducing exercise: Put your horse on a twenty meter circle in counter-leg yielding, positioned forehand to the outside. Create the connection with the leg on the outside of the circle placed at the girth, driving the horse on his concave side forward to the hand. When he meets the hand, re-position him to the inside of the circle with the new inner leg and allow the elastic descent.]

A second way to “take the pressure out of the horse,” Mr. Schumacher said, is to do uberstreichen. This is the release of one or both reins towards the mouth during which the horse maintains the same balance, frame, and carriage as before.

Earlier, Mr. Schumacher had transliterated a German phrase, which he decoded as: “the horse must push himself away from the bit.” When ridden forward into contact and made supple, the horse must react, not by leaning with strength on the bit, but by softening butter-like so he is is with the bit but not against it. This places him in a self-carrying relationship where uberstreichen will work correctly.

We’ll return to stretching and uberstreichen shortly, but first, another topic: Mr. Schumacher observed that many riders tend to practice what the horse offers easily and avoid the things he doesn’t like. Over the two days Mr. Schumacher had the riders demonstrate exactly how maleable and maneuverabe he expects his horses to be, constantly expanding the riders’ available options. On various occasions he asked the riders to place either the forehand or haunches inside or outside the line of travel. He asked the horses be able to bend in either direction. He asked that they yield in either direction and be able to adjust their stride longer or shorter. To keep the horses honestly on the aids and their riders reading them correctly, he demanded that the above alterations and displacements be done in any combination he called for. Thus, we saw, among many examples, half pass left to leg yielding right, walk shoulder-in to trot shoulder-in to halt in shoulder-in position, a straight horse developing into and out of renvers with the renvers being yielded from the track in to the quarter-line and back, and a line of 4 tempis being performed in increasing stride from collected to medium canter. The Symposium videos illustrate numerous other combinations he employed.

On very many occasions, while the horse was performing one of these combined exercises, Mr. Schumacher also asked for a moment of long and deep riding or a few strides of uberstreichen. For instance, we saw canter half pass and pirouettes performed long and deep, and uberstreichen performed in piaffe, in pirouette, and in extended trot.

All these possibilities ensure that the horses are not posing, are not just programmed, and are not just “going through the motions.” A constant throughout each of them is the maintenance of balance and self carriage, which leads to one final unifying idea.

“I hate when people keep saying ‘get the horse in front of your leg’,” Mr. Schumacher said. “Better that you should think to ‘get the horse in front of your hips’.” Not only in front of them, it turns out, but intimately tied to every nuance of their movement. Teaching the horses to follow the body language of the rider and making riders aware of how much effect they can have is a basic tenet of correct training. When the horse is properly on the aids, Mr. Schumacher explained, you can relax your leg and he’ll stay bent, relax your leg and he’ll stay energized and thinking forward into the hand. Meanwhile, the stride or the tempo can be increased or decreased with the motion of the rider’s hips.

Allowing the horse to stretch or releasing him to stay in self carriage is further proof that he is tuned in to the rider’s body and doesn’t require constant support or overt direction from large amounts of leg or hand.

Mr. Schumacher reminded his audience that it is a fallacy to believe that teaching these principles to a horse once is enough. Whether the horse is green or very experienced, it is the rider’s task to re-achieve and reinforce these basic relationships every day. Only then can the horse be ridden consistently and correctly on the aids.

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