In all my years belonging to the USDF, the organization has always seemed about as radical as a Boy Scout who escorts little old ladies across the street. I actually remember hearing a debate about whether a chambon should be mentioned at the old National Instructors’ Seminar because it was suggested we shouldn’t let on we knew about them. So it seems somehow ironic that the USDF would come to the home of Barry Goldwater and then invite one of the world’s more controversial dressage stars to conduct its National Symposium.
If you’ve been on some other planet for the last dozen years, I will explain that the controversy stems from the so called “round and deep” training methods espoused by German coach, Dr. Uwe Shulten-Baumer, and made famous by his stellar pupils, the Mss. Uphoff and Werth. I know there’s a controversy because everyone who has conducted a USDF Symposium in the last I-don’t-know-how-many years has been asked, “What do you think about the way Isabell trains?” And every year the reply has been some version of “Well, she’s successful and perhaps it has its place” with an undercurrent of “but we really don’t approve.”
So briefly let me transport you, fly on the wall style, to Scottsdale’s WestWorld and tell you what I saw. Day One began with “The Basics,” as Isabell encouraged each rider to produce buoyant, active strides with the horses’ backs loose and swinging. Little mention was made of where their polls were, and this became somewhat unnerving because they were usually quite low, and frequently the horses’ noses were far behind the vertical. As the morning progressed, I began to wonder if we’d all just sit and act as though everything was normal or if someone would eventually at least ask out loud, “Is this really right?”
Speaking as a teacher, one universal worry that instructors harbor as their students watch visiting clinicians is that the students will pull some detail they’ve observed out of its intended context and begin to mimic the superficial behavior without understanding its true intent or application.
Judges, as well as a number of curmudgeonly purists (those who fall into this category recognize the classification as a compliment), already wail that they see far too many horses being presented in an overshortened, overflexed frame. And here, in full view of a large, general American audience and the ghost of Col. Podhajsky, was one of the world’s highest profile riders seeming not to mind!
Well, Miss Hopkins, rest easy. Turns out it wasn’t so bad after all. First, let’s put aside the claim you may have heard that any riding with the poll low is cruel and painful to the horse. From observation, this appears to be no more true than the idea that any horse carrying his poll up with the nose slightly in front of the vertical (see FEI rules) is automatically comfortable and working happily.
Second, you have to understand that this was not a “symposium” in the sense that we have known them in the past. It was more a fascinating, weekend-long glimpse into how Isabell Werth deals with horses and their training. The audience was not being addressed but, rather, allowed to observe her work. And although the prescriptions were tailored to the individual horses, Ms. Werth is clearly not a teacher, particularly for the lower levels. The strengths, weaknesses, and varied needs of the individual riders were not a prominent feature on her radar screen.
As such, unlike all the prior National Symposia, there was almost no talk of “These are our Training Level goals and the exercises to achieve them; now these are our First and Second Level ones, ” and so on. In Isabell’s mind, the goal is Grand Prix, period. The methodology is Gestaltist. It assumes a comfortable familiarity with all the movements and exercises. In her system, the job is to get the whole horse’s body pliable and his mind susceptible, and the movements themselves become small potatoes – they can happen whenever the horse indicates he’s ready. So, for example, a relatively green horse who says he’s balanced and ready can, in that moment, be asked for a flying change. A Second Level horse who wants to shorten and stay in rhythm can be invited to take a few piaffe-like steps.
And, finally, it is important to note that many times Isabell wanted various horses to be more open in the frame and more “up” in front than how their riders had them. Some horses she didn’t want to be ridden deep at all.
How does all this reconcile? Begin by understanding Isabell’s first priority with each of the horses – that they would reach with an honest connection to the hand. Each session began with extensive work in the walk. Most of the horses came into their lessons a bit tight and nervous and somewhat shorter in their steps than Isabell wanted. Many of them, when presented with the contact, got tighter instead of better. Isabell’s approach was to present the horse with a meaningful weight in the outside hand, keep him bent to the inside, and while preventing him from drifting over the outside shoulder, make him face the bit and unlock his jaw, poll, and topline. Understanding this as her goal, the fact that the horse went through a stage of being quite deep in front while he resolved his acceptance issues was an incidental by-product of her strategy.
A key word in Isabell’s lexicon is “roundness,” but this means considerably more to her than a visual shape you might at first think of. By her definition, when a horse is round, he’s through. If the horse is simply curled up or carries his neck low and arched but remains contracted, locked in his back, or behind the hand, then to Isabell he still isn’t “round.”
Also of great import is her definition of contact – the feel that the horse takes of the bit. If this comes form a backward pull of the rider’s hands or causes a diminishing of the steps, then it is incorrect.
Each horse spent many minutes being ridden on simple circles between the rider’s leg and hand until the horse would yield and “give” through his topline and allow his rider to govern the strides literally step by step. No horse was permitted to run through the hand or lug against it. Isabell demanded that each horse would allow the driving leg (and at times quite a substantial amount of driving) to generate the connection. Often the horse would, indeed, get quite deep in front, but finally the horse would say “yes” and soften. Then the rider was instructed to maintain the contact but reward the horse, allowing him to slowly take the reins, lengthening his frame and stride as he reached into the bit. “Round and Deep,” in other words, morphed into “Long and Low.”
If this offer failed – if the horse hollowed or disconnected, letting the contact become floppy, or if the tempo quickened and the horse rushed away, then the process was repeated until acceptance was assured and tested successfully. An absolute requirement before proceeding was that the relationship with the bit had to be alive and active. A passive following of the horse’s head – “rowing the boat” – was unacceptable because in that circumstance, the horse wasn’t “giving.”
“The hands should breathe with the mouth,” Isabell said, but there must also be enough weight in the outside rein, created by the driving, channeling legs, to convince the horse to “give.” This demand was always made diagonally, never equally on both sides at once — in other words, from the inside leg to the outside hand with the horse positioned to the inside. Frequently, Isabell recommended a shoulder-in or leg yielding position to emphasize this effect.
The roundness and contact which she seeks, Isabell reminded the riders, requires an elastic connection. This elasticity is not just within the rider’s following hand. It must be made to exist all throughout the topline of the horse himself.
When the horse would follow the hand forward when invited and begin to open his frame without dropping the contact, the horse was re-gathered, and the rider was permitted to proceed in trot. The idea was to maintain the soft, reaching-to-the-hand quality of acceptance in the trot work. If, at any time, the rider encountered resistance, the solution was to return to the deeper outline until the horse again said “yes” and could be ridden back up and out to the hand without stiffness.
Ultimately, Isabell wanted the horses to move with impulsion. When they were loose and swinging in their stretching mode or later when they maintained the energy and spring in the collected work, she applauded them enthusiastically. During the formative work while they were deep and not yet through, however, she didn’t want them expressing too much power. It only gives them more ammunition with which to resist, she explained. A horse that merely cruises rapidly around the arena, losing the rhythm, and running through or leaning against the bridle doesn’t have impulsion.
She did repeatedly command her pupils to make their horses more forward. This, she said, doesn’t mean forward over the ground or an increase of speed. Forward to her means proceeding slowly over the ground with the horse thinking forward to the hand, ridden with an elastic contact, but not in restraint, to produce the free flowing strides she wants to see. What she wanted was the rider to use the legs and back to create more engagement, more swing, and a better connection. Forward riding, she added, lets the rider push the horse’s nose up and out to its “finished” position.
Once the desired relationship was established, the goal was to maintain it through every transition. Initially she called for full transitions between walk and trot. When the horse would do these without coming above the bit or tightening, she had each horse school mini-transitions within the trot, which she called partial “stops,” (perhaps known to some readers as “hesitation half halts.”) Their goal was to promote the horse’s elasticity, and, when done “in position,” that is, in a bent or angled condition, to encourage the horse to engage his inner hind leg. Isabell carefully monitored each attempt to insure that they were not hand-ridden but done back-to-front. In every transition, whether between gaits or within the same gait, she had an absolute zero tolerance policy for loss or roundness or acceptance. Each successive, correct rebalancing brought the horse more up in front, more willing to “go by himself” in rhythm and self carriage, and as Isabell described it, more able to move with “charisma and impression!”
Seeing the context in which the horses were ridden “Round and Deep” made the Shulten-Baumer/Uphoff/Werth approach far more explicable and less threatening. Still, I can envision a lot of well-intentioned riders making a terrible mess trying to replicate this process at home. Isabell Werth is a massively gifted rider with tremendous feel and a lot of strength. She can avoid hand-riding them into the shape. She can produce the pliable connection from her driving aids. And she has the experience and the tact to know when her technique has gotten through to the horse so she can push him up to the frame in which she’ll present him to the judge.
Pardon me, but I know you’re bound to go home and try this stuff – it’s inevitable – but remember, keep it and your own skills in perspective. Miss Hopkins and Col. Podhajsky are watching.