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Culture War in Training July 10, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in Behind the bit, calmness, competition, contact, dressage, looseness, roll kur, training.

Many are confused and concerned about the way they see horses go in schooling and warm-up arenas.  This is due to the culture war between the German “forward, straight, poll up” school of dressage, and the Dutch “tempo, flexibility, and back up” school.  Both schools agree that the ideal finished horse should be forward, straight, with the poll at the highest point.   So the argument is really over how to get there.

The German “practice like you play” school puts the emphasis on “forward, straight, poll up and open” at all times.  To my eye, that system results in a certain “look” – part shape, part conditioning that shows how well or not the system has been adhered to.  The best horses from back than looked a lot like this horse ridden by Herbert Rehbein.

Now Herbert was a wonderful horseman and this was a wonderful test for the time.  The thing is, it isn’t very good by todays standards.   Yes, the poll is always up, but the horse is not very elastic, supple or flexible by todays standards.  You can see that at most there is very little bend through his body – not enough to match the corners or voltes he is on. As a result the horse gets a little quick going through the corners and he loses the quarters at the end of the voltes.  The horse lacks elasticity as seen in the downward transitions from the extended canter where the horse slows himself down by braking against the ground.

Before moving on, let me be clear that I’m not attacking Rehbien or looking down my nose at this test.  I think it’s a good representation of the type of horse you get using the “always forward, straight, up and open” school of training.  What I’m seeing now as wrong with this horse can be seen in all the top German horses of that period – and frankly all the top competition horses from then were either German outright or a product of the German school.

By way of contrast – of the training schools – not the individuals, I like this video. The rider is a professional but not internationally known.  She’s on a very good horse, but not an international horse.  However, the benefits of training with the emphasis on “tempo, flexibility,  and back up” are clearly visible in this horse.

When this horse lengthens, his frame gets a hair longer and his tempo a hair slower as he clearly changes his stride length.  By contrast the Rehbein horse gets a hair faster in the extensions.  This horse goes forward in the transitions back to collected gaits, the Rehbien horse braces his front feet against ground to slow down.

This horse clearly has more lateral bend in the voltes and half-pass.  So, he stays “on track” coming out of the volte going into the HP – while the Rehbein horse throws his quarters out noticeably and loses rhythm.

The list of things this horse does better, more correctly, goes on but I’m not trying to say just that this horse is more suited to the task (he is) or that one rider is better than another.  The point is that training with the emphasis on tempo rather than forward, suppleness and flexibility rather than straightness, and keeping the back up rather than worrying about the poll, is generally a better system that generally makes better horses.  It’s time to just accept this and move on.




1. Jenny - July 13, 2012

Since the later video is a training for Arthur Kottas (the former chief of the Spanish riding school) I don’t believe that it shows Dutch training system or a dutch trained horse very well…

Not that I’m a expert, but to my knowledge Dutch trained horses most often have problems with lengthening, flexing in the sides and moving thru the back…

mikeschaffer - July 13, 2012

As I said in the article, I don’t know the rider, although I’m well aware of who Kottas is – so I can’t say how the horse was trained. Based on how this horse is going it’s hard to see him as a product of the German school of the 60’s – 70’s. What I do see is a typical but more modern horse that is much more flexible, and elastic than the exceptional horse trained a generation ago. Draw your own conclusions. I think you are totally off base in thinking the dutch horses have problems with lengthening, lateral suppleness or elasticity in the back.

2. M K Boyce - July 16, 2012

Dear Mike,

Your findings sadden and but do not surprise me . Rehbein’s horse depicts what truly classically trained competition riders are trying to reestablish in this world of rolkur and hyperflexion – a horse performing in a good frame and balance. Hubertus Schmidt, a current true dressage master rides in a very similar frame and format as does Klaus Balkenhol and Ingrid Klimke.

Rehbien rode this breeding stallion with the poll the highest point, nose in front of vetical with a swinging back. The neck being a large part of the “frame” was well positioned and the horse was relaxed, rhythmical making the whole test look easy. Yes there were minor balance issues and a few small mistakes, but to compare these vidoes and to comment that this woman Jen ( all be a decent amature rider ) is better in any level is very uneducated statement . May I ask, did you ever send your write up and finding to Kottas and get his opinion ?

From the first seconds of the Jen’s clip, the horse is constantly swishing its tail, the first indicator that that mental and physical balance in the horse is not established . The horse’s shoulder are low with the upper back dropped, the contact and frame is often unsteady and fixed. Did you notice in the first lengthening or extension, the horse does not over track at all, only the front limbs flip out in front away from the center of mass at a quicker tempo then the hind – creating a broken rhythm. As the test progresses to the walk, the horse become tense and irregular and that is when I turned it off; walk being the true indiator of the imputities of training. My advice – google Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, a gentleman I fortunately had the pleasure to meet . He was the FEI vet until he resigned in order to embark on a mission to educate the public about the horrors of Rolkur/hyperflexion. Long live calm, forward and straight,

3. mikeschaffer - July 16, 2012

Dear MK,

Thank you for taking the time to comment. It’s unfortunate you didn’t bother to watch the entire walk and so did not hear Mr. Kottas say, “1-2-3-4, ya.” Apparently he didn’t see the irregularity you did. Oh well.

Please do me the kindness of assuming I occasionally crawl out from under my rock and am well aware of Dr. Heuschmann and his work. In fact I agree with much of what he has to say. If you bothered to read what I have posted here you would know that I am 100% against sustained backwards pulling to put any horse, in any frame, anytime.


4. Bruce Peek - August 20, 2012

Couldn’t get the videos to run on my machine..Drat. I’m struck by your remarks about keeping the back up, and completely agree with them. If the back isn’t lifted, you don’t got bascule- if ya don’t got bascule ya don’t got collection. Its that simple. It comes from flexed abs and illipsoas(sp) muscles which tilt the pelvis under, which lifts the back. Spine dynamics govern limb dynamics. Why you ask? Because the horse cannot equally distribute his and the riders’ weight and load his limbs correctly for the gait or movement requested by the rider if his back isn’t raised. Frame has nothing to do with it. Frame is an anthropamorphic concept which essentially means shoe horning a horses body into an approoved shape which most often is destructive of soundness i.e. rolkur-crank nosebands etc. etc. Forget frame allready. If ya want to see framed up horses in abundance go watch an arab or saddlebred show.
Best wishes
Bruce Peek

mikeschaffer - August 20, 2012

Hi Bruce,

Nice you keep popping up every couple of years – why don’t you join my dressage forum and stay more active?

So was it just these two videos you couldn’t see? Have you been to my youtube page?

Here’s the link – if you can see the videos there subscribe and you’ll get notified when I put up new videos – which is pretty common lately.

Absolutely agree with everything you’re saying/


Jenny - August 29, 2012

I find it funny that you say that you agree with what Bruce said when Bruce pointed out that the ‘new’/’dutch’ training methods (rollkur) is destructive for the horse..? Weren’t you arguing just the opposite?

I’m wondering what you thought about Annabel Balkenhol’s ride at the olympics? In my opionion she rides the more new type of horse, but classically german schooled.

Even if as you say “100% against sustained backwards pulling to put any horse, in any frame” it need not be force and pulling… The way the dutch school the back up is not a swinging back but a lifted and blocked back.

mike - August 30, 2012

Hi Jenny,

You’ve brought up at least two issues. First, it is problematic to assume equivalency between “new”, “Dutch”, and “rollkur.” The fact is there are some wonderful new Dutch riders who sometimes work their horses BTV but they’re not doing rollkur. There are also some who fancy themselves practitioners of the “new” “Dutch” school that really suck and do use rollkur. So let’s try to be more careful about lumping groups, schools, methods and techniques together because they are good and bad in every group and school, just as there is no method or technique, no matter how classical or modern, that can’t be totally screwed up by some monkey.

Bruce rightfully makes the point that saddlebreds are ridden with the poll up and the nose forward but it’s hardly helpful or anything close to classical. For my part I show my horse working BTV but that is the frame he (and most well trained modern rectangular horses) will go in when they’re allowed to reach out over the topline, have learned to seek the contact with their bars, and have a supple poll. There is no “pulling” involved and it certainly isn’t the FEI defined “stress” position now known as “rollkur.”

So I welcome your concern for the welfare of the horse – but that isn’t enough. To be a real advocate for the horse you must learn to see past one cookie cutter outline that is “good” and another that is “bad.” How the “outline” is achieved is much more telling and it requires a trained eye and full understanding of how the horse uses himself. Hopefully you’ll continue to hang around, watch the videos, read the conversations, ask questions and learn. Then you will be the advocate you want to be – but it’s going to take a little time and work.


5. Bruce Peek - August 29, 2012

Dear Jenny: As I understand Rolkur(sp) it is meant to lock the horses head and neck severely behind the vertical- which( although i’m no Deb bennet) i suspect is where the locked back comes from- even though when they lock the spine it is ,’up’. I’m not at all defending Rolkur cuz i think it basically has its root in an artificially created frame for the horses body. As such it mimics the appearance of bascule and collection in a surface manner for those who have never trained a horse. It should also be stated that if the horses head goes behind the vertIcal for brief periods of time in the early days of training it is not a heinous disaster that must be fixed instantly by drilling. The two schools of training I most admire, French high School, and western hemisphere Vaquero are both tolerant of less than perfect efforts by the horse especially in the early days of training. So far i’ve found the most able practioners of French high School and Vaquero training to be Mike Schaffer, and Craig Stevens, and Buck Brannaman and Joe Wolter of the Vaquero school. The last bit of real classically trained german or rather Prussian horsemanship died out when the Nazis took power and let their warped xenophobic political stance destroy suppling and flexions as tharapuetic riding exercizes. Both had been included in the Prussian Cavalry manual prior to 1928. Todays German sport-horse dressage training fails to include sufficient emphasis on suppling flexions and release. Hence the current optic of stiff Olympic horses doing erzats collected movements.
best wishes
Bruce Peek

Pam - September 26, 2012

Mike, Thanks. This is the best explanation I’ve heard for the difference between the training schools. Now, I can watch the various trainers and define why I like the way some horses are going verses others. I also agree with what Bruce Peek has to say.

Happy Riding,

6. nickperonaceblog - October 23, 2014

I wish there was more on Youtube showing Herbert. He was such a master!

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