Translation by Cindy Sydnor of an article in the German magazine, St Georg, 1/2015

Translation by Cindy Sydnor of an article in the German magazine, St Georg,
from January 2015

Today is May 4, 2015


“Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro are an example for the positive development of Dressage.”


Austrian Johann Riegler was a Senior Rider at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna for a long time. Since then he has been running exclusively his own school. Additionally, he is constantly traveling, spreading his rich knowledge of the classical training of horse and rider. We asked him to give us his thoughts on the development in horsemanship.

Mr. Riegler, how would you judge the present state of things in the sport of dressage?

The competition scenario will always evolve in a certain direction. A few years ago tense steps were very fashionable, and it was sometimes difficult for judges to detect whether the impulsion was actually coming from tension or looseness. That has now changed. At the moment, the loose, supple horses are in favor. And to that extent, I would say that for the time being, we are on a good track.

That sounds as if it could go in the other direction again…

That’s right. There have always been tendencies to depart from the classical way, but ultimately one always returns.

Why is that?

Let’s take as an example “False” impulsion. I cannot continuously increase the tension in a horse. That would result in physically destroying the horses at age seven, and they would be finished. It is similar to the situation in breeding: one cannot breed horses to be bigger and bigger without at some point harming their health. Nature has simply set limits. The same applies to the training. Everything that contradicts the natural movement is damaging.

In your opinion who is capable of maintaining the positive trend?

In my opinion it is always the judges. Every rider wants to win. Therefore, he produces what is rewarded. If it is half-passes without bend, then he would try riding like that. On the other hand I also believe that the judges are influenced by beautiful riding–unfortunately, also by bad riding. When weekend after weekend, they see tension-filled gaits, they begin not to see anything wrong with it, consciously or unconsciously. But actually it is they who decide how to evaluate what they see. And the riders orient themselves according to the judges’ decisions.

How could one improve the judging?

I think more frequent seminars need to be given, in which riders, trainers, and judges come together and discuss how movements should look.

How about some of the photos that are not exactly beautiful that one sees from local shows? What can be done about this?

That is very difficult. Actually, every beginner should be taught by the best. However, the trainers at Medium level are often lacking in teaching skill and knowledge. They cannot train horses to the Grand Prix level, but they attempt it anyway. When that doesn’t work, they try it with force. The problem is of course: one cannot learn how to train horses from reading books. The people always expect an instruction manual. But riding is a matter of feeling, and that is how it must be passed on. So: how is a mere craftsman going to be able to teach great art?

Happy Birthday, Catalina!

Catalina was born April 1, 1997. She was a registered Hessen mare. She would have been 18 years old today.

Why Traditional, Humane Training Methods?

In the year 2000 Arete Farm imported a promising mare from Germany. Although it was discovered the mare had some health issues, they were not insurmountable with proper management. Unfortunately, while the health issues were coming to the surface the mare was becoming more and more resistant under saddle and the trainer chose non-classical approaches that, combined with the mare’s now defensive personality, made her nearly unrideable. The loss of this promising partnership galvanized a passion in me to insist on traditional, humane training practices that are classically proven; and to always do what is best for the horse.   My hope is this blog will educate people in the best practices of creating a sound, happy, athletic horse.  I hope you find these references and articles helpful. Remember, if you question it, SPEAK UP. Be a fearless voice for the voiceless!

We do it for the horses. We are servants to the horse. – Klaus Balkenhol


Switerland Bans Hyperflexion

From  Switzerland Bans Hyperflexion Use in Competition, Training

Swiss officials have enacted a law prohibiting the use of hyperflexion (also known as rollkur) in that country.

The law applies to competitive events as well as training sessions, said Regula Kennel, communications director of Switzerland’s Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO).

Originally proposed in 2008, the ban was approved in October 2013 and took effect on Jan. 1. Article 21 of the Ordonnance sur la Protection des Animaux states that it is forbidden to “require the horse to maintain its head and neck in hyperflexion (rollkur).”

The country’s refers to a description of rollkur provided by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) in the FSVO’s explanatory statement for the law. The FEI describes the practice as “a dressage method compromising the animal’s welfare,” the statement read.

“This method, used in dressage, consists of imposing on the horse a particularly low position of the head, either by aggressive pulling on the reins or by other means, which provokes a hyperflexion of the head and neck and excessive tension in the back,” the statement added. “An exaggerated flexion of the head can thus be observed.”

However, the FSVO is not targeting all cases of rollkur, said Kennel. Some horses might naturally put themselves in hyperflexion for short periods of time, she explained, and this is not considered illegal. “It’s the method used to get the horse into the position, and not necessarily the position itself, that concerns us,” she told The Horse.

Specifically, the cases considered “problematic” for the FSVO are “extreme cases,” its statement read. Such cases are defined as “those in which the influence exercised by the rider, the means used, and the non-natural position are harmful and/or the hyperflexion of the head and neck lasts several minutes.”

This is consistent with the FEI’s decision four years ago that distinguished between “low, deep, and round” (LDR) and “rollkur.” In LDR, head and neck position are achieved without force, but “aggressive force” is used to achieve rollkur, according to a Feb. 8, 2010, statement.

While the FEI and several national federations prohibit rollkur in competition horses, leading to sanctions within the federation, the new Swiss law makes the practice a crime of animal abuse at the government level. Penalties have not yet been reported.

Also as of Jan. 1, Article 21 of Switzerland’s Ordonnance sur la Protection des Animaux now forbids “poling” horses—tapping horses’ legs with sticks or poles as they clear jumps in order to make them jump higher.


How to Identify Helpful vs. Harmful Training Practices


Insist on humane training practices.  If you question it, speak up!

If you wonder if the practices of your trainer are right for your horse, one thing you can do is contact one of the USDF Certified Instructors Program Examiners at or (859) 971-2277.  USDF has a dedicated certification team that educates, tests and certifies dressage trainers.

There is no one training method that works for all horses. Every horse is different physically and psychologically.  Gain knowledge and insight by exposing yourself to the masters of dressage training, such as Klaus Balkenhol, Walter Zettl, and Colonel Christian Carde.  Klaus Balkenhol, the Man and his Training Methods  is a wonderful book as is Dressage in Harmony by Walter Zettl; both books are available at Click on the links below for more resources and information about classical, humane training.  Katherine Bloomquist, Attorney with an Equine Focus

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. – Edmund Burke

Words About Draw Reins

Training dressage horses is a slow, methodical process that happens on the horse’s timeline, not ours.  All the dressage masters agree the use of force in training a horse, especially a young horse, is not appropriate.  The use of force creates tension in the horse, and tension affects everything, especially the quality of the gaits.  What we want in dressage is a relaxed, loose horse that brings its full musculature to bear in each gait.

Klaus Balkenhol says: “If, for example, a young hourse suddenly and consistently evades upward with his head — provided that the saddle and bridle fit well and his teeth are in good shape — his back is overstressed.  The rider who begins to fight with this horse and keeps working him accoding to the motto, ‘I have to ride him through this!’ runs the risk of building up too much lactic acid in the muscles (one of the most common problems in young horse training, by the way). Instead of using force, the rider should take a break or even go back to a less challenging training step the horse may have already mastered.”  This quote is from the book Klaus Balkenhol, the Man and his Training Methods by Britta Schoffman.

Walter Zettl, in his book Dressage in Harmony, says, “In fact, the less one sees of the aids, the better the horse is reacting to them.  Crude, strong aids lead to harsher and harsher aids.  A horse ridden this way will become a fighter. Fighting should be avoided at all costs . . .One often hears it said that these horses are not suitable for upper-level dressage or jumping.  But these horses are actually the smart ones, because they refuse to be treated this way without fighting back.  They might have been very good horses, had they not been ruined by mistreatment.”

This bring us to the disccussion of draw reins.  Draw reins can be very damaging to a horse, both physically and mentally.

Veterinarian Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, on the use of draw reins: “The consequences of this crude exertion of force and tense, backwards-orientated riding are often resistance and unwillingness of the horse which may even go as far as rearing.” From the book: Classical Schooling with the Horse in Mind by Anja Beran (available at Amazon).  Dr. Heuschmann says, “My . . . vision [is] to spare as many horses as possible physical damage and mental torture with appropriate treatment and training.  As a veterinarian for horses and educated horse trainer, it became clear during my career that there is a direct link between classical equitation and the health of the horse.  Horses which are not trained in the way of classic principles almost unavoidably have to suffer from injuries to the legs (tendons and joints) and back.”  (Italics mine.) From the book:  Classical Schooling with the Horse in Mind by Anja Beran (available at Amazon).

Note that forcing a horse to lower its head or bring in its nose creates tension and is riding front – to – back (instead of back – to – front as the classical principles dictate) and it leads to resistance and an unwilling partner – directly conflicting with the “happy athlete through  harmonious education” in the USEF rule book:

1. The object of dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education.  As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the rider.

From the book ‘Klaus Balkenhol, the Man and his Training Methods’ by Britta Schoffman: “Klaus Balkenhol categorically rejects the use of draw reins since they result in tight mouths and tense backs, and do nothing but pull the horse together with force. Klaus is convinced that, ‘The rider who uses draw reins in an attempt to ‘create contact’ is lying to himself. With them one creates nothing but artificial contact, and the horse only ‘appears’ to be supple at the poll.’ And there are other negative effects: tight mouths, tight necks, tense backs, and ‘defensive’ strength instead of elegance. ‘Once such problems have been created through incorrect riding,’ he goes on, ‘it’s very hard to eliminate them.” (Pages 62 – 63.) The entire book is a gem and describes Klaus’ philosophies. For example, Klaus says, “Even if training is heading in the wrong direction, initially, the horses will just keep on going. One must recognize and interpret their signals in time, and react accordingly.” For Balkenhol, such signals are unusual resistance, sudden alleged “stubborness”, nervousness, tension, grinding of teeth, tail swishing, ears constantly back (Page 32). This reminds us we must listen to the horse, and do what is best for the horse!

A good pictorial of horses ridden in draw reins and how it is not appropriate is at

Another great resource on draw reins and other gadgets is and specifically

Training a Happy, Willing Athlete — Avoid Overworking

Myth: A horse needs to work on the test movements / strengthening exercises at least 5 days a week or he won’t advance.

Truth: Horse muscles, like human muscles, need time to REPAIR between work sessions. That is why you should alternate strength building days and stretchy loose days or vary your work with hacking out or other activites to help the horse build proper muscle while maintaining a fresh attitude toward work.  Trot poles, cavaletti and small jumps can be used to vary the work, too.

Remember, very few horses have a bad personality.  They are trying to tell us something with their behavior.  We need to listen to them.  Horses don’t have an “attitude problem,” they are probably in pain or confused.

From the book Balancing Act by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann:  “Every trainer and rider should be aware of the fact that a young horse, especially, is likely to experience muscle soreness the first or second day after a strong training session. It would be counterproductive to ask the horse for another intense training session during this period of soreness. Recognition of the horse’s discomfort may be evidenced by specific signs: stiffness, unrideability or resistance. If you attempt to modify the horse through force and roughness when he exhibits such signs, you are likely to hurt him! Physical stiffness particularly leads to chronic tension, nervousness, and permanent resistance in horses with a strong personality.” (Bold font mine.)

Dr. Heuschmann specifically mentions young horses but this applies to ANY horse. Muscle soreness can occur at any level of training. It is worth repeating that Dr. Heuschmann believes that overworking a horse or working a horse who is muscle sore can lead to CHRONIC TENSION and PERMANENT RESISTANCE — especially in horses with strong personalities. If your horse is resisting, don’t assume it has an attitude problem. See a vet to rule out physical issues, including being overworked.

In an article from, Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, and head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, England, says “Finally, trainers and riders need to be on the constant lookout for early signs of lameness … in order to treat the condition as soon as possible. While this might be a limp, it might also be much more subtle. A change in performance, saddle asymmetry, a resistance to working in a certain direction or on a certain rein, tension in the back, fighting with the bit — these could all be signs of lameness.” Read the whole article at Creating a Sustainable Equine Athlete By Christa Lesté-Lasserre • Nov 23, 2012 • Article #30905.

From the book Dressage in Harmony by Walter Zettl:  “I had to laugh when a student told me how the horse had done something wrong on purpose. A horse will never do anything on purpose . . . But the horse has a quick instinct for self preservation, an unbelievably good memory for good things and even more capacity for remembering bad things.”

Words About Hyperflexion

In the image shown above the horse is hyperflexed.  The image shown above is NOT the correct outline for lunging or riding.  Not only is the horse way behind the vertical, his neck is “broken,” meaning hyperflexed between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae.  

Myth: In order to get the horse’s head in the right place for lunging, it is ok to double-loop the side reins around the girth to make them short enough so the horse’s head is low and almost to its chest.  

The Truth: “If you did this in a USDF Instructors Certification Exam you would not pass,” says Cindy Sydnor, USDF Instructors Certification Program Examiner. Cindy goes on to say, “If, when lungeing with properly attached side reins, the horse drops his entire neck a little, his face WILL come a little behind the vertical, and this is fine.  If the neck stays high, and the horse is behind the vertical because the side reins are too short, that is definitely bad.  And, if the neck is forced down through over shortened side reins AND the horse is more than a few degrees behind the vertical (as seen in so many horrible YouTube videos), that is also very incorrect and inhumane.”  She goes on to say, “Force should simply never be used.  To force the neck down with over-short side reins is definitely a horrible thing to do.  And depending on a horse’s natural sensitivity in the mouth and the bit being used, the animal often will yield to the pressure from the side reins, because the pain from the bit is simply unbearable.  But as you may have seen somewhere, often after yielding and going more than 10 degrees behind the vertical, a horse will panic and try to throw its head up (because the pressure on the bit doesn’t decrease enough and it still hurts).  Because the side reins don’t give the horse is trapped and often stops abruptly and either backs up rapidly and/or rears and even sometimes flips over backwards.”

FEI Statement on hyperflexion, 2008:  “The FEI condemns hyperflexion in any equestrian sport as an example of mental abuse.  The FEI does not support the practice.”

Myth: The only way to get a horse’s back up is to lunge/ride them round, low and deep, with their poll low and their head partway to their chest.

The Truth: Getting the horse’s back up is NOT the end goal. A loose, swinging, lifted back is only part of the equation. You have to have all the components: engaged hindquarters, thrust/impulsion, lifted, swinging and loose back, connection from the bit to the rider, and the rider accepting the connection and releasing the energy back into the hindquarters. Connection is correct (aside from moments here and there) only if the horse is on or slightly in front of the vertical. Any horse behind the vertical loses the connection at the bit and the circle of aids is broken. It is not correct riding and worse, can cause physical damage to the horse.

 From an article published in 2008 by Sylvia Loch’s The Classical Riding Club newsletter written by Michael J Stevens, England: “Working a horse deep and round is often achieved with side reins and running reins, and is thought to lift the horse’s back and stretch the spine by enabling the hind legs to come through properly.  In fact, when a horse is worked too deep in the neck, his back must arch down. This will indeed cause him to work his back legs harder to compensate, but there is too much movement in the stifle and the hock, and not enough in the body.  The hind end is not working in harmony with the front end because the bridge between them — the back — is not moving.  With the legs working so hard, they hit the ground harder.  This can cause concussion of the spine and hip.  incorrectly done . . . the horse ends up weak in the spine. You cannot always see the damage immediately, it happens over time.”

Classical Training Methods Mean Less Injuries

Classical training is key to sustaining optimum performance in horses.  When classical methods are not used, injuries can occur.  Dr. Nancy Nicholson has written a book called “Biomechanical Riding, a Dressage Rider’s Atlas” available at In addition to lots of scientific data, she includes Gymnastic Curriculum, Independent Seat illustrations, Anatomy and Function of Dressage Gaits and Sustaining a Gymnastic Foundation. I highly recommend this book for all dressage trainers and riders!

In the book she details the points of injury consistently found on horses worked round, low and deep (hyperflexed). These points of injury include chronic irritation of the nuchal ligament where it attaches to the skull.  Calcification can also occur at this location after the point of injury. In addition, chronic irritation after tissue degeneration can occur at the naviculuar area, suspensory ligament attachments and in the shoulder.

Another wonderful website featuring lots of great biomechanical illustrations is It is worth spending a lot of time on this website, since virtually every sentence is a gem. I would recommend the sections on rollkur, and behind the vertical ( as well as the information about draw reins (

In addition, German researchers have studied 60 competition horses’ head and neck positions and ascertained from body language whether or not they were comfortable. Horses ridden behind the vertical or overly flexed longitudinaly were unhappy athletes, a violation of the USDF’s regulations. See more at “Head and Neck Position’s Effects on Horse Behavior Studied” By Christa Lesté-Lasserre • Jan 16, 2013 • Article #31214

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