The second day of the Gladstone Program focused on more mounted work with George Morris and Dr. Gerd Heuschmann.  The riders began by warming up on the flat, working transitions from walk to trot and between working and medium trot. Heuschmann cautioned the group that the first few minutes of transitions should be done with a lighter seat, and then once the horse starts to yield his back a bit the rider can then sit more deeply.  As long as there is stiffness in the back, he said, a heavy/deep seat will cause the horse to rush.  Once the back began to give a bit, he encouraged the group to ride a slow trot, “Ride like you are a cowboy in a jog,” as the slow sitting trot will help “connect you with the horse.”

Heuschmann kept a close eye on each pair.  As Lisa Goldman trotted by on Aslan, he encouraged her to use more inside leg and if she needed some inside rein to raise her inside hand when applying it, as pulling it back blocks the inside hind leg and the back.

Heuschmann and Morris marveled at the change in Katie Cox’s big grey gelding Twilight.  Morris had ridden him the day before, and was pleased to see that the horse came out more willing to soften in his back and yield his mouth than he was the day before.  When he asked Cox if she felt an improvement and got an affirmative response, Morris turned to the crowd and reminded them that while they may see a change in a horse after a training breakthrough, they should not expect a 100% change.  They grey, he said, had improved about 30%, and that level of improvement in that amount of time was more than sufficient.

When Heuschmann noticed one pair was rushing a bit he told the rider to “Play a little bit, take your time.” He then had her gently raise both hands in what he called the French half-halt. Replacing the pulling hand with a raised hand, he remarked, will still allow the horse to be through and giving in the back. Raising the hand, he said, also allows the horse to remain rounded in the poll, and that a pulling rein action shortens the neck and thus stiffens the back.

After trot work the group moved on to canter. They were asked to change the pace within the canter to open and compress the horse’s frame.  Changing the frame is another good exercise to open the horse’s back, Heuschmann noted.  He then asked the riders to ride canter-trot transitions, stating these transitions are the most effective exercise, after gymnastic jumping, to unlock the loin area.

Once riders and horses were sufficiently warmed up it was on cavaletti work.  Ground poles were set on the quarter line, with two poles on one diagonal and three on the other.  The three poles were set at a a trotting distance, and the two were set to be a bounce at the canter. The riders began over the ground poles, and gradually incorporated the two other exercises.

When one rider’s horse became tense and rushed the exercise, Heuschmann asked her to transition to the walk before the cavaletti in order to teach the horse to wait for her aids.  After he went through nicely at the walk, she was encouraged to take her time with new exercises and to reward her mount when he complied.  Use changes of pace, he said, to get the horse to listen and to re-establish the correct contact.

When one of the horses stumbled behind Heuschmann pointed it out to the audience and told us it was a sign of a ‘Leg Mover’ transitioning to a ‘Back Mover.’  When a horse is a ‘Back Mover’ its abdominals contract to pull the hind legs forward and under, whereas with a ‘Leg Mover’ the abdominals don’t engage and the legs are dragging out behind. Because the ‘Leg Mover’ is unused to using his abdominals, the change to using his back and undercarriage correctly causes him to stumble until he becomes comfortable with using himself correctly.

Both Morris and Heuschmann encourage dedicated use of the inside leg to bring about more bend and hind leg engagement. The group was told that the bend needed to develop from the hind end, and that trying to create it by manipulating the horse’s front end would never work. When a rider tries to create collection from the front, Heuschmann told the group, the horse’s inverted back causes the ribcage to fall between the shoulder blades, effectively blocking it from bending.  When a horse is truly ridden from back to front, the raised back contracts the abdominals, thereby bringing the ribcage up and allowing the trunk to rotate and bend.

All of this work, Heuschmann told the riders, was a the prelude to collected work. Getting the back up, getting the abdominals to lower the hip and pull the hind legs forward allows the horse to push through from behind.  This kind of work develops the muscles the horse needs to collect, and over time the horse will eventually build enough strength for the collection required by high level training.  If a rider encounters difficulty with collection, he said, they should re-establish the connection by going into a long frame and going forward until the horse seeks the contact.  The collected work can resume only after the contact has been renewed.

As the riders and horses cooled down Heuschmann and Morris answered questions, and you could see auditors feverishly penciling their responses into notebooks.  I happened to run into Heuschmann as we were leaving the ring and asked if I could ask a question in order to make sure I understood the principles correctly.  To me, I said, what he was describing in the horse sounded a lot like what I’ve learned in pilates training and in other workouts.  In other words, activating the core creates more power and places the individual at less risk of injury caused by using muscles incorrectly.

I used snow shoveling as an example. Some people bend at the waist with the head up and back arched. This causes undue strain on the back and often these are the folks who throw out their backs and find themselves in the chiropractor’s office, mainlining Advil and muscle relaxants after each snowstorm.  To shovel correctly and lower the risk of injury, one should bend the knees and engage the core, which pulls the rear underneath. In this stance, the power doesn’t come just from the shoulders and back, but from the muscles of the legs, abdominals, and back.  With more muscles working to create the power, the workload is spread over several muscle groups which lessons the risk of injury.

Heuschmann’s eyes lit up and he smiled. “Yes! That’s exactly it! Wonderful! I like that analogy!”  OK, I thought to myself, this makes sense, and I went home looking forward to reading more of Heuschmann’s works and how I could incorporate his theories into my own training.

You can find Heuschmann’s books on Amazon here.

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