I think the riders and auditors at the George H. Morris knew we were in for a serious information download when the guest speaker, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, asked how much time he had for his presentation. “An hour and a half,” he was told. “This takes eight hours!” he laughed. Given the number of presentation slides we viewed and the large number we never got to, he probably wasn’t exaggerating all that much. To give you an idea of how much was covered, it might help to say that at the end of the talk I had 12 pages of notes. No lie.
Heuschmann is the author of Tug of War: Classical Versus “Modern” Dressage, a polarizing work that examines the training methods of the classical style and those seen commonly used today. Heuschmann qualified as a Bereiter (German master rider) before beginning veterinary studies, where he specialized in orthopedics. Heuschmann has been an outspoken critic of training practices such as rollkur, or hyperflexion, and in his books he explains how the horse’s biomechanics work and how today’s training principles work against the proper development and gymnasticizing of the horse.
What, you might ask, is a guy so focused on dressage doing at a George Morris clinic? Easy answer: George Morris has always advocated classical training and has said time and time again how important dressage is to the training of a jumping horse. Heuschmann and Morris adhere to the belief that jumping is just dressage with obstacles thrown in. Both often reference classic works written by past masters of the sport; as Heuschman spoke to us he often held up and quoted from well-loved and gently battered books such as HDV 12, a German cavalry manual.
There are many similarities between the two men: Both are clearly and eloquently passionate about the horse. They are intensely curious about all aspects of horse training and this is evidenced by the sheer number of books they’ve read and continue to read on the subject. Compassion, sympathy, understanding and respect for the horse is the foundation of their beliefs.
We started off learning that a good deal of the physical issues we see with horses today are a result of improper training methods that do not develop key muscles and muscle groups needed to do the work, and overusing others. One of the reasons for this, Heuschmann asserts, if the over-reliance on the hands and the underutilization of the legs. Human brains are wired to focus on the hands, on grabbing and manipulating and solving problems with our hands. Thus it follows that when we have an issue while training a horse, we try to fix it with our hands. This is counter to all classic principles that tell us hands are secondary to legs and seat.
We learned that the horse is built like a bridge, with 4 pillars (legs) and the thoracic and lumbar spine are the carrying part, or span, of the bridge. He then went on to describe the muscles and ligaments of the front end, paying close attention to the nuchal ligament and comparing its action to that of a crane. He showed how the nuchal ligament connects with the supraspinatus ligament and how both, with the withers as a fulcrum, are used to raise the horse’s back and allow it to swing. Why should the back be up and swinging ? You know that children’s song that goes “The thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone, the knee bone’s connected to the shin bone” and so on? Same principle.
A round, swinging back engages and lifts the longissimus dorsi muscles, which then brings the hind end under, which engages the “engine” and pushing power of the horse. While this is happening the ventral serratus muscle lifts the rib cage and allows it to rotate and bend in a balanced way. Think of it as if you’re coming around a turn to a fence, the horse is balanced with his hind end underneath and propelling him forward. His ribcage is bending around your leg and his shoulder and hind end are following each other on the track. You arrive at the fence in balance and with optimum pushing power to jump cleanly over the fence. Then there’s the other side of the coin: Your horse’s back is hollow and braced and his ribcage is down and braced against your leg. His head is up and fighting you and his shoulder is bulging to the inside. You come to the fence out of balance with less power because the hind end is trailing out behind and odds are good you may have a rail.
Here’s another reason why you want a round, swinging back: If the horse is hollow, the head is up, the back is down, and the croup is high with the hind legs trailing out behind. If the back is under and through, the power generation is distributed between all the major joints, muscles and ligaments of the hind end. If your horse is inverted and the hind legs out behind, the horse can only get it’s pushing power from the lower hind legs, placing undue stress on the suspensory ligaments and risking injury. Not to mention the stress in the muscles of the loin and on the sacrum. The correlation here? Think of dollars spent on massage and acupuncture for the back or sacral injections.
So it makes sense why pulling a horse into a frame causes an unnaturally high head carriage, a hollow back and a weak high end, and ultimately an injured, sore, or resistant horse. So then what does rollku, or hyperflexion, do? It rounds the back, right? Heuschmann explained that while it does, in fact, round the back, it does so in an unnaturally stretched fashion, putting undue stress on the muscles and ligaments of the neck. An over-stretched back is not a relaxed, swingy back. Have you ever fallen asleep on a plane? You’re sitting up, your head drops so your chin is on your chest, and you look to all the world like the picture of relaxation. What happens when you wake up? You’ve over-stretched and over-stressed the muscles of your neck and upper back and instead of being relaxed you’ve got a hell of a crick in your neck. When the back is unnaturally raised this way it means that the back behind the sadly appears flat and as a result you see no flexion or coming under in the hind end.
So this brings me through several pages of my notes, and I haven’t yet gotten to the stuff about Back Movers and Leg Movers, correct training practices, or the under-saddle work. Honestly, it was a very interesting and thought provoking session, and what he said made a good deal of sense, especially when you are looking at pictures and biomechanical models that show how different methods affect the horse’s body. I could probably write several more pages but really, it’s better to go out and get Heuschman’s books, either at your local tack shop, book store, or library. A lot of material showing the biomechanical bits was from his book Balancing Act: The Horse in Sport, an Irreconcilable Conflict? I’ve already ordered a copy from Amazon.
I can see where his views may be upsetting to some. Any time we are asked to take a close look and examine a way something we’re going to have stakeholders on either side that will be convinced their way is the right way. (I mean, look how folks reacted when someone suggested that the Earth might actually revolve around the sun.) Bottom line? Discussion is good, and we should never be afraid to examine how things are being done. Because no matter how attached we are do doing something a particular way, if it’s not in the best interests of the horse then we need to take another look at how we do things.