American Dressage Legends: Lt. Col. Hans Moeller

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EARLY VIPS: Lt. Col. Hans Moeller (second from left), then also director of studies at the American Dressage Institute, at the ADI’s opening in July 1971 at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY. Also pictured: Michael Handler; Col. Hans Handler, director of the Spanish Riding School (and Michael’s father); ADI founder Margarita “Migi” Serrell; former Spanish Riding School Oberbereiter Franz Rochowansky; M. Lockie Richards; and former SRS Bereiter Werner Platzer. (DRESSAGE & CT/COURTESY OF THE ESTATE OF IVAN I. BEZUGLOFF JR.)

From early influence in California, this Austrian expatriate had a profound influence on judge training in America

Not all dressage pioneers in the US were American-born. A notable example is Lt. Col. Hans Moeller (1912-1986), who was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2000.

Born in a suburb of Vienna to a non-horsey family, Moeller entered the military after high school and ended up in the horse-drawn artillery. From 1936 to 1938, he attended the Austrian Army’s Institute for Riding Instructors near Vienna. There he became good friends with Hans Handler, a future director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.

When Nazi Germany took over Austria during World War II, all Austrian military officers were made members of the German forces. As such, Moeller spent time in France and then on the Russian front. He was later captured by US troops and sent to the States as a prisoner of war. He was released when the war ended and returned home to Austria in 1946.

After the war, Moeller worked for the provincial government and with the Marshall Plan. In 1952, he married Joan, a student at the Spanish Riding School. The couple moved to the Chicago area, where Moeller went to work for an advertising agency. But soon the lure of horses and riding beckoned, and he accepted a position at Mills College Stables in Oakland, CA.

According to the California Dressage Society (CDS)—of which Moeller was a founding member—when freeway development threatened the future of that equestrian facility, the Moellers relocated to Atherton, CA. From 1956 to 1960 Moeller was based at John Galvin’s Rancho San Fernando Rey in the Santa Ynez Valley. There he coached Galvin’s daughter, Patricia Galvin, who would go on to win America’s first international dressage gold medal at the 1959 Pan American Games, and to compete in the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. Moeller also trained the future 1968 Olympian (and fellow USDF Hall of Famer) Kyra Downton. In 1960 the Moellers moved one more time, to Los Altos Hills in the San Francisco Bay area.

Moeller also helped to educate several young event riders, and he would go on to be a major supporter of the US Pony Clubs.

Another of Moeller’s interests was the fledgling American Dressage Institute, a dressage training center headquartered in Saratoga Springs, NY. He was one of the ADI’s earliest clinicians, and he helped to bring fellow dressage masters Col. Hans Handler, Gustav Niblaeus, and Col. Bengt Ljungquist to the US.

Also a respected judge, Moeller officiated at many US dressage championships and selection trials. In fact, one of his most significant areas of contribution to American dressage was in the area of judge education. He helped to develop CDS’s judge-education program and the first formal dressage judges’ forums. His curriculum incorporating substantial theoretical instruction was so successful that today it is an element of the USDF L Education Program.

USDF salutes Lt. Col. Hans Moeller’s contributions to American dressage. Now, read a training article he penned for the California Dressage Society.

Once More with Feeling
By Hans Moeller
Originally published in Dressage Letters, 1967

In dressage, the more one progresses, the more one realizes how much depends upon feeling. And herein lies the irony central both to learning dressage and to instructing others in the art. For feeling cannot be explained in any but its own unexplainable terms. Feeling must be experienced. All an instructor can do is say “That’s it!” when his pupil at last produces the sought-after response in the horse—and all a pupil can do is ask himself at that precise moment, “What do I feel—in my body; in my horse? At this precise moment when my instructor says ‘That’s it!’ what do I feel?”

Nor is this as easy as it sounds, for to have one’s body under control and to be able to feel exactly where that control is, what has induced it, and what it in turn induces requires, first of all, relaxation. And relaxation, paradoxically, would seem in this connection to provide not a prerequisite for the accurate exercise of power, but a contradiction in terms.

How difficult it is to relax! How difficult it is to “let it happen,” to do nothing, to absorb like a sponge the reaction to action, rather than, in an effort to feel, to stiffen against feeling. Relaxation. That is the key.

Relaxation, Balance, Rhythm. These are the basic requirements for riding with feeling. Only a relaxed rider can expect a relaxed horse—and this is where the vicious cycle begins. For feeling is a reciprocal thing. A relaxed rider with a correct seat should feel the rhythmically swinging back of the relaxed horse, not the stiff and hollow back that a lack of relaxation produces. Again, feeling is reciprocal: the rider’s legs must feel the sides of the horse; the horse must feel and accept the rider’s leg aids.

Learn to feel—first at the halt: If one hind leg is left behind or the horse rests on one hind leg, the relaxed, feeling rider will actually have an urge to correct his seat, to shift his weight, for he will be aware of a lack of support on one side.

Learn to feel—in motion: In stepping over poles on the ground, a rider should feel in his knees and in his thighs the reaching shoulder—the foreleg—of his horse.

In the posting trot, the rider should not have to discover with his eyes whether or not he is on the correct diagonal. It is a matter of balance, not vision; the rider should feel the correct diagonal—first in the corners, then on the circle, then on straight lines. The same is true at the canter. The rider should learn to feel the correct lead; he should not have to look for it.

Learn to feel—with the hands: Learn to feel the horse’s mouth with an elastic, stretching contact. Remember that “on the bit” is not synonymous with forcing a horse’s head and neck into a given position, though the common misunderstanding of the term would have it so.

Learn to feel—through the seat; through the legs; through the hands. Then learn to coordinate all three! And therein lies the greatest difficulty. For coordination of the feelings experienced through the seat, legs, and hands requires that at the same time those feelings are noted subjectively they be examined judiciously, objectively. Am I sitting correctly? Is my weight where it should be? What about my leg aids? Are they clear enough to be understood by my horse at his present stage of training? And my hands. Do they have the right kind and degree of contact? Or are my reins flopping? Or am I pulling on them? Only when a rider is able to feel and coordinate all this will he be able to take corrective action.

The successful coordination of his feelings will enable a rider to discover the source of a given difficulty. Too often, for example, a rider will attempt corrections with his hands alone, failing to realize—because he has failed to coordinate, to examine, to judge his feelings—that the cause of his problem is in, say, the hindquarters. Again, only a rider who feels and can coordinate what he feels can take effective corrective action. He will know where his problem lies because he will consciously feel it—just as he will consciously feel and know when his problem is solved. The same principle exists as in driving a car. If engine trouble develops, one does not attempt to repair the difficulty by going to work on the steering wheel. Why, then, attempt such contrary measures with the horse?

And now, let’s try it again. Once more—with feeling!

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