Riding Is One of the Most Difficult Forms of Artistic Sport

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Walter Zettl (Mark Neihart photo)

By Walter Zettl

Translated by Lynne Sprinsky Echols

The German-born dressage master Walter Zettl wrote this essay shortly before his death in June 2018. The USDF thanks Herr Zettl’s widow, Heide, for her permission to share this previously unpublished work.

Why is riding one of the most difficult forms of artistic sport, if not the most difficult? Because one must bring together two entirely different life forms and meld them into one harmonious whole (two souls, one mind). On the one hand we have the fearful horse that sees danger in every new thing and tries to run away from it by shying, bucking, or bolting. On the other hand we have a human being, the rider, who is hand-oriented, often impatient, and prone to blame others for his own mistakes. True partnership between the two is only possible if the rider is willing to study his horse conscientiously and educate his horse according to the Six-Point Training Pyramid[i]: 1. Rhythm, 2. Relaxation, 3. Contact, 4. Schwung, 5. Straightness leading to Suppleness, and 6. Collection.


The USDF Pyramid of Training differs slightly from the version referenced here.

1. Rhythm: Rhythm and Tempo, as with music, must always be customized to the individual horse.

2. Relaxation: Only when the horse is free of tension in mind and body can relaxation be achieved. (At the beginning of each session, ride in free walk on long reins.) To my way of thinking, Relaxation should be put in first place, because only when the horse is relaxed is it willing to submit to the soft aids of the rider, which should be recognizable even in the most difficult exercises.

3. Contact: An elastic (more giving than receiving) connection between the hand of the rider and the horse’s mouth, which is the most sensitive part of the horse, and must therefore be addressed with the utmost care. Contact helps to balance the horse through the engagement of the hindquarters.

4. Schwung: A difficult word to translate; the English approximations are impulsion + “swing.” Without Schwung, it’s impossible to ride exercises and transitions correctly. “Ride your horse forward” does not mean to proceed at racing speed; the rhythm and tempo must always be adjusted to the individual horse. The saying continues “…and make him straight.” The old riding masters recognized the importance of these elements and left them behind in their writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

6. Straightness: We must be extremely careful about this. It takes a long time to straighten a horse because we have to work with the natural crookedness of the horse, just as human beings are right- or left-handed. This is the only area in which we ask something of the horse that he doesn’t naturally display in the freedom of nature (for example, when a stallion shows off for a mare, when the horse is full of fresh energy, and so on. Those we want to gently bring under our control and ennoble so that they can be called forth at any time or place). We have to deal with the natural crookedness of the horse whenever we ask something new of it. Under no circumstances may straightness be asked for with force. Almost all difficulties that show themselves (mostly in the front) stem from the horse’s back and must be corrected through increased engagement of the hindquarters.

All the preceding elements lead gradually and imperceptibly to Suppleness and Collection.

All too often during riding instruction, one can observe that the reins are taken up right away and the horse is forced into a very confined space. This immediately denies the horse the way forward. The rider then has to drive so strongly with his legs that he makes the horse dead to his leg aids. It can get so bad that the horse no longer reacts even to the whip or the spurs. That horse has been driven too often up against a locked door (the rider’s overly harsh hands). In these sad cases, the student is repeatedly prompted to drive the hindquarters. Too often, the rider doesn’t know when the precise moment occurs in which the horse is able to react to the lightest pressure of the rider’s calves and step with its hind legs more under its own center of mass. It is completely forgotten that the horse is so sensitive that it reacts to the miniscule weight of a fly in order to flick it away, but (once remembered) it’s easy to see how the incorrect use of the rider’s leg can deaden a horse’s sides. The more invisible the rider’s aids, the better the horse’s reception of and reaction to them. Overly harsh, strong aids lead to disobedience, tension, and in the worst cases to an outright battle, which the horse always wins.

That’s why it’s so important to begin each riding session by allowing the horse to walk calmly, taking long, ground-covering strides on long, yielded reins of a length that suits the individual situation. The length of time devoted to this will vary with the level of training of horse and rider, but should take roughly 20-25 minutes’ time. Through this practice, trust between horse and rider is gradually built up and the horse’s body relaxes.

After the walk exercises, one can take up the reins again and then yield them again after a short time. This does a lot to build the horse’s trust in the rider’s hand. At the beginning of walk work, the horse will look around and check out his environment to ensure that no dangers are lurking nearby. We do exactly the same thing ourselves—for example, when the arena doors open unexpectedly, we look to see what’s happening there. We shouldn’t make a big deal of it, nor of any little shying on the part of the horse, but instead act as though nothing has happened. Over time the horse will gain trust in his rider, himself, and his environment, and be able to remain relaxed. This won’t happen overnight and can take more or less time, depending on the horse and the rider, requiring much patience and inner calm on the part of the rider.

Once the horse is relaxed and is walking confidently, the rider can ask for the trot. Enough time should be spent in rising trot so that the horse gradually accustoms itself to the rider’s weight changes in the two-beat trot and moves forward in a comfortable, freely swinging way. At the same time, the rider must establish with his seat the trot tempo that best suits the horse – not too quick and not too slow. This is how we build Schwung, for only when the horse has the necessary Schwung can it properly accomplish all the exercises we ask of it. If the horse becomes tense while working, it either has not understood the rider’s aids or the rider has asked something of it that it is physically or mentally unready to cope with. At such times, it is better to take step back and begin again. But this time, the rider must remember precisely what the horse’s limits are. Naturally, one must ride up to the horse’s limit, or no progress will be made, but one may never push the horse over its limits, or the horse will lose whatever confidence it has in itself and whatever trust it has in its rider, becoming anxious and tense.

Should the horse, for whatever reason, break out of the trot into the canter, we must not punish it by making a harsh down transition. On the contrary, we must maintain the canter until the horse has rebalanced itself by means of a fresh, working canter. Only then ought one to ask the horse for a transition back to an energetic working trot, and then continue with trot exercises. From there one can ask for transitions from working trot to walk and back to working trot, or even from walk to canter. What’s important is that each transition is well-balanced and harmonious.

And let’s not forget to allow the horse to chew the reins out of the hand from time to time, travelling several horse’s lengths before we take up the reins again. In the course of this little respite, regardless of the gait being ridden, the horse’s tempo may not become quicker or slower. This shows us whether the horse’s balance is independent of the rider’s hand (self-carriage), and whether the horse trusts the rider’s hand enough to chew the reins out and then come back onto contact with confidence. Neither Schwung nor Losgelassenheit (rough translation: “looseness”) may be compromised in the process.

In trot-canter-trot-walk-halt, it is very important that these are executed with lively hindquarters and that the aids are given precisely in the correct moment. Unfortunately, often in such work the rider’s hands are too strong, and the horse becomes anxious and its muscles tense and cramped. The rider should first execute the appropriate aids in his mind, for the horse will immediately read the rider’s thoughts and respond to them.

The horse is able to understand the rider only when the rider’s aids are not only correct, but also given in the correct moment. In addition, it’s also necessary to give the aids in the dosage that suits the situation at hand.

This is only one of the things that makes good riding so difficult. It’s less difficult if the rider has learned to time the aids successfully. That way, no harshness or strength is needed, and the horse can respond immediately instead of becoming tense or leaning on the bit through lack of understanding. Horses never make a mistake intentionally, but rather misunderstand the rider’s aids or react to a sudden outside stimulus. This is most easily seen in the canter departure. Everyone can learn to feel the difference between the horse’s soft, harmonious response to an aid correctly timed and dosed, and the response to an aid that is ill-timed or poorly dosed. Any error in this area is the fault of the rider, who must learn when to give the aids. This can be learned by a naturally gifted rider or with the help of a good riding instructor.

I had the great good fortune to have one of the best instructors in Col. H. W. Aust, who taught us very early on about the right moment to give our aids. Indeed, the aids have to be given a split second before the “right moment” because the horse needs a bit of time to react to them.

Provided one recognizes this issue and then addresses it diligently and correctly, then the art of riding is not quite so difficult.

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