Modern master Charles de Kunffy explains the biomechanics of collection
Dressage Principles Illuminated is one of modern classical master and prolific author Charles de Kunffy’s masterworks. In understandable language, the Hungarian-born de Kunffy lays out the underpinnings of correct dressage training for horse and rider. For years the book, as well as the man, have been guiding lights for riders and trainers worldwide.
(Learn more about de Kunffy in an exclusive interview, “Renaissance Man,” in the January/February 2022 issue of USDF Connection. Not a USDF member? Click here to join today.
In 2021, Xenophon Press released an expanded edition of the 2002 classic, with additional text and photos. The USDF thanks Xenophon Press for permission to publish the following excerpt of Dressage Principles Illuminated, Expanded Edition. All material is © Charles de Kunffy 2021 and may not be reproduced without permission.
The major training goals, as we have seen, include the amplification of the gaits, and the collection of the horse’s weight toward the haunches. In order to do that, horses should be first ridden extremely slowly, later just slowly, in order to “close” the horse. Only horses compelled to move very slowly, yet urged to maintain activity with the haunches, can develop the strength and skill necessary for collection. Closing the horse cannot be done from front to back. That is, shortening the reins to pull on them and confining the horse’s neck will not result in collection. The horse in training should become very vigorous and very active in his haunches, without speeding up in order to compress himself. This is a lesson we need to teach horses—they do not know how to discover it themselves. A horse that has the right compression compresses from behind forward by tucking the lumbar back, tilting the pelvis forward, and sinking in the hip and croup downward. If the horse responds to leg aids by running, the schooling was incorrect, and the aiding system has broken down. Leg stimulation of energy should result in increased articulation of the joints and activity with increased engagement of the haunches.
The other compression is lateral and is equally important in bringing the haunches from the outside hind leg toward the inside shoulder. The exercises half-pass, half-pirouette, and haunches-in facilitate this closure of the horse. If a horse travels straight, the right hock and the left knee are at a certain distance. During the three abovementioned exercises schooled correctly, the right hock and the left knee work closer together and help compact the horse for a more collected balance. Closing a horse is analogous, in human terms, to making him squat. A rider who cannot control the horse’s shoulders will let the horse fall out on them, that is, escaping alignment and functional straightening.
Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg is one of the greatest riders of our times. In these two pictures, observe his superb demonstration of “positioning” the horse’s neck. Positioning includes bending the neck, and you can do it without necessarily bending the rest of the horse’s body. However, you cannot bend the horse’s body without positioning the neck. From the rider’s point of view, a well-positioned neck should feel bent, and hang loosely with the outside, longer neck muscle hiding the horse’s eye. On the inside, contracting side of the neck, there should be a visible delineation of the flexed upper neck muscles from which the head hangs, relaxed from a soft, more deeply positioned poll. The haunches “stepping through a liquid neck” add to the positioning. Subtle contact proves that the hind legs are free to step through a rounded and elevated back. Positioning allows the horse to remain aligned in the spine, which allows even movement of his limbs as well as supple articulation of his joints when he moves on a curved pattern. Positioning brings “the shock absorbers” of the horse into play, allowing him to move through bent lines without losing impulsion or balance, or damaging the purity of his gaits.
Observe this rider’s outside leg positioned behind his inside leg, which keeps the horse “closed laterally” behind, and “compresses” the haunches. This prevents the haunches from falling out, and the croup from stiffening and rising up. The inside rein is used as an indirect rein—its direction is inward and upward toward the withers. The outside rein, as always, is a direct rein, which defines the amount of the horse’s bending and positioning, and guards against the horse “escaping on the outside shoulder.”
The shoulder should not travel at the same rate as the haunches. It has become fashionable to use German expressions to gain prestige and show that we are “dressage wise.” As if English were insufficient to convey ideas that were to be invested with mystique, “the closed horse” in German is the gesschlossenes Pferd.
We often hear the chanting to ride a horse from the inside leg to the outside rein. This is suitable advice only to horses that have been straightened, made ambidextrous, through a long period of impeccable gymnastic work. Horses still crooked will not compress or “close” their action from excessive use of the inside leg and outside rein, but will instead evade work in a poor leg-yield, escaping stiffly sideways. Riding a horse from a inside leg to the outside rein is inappropriate on an unprepared horse that has not become straight enough to assume collection over the haunches. Furthermore, even a horse ready for the task of collection and engagement should contact the outside rein and slightly slacken the inside one by moving into a compacted posture with bent spinal alignment. Better attention should be paid to the rider’s outside leg, which must always be positioned back behind the position of the inside leg in order to keep the horse’s haunches closed. Without the outside leg back, there is no closure of the horse. The outside leg can stay back and command engagement only if the ankle is flexible, keeping the heel down and the calf stretched.
Using the outside leg and outside rein straightens and bends the horse. The author is riding a horse that is tracking straight but positioned through the neck in preparation for bending (photo 1). This is called “functional straightness.” The outside rein determines the degree of positioning and prevents the outside shoulder from escaping.
In photo 2, the rider’s outside leg is stretched further back in order to close the horse’s haunches. The horse’s poll is higher than it was in photo 1. When positioning the horse and he is still tracking straight, bend the neck with the poll lowered. You should not pull the inside rein or the horse could overflex, lose freedom of his haunches, and as a result, go behind the bit.
To achieve better skills for closing the horse behind, a rider can do what I call the “coil exercises.” In these exercises, we position the horse, for example, on a right circle. The rider places the left leg back and the right hip forward, inward, and toward the withers. Positioning is more than bending; it is properly bending a horse with his poll lowered. Positioning is bend with postural change involving a deeper poll, as shown in the photos of Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg above. After positioning and coiling the horse to the right, change direction and coil the horse counter-bent. When he engages and collects, and flexes his hips, you can then change him over to the left circle with a left bend. Then the rider can coil into a left circle, change rein in counterbending, and upon collection change to true bending on the left circle.
This exercise is similar to riding a serpentine, on which each turn starts with a counterflexion and a counterpositioning. The rider’s leg positioning is changed appropriately, alternating from left back on a right circle and right back on a left circle.
The outside leg is the guardian of the closing of the horse, and that is why it should not move to create rhythm and impulsion. The inside leg of the rider should take care of rhythm and impulsion. The outside leg is used for bending, engaging, closing the horse. The rider’s legs should not work like windshield wipers on a car.
Dressage Principles Illuminated, Expanded Edition by Charles de Kunffy is available from Xenophon Press, XenophonPress.com.
Editor’s note: The photos that appear with this excerpt were taken long before the wearing of protective headgear became de rigeur in dressage, and mandatory in competition. The USDF urges all riders to wear protective headgear while mounted.