For classical master and World War II survivor Charles de Kunffy, art and horsemanship are one and the same
By Kim F. Miller
Reprinted from the January/February 2022 issue of USDF Connection magazine
Palm Springs, California, may not seem the Mecca of classical dressage and horsemanship, yet that’s where the art’s most passionate and eloquent advocate resides. He is Charles de Kunffy, world-renowned and revered as a conduit for the equestrian education he absorbed from European masters throughout his youth and young adulthood in his native Hungary.
His teaching and judging have influenced equestrians around the world. On doctor’s orders, de Kunffy travels only 50 days a year now; but through clinics, articles, interviews, and his many books, he continues to ensure that the principles of classical horsemanship are available to those who seek them out, now and for the future.
Inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2013, de Kunffy was born into Hungarian aristocracy sometime in the 1930s (he is famous for declining to reveal his exact age). His parents were prominent horse breeders, and horses were interwoven into the family’s life at their castle and surrounding grounds. He began formal riding lessons from a cavalry officer at the age of seven and progressed under the eye of European masters who were considered part of a golden age of equestrian education. It was an era, he says, when learning to ride and train horses using classical, compassionate principles was part of an upbringing that led to a meaningful, beauty-filled, useful life in the broadest sense.
“Good riding is a metaphor for a life lived correctly,” says de Kunffy, chatting on a Zoom call from his living room. European oil paintings crowd the walls behind him. He is not wearing the handsome haberdashery—usually a cap or fedora—that perfectly complements the always-impeccable attire seen in any image of de Kunffy, from any year or circumstance. But his hat is “just nineteen steps across the room,” he tells this reporter playfully. “I can easily go get it.” And so begins a conversation that weaves a life with horses into life itself. Which is as it should be, asserts the master: “Riding is not an excuse to forget the world.”
The Art of Living
Horses were de Kunffy’s passion early on. Yet his horsemanship education was always part of a wider world that included many forms of art and philosophy. His mother was a talented sculptor, and a great-uncle was an accomplished artist. The dinner-table discussions of his youth were enlivened and enlarged by the perspectives of omnipresent visitors. “We never dined alone,” de Kunffy says. “We always had a huge number of guests. It was the nineteenth-century style of living.
“My idols and teachers and the many important people in my life all had many passions and pursued education in many areas,” he continues. “We called this ‘overall culture.’ It had to do with knowing where you are in history. Knowing when things started, whether it was 10,000 or 10 million years ago, there was a really big feeling of knowing where you are in art, philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics.”
Brought into the equestrian realm, this concept fosters admiration of the horse’s beauty and nature. When horsemanship is learned as part of one’s overall culture, he explains, then it’s the horse’s correct training that is more highly valued. If it’s beautiful to boot, all the better.
De Kunffy appreciates that he’s lived in three distinct cultures over his 80-plus years. He describes it as having lived in three centuries. In the first, family and teachers immersed him in nineteenth-century beliefs and ethics. “We would call it heaven,” he says of his youth. “It was a life where we woke up to birdsong and had no fears or worries. We were never threatened, and there was so much beauty, elegance, and appropriate behavior.”
Then came the unimaginable opposite of life under first Nazi, then Soviet, rule of Hungary during and in the wake of World War II. De Kunffy witnessed unspeakable horrors, including what he refers to as “industrial murders” including those of family members “for no reason other than that they were born.” His upbringing dictates keeping those memories to himself: “If you don’t watch out, you can burden the people around you. So you have to be elegant, even sometimes a little aloof.”
He’s grateful to be living in this current “third century,” with justice and peace largely outweighing global strife. However, he’s concerned that the concept of horsemanship as an art form is being lost, saying, “The living arts survive by those who everyday demonstrate that the art is living.
“I wish more people would handle it as an art form,” he continues, “and put in the much-needed academic preparedness. Any form of character development is going to be more proud and large with the horse than without it. That’s why the powerful elite of the past always wanted to educate their offspring on horseback.”
That’s because “You can’t argue with a horse when it comes to courage and gratitude, focus and charity—all of those wonderful characteristics that make a nasty little child into a responsible adult. And all those things are happening because riding is an art. Ours is a wonderful performing art that we are involved with. It is going to disappear if one generation starts to display it in a false way.”
Preserving the Art
Grand Prix-level trainer and competitor Jessica Jo “JJ” Tate shares de Kunffy’s worry that the art of classical horsemanship could be lost, and she’s doing everything in her power to prevent that. Since she began riding with the man she calls her mentor at age 11, Tate has embraced, embodied, and promoted his methods wholeheartedly.
“Is he still relevant?” is a question Tate hears frequently. “In my career, I’ve been privileged and blessed enough to ride with some of the top people in the world, and it’s Charles who always brings out the best of my horses and myself. And he does so in a way that you don’t even know you are working so deeply.”
The patience required for the slow work of classical dressage can be a hard sell today. “People are attracted to new and shiny things, but that doesn’t really work in dressage,” explains Tate, a Wisconsin native now based in Landrum, South Carolina. “The age-old principles are what we need to hold onto the most, and I don’t know anyone who exemplifies them better than Charles. He is the living embodiment of endless patience and nonconfrontational training methods.”
A clinic with de Kunffy can be “more like a meditative yoga session” than a conventional riding lesson, Tate says, adding that his methods prove themselves time and again with horses of various breeds and abilities.
This facility, says Tate, may seem less important in the current era of the “superhorse”—sport horses bred to be superbly physically capable of dressage’s most difficult movements. But she and de Kunffy believe that such gifted equines are a double-edged sword of sorts, because their physical abilities and the willing, kind temperaments for which they are also bred enable and even tempt riders to take shortcuts in the training process. As de Kunffy puts it, “What worries me most is that we are in a time of superior horse and minimal rider.”
“Riders are not taught and trained the correct seat and aids,” de Kunffy laments. “There are no longer eighteen months spent on the lunge line, riding behind the vertical, leaning back to send the pelvis forward and build that abdominal grid and lumbar swing that allow the seat to develop.”
A correctly developed seat, he explains, is an integrated seat in which the rider’s presence is “no more a burden to the horse than the horse’s skin, eyeball, or left ear. The rider is inside the horse’s body in a way that takes us toward the goal of classical riding: to amplify the natural gaits. To make them easier, with less effort. Those things are totally ignored.”
“The horse knows how to be a horse,” he asserts. “The rider has to be made.”
Even at the highest level of competitive dressage, de Kunffy sees too few integrated seats. He recalls judging a Grand Prix class with 58 entries and determining that only eight riders had a proper seat. “The rest just came around to win.”
More than just ribbons are at stake, he stresses. “The more fabulous and physical the sport gets, the more it happens that more skills enable the rider to inflict more hurt on the horse. By abstaining from correct riding principles, the rider can become cruel without wanting to be cruel.”
A Matter of Engagement
Dressage isn’t easy for the horse, physically or mentally, de Kunffy emphasizes. He describes the frequent sight of a “confused, terrified” horse that seems to be poised to bolt at a flowerpot or some other presumably frightening object. But “it’s not the pot” that’s the problem, he asserts. “It’s little Agatha back in the saddle, and the horse knowing that if he makes a move, little Agatha holding the reins with two fists will be snatching at those reins.”
While the horse is born knowing how to be a horse, he does need to learn from the rider how to have the correct posture for moving.
“The horse is not just taught what to do; he should be taught how to do it,” de Kunffy says. “It’s beautiful to see a horse moving in big, bold ways; but without correct posture, there is no correct transportation. There is just the horse running with kinetic energy.”
Engagement of the haunches is the source of that correct transportation, but de Kunffy describes it as largely not taught, even “ignored.”
“If the horse is correctly aligned and correctly asked, he would use the ambidextrous nature of his function on a circle to tuck under the pelvic structure, giving him more flexibility and allowing him to raise the limbs.” Then “he’d land the leg and sink into it. They need to be able to soften on landing; otherwise they are just beating the daylights out of the arena floor and they can’t yield to the terrain. This is when they are not comfortable: They’re hurting and disturbed.”
This critical engagement of the hindquarters should be introduced at the outset of the horse’s training, then developed as the horse becomes stronger and more educated. De Kunffy recalls his grandfather’s advice that forward motion for a horse under saddle should come from the hocks’ rotating closer to the bridle. “The horse slows down and folds under, and every time he surrenders his joints, you taught him to do that. That is the action of a riding horse, versus the carriage horse that runs like hell.”
Technology and Horsemanship
De Kunffy likes the fact that modern technology has helped to validate what his grandfather and his contemporaries knew about horse training and equine biomechanics.
“In the good old days, people knew the value of starting a piaffe from a halt,” he notes. “Now you can put this info into a sophisticated machine and the machine will say, ‘Uncle Johnny was right.’” Infrared systems that track movements and impact forces “prove that the old peasant who was your stable man in 1812 was totally right in the way he insisted on training the horse.” He appreciates the work that renowned equine-biomechanics researcher Dr. Hilary Clayton has done in this realm, noting that “She is also a very good rider!”
At the same time, de Kunffy has found advances in communication technology to be a mixed blessing for horsemanship. “It’s a two-bladed knife,” he says. “If somebody has their horse behind the vertical and the horse chewing on their own chest and you spread that to 57,000 riders, you do great harm. If you are spreading correct techniques, then it can be very good.”
De Kunffy’s own horsemanship education was rooted in experience, reading widely, and working closely with mentors. Those pillars remain the gold standard. Although 30-year mentorships of the kind de Kunffy and Tate enjoy are rarities, books, videos, and clinics make de Kunffy’s teachings available to those who seek them out. Of his six published books, Tate recommends Dressage Principles Illuminated as the best place to start for those new to classical horsemanship.
“It’s my dressage bible,” she says. “They’ve just done a new edition, and I am really proud to have myself pictured in it. It’s an excellent book that really brings the feel of working with Charles to life.”
The Athletic Development of the Horse is one of Tate’s favorites. All of de Kunffy’s work is a focus of the online Team Tate Academy that Tate launched in 2020. Geared for “the new generation of classical riders,” the Academy presents among its educational offerings live streams of de Kunffy’s twice-yearly clinics at Tate’s South Carolina facility.
“I’m excited that so many people can see him in action,” Tate says. “To see him is to believe him. He’s like fluffy, fluffy, fluff; then you watch it work with a horse that’s come into the ring looking possibly a little off, its tongue hanging out, et cetera…then, within fifteen minutes, the horse is moving over its back, the rider is able to sit the trot, and the horse looks totally different. Until you watch him do his magic, you can’t believe it. That’s one of the main reasons I created the Academy: because I know the process he teaches works.”
Scenarios like the one Tate describes confirm one of de Kunffy’s frequent jokes with his longtime student: “He’ll say, ‘Am I right? Or am I always right?’” she says with a laugh. “He likes to say that he’s a fortune teller because what he teaches always works, with any horse and any type of rider.”
An in-person classical-horsemanship academy in the United States was actually a goal of de Kunffy’s for many years. “Correct training should be institutionalized,” he says. “It should be our common daily diet.” After his 2013 USDF Hall of Fame induction, he says, many expressed enthusiasm for the concept of an academy, but few felt that such a venture was financially feasible.
Since he suffered a heart attack 12 years ago, de Kunffy has obeyed strict doctor’s orders to stay out of the saddle and to limit his travel to 50 days a year. He enjoys giving clinics during those 50 days and encourages riders to get in touch early if they’re interested in having him visit their area.
In his memoir A Rider’s Survival from Tyranny, de Kunffy credits horses with saving his life. During the Soviet occupation of Hungary, he recounts, his riding abilities were valued because the Soviets wanted to show them off to the world. His compassionate training methods, he and supporters say, are all for the good of the horse. In that way, he’s been returning the favor of his life to horses throughout his time in America, which he has called home since 1957. That life has also included attending the University of California, Berkeley and, prior to embarking on his US equestrian career, 13 years spent teaching philosophy and psychology in the San Francisco Bay Area—two topics he would like to talk more about as he moves into the twilight of his life.
“I want to talk about other things—ethics and culture. I want to talk about the private self and the public self, art, and aesthetics,” he says.
Because horses have a permanent place in de Kunffy’s “overall culture,” there will always be talk of horses and the time-honored methods for bringing out the best in their natures and those of their riders.
Kim F. Miller is a California-based content creator and ambassador liaison for Haygain who freelances as her time allows.