Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Book Review: Tug of War

I first heard of Dr. Gerd Heuschmanns book Tug of War: Classical versus "Modern" Dressage / Why Classical Training Works and How Incorrect "Modern" Riding Negatively Affects Horses' Health at a clinic that I was attending years ago. Now I finally got to read it during the easter holidays. It felt a bit far off at the poolside in Dubai but none the less important having people like Heuschmann share their knowledge and insights on horses and riding.

Tug of War is an interesting book and an easy read. It is clearly set into seven chapters ranging from Who's Responsible for Today's Training Problems to Basic Equine Anatomy. Heuschmann considers today's modern riding and competition scene problematic for the horse since rather than taking the time we are in a hurry to build up superficially great looking equines that are often broken or to be broken on the inside. 

As Isabella Sonntag writes in the book's afterwords: "One more thing - the golden rule: TIME is what the horse needs the most and your patience is the most precious gift you can give."

Heuschmann writes how important it is to let the horse move freely without the rider every once in a while and that a prerequisite for forwardness and preserving the horse's joy of going is by taking it on frequent trail rides. "Allowing the horse to jump small obstacles and climb hills strengthens, and furthers its flexibility and suppleness." Heuschmann does not understand how any rider can tolerate draw reins in a horse's training, and even accept it at shows. According to the author draw reins multiply the force effect the bit has on the bars, and fundamentally act to pull the head and neck in a backward direction. "Many problems, such as poor rideability, resistance, hind leg lameness and much more are often the result of tension-laden "backward riding" and the use of draw reins."

Whilst talking about finding the right contact where the horse lets its movements flow through its supple body, thereby "seeking" the connection to the bit by itself he also mentions nosebands and states that "It is crucial to note that this connection is not formed by tying the horse's mouth shut with a tight noseband. Correct contact can only be achieved with an active mouth; the mandibular joint must be able to move. Nosebands of any type must not be adjusted too tightly, without exception. The jaw must remain mobile and breathing unimpeded; otherwise tension will build that transfers to the entire body." 

I found the chapter about Basic Equine Anatomy specifically interesting and would even have longed for some more pictures in order to understand exactly which points Heuschmann was making (even if I think that it takes years to really start to understand the basic anatomy of the horse). Here are some things that especially drew my attention: 
  • If a horse is ridden correctly, the muscle system of the upper neck develops into a beautiful, long, convex-curved line. 
  • If a horse's muscles on the underside of its neck are strongly developed, its training has been incorrect.
The center of locomotion-that is, the horse's back-and its state of relaxation are the keys to success when training a horse-regardless of the equestrian disciplin.

The loose, relaxed back is the prerequisite for: 
  • A natural motion sequence in all three basic gaits
  • Releasing the long back muscle (longissimus muscle)
  • Allowing the rider to sit comfortably
One function of the horses back fascia (broad, white tendinous sheet) is to provide mechanical protection, but its main purpose is to bind together the longissimus and croup muscles, as well as the hamstring muscles. Through the fascial interconnections, individual muscle systems are bound together to form a functional unit. Consequently states of tension are never restricted to a single muscle group. Usually, the most affected muscle is the longissimus muscle and it is clear that relaxation of the longissimus muscle must be a rider's main focus. Tension in this muscle, rather than relaxation, directly affects the horse's rideability and basic gaits. 

In the chapter about Correct Physiological Training Heuschmann writes about the six elements comprising the Training Scale as formulated by the FN fifty years ago: Rhythm, Looseness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness and Collection. He talks about the benefits of leg-yield and lateral work and how it improves suppleness and collection and relaxes back and neck muscles. Only through looseness can: 

1. The gaits remain "pure"
2. The horse achieve the optimal muscle tone
3. Real collection be achieved
4. Complete "throughness" be attained 
5. The horse develop its maximum capacity to perform without getting tired

The author also explains the differences in the horses gaits and how a "showy" leg-throwing trot causes a lot of wear on the horse's body, and is often the cause of leg injuries in the sport horse, especially in young horses doing dressage. Many riders favor hand-dominated riding and horses are ridden from front to back rather than from the back to front. And in e.g. what might look like a good trot extension the diagonal sequence of the footfalls is disrupted and one of the horse's hind legs lack reach. If the rider would allow the horse to stretch its neck forward about the width of a hand, that could reestablish a good diagonal sequence of footfall, and the pair of raised legs would become parallel again.

If the rider fails to take the time to consistently strenghten the extensor system of the haunches, it will be impossible to execute movements such as piaffe or passage correctly, even when riding a mature horse.   

One fact that I think is essential and that Heuschmann as a veterinary practitioner puts forth in the book is that he has expanded his examination methods to include causal research. He states that "the horse should be examined under its usual rider, another rider or the veterinarian himself and that it is important that veterinarians have an interest in horses make an effort to acquire a solid basic education as a rider." It is not enough that the veterinarians only look for the injury but also for the cause of it: "In my view, veterinarians commit a big sin of omission: although we veterinarians extensively examine horses presented to us, and look for the cause of the pain that's causing the lameness, what we often don't do is ask how the patient is used and how he is ridden."

"Hyperflexion": a horse with an overstretched back. Due to the extremely deep position of the head and neck it is exhibiting a broken neckline, a strongly (incorrectly) lifted back, and a straight croup (overextended sacro-lumbar joint with the hind leg out behind.)

When stretched forward and downward, the upper neck line-via the nuchal ligament-raises the back into the desired position, which allows the longissimus back muscle to work in relaxation and remain free and actively engaged.  

I think that I might not have been ready to take in as much as I did now from this book when I first heard of it years ago. My own newfound interest in the equine anatomy made this book an especially interesting read at this time of my life and I am sure that when I look at it again there will be new things that opens up to me. It would have been nice to have a more indepth explanation on Heuschmanns training methods but as he writes: "It's not the purpose of this book to provide a complete training manual." This is definitely a book that I will return to over and over again. 

Dr Gerd Heuschmann trained as a Bereiter (master rider) in Germany before qualifying for veterinary study at Munich University. There he specialised in equine orthopaedics for two years before heading the breeding department at the German FN, which he eventually left to start his own practice in Warendorf. Along with Klaus Balkenhol and other prominent figures in the dressage community, Dr Heuschmann is a founding member of 'Xenophon', an organisation dedicated to "fighting hard against serious mistakes in equestrian sport".

For more information about the author see here.

"I've got time! I'd like to shout this out to every rider who suddenly runs into problems and can't come to an agreement with his or her horse. The phrase I've got time, ´ however, should also be remembered by every dressage rider, reminding him of the basic principle that we can achieve the highest goals in the art of riding only when we increase our demands on the horse in a systematic manner`." 
Colonel Alois Podhajsky (1898-1973), former head of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna

Katso myös Kouluratsastuksen Kannatusyhdistyksen ja Suomen Ratsastajainliiton yhteenveto Heuschmannin luennosta Helsingissä vuodelta 2004.

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