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If Horses Could Speak

(Stimmer Der Pferde) How incorrect "modern" riding negatively affects horses' health, by Dr Gerd Heuschmann. DVD. RRP $59.95.

June 1, 2009

Momentum is finally building in the equestrian world about horse welfare issues, and riding and training methods are becoming more closely scrutinised.

Sadly, as noted on this DVD - based on Dr Gerd Heuschmann best-selling book "Tug of War" - the concern about the well-being of the horse is not yet following through the tiers of mainstream dressage. The "top riders" are winning, with seemingly little regard to the basic principles of equine anatomy and biomechanics - and the lower levels are following.

Clearly, those opposed to incorrect training methods and advocating the well-being of the horse have their work cut out for them.

If horses could indeed speak, they would doubtless have a lot to say about the way they are ridden and treated.

As well as German veterinarian Dr Gerd Heuschmann, several other respected equestrians also feature on this film, which firstly explores the structure of the horse using 3D animation, video footage and equine models as examples.

Dr Heuschmann says his own experiences as a rider - and realising the harm he was doing to his horse - led him to look closer at the classical training of horses.

He points to "mechanised and reckless" training methods, and says "it is high time to stop giving in to commercial interests and return to proper rules and principles.

"Today's equestrian sport is actually in opposition to classical dressage principles. "Where are the responsible veterinarians, judges, and functionaries?" he asks.

A look at the examples on the video confirms what he says. A horse is simply not built to do some of the things a rider forces it do to - for example, hyperflexion, or rollkur, which is a hot topic in dressage circles. The results of this method and other actions can often be easily seen in the horse's way of going.

Based on what he sees in competition and training arenas, Johann Riegler, chief rider of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna says: "I often have the feeling that many grand prix riders do not bother with equine anatomy, nor with equine psychology, so they have no idea what they can demand of the horse."

Walk, trot and canter are explored closely. The walk reveals a multitude of sins, the video shows, and Dr Heuschmann says judges must pay much more attention to this gait during tests in order to filter out the badly trained horses. But nowadays, a poor walk in a top-level horse is often seen as inconsequential. And judges are showing less interest in the beat of the walk and more in its ground covering qualities, he says.

"The walk is the most prone to disturbance. It reveals the quality of the horse's basic training. If this is disturbed or ruined, then the whole dressage is basically worthless," says Dr Heuschmann.

And the trot. Dressage spectators love what's known as the "show trot" and so do the judges. The term 'leg mover' is discussed here, as opposed to a 'back mover', which is more flowing and supple. The horse may not appear so flamboyant, but it is actually going in the correct manner. Take notice of the horse's back and hind end next time you see a flashy, high-stepping trot in the dressage arena.

Another aspect is the speedy training of the horse, again because of commercial interests. Dr Heuschmann says it takes a young horse under saddle two years to develop, but for commercial reasons they are often in shows by the time they are three.

"This is child labour in horses," says the Spanish Riding School's Johann Riegler. "Too much is demanded, then their legs are wrecked by the time they are nine or ten years old ... the age where the horses in Vienna have only just begun with the real work."

In closing, harmony should be come before performance. A change in attitude is needed, and riders and trainers must always keep in mind what is best for the horse. Horses don't care about winning competitions or ribbons.

If Horses Could Speak should be compulsory viewing for dressage judges of all levels, and riders and trainers of young horses and riders - and those not too young. It is never too late to make life better for the horse.



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