The Spanish Riding School and Art in Equestrian Sport

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna is on the “I simply have to go there one day” section of my travel wishlist. The main attraction for me is of course the rich history of horsemanship, despite the fact that the beautiful buildings with amazing features such as chandeliers in the riding arena, are just about enough to warrant a visit on their own.

Maestoso Basowizza & Oberbereiter Hausberger

Previously, I had read many interesting things about the Spanish Riding School, but I have just had a fantastic refresher course on the classical principles that are the heart and soul of their work. It has been a great opportunity to reflect on how much this faraway place has influenced my mental approach to riding and training. In one of those serendipitous moments that I love the internet for, this refresher course came in the form of a randomly stumbled upon youtube video, which you can see here, and part 2 here.

The truly heartening thing to see from this video on the Spanish Riding School is that good horse sense and horsemanship run through everything they do. Although the riders may dress in uniforms from a bygone era, it is difficult to spot anything about their practices that is so old fashioned that it should be left to the history books. Much has been made of the gap between classical dressage and competition dressage of today, but from this video I see much that can be learnt from the past and applied to the competition arena.  Continue reading

The problem with really good riders…

Watching other riders is a great way to learn. In fact it’s pretty much how I got started. When I was first bitten by the bug, I spent a lot more time hanging around watching my friends ride at riding schools and pony clubs than I did riding. I went to any horse show I could, and was happy to just sit and watch for hours. Even my horsey friends thought I was a bit mad… but I definitely benefited from learning some things from the ground. From the very beginning I had my heels down automatically, knew how to sit and hold the reins, and could recognise key basics such as trot diagonals and canter leads. I was told I was “a natural”, but I think my physical ability was strongly related to a strong mental preparation.

These days when I watch other riders I notice a lot more than I did back then. I notice a lot more of the fine technical details, I notice more of the many different types of unsoundness and most of all I think I notice the relationship between the rider and horse.

The thing is though, that the vast majority of my learning has been from picking up mistakes made by others. You can learn many variations on how not to sit by seeing other riders falling off or just looking unbalanced. You can learn how not to use your hands by seeing (too many) horses with unhappy mouths. You can learn how not to behave around a horse by seeing the sorts of people horses aren’t keen on.

Mark Todd was one of my childhood heroes, for his lower leg that never moves... Here he is riding Regent Lad in 2010. Photo: Henry Bucklow/Lazy Photography

And this brings me to the problem with really good riders… They’re the role models we all look up to. They effortlessly achieve things with their horses that we wish we could do. Or at least it looks effortless. And that’s the thing – if they’re really good, you may not even notice why they’re so good. Everything is smooth and harmonious. The rider’s position is near faultless, hardly seeming to do a thing. The horse is at ease, with all the submission (although I prefer to call it acceptance) that you could wish for.

You just sit, and stare, and think “How do they do it?” or “I wish I could ride like that” or ” I wish my horse went like that “.

Or maybe… “I wish I had long legs”, “I wish I could afford lessons with better coaches” or “I wish I could afford to buy a better horse”.

The thing is though, that in some cases you may not even notice the really good riders at all. They’re so good that they know better than to try and push the horse beyond what it can mentally and physically cope with. So they accept what the horse gives them, even if it means being overshadowed by flashier combinations. The somewhat unfair result being that many people won’t even notice what a great thing that is, and how that calm, “boring” rider really knows their horse. Continue reading