To Read or Not Read Old Dressage Books

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By Jec A. Ballou

The Scholarship of Horse Training

…or “Is There Value in Reading Old Books?”

My conversation last month with renowned trainer and veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann did not lead where I thought it would, having started with muscles but ending with books. He said he believed many of the disappointments in modern training are due to students no longer being committed to the scholarship of dressage. In addition to physical practice, he wishes for them to read and study and think deeply. But most riders don’t see the point, he lamented.

Or do they?

I personally have always devoured training books and articles. Maybe because of that I mistakenly assumed everyone did this. In any case, our conversation left me pondering just how important it is — or isn’t — to read the old classical dressage books.

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Without doubt, studying these old texts is vital even for the most skilled among us. For one, it illuminates commonality between trainers of different disciplines. I remember riding in a clinic with reining horse pro Jack Brainard and listening to him quote one of my favorite passages of Alois Podhajsky’s classical dressage manual The Complete Training of Horse and Rider. Another time I was listening to Olympian Peter Leone discuss strategies for training jumping horses when he cited timeless advice from General Decarpentry’s book Academic Equitation.

Plugging in to the histories of our respective sports through reading the fundamentals they are built upon reminds us that good training, no matter what specialized discipline you prefer, all progresses from the same foundation. If we lose sight of this, we risk becoming narrow vision and incomplete in our approach.

Secondly, reading promotes conscious engagement with subject matter that many of us professionals handle on autopilot. We deploy our skill sets without conscious effort, almost with our eyes shut. Mastery of any skills, however, relies on periodic practice where they are broken back down into their conscious parts. Several compelling studies of neuroscience have shown that in order to avoid an erosion of mastery level competence, an individual must examine her technique and execution from time to time. By revisiting the state of mind of learning something rather than having mastered it, our skills stay strong and flourish.

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Lastly, I agree with Hueschmann that because horsemanship has such a long rich history we owe it to our horses to learn at least a little of it. Otherwise, we can be tempted to believe that the entirety of what we need to know rests in the hands of the latest celebrity trainer or online video. Granted, reading books is no replacement for hands-on practice. I would not suggest that any student can become proficient by books alone, nor should armchair dressage riders consider themselves educated without consistent time in the saddle.

But if too few riders revisit the classical texts on a regular basis, we will lose our compass. These deep roots that we must study over and over keep our modern training on course. They are our story for both past and present. And while nearly any reading can benefit horsemen, these early books in particular remain vital because they were written solely for education, not for marketing or profiteering. It is through them that we continue to educate ourselves wholly, lest we rely only on the ideologies du jour. We owe this to our horses and to equestrian sports in general.

These are my thoughts, but I’m curious what yours might be. Do you have books you fall back on?

Main blog photo: Shutterstock/Pirita

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