“You can’t learn horse riding out of book”. I often ask people I meet what they recommend to read and this is the answer I have heard from a number of professional horse people. And I agree with them. Horses are the best teachers and the only way to become an expert is to get down and dirty with a horse or two.
However, I am a great believer that we see furthest from the shoulders of giants (to misquote Isaac Newton) and we should benefit from the experts who came before us. Reading books is one of the best ways to do this and the pandemic is giving some of us the gift of time to do this. I would like to share with you some of my favourite books. This is by no means an exhaustive list, more a starting point to whet your interest.
Let’s start at the beginning. Xenophon was a leading thinker in classical ancient Greece. He lived from 430-354 BC. His book, A treatise on Horsemanship, is surprisingly modern. He advises that the horse is a partner, that the training should please the horses, that nothing that is forced can be beautiful. This is a short, easy to read book that reminds us that horses and people are the same as they were 2000 years ago.
It was not until the Renaissance that more authoritative books appeared on the classic art of riding. One of my all-time favourites is Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere’s School of Horsemanship, published in French in 1733 and reprinted in English by J.A. Allen in 1994. I got my copy on Amazon, but it is now available as an audiobook! This is a wonderful book in three sections, starting with the basics of anatomy and stable management. Part 2 is on training horses and Part 3 is state-of-the-art veterinary care circa 1733 and is a real eye-opener. De la Gueriniere wrote a comprehensive guide to the training of horses for different purposes based on principles including using the lightest possible aids and careful use of “chastisements”, systematic training with the use of exercises to develop suppleness. He wrote about the half-halt and he invented the shoulder-in.
The French riding master offers some great exercises, for example using a small square to develop collection in the canter. De la Gueriniere’s advice: “If the horse resists in the volte… put it back to the shoulder-in. By doing so its choler and surfeit of spirit are dissipated. Such instances only occur when the rider ignores nature and pushes the horse too quickly to execute the figures. Rather the horse should be brought to competence through ease (and) suppleness, not through force, for to the degree that the horse is supple and understands the intentions of the rider, it obeys readily, unless it be of its nature entirely rebellious, in which case one ought not expect success in the school.”
Alois Podhajsky was the director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna from 1939 to 1965. He oversaw the famous evacuation of the Lipizzaners in World War 2 and was an Olympic medallist. The Complete Training of Horse and Rider (Harrop 1967) has been my go-to reference book about training since I got my copy in 1975. If I have a problem, I will go check what he said about the exercise I am working on. Interestingly, he says of de La Gueriniere: “There is no need to discuss Gueriniere’s teachings in this book… because they are applied unaltered at the Spanish Riding School and can be seen every day”. Podhajsky describes how “the action of the rein goes through the body of the horse when it passes through his neck and back, thus bending and putting weight on the hind leg”. In other words, the horse must not shorten the neck when you use the rein, but allow the effect of the rein to go to the hind leg. This is one of my favourite ideas from this book that I try to keep in mind every day.
Podhajsky wrote a number of books where you get a sense of the depth of his love of the horse, including My Dancing White Horses. I love his book My Horses, My Teachers (1967). The basic premise of this book is that in the hardest training challenges lies the greatest learning. The trainer is the learner. This idea is aligned with the Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind that I have written about. It is worth keeping this in mind when you strike a difficulty.