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Balancing Act: The Horse in Sport – An Irreconcilable Conflict?


Review by Leigh Ballard

Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, a veterinarian and an extreme critic of “Rollkur” [an extreme dressage training method of forcing the horse into a very short, deep neck frame, aka hyperflexion] and other forceful training methods, devotes himself to advocating for better practices in riding and training. His book notes the common disregard of “key principles of riding theory like maintaining the physical and psychological health of the horse.” He questions the ethics behind why a horse is “no longer able to perform without constant medical and physiotherapeutic care.” 

Heuschmann’s discussions are mainly about dressage horses, but his ethics and methods could be applied to any horse and any discipline, whether it be English, Western, Gaited, etc. There are plenty of abuses in many disciplines’ show rings, which are supported by judges and by the public. He is openly critical of rewarding horses with improper training, and his clear opinion is that competent judges can change this trend.

Heuschmann’s philosophy harks back to Classical Training, German principles of horsemanship set forth over 100 years ago, which demand a high level of concern and responsibility for the horse. In his view, today’s training and marketing of show horses is an area of real problems. He discusses the way horses are started and presented at very early ages, and says, “Anyone concerned about the health and long life of the horse should be thinking long-term.” His view is that commercial goals are not usually farsighted.

As a veterinarian, Heuschmann is considered an expert in biomechanics. The book discusses daily training appropriate for any horse for developing musculature. Training is more than riding: it is also ethics and responsibility, and Heuschmann examines the consequences of disregard for the horse’s limitations, fitness, and the like. He shows with diagrams how, with poor training and poor riding, a horse can wear out its body.  He discusses common injuries which are directly related to the quality of training.

In addition to chapters on rider topics, such as seat and rider tact, there are several chapters devoted to horse topics like suppleness, impulsion, straightness, and collection. Heuschmann maintains that almost all horses’ behavior and riding problems come from the way they are trained or ridden, which throws them off balance, especially in their back, and creates tensions, both physical and mental, which are detrimental to any good result!

Five chapters are devoted to retraining the improperly started horse. These chapters discuss methods to encourage psychological relaxation for a horse with problems, as well as how to restore balance and mobility in the horse’s movement.

Heuschmann’s book is valuable in the sense that it is an open critique of many common methods employed in modern horse sports. It inspires discussion and might cause some trainers and riders to re-examine their goals, methods, and responsibilities toward the horses in their care. For those training in dressage, there are useful, technical discussions of how to properly achieve desired results.

About the author: Dr. Heuschmann was trained as a Bereiter (master rider) in Germany before qualifying for veterinary study at Munich University. There he specialized in equine orthopedics for two years before accepting a post as the head of the breeding department at the German Equestrian Federation. Dr. Heuschmann was a founding member of “Xenophon,” The Society for the Preservation and Promotion of Classical Riding Culture.He is the author of Tug of War” and the DVD “If Horses Could Speak.”

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