Friday, Dec. 1, 2023

10 Pieces Of Advice From Our Coach

Sometime in the '80s, I saw Klaus Balkenhol for the first time, competing at the indoor show at Bremen, Germany. It was an important event, because it counted for team selection for whatever championships was on the agenda that year, and the stands were packed.


Sometime in the ’80s, I saw Klaus Balkenhol for the first time, competing at the indoor show at Bremen, Germany. It was an important event, because it counted for team selection for whatever championships was on the agenda that year, and the stands were packed.

Klaus was mounted on a chestnut, I believe a stallion, named Aponti, and it wasn’t just the police uniform that set Klaus apart from the rest of the field. While the official team hopefuls were not having their best day, Klaus was clocking through the test with a casual ease, as if it was all just another day’s work.

And when his comparatively low score was announced, the audience growled threateningly and a banana peel landed on one of the judge’s boxes. I’d never seen an audience react to judging with such gusto before.

Being quite amazed and amused by the whole thing, I found the awards ceremony to be another treat. For the first nine riders, there was polite applause. But when Klaus was announced as placing 10th, the place went ballistic. People stamped and clapped and shouted and stood up on their chairs and refused to stop, in spite of the pleading from the announcer. It was crystal clear that the “riding policeman” was the choice of the people.

As the years went by, he also became the choice of the dressage judges as he kept coming back with one horse after the other, proving he was no flash in the pan, but an outstanding trainer and show rider. The rest is history, and now we’re lucky to have this talented and dedicated man as our U.S. team coach.

When Klaus trains a rider on a horse, he pays a lot of attention to the details that don’t necessarily have to do with the actual riding but certainly do surround the performance. He worries about the fit of the tack, the way the horse looks at him, the feed and supplements, all the things most trainers leave up to the rider and the grooms. In short, he is a horseman, not just a rider.

At the end of September, Klaus and Gert Heuschmann, a veterinarian who has also competed at Grand Prix, gave a young horse seminar at Stromsholm in my native Sweden. And I thought the 10 kernels of wisdom they gave the participants were worth sharing with you:

First, because of the delicate relationship between the neck and the back, they said that young horses should not be dictated into any kind of frame during the first year of training. Contact with the hand is of great importance, but any forcing of the neck into position or pulling the head into a frame is detrimental to the horse’s future and likely to ruin the development of the back.


The two gentlemen made no secret of their opposition to the rolling up of the neck and riding behind the vertical favored by some very successful show riders.

Second, never walk right up to a young horse and look him straight in the eye. He may consider this a threat. Instead, approach from the side of the horse and let him initiate the contact. (Sounds like some of our “natural horsemanship” sermons, which are, at their best, just good old horsemanship.)

Third, avoid using a foregirth. According to Dr. Heuschmann, the foregirth feels like cement around the horse’s ribs and puts an uncomfortable pressure on them. This I found interesting, since I know of prominent trainers who swear by them and use them on every young horse, whether they need it or not!

I haven’t had a lot of luck with foregirths, but sometimes saddle fitting is a night-mare and there’s no other way to avoid ending up on the horse’s neck’a good reason to breed horses with well-defined withers.

Fourth, when you buy a new saddle, put a thin piece of cloth under the saddle when you first ride in it, and the saddle will form to the horse through his warmth and sweat.

Fifth, if a horse is broken to ride as a 3-year-old and turned out for a year or two,
he may have a better chance to reach Grand Prix than horses that are worked
continuously. Then he can grow and develop in peace. A horse is not an “adult” until he is 7 or 8 years old.

I agree, but I find this statement contra-dictory to the development of the Federation Equestre Internationale’s test for young horses. I was present at a Warendorf (Germany) judges’ forum in 1998 when we judges were first introduced to what was to become the FEI Young Horse Championships 6-year-old test. Many of us considered the test too demanding for the age, while the trainers, Klaus being one of them, insisted that “any 6-year-old worth his salt should be able to do that test.”

Well, not if he hangs out in a pasture until he’s 5. . .


Sixth, don’t ride in a tempo too fast for the horse. They’ll lose their balance and become nervous, since they’re afraid of falling, and tension results.

So much for the “fast forward” we all run into at clinics at times, when our horses get run off their feet to demonstrate that they respond to our driving aids and are just dying to do our bidding, never mind how confused and scared they may get.

Seventh, extended trots are difficult to learn for most horses. At liberty, most horses will fall into canter, rather than lengthening their strides at the trot. The ex-tended trot, ac-cording to Klaus, is a product of the highest collection, and, therefore, it must be ridden “in collection.” It’s not the collected work that puts wear and tear on the horse, but the extensions at trot and canter if the horse falls on the forehand and supports his weight on his front legs.

Eighth, nervous youngsters need a varied program, and all young horses need lots of walking on a completely loose rein. But they must continue to march willingly.

Ninth, if the horse shies away from something, don’t force him to confront it and look at whatever upsets him. Eliminate the problem, if it is removable. Reward the horse as soon as he does something positive, and always cease work before the horse is exhausted. Leave some gas in the tank for the future, and allow the horse to end on a fresh note.

Tenth, young horses don’t need to compete more than two to three times a year, and the more time you allow for the kid to grow and develop, the longer he’ll last.

The tendency to push 6- or 7-year-olds to Grand Prix leads to the loss of many a fabulous talent, which before they turn 10 are gone from the sport. A normal age for a horse to “know” all the Grand Prix movements and be starting competition at that level is about 10. He can then polish his act for a year or two and still be in the limelight and on top of his game at 17 or even older.




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