Bert, Jack and Herbert—Part 3: Classical Principles And A Classic Partnership

May 3, 2010 - 11:23 AM
Jack Le Goff represented France at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games aboard Image before he moved to the United States to coach the U.S. eventing team.

A story of a special connection between three of the greatest coaches of all time that can help us all today.

It would be difficult to find anyone to disagree with the conclusion, reached in Part 2 of this series, that the common basis for the training success of Bertalan de Néméthy, Jack Le Goff and Herbert Rehbein was Acceptance.

“A happy cooperation should exist between rider and horse,” said de Néméthy, “without the horse having to sacrifice its alertness, personality or interest.”

The latter part of this quote is of the greatest importance. As a result, it was always rare to see any horses trained by these three masters either being upset or going in a mechanical way.

When Classical Is Magical

With high level event horses the acceptance can often be lost as a fit horse feels an irresistible urge to gallop and release his or her energy rather than do collected paces in a dressage arena.

Kilkenny, the truly legendary Irish horse ridden by Tommy Brennan in the Tokyo Olympic Games (when he was only 7!) and then by Jimmy Wofford at the two subsequent Olympic Games in Mexico and Munich, always found acceptance a difficult task. In Tokyo the remedy was riding four hours non-stop before the dressage—not a great preparation for the cross-country or a long competitive life.

Le Goff found a more imaginative and long-lasting solution. As Wofford explained, “I wish I had some wonderful tall tale of Jack’s legerdemain (magic trick using the hands) with him, but the truth is the greatest trick of all—Jack insisted that we train and ride according to classical principles. And all of us became the better for it.”

Battling horses into submission was not an option.

Something Worth Aiming For

The partnership between Jimmy and Kilkenny gives me a wonderful opportunity to digress a little. I watched in awe as Kilkenny was retired at Ledyard in 1973. He was 16, but he hated retirement and returned to work in the hunting field for another six happy years. He was inducted into the U.S. Eventing Association Hall of Fame in 2006, together with his fellow Irishman and my great love, the previously mentioned “wild child” Biko.

Several things are worthy of note regarding Kilkenny’s exceptional career with Jimmy: He completed every CCI he ever started; in addition, at three CCIO****s from 1967 to 1970, he turned in the fastest cross-country round of the day (in the Mexico Olympics by 30 seconds ahead of the next horse); and he is one of only three horses to ever compete in three Olympic Games. From 1964 until 1972, he completed the equivalent of four CCI***s, and NINE CCI****s. He won a total of two gold team medals, two silver team medals, one bronze individual medal and one national championship. He was a hero of mine, but I’ll let Jimmy take up the story about Kilkenny, whose stable name was “Henry.”

“Henry was an impressive horse, with a trot that had all four feet off the ground, and a gallop that took a young man to enjoy. He was disdainful of dressage but tolerated it because of his strong desire to please. He took a fierce hold cross-country, but I rode him throughout his career in a snaffle, because I then held the belief that my horse’s affection is the strongest bridle of all and believe that to this moment.

“When you needed to see ‘the Look of Eagles,’ you had only to look at him, and you would recognize it for all time. Most of the public notice I have received was due to him, and the only thing that can be said for me is that I had enough courage, as a young man, to let him be himself. Henry was the bravest horse I ever knew. He was afraid of only two things: bagpipes and not trying hard enough. He is buried here at Fox Covert Farm in the east paddock, where the earliest sun first touches the farm.”

No one can read this without feeling the deep respect that Jimmy had for Kilkenny, a respect that led to true acceptance and partnership and created a win-win situation for a special man and a special horse. It is without doubt an aim worth working for.

Classical Common Ground

So back to the story and classical principles: Both de Néméthy and Le Goff used the same three simple keywords to describe, in addition to acceptance, their three priorities…. Calmness, Forwardness and Straightness.

In his book The De Némethy Method, Bert cites the German master, Steinbrecht and the French maitre, L’Hotte, as the source of his basic principles:
“Gustav Steinbrecht, who is still regarded by many as the greatest German master of equestrian art, offered a simple summation of the basic principles of riding: ‘Ride your horse forward, and keep it straight.’ The famous French general L’Hotte agreed, but found it necessary to rank calmness even ahead of the other concepts; therefore his own motto was ‘calm, forward and straight.’ ”

Then de Néméthy goes on to say “…it makes no difference whether the horse will eventually be used for competitive dressage, jumping or eventing, or simply pleasure riding; its basic foundation of training should be the same.” So very important, and something also emphasized time and again by Le Goff.

What I find sad is that these vital and simple priorities, these three powerful words, are increasingly marginalized as the German Scales of Training have taken hold in training circles and in many ways have led to confusion.

The Notes On A Piano

But you might ask how do I square this with Herbert Rehbein who surely used the Scales of Training? Well Herbert didn’t say much to me, but his few words were all gems. In particular, he said that most people misunderstand the “Scales of Training,” even in Germany! In particular he believed they misunderstood both the structure and the meaning of schwung.

Regarding the structure, his point was that the scales are like the notes on a piano, and all six of the scales have to eventually work together for top results, and that none of the scales should be worked at individually.

I therefore take issue with all the many others who present the scales as a pyramid. It is not presented as such in the manual of the German National Equestrian Federation and with good reason. If it was to be presented as a pyramid, “collection” would be at the top.

Thankfully we have moved on from the early aims of dressage, which did have collection as the ultimate aim, and resulted in limited and often cruel consequences for horses. No, our ultimate aim is to have a happy athlete doing a whole range of exercises within a range of both collected and extended paces.

Losgelassenheit Confusion

Unfortunately, the dressage world is in thrall to the German scales despite significant problems in understanding and application. In particular, three of the scales, losgelassenheit, schwung and contact, are interpreted in many different ways.

The second in the scale, losgelassenheit, is usually translated as suppleness, with an emphasis on the physical. But literally it means loose, calm and cheerful, with an emphasis on the mental, which makes much more sense. Surely real suppleness is something we gradually develop over a long period of time using the beautiful progression of exercises. I have pages of contradictory quotes from top trainers about the meaning of losgelassenheit, which all confirm there is confusion.

Schwung Is Not Impulsion

The definition of contact, the third item in the scale is less contentious, but its meaning has definitely shifted as more emphasis is now put on all the contacts rather than just the rein contact.

However, the definition of the fourth in the scale, schwung, as signposted to me by Rehbein, is really interesting and worthy of special thought.

The majority in the English-speaking world describe schwung as “impulsion,” but Herbert Rehbein disagreed. He said it was “spring.” This is confirmed by the fact that it clearly states in the German manual that you cannot have schwung in walk, because there is no period of suspension. Yet we can obviously have impulsion in the walk.

This gets to the heart of the problem about describing the scales as a pyramid. The development of controlled propulsive force, or controlled impulsion, is in practice the main aim of the scales, and it takes all the elements of the scale to do this. This is certainly different from most people’s understanding of the scales, but it makes obvious logical sense.

Not Perfect By Any Means

What we must acknowledge is that the scales are not always perfect in concept or use. As Jean Bemelmans said at the Global Dressage Forum in 2007:

“In Germany we have the classical training scale….if you have a perfect horse with a perfect character with no problems, then you can stay on the classical scale of riding, and step by step you come to the Grand Prix. But you can have problems, you can have a nervous horse, there are many problems, then you have to find out the right way to come to the end with that horse.”

Conrad Schumacher went even further than this in September 2008: “As a trainer of trainers I want to help other trainers find the best way to help his or her students, and sometimes that means being less standard in their approach and more creative in their application of the Scales of Training and traditional training techniques to get the best result.”

Now that’s an open door!

Let’s Keep Thinking And Talking

I am only too aware that this subject stirs the passions, however it’s important not to get too emotional about this subject. None benefit from a breakdown of constructive discussion and research into these matters.

A very bright local Pony Club rider, having heard me talking about the scales of training, put it into wonderful perspective when looking at the flaking skin of a dressage coach that had seen too much sun and too little moisturiser. “Look,” she said, “the scales of training!”

Next time in Part 4 of this series I will suggest some really simple and effective answers to our need for a structure of training priorities—for both dressage and jumping.

In the meantime, best wishes for happy days with a happy athlete.

Read Bert, Jack and Herbert—Part 1: Simplicity Equals Success And Safety

Read Bert, Jack and Herbert—Part 2: Why Acceptance, Not Submission, Is The Key

William is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The DK Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world’s top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillip’s High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI. www.WilliamMicklem.com 

 

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