Dr. Max Gahwyler believes that every beginning rider should have the opportunity to learn from the best instructors. And his desire to improve the quality of dressage instruction in the United States has earned him a place in the U.S. Dressage Federation’s Hall Of Fame.
“It’s important to get the right start from the beginning,” explained Gahwyler, who was inducted in December. “I give clinics to beginner riders and Pony Clubbers. I don’t mind having kids and lousy horses. I had the same benefit when I was young.”
This philosophy has driven Gahwyler to get involved with dressage instruction in the United States on every level. An accomplished author, he’s working on his fourth book in a series called The Competitive Edge. This series covers dressage at the lower and upper levels, as well as the kinetics of the horse and rider. Gahwyler’s next book will be a discussion of the differences between classical and competitive dressage.
At 81 years young, Gahwyler still travels all over the country from his home in Darien, Conn., giving clinics and lectures to share his knowledge. He’s judged at many international competitions, such as the Pan Am Games and the Canadian National Championships, and he still judges national competitions today.
He was instrumental in helping to develop certification for judges and also worked on increasing instructor education. “In the past we did not have enough instructors to teach people to ride,” Gahwyler explained.
“Dr. Gahwyler’s creative, popular lectures on the local, regional and national level have inspired thousands of dressage riders,” said USDF President Sam Barish at Gahwyler’s induction. “His clinics have provided a firm foundation in the basics to many riders.
“He cautions his students to treat horses kindly and fairly, always looks for the good in people and horses, and reminds his students that dressage should be fun,” added Barish.
Gahwyler and his wife, Doris, moved to this country from Switzerland in 1952. Gahwyler, a licensed physician, moved to work in medical research. In 1954 he started working for Pfizer Inc., a job that would lead to worldwide travel.
After moving to the United States, Gahwyler soon discovered that he was in need of a new sport. An avid downhill skier in Switzerland, he found the American version highly unsatisfactory. When a friend on the Swiss equestrian team suggested riding, he decided to give it a chance.
“We bought jackets, breeches and boots,” recalled Gahwyler. “We had $2,000 worth of equipment without ever being on a horse!”
Gahwyler and his wife began taking lessons at Sunnyfield Farm in Bedford, N.Y. Richard Watjen of Germany, who was one of the first coaches for the U.S. Equestrian Team, was their instructor.
“With us, he could really tell his knowledge,” explained Gahwyler, since they could all speak German together.
The experience of being trained by an Olympic-caliber coach stuck with Gahwyler and convinced him that if the young sport of dressage was going to expand in the United States, there needed to be more qualified instructors.
That theory was reinforced after Gahwyler met and became close friends with Hans Handler, the director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, in the 1960s. Gahwyler rode at the school and took their classical training to heart.
“Dressage is the base of everything–jumping, cross-country, polo,” he explained. “Most of my polo ponies competed in first level dressage.”
Gahwyler worked his way up to Grand Prix and got involved with the American Dressage Institute, the precursor to the USDF. He was president of the ADI briefly in the 1970s.
He and other ADI leaders like Migi Serrell were able to use the organization’s funds to bring in good instructors like Karl Mikolka and Handler to encourage correct dressage foundations.
“He is very determined. If he had something on his mind, he was going to accomplish it,” said Serrell.
Practice What You Preach
Gahwyler’s commitment to improve dressage education started at home. Carol Popp first met him 20 years ago, when he was judging her at a horse show. After her test, Gahwyler stepped out of the judging booth to give her some suggestions on how to improve her ride.
“He’ll come out of the judge’s box at any horse show and help anybody if he thinks he can give them a few pointers,” she said. “People walk out with a smile on their face and a different way to do something.”
Popp struck up a good friendship with Gahwyler as he continued to help her with her Lipizzaners.
“He has a way of communicating with people, and he simplifies things,” Popp said of his teaching method. “He breaks things down into
smaller parts and makes them doable.”
She continued, “Folks go into a clinic with him, and the horse is tense, and the rider’s tense, and everybody’s nervous. He makes them all laugh and gets them to relax. He works on the key problems, and they all come out saying, ‘My horse never went this well before.’ “
Patience is one of the traits that Gahwyler learned at the Spanish Riding School. “I had a different way of making the horses,” he said. “When I get a young horse, I first make him fully comfortable with humans. When I call him, he had to come like a dog. At 4 or 5 we start work in hand.”
Gahwyler taught his horses the movements of dressage–including piaffe and passage–in-hand and then worked on building their muscles so that his horses resembled body builders. “I never had a horse in his 20s that wasn’t still doing Grand Prix dressage,” he said proudly, explaining how this system kept his horses sound.
In fact, Gahwyler recently put down his 40-year-old Hanoverian Prinz Eugen. Dresden, his “young horse,” is 26. He bought him for $1 as a retired show jumper.
It’s Not About Winning
But even though Gahwyler trains his horses through Grand Prix and did compete at that level, having fun is more important to him than winning ribbons.
“It was not the beginning and the end of all things for him to compete,” explained Popp. “He did very well, but it just was not important to him.”
An example of this philosophy happened with “Prinz.” He came across the diagonal in a fourth level test at a competition, and the horse started to do tempi changes, which Gahwyler had begun teaching him, so nicely that he just kept going.
“He told me that the horse just had such a nice rhythm that he said, ‘To heck with the class.’ It didn’t bother him,” said Popp. “The horse wanted to give these things, he was proud to give them, so he let him do it. He has a relaxed and playful philosophy when working with horses. If the horse offers it, take it, it’s a gift.”
Gahwyler’s philosophy also involves using the most subtle aids possible. “If you just shift your weight a little bit, the horse feels it,” he explained.
Popp said that recently he tried to teach Dresden to change leads when he switched his pipe from one side of his mouth to the other.
“He told me, ‘If I put my pipe to the left, he does flying lead change left; if I put my pipe to the right, I want that he should do flying lead change right.’ It’s kind of a joke, but it’s his way to impress us to try to get lighter and lighter aids,” she said.
Although he’s always a joker, Gahwyler is quite serious about what he thinks is a change in the wrong direction for dressage today. “In the competitive dressage all we deal with is gaits,” he explained. “Classical dressage is the execution of the movement. Spanish school movements in competitive dressage are training movements for classical dressage.”
He continued, “Horses made for classical movements are compact, more powerful behind. The most superb horse in the Spanish riding school would be way down in the world rankings.”
Although there is some controversy surrounding the difference between classical and competitive dressage, Gahwyler is not concerned. He believes the traditional methods of training are the best for the horse.
“The most effective aid is the weight of the rider,” he said. “Weight aids make an absolutely elegant rider. Engagement is from the seat.”
“He taught me if you want the riding to be beautiful and art-like, then you have to approach it that way,” said Popp. “You can’t approach the horse like a drill sergeant.
“If you think about the Spanish Riding School, time is not an issue. They’re timeless,” she continued. “And this is what he’s trying to say. You have to take the time now to go faster later. You’ll have fewer detours, having to straighten out problems and resistances you’ve created if you just take the time to do it right the first time.”