The class has been called, and our favorite professor James C. Wofford stands at the chalkboard asking you if a glass he’s drawn is half full or half empty.
“Half empty?” you guess. Wrong. For this is not just a makeshift scribble; this is a metaphor for the coronavirus pandemic, even as you struggle with social distancing, as your show schedule crumbles faster than your panic-purchased bread, and you question whether you can even make a trip to the barn to see your equine therapist for an emergency session.
In Wofford’s class, all situations must be viewed through a “glass half full” lens.
“I understand that the coronavirus is a problem. But it also, in my mind, is an incredible opportunity,” he said. “Why do I say that? Because we now have a certain amount of time that we are absolutely prevented from travel, competition, any form of competitive pressure. We’re in a vacuum right now, and many barns are almost literally in a vacuum because boarders have been prevented from coming. It’s an enormous opportunity to improve our horses and to improve our riding in every aspect, both our practical application but also our theoretical appreciation of what it is that we’re doing, why we do it, what we should do, so forth and so on.”
Your individual experience during this crisis will vary depending on the state in which you reside and the rules of your barn. But regardless of the situation, the amount of free time you have to crack open a book has likely increased. Wofford hopes you’ll use that time wisely and productively, because he’s turning lemons into lemonade and wants you to take a sip.
“The overall emphasis in my mind should be on the opportunity to improve,” said Wofford. “We can improve ourselves, and we can improve our horses. The end goal for most people will certainly be to compete better—but to compete better through better riding, through better training, better understanding. Improve in every aspect and every level.”
So, without any further ado, we bring you a few different Wofford syllabi, including options for a basic undergraduate education or a post-grad deep dive.
The Undergraduate Courses
Dressage 101: “Riding Logic” By Wilhelm Müseler
It’s one of the two or three best books ever written on riding. It is a very clear exposition of correct dressage position, techniques, and use of the system and the training of the horse. It is very understandable, and it is very correct. “Riding Logic”—read it, sleep with it under your pillow.
Jumping 101: Any Book By Lt. Col. Harry Chamberlin
If you are in a jumping discipline, then read one of Col. Chamberlin’s books, either “Training Hunters, Jumpers And Hacks” or “Riding And Schooling Horses,” because Col. Chamberlin is the foundation of the American jumping system.
We have made mild, slight, subtle adjustments to his position over the past 70 years, but the things that he says in that book, written in the 1930s, are still completely true today. You are reading the bible when it comes to jumping horses.
Reflections On The Undergraduate Courses
Someone who doesn’t read a lot, I would say, “Look, you owe it to your horse to read these two books.” What I hope is that we will have riders who are successful competitively because they are classically correct in their riding and use correct principles of long-term systematic training to produce successful competitive results.
Extra Credit: “Training The Three-Day Event Horse And Rider” By James C. Wofford
Of course, I have to give a shameless self-promotion when I tell you that I’m also quite fond of my first book, “Training The Three-Day Event Horse And Rider.”
Dressage 701: Learning German And French
There are hundreds, probably thousands, of books written on how to ride. I’ve read most of them. Some of them are more valuable than others. Some are more meaningful than others. There’s something to be learned from most books, but I have shrunk the list of books I recommend to people until I’m convinced that they are truly as obsessed with learning about horses and riding as I am.
With that as a preface I would say: You need to study the dressage in greater depth. You will then become exposed to the fact that dressage grew up with really two parallel traditions, which we call for convenience the “Romantic,” meaning the French, and “Germanic,” meaning of course [Gustav] Steinbrecht and the German school of riding.
Now these days, we are watching a synthesis of those two approaches in an absolutely fantastic, awesome, gobmacked, jaw-dropping way. These horses and riders are so good these days in the dressage world. In order to strengthen the serious student, the master’s candidate now should read at the very minimum, “Academic Equitation” by Gen. Albert Decarpentry [of Saumur’s Cadre Noir].
On the other hand, you can read Waldemar Seunig, “Horsemanship: A Comprehensive Book On Training The Horse And Its Rider.” It’s heavy work. It’s for a master’s candidate. But it is a very correct exposition of the Germanic style, just as Decarpentry is of the romantic.
If you are still housebound, you should read Alois Podhajsky’s “Complete Training Of Horse And Rider” because that is the Spanish Riding School, and anything they have to say about classical dressage should be of interest to us.
Jumping 701: Focus On Steinkraus
Once you read Chamberlin, then you should go back and read “Riding And Jumping” by William C. Steinkraus or “Hunter Seat Equitation” by George Morris. Then for more advanced jumping information, you need to read “Classic Show Jumping: The De Némethy Method” [by Bertalan de Némethy], and most definitely, next to Chamberlin, the best book on jumping is “Reflections On Riding And Jumping,” again by William Steinkraus.
Reflections On The Master’s Courses
When you have finished all of those, your education is not complete, but you will be much farther down the road than 90 percent of the people in the horse world. You will have a deep and broad understanding not just of how we ride, not just of why we do certain things, but of how we developed those principles and practices because they have changed over the years. Now is the time to go back and relearn how to ride, but this time learn by the acknowledged experts in the field.
For The Doctoral Candidates
- Gustav Steinbrecht, “The Gymnasium Of The Horse”
- Etienne Beudant, “Horse Training: Outdoor And High School”
- Agostan L. D’Endrödy, “Give Your Horse A Chance: The Training Of Horse And Rider For Three-Day Events, Show-Jumping and Hunting”
The advantage of reading the foundational book is that it gives you a bit of a bible, and then these other books, you can start to read them critically. You should not suspend your critical disbelief as you study Beudant or Steinbrecht. You have to understand their context, and who they were, and what they were doing when they wrote what they wrote.
You have to know how they got to where they got. If you’re a doctoral candidate that’s a necessary part of it. For the everyday rider, you know, never mind. If you are a good little boy or girl and you read “Riding Logic,” you’re on the way.
Now: Do Your Homework
Depending on your situation, you may be stuck in your house. In addition to the books, James Wofford suggests doing yoga and Pilates to stay in shape while also watching instructional riding videos. (He recommends RidingCoach.com.) But if you are one of the lucky ones with horses at your house or access to your barn, he doesn’t want you to continue like you’re going to a competition this weekend. Instead, strip your riding and horse care back to the basics.
Spend Time With Your Horse: “After you have ridden your horse for the day, take it for a hand-walk. Learn about grooming. Grooming is a lost art for most people. Their grooming is a bottle of shampoo and a hose, and that’s not truly what I think of when it comes to grooming. Grooming involves a curry comb, a dandy brush and a soft brush, mane comb, and all sorts of various implements that lead to the proper care of the horse,” Wofford said.
Getting Creative With Lessons: “Let’s say you can ride, but you cannot get lessons,” said Wofford. “Well, ride in front of your cellphone while your significant other is holding it, or your riding pal, and video your work and send it to your coach.”
Go Back To The Snaffle: “I often make the point, when speaking of bits, that the strongest aid of all is your horse’s affection for you,” he said. “You’re going to change your horse’s equipment back to a plain snaffle. And for me that is a hollow-mouth, loose-ring or flat-ring, jointed snaffle. Some of them are double jointed; some of them are single jointed. I prefer for my intended purpose right now a single-jointed snaffle. I insist on a plain flat cavesson with no flash or drop attachment, fitted correctly—by correctly I mean that I can get two fingers underneath the cavesson. The horse is capable of chewing. And now you ride that horse with no draw reins, no gadgets, and you evaluate your horse’s stage of training.
“We must follow the same thought process with our show jumping—that if our horse in a plain snaffle and open cavesson cannot trot in a good working frame over a single pole on the ground without changing the rhythm, or without evident signs of tension, then we are not ready for more advanced jumping. We are not even ready for jumping because there is tension in the process,” he continued. “[From an eventing perspective] our horse must be able to walk, trot and canter straight up and down slopes before it can gallop up and down over obstacles. And how do we do that? We must teach it to walk, trot and canter on undulating terrain without losing its balance. You’d be surprised—you take away your gag snaffle and running martingale, and it’s a very different sensation.”
Use Your Book Education: “Now you are armed with much deeper appreciation for why we should teach leg-yielding before we teach shoulder-in,” said Wofford. “Why should we teach turn-on-the-forehand before we introduce leg-yielding? Why do we do that? What is the purpose? Why do we do lateral movements at all? How do we do that movement correctly? How do we produce shoulder-in? It is most certainly not by pulling on the inside rein.”
This article appeared in the May 4 & 11, 2020, Innovations issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.
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