Monika Schnacke choked back tears as she talked about her rides at the Charles de Kunffy clinic held April 22-24 at Mane Gait Equestrian Center in Natural Bridge, Virginia.
“I’m still in total awe,” said Schnacke, 57, Charlotte, North Carolina, holding the reins of her 11-year-old Westphalian mare, Mera. She’d just left the indoor arena after her third and final 40-minute ride under the watchful eye and literally constant commentary of the legendary classical dressage teacher and author de Kunffy.
On her way out, one of the 30-some auditors stopped Schnacke to say she and her 17.1 hand mare looked like “art in motion.”
“Is that not we all strive for?” Schnacke said, her voice swollen with emotion, barely getting the words out. She took a few deep breaths and continued:
“We just did half-pass to a pirouette to half-pass. That’s two to three notches above my pay grade. We also did two flying changes on the centerline. It was magic! How did we produce all that in just a weekend? If I can re-create 10% of all that, I will be happy.”
Schnacke attributed her success to de Kunffy’s constant instruction. In fact, de Kunffy never stopped talking throughout each ride or during his 40-minute daily lectures. The man is 86 years old, and he never seemed to tire.
“The whole time I rode,” Schnacke said, “it felt like he was there with me, sharing his unbelievable wisdom. I’ve never been to a clinic like this; his tool box is huge. And he shared it all with us.”
Schnacke was one of eight riders who quickly snatched up the slots for the de Kunffy clinic.
“I think it was sold out within about 15 minutes of notifying the folks on our mailing list,” said clinic host Patrick King, also a well-known classical dressage instructor who operates from Mane Gait. (De Kunffy is slated to return in the autumn; riding slots for that clinic have filled already, too.)
The clinic drew participants from across the country, including Rebecca Jordan Kurtzweil from Wisconsin, a student of King’s. King rode her 6-year-old Lusitano, Magico, in the clinic.
“If I made a list of the two [horse] people I most wanted to meet it would be [classical dressage master] Luis Valença of Portugal and Charles de Kunffy,” Kurtzweil said. “I’ve been trying for three years to audit a clinic with Charles,” but each time she tried, they’d been sold out.
“And it will be an honor to hear his opinion of Magico,” Kurtzweil said.
That opinion surely was positive. In three days of watching de Kunffy as an auditor, I never heard him say an unkind or negative word about any of the horses or riders he watched. Even when the horses slipped out of the dressage ring, threw in a little buck or missed a lead change, he was unfailingly positive—except when it came to the world’s leading competition dressage riders. (“These Grand Prix riders, their horses have huge artificial necks and they are running like maniacs. This is disengagement. It’s a nightmare.”)
De Kunffy’s No. 1 rule in horsemanship is this: “There are no mistakes in riding,” he said, about a thousand times in a thousand different ways. The meaning was always the same: Horses don’t have the concept of “mistakes:” Your horse didn’t make a mistake; it did what you asked. So if your horse picks up the wrong lead, it’s not because he or she is willfully or consciously making a mistake, it’s because that’s what you asked.
Said King: “He also frequently says that ‘There is no neutrality in riding. We are either building them up or we are breaking them down.’ ”
Which leads us to de Kunffy’s central theme in his 20-plus hours of commentary, lectures and the seven books he’s authored: It is supremely gracious of horses to allow us on their backs, going not just against 50 million years of implanted genetic warnings as prey animals but their actual physical structure.
“Horses,” said de Kunffy, “are not designed to carry anything on their backs, not even a green pea. And most of you weigh more than a green pea.”
Therefore, he continued, it is our sacred duty to repay them in kind, with clear, compassionate and subtle direction, or the consequences can be dire.
“There is nothing more dangerous than a confused horse,” de Kunffy said.
Or in the words of Bernard Schnacke, husband of Monika and “groominator” to their four horses: “Charles de Kunffy is an ambassador for horses.”
Throughout the weekend, de Kunffy repeatedly emphasized the need for subtlety in aids. As a young riding student in Europe, if his leg got too forceful, he was told to “ride the air between his horse’s side and his boots.” His approach hasn’t strayed.
“When you shorten the reins, the horse should not know.” The same, he said, is true with the rider’s seat and body aids. “The movement stays inside the coat, for no one to see,” he said.
And always express gratitude to your horse.
“Anytime a horse does what you ask, you have to touch him and reward him. But never open your fingers. Ride with a fist, and reach forward with your fist and touch him on the neck.”
De Kunffy was born in Hungary in 1936. His parents were eminent race horse breeders and, like many in the noble class, sent their son for riding lessons as a child.
“Why did the nobles send their children to ride?” De Kunffy asked during his final lecture on Sunday, in which he not only spoke of philosophy and psychology, invoking Hegel and Gestalt, but also the need for never attaining one’s ideal, and the importance of progressing from knowledge to understanding. “Because good riding is synonymous to a life well or correctly lived. Correct horsemanship means you can assess what the situation is now, both in life and in riding.”
On a less abstract note, de Kunffy talked about how the European riding academies would only allow a student to pick up the reins after 18 months on the longe line. That way, de Kunffy said, the rider learned how to use his seat, not his hands to ask the horse what to do.
“Horses’ mouths are made for eating and drinking,” de Kunffy said, “not for your harassment.”
He then lamented that 18 months on the longe line isn’t part of routine rider training, and he said it sorely shows. He used the example of riders who lift their hands too high.
“Your destination is not to lead an orchestra,” he said, motioning the incorrect movement by lifting his hands skyward. “You cannot do this once a month, no never. If you did that in a riding academy, they would advise you to go to ice skating.”
One of the most surprising things I heard throughout the weekend was de Kunffy repeatedly telling riders to “slow it down.” I’ve taken and watched dressage lessons over the years, and I hadn’t heard instructors telling anyone to “slow it down.”
“The more you slow down, the more your horse can learn to be engaged,” de Kunffy said. “We don’t need more running at the trot. Riding fast is an escape. To run a horse ruins their joints. It is a death sentence.”
Tara McGeein Schillumeit, a 37-year-old auditor for the Department of Defense and rising fourth level dressage rider on her Hanoverian cross, Wallstreet Charmer, travelled from Williamsburg, Virginia, to audit de Kunffy’s clinic.
“I picked up a few exercises that I’ve liked incorporating into my rides,” she wrote to me. “Shoulder-in up center line to X, then leg yield to the rail. I find it really helps me to control all of my horse, instead of relying on the rail to hold his haunches for me. I also really liked at the canter half-pass four steps off the rail, half pirouette, half-pass back to the rail, flying change. He also told a few riders to hold their rib cage up, and that has helped me separate my seat from upper body to clean up my changes a bit. I think [this clinic] will help with my long-term FEI goal, the exercises will help me true up some gaps I had that I will need come Prix St. Georges.”
Leslie Stockham, a 55-year-old hunter/jumper show barn manager who lives near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, audited the clinic because she is incorporating dressage methods into her endurance riding. She likes what she sees as the quieter, more subtle de Kunffy methods, because she doesn’t like the “push and pull” of other disciplines and/or teachers.
“I learned the differences between shoulder-in and haunches-out; the difference between a side pass and leg yield,” she wrote to me after she returned to Pennsylvania. “I also learned how I can slow my horse with a simple movement with my shoulder while cantering. I watched him do an exercise where he brought both of his arms behind his back. He demonstrated how that was where the shoulders should be and that if you brought the arms back around, it would put the elbows right where they should be.”
Stockham was especially impressed with these two de Kunffy-isms: “If you tell me you’re doing your best, it is best that you keep that to yourself.” And “Take your time, but don’t waste your time.”
“I could just listen to him all day,” she wrote. “He was very impressive. He could see [everything] the riders did from across the ring.”
When de Kunffy went into the dressage weeds with the Friday’s first riders, I thought his lessons might be difficult for me, a hunter rider, to understand and/or apply to my daily riding life. But a funny thing happened on Saturday. De Kunffy’s words had ear wormed into my grey matter. During my longeing session with my boy Jules—I’m trying to bring him back from an injury sustained during a disastrous trip to Ocala—I couldn’t stop hearing, “There are no mistakes in riding” and, “If you have 30 minutes to ride, and you don’t do 47 different exercises, you are a lazy rider.”
So I changed things up. I did a lot more transitions, which made Jules much more attuned to me. And wasn’t that de Kunffy’s point? Also, when Jules didn’t reverse as I thought I’d asked him to, instantaneously I realized I hadn’t asked him correctly. Another de-Kunffy-ism circled through my brain: Good riders don’t provoke disobedience, they prevent it.
On a previous day, I would have seen Jules’ not reversing as disobedience on his part. In other words, by spending just one day with de Kunffy, I’d already become a kinder, more understanding and compassionate rider (or in this case, longer). And in my book, anyone or anything that helps us remember the great gift horses give us by willingly and perhaps even happily striving to understand what we are asking them to do is a very good thing.
So when de Kunffy’s website describes him as a “gentleman and a scholar,” I get it. If you break apart the word “gentleman,” its accuracy is obvious. Charles de Kunffy is indeed a gentle man when it comes to horses. And that’s a lesson we could all benefit from, regardless of our discipline.
Jody Jaffe is the author of “Horse of a Different Killer,” “Chestnut Mare, Beware,” and “In Colt Blood,” featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. As a journalist, she was on the Charlotte Observer team that won the Pulitzer Prize, and her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Washingtonian. She lives on a farm south of Lexington, Virginia, with her husband, John Muncie, and a lot of horses.