Quiet Riding

Equestrian Book Reviews

Book Review

Balancing Act

The Horse in Sport — An Irreconcilable Conflict?

Niño, the horse.
She who believes a horse must be dominated with the hand will never experience how wonderfully light a through, balanced horse feels, and how much fun he is to ride!

In his book Balancing Act, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann discusses the tension between the pressures of training a horse for the purpose of competition and the classical tradition of gradually developing a horse in a way that enhances its health and well–being. Heuschmann states:

For a large number of riders, the desire to compete is more important than the joy of training a horse. Training is frequently designed primarily to meet test requirements with the needs of the horse relegated to second place.

The author calls for greater emphasis on the health and well–being of the horse. He realizes that this may be hard: “It is difficult to balance economic realities with accountability for a living being — in this case, the horse.”

…one of the biggest threats to a traditional and time–tested training system may arise from the steadily growing economic interests of an ever larger number of people.

Sponsors and promoters of equestrian events want to attract large, enthusiastic crowds. Breeders, in an effort to make more money, rush training because time is money. Even judges can be tempted to award crowd–pleasing spectacular performances over more technically precise riding. Heuschmann points out the consequences.

Horses are forced to perform movements against their will by use of mechanical devices and rough riding. Many are broken in the process. Others perform well for a short time but quickly fade from competition because of resulting physical ailments.

Heuschmann calls for restraint. He writes: “The use of the horse in competition as well as in general riding, driving and vaulting must be geared toward the horse's ability, temperament and willingness to perform.” He claims that “…many of the young horses sold at sales in Europe are already in need of retraining.”

“Anyone concerned about the health and long life of the horse should be thinking long–term,” writes Heuschmann. He points out the demands made on young horses:

Racing and Western horses are ridden at two years old and must be top performers by three. Their sports career is often finished by age five or six.

In contrast:

When the training is solid, is correct for the horse, and the demands are gradually increased, he has a good chance of growing old as an athlete.


The rider who is thinking long–term will train her horse systematically over years, increasing demands slowly, so that she can ride the horse a long time and preserve his health.

Heuschmann calls for a return to the concept of good horsemanship. “Driving young horses to perform at a high level, thus destroying them early, contradicts the concept of horsemanship.” This is true of all disciplines and calls for good basic training.

Irrespective of the horse's breed or riding discipline, a supple riding seat and the natural balance of the horse must be developed before more advanced training exercises.

“When a horse ‘makes a mistake,’ it usually is the fault of the rider on his back,” says Heuschmann. Learning to ride well takes time. The author points to this as a benefit.

The beautiful thing about riding is that you always have more to learn, assuming you are ready to work on yourself and to examine yourself critically.

Good training calls for cooperation between horse and rider. “Good training can only be built on a reciprocal relationship of respect and trust.” Trainers and riders must consider the welfare of the horses in their care. “It is very important for the horse's early education to include sensitivity and calm while promoting the horse's self–confidence.”

When training a horse, it is always important to pay attention to how the horse is responding. But, Heuschmann admits:

It is not always easy to know whether an undesirable reaction, blockage or resistance in the horse stems from a lack of understanding, or if he's mentally or physically overtaxed, fresh, tired, feeling fear, reluctance, pain or something else.

Still, one should try to evaluate the situation.

When something doesn't work, ask yourself, “Why?” Have you used the right aids? Has the horse understood you? Was the exercise reasonable? Does the horse have a muscle cramp from yesterday or the day before? As a rider or trainer, you have the responsibility to present the exercise in a way that the horse can understand — and execute it.

It is always best to err on the side of caution. The author points out: “Whoever tries to accomplish something through force may have only short–term success.” And: “Over time, pressure always creates counter–pressure — or resignation.” Resignation does not lead to good riding. “No one can dance with inspiration when there is a pistol held to her head.”

A good trainer and rider should help the horse do what is asked. “The goal of good training is to develop the specific musculature needed for the discipline, so that the equine athlete is able to meet performance demands.” And a horse, just like a person, varies in its abilities from day to day. Thus, “…the horse's reactions to training depend on a sensitive rider figuring out how to maximize the good days.”

Tension is the enemy of good training. “It is one of the most important tasks of good riding to avoid tension when training and when retraining, to encourage its release!” Heuschmann cautions: “Forcing a stiff horse into a frame to achieve throughness is not promising: It contradicts all training principles and damages the horse's health.”

In communicating with the horse, a rider should consider his seat. “The perfect balanced seat is the most valuable asset of every rider.” But, “Excessive ambition, pressure to succeed and an exaggerated sense of self–worth make a quiet and supple seat impossible!”

Good communication requires relaxation in both the rider and the horse. Heuschmann points to the rider's seat as a major cause of tension. “…if a rider sits completely down in the saddle on a horse with a stiff back, the horse's back muscles tense even more.” The back of a horse is precious. “Whoever causes constant tension and pressure on the horse's back and in the rein contact, cannot relax a horse.” Therefore, “Professionals and experienced amateurs should be comfortable with all seat types, saddles and stirrup lengths.”

When dealing with a horse with a tense back, Heuschmann calls for rider adjustment. “It doesn't make sense to sit the trot when the horse is tense and blocked in the back, even if the rider can sit with sensitivity and suppleness.” Instead, he suggests: “With novice horses, hyperflexed back movers and leg movers, and horses with weak or sensitive backs, it is recommended to do a posting trot or a balanced forward seat.”

A rider must be aware of how riding a stiff horse can effect his seat. “Professional riders should work diligently and regularly on their seat, particularly since suppleness of the seat is easily lost when working with many stiff horses.”

Heuschmann points out that, “The goal of training is for the communication to become increasingly subtle until you give almost invisible aids coming almost exclusively from the seat.” The relationship between a rider's seat and his hands is interrelated. “When you focus on developing a sensitive, giving, independent hand, you will be a long way down the road to improving the seat.”

The first years of training a horse are particularly critical. “During the first years of training, the physical and mental qualities are developed that enable the horse to do his job and stay sound.” One should not be deceived by the appearance of the horse. “Even a horse with near perfect conformation can and must reestablish his balance while developing the muscles necessary for carrying a rider.”

Improper training causes problems. “The quality of the horse's training has a prime influence on the development of clinical problems such as lameness.” Heuschmann emphasizes the importance of the horse's back in its overall movement. “Tight/tense back muscles increase the pull on ligaments and tendons; the horse's trunk stiffens as a result. A tense trunk increases the load on the legs, which can cause damage to them.”

Heuschmann describes the importance of the traditional Training Scale in developing a strong, supple, and relaxed horse that responds to the gentle guidance of the rider. Rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection follow one another but are also interrelated. Each phase builds on the other but also improves the previous phases of training. For example, rhythm effects relaxation which increases suppleness which makes rhythm easier.

Knowledge of the principles of good riding and a genuine concern for the welfare of the horse lead to better riding. “There is a fundamental difference between ‘made’ expressiveness, which arises from tension, and natural expressiveness that arises from contentment, Rhythm, Suppleness and true Impulsion from the hind legs.”

The rider's seat and the horse's back are highly connected. “The quality of the seat has an enormous and direct influence on the suppleness of the horse's back.” And, how a rider uses her hands can effect her seat. “When the rider pulls backward consistently, she starts pulling her stomach in, her legs go up, she squeezes with the thighs and then tenses her back.” This, in turn, affects the horse. “When the rider's back is tense, the horse's back is tense.”

Lest he be misunderstood, Heuschmann points out that all tension is not bad. “There is muscle tension as appropriate for the work, but it isn't constant: It is on/off according to the demand. This is ‘positive’ tension.”

Improper, prolonged tension is what causes problems. Such tension can produce symptoms of physical problems. “Rhythm disturbances attributable to lameness issues are frequently caused by muscular tension in the poll, neck and trunk.”

Improper riding can also cause true lameness. “An unexpectedly high proportion of horses are lame due to common training mistakes.” Balancing Act provides numerous illustrations of horse physiology to help readers understand the interaction of the different parts of a horse's body and how the actions of a rider on one portion can effect another. Heuschmann points out that, “A lot of therapy work could be avoided through correct training.”

Heuschmann also provides advice on how riders may help horses that have already developed problems from improper training and riding. This includes stretching exercises to help loosen tight muscles and various methods to help the horse relax.

In his book Balancing Act, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann not only questions the conflict between efforts of reaching high goals fast in sport riding and proper horsemanship, he presents possible solutions. He calls for veterinarians to speak out against obvious horse abuse. He also calls for knowledgeable judges to help educate the public on the type of riding they should actually be applauding.

A properly trained and ridden horse will be both happier and healthier. Such a horse will also provide a better partner for the rider.

Buy Balancing Act: The Horse in Sport — An Irreconcilable Conflict?