Quiet Riding

Equestrian Book Reviews

Book Review

Gallop to Freedom

King, the horse.

Gallop to Freedom by Magali Delgado and Frédéric Pignon with David Walser is not a horse training manual. However, the book does provide insight into how Delgado, a high level dressage competitor, and Pignon, renowned for his freedom work with multiple stallions, get horses to do things for them that few others achieve.

David Walser, in his preface, explains the aim of Delgado and Pignon in producing this book:

Their aim is to further the understanding of how our two species communicate and to use that knowledge for the good of the horse, as much as for our own pleasure and satisfaction.

Their approach is based on respect for the horse and a rejection of forceful techniques. “The horse must agree to every move and happily so.” Frédéric goes so far as to allow the horses to choose to a certain extent what they want to do in a performance. He states: “…the improvisation is important for keeping the horses in a relaxed and happy state.”

“What people do not appreciate is that every time a horse submits to pressure, whether subtle or overt, he is diminished,” says Pignon. He explains his alternative: “If he can be persuaded to give his assent freely and pleasurably rather than give into man's pressure or clever techniques, he is not diminished.” This couple has learned to ask, “What would this horse like to do?”

One stallion in particular helped them develop this approach to working with horses — Templado. Frédéric explains:

Templado's problem seemed to be an almost paranoid fear of losing his independence…. So I tried to understand and to put myself in his skin and see myself from his point of view.

When working with him, Pignon tried to observe every movement of Templado's nostrils, ears, eyes, and whole body to determine whether he was satisfied and happy with the situation. He admits, “I made mistakes…. Some of these mistakes would set us back weeks but I had learned to be patient….” In the end, this effort produced abundant fruit: “Once [Templado] had decided to hand me his full trust he almost needed no training; he picked things up without difficulty and remembered them.”

When performing with several stallions in freedom, Pignon found that Templado helped him direct the other horses. But the extend of Templado's assistance became evident only later:

It was only when Templado was no longer performing that Frédéric really appreciated how much he owed the stallion. It is now more difficult for him to work with three horses at liberty, because he has never found another horse that filled this “helping” role in quite the same way.

While Frédéric Pignon's emphasis is working with horses in freedom, his wife Magali Delgado seeks to combine the precision of high level dressage riding with the excitement of horse spectaculars where riding is combined with music and showmanship designed to attract a broader audience. She explains: “I wanted to bring the idea of pleasure and enjoyment to dressage competition and the high standards of dressage competition to the world of horse spectaculars.” She goes on:

…there is no impenetrable divide between the horse spectacular performance world designed to bring pleasure to audiences in a theater, and the dressage world, designed to encourage technical excellence and beauty of movement with competition in mind.

Pignon points to the need to be aware of one's aims when working with horses. In speaking of his own aims, Pignon states:

…I think it is important to be aware of your aims so that you can monitor them and their effects on the horse. I am always conscious that my first responsibility to the horses is to see that they are happy and enjoy doing what they do.

It is also important to be flexible. Pignon says, “I take into account a horse's mental and physical traits before I decide on my approach to the exercises and the playing we will do together.” He explains what he means by playing: “…what I mean by ‘playing’ is that I create a relaxed atmosphere of enjoyment and fun.” He tries to adjust his goals to the horse. “I never set the horse an impossible task — impossible, that is, in relation to his fears. Avoid a ‘check,’ let alone a ‘checkmate’ situation at all costs.”

To do the kind of work Pignon does with horses, he must concentrate even as he asks the horse to concentrate. He explains:

…the horse can immediately detect if my mind is elsewhere. Whether it is that they interpret this dichotomy as a lack of respect or whether because of their sense of independence — or possibly even their sense of fun — you may suddenly find yourself losing control.

He is always conscious of overdoing things. He states, “As for holding the horse's attention, part of the secret is not to make the exercises too long — especially when an exercise is new.” He adds: “As soon as we see signs of boredom, we change to some other activity, and it is best to do this before you see the signs!”

With her emphasis on dressage, Delgado stresses the importance of balance when she states, “Balance is central to all movement, for a horse just as it is for a rider, and the rider must not interfere with the horse's balance.” Such balance must be developed: “It is only by doing everything slowly and calmly that one can develop this sense of balance and prepare for faster or more demanding work.” In recognizing that most people do not intend to compete in dressage, she states:

Most people do not necessarily want to compete but even so, should realize that the term “dressage” covers the type of training that is essential for every horse that is to be ridden.

Even though he emphasizes giving a horse freedom of choice, Pignon explains that he does set limits:

I allow absolutely no biting or jostling: this is a rule that I start establishing with a young horse from the first day I work with him. In fact, with one that I do not know, I impose a strict limit as to how close he approaches me.

He also points out the necessity of establishing a proper relationship with a horse before allowing too much freedom. “I don't immediately let a horse invade my space…. Once there is total confidence and respect in both directions it becomes another matter.” He gives this advice to others: “A common mistake is to do too much ‘snuggling up’ to a horse from the beginning. You should keep the distance appropriate to the stage of your relationship.”

Pignon points out that rules serve more than one purpose:

…it is the case that rules are not only essential but that the horse functions the better for accepting certain guidelines.

While Pignon points out: “…it is the foundation stone of our relationship that we earn his respect before anything else,” he adds the following caution: “…you must not impose unreasonable rules that the horse feels he cannot accept with a willing spirit.”

The essence of this training is to make work enjoyable for the horse. “By transforming what might be deemed work into enjoyable play, the horse grows like a child and at the same time comes closer to us.” They add this caution, however: “There is always the danger that it is a game to the rider and not to the horse. Watch carefully to see that the horse is not just submitting to becoming a plaything.”

Pignon and Delgado try to allow horses to learn. “When horses are allowed the opportunity to find the solution to a problem they are delighted, and it makes them even more eager to find solutions to problems in the future.” They stress the need to nurture the horse's natural curiosity: “The appetite for discovery that can turn into a real thirst for knowledge, if it is nurtured, is all too often killed off at a young age.” They provide the following example:

The stress of certain “speed training” methods can produce measurable damage because the horse learns to be obedient by the clever manipulation of the trainer and without the horse's voluntary participation as part of the process.

The approach taken by Pignon and Delgado has proved very rewarding, but Pignon points out that it is not without its downside:

Every day, and this is still true for myself, there are moments of disappointment and self–doubt. It is not an easy path and it never will be.

While Pignon and Delgado have learned from many others, they stress the need for each person to discover their own method of working with horses. And, each person should be willing to adjust any method they develop:

The more experienced you are, the more you may favor a particular system or way of training, but you still have to be prepared to adjust it to each individual horse and to continue doing so as the horse develops.

The techniques used by Pignon and Delgado may not be that practical for people training horses for others to sell for a quick profit. However, for people working with their own horses, they provide this incentive:

Without any compulsion you can achieve extraordinary things with your horse if you are prepared to be patient and take your time.

Buy Gallop to Freedom