On the Bit 3.0
©Thomas Ritter 2009

After discussing a couple of paragraphs from Gustav Steinbrecht’s “Gymnasium of the Horse”, I would like to share a very interesting account of his own personal riding. It’s very rare to find eyewitness reports on the way the old masters rode. We usually only have their books, but no way of finding out how they actually rode themselves. We are lucky that Paul Plinzner wrote a brief characterization of Steinbrecht’s riding in a short homage to his teacher. It’s called “Gustav Steinbrecht. Ein Leben für die Reitkunst”.

Paul Plinzner on Gustav Steinbrecht:

“It was not easy to learn from Steinbrecht’s personal riding, because he was a genius, and following his flight was difficult for ordinary mortals. I am convinced that of the many professionals and amateurs who came to watch him work because of his great reputation, only very few understood his riding. I myself did by no means always understand him then, and even today, after having had the closest professional discourse with him for years, after having worked his theories into a lengthy book, and after having ridden for many years without forgetting him for even one stride, I hardly dare claim with certainty that I completely understand his riding, as it stands in my recollection. I remember having seen him work with a fairly high neck elevation, where the horse dropped into a certain poll flexion every stride as a consequence of the rhythmic mobility of his arms and hands, while the swinging of the haunches became visibly more beautiful and elastic, although in his lessons he always insisted on a securely connected neck and a steady poll flexion.”

What I find very interesting here is that Plinzner reports that in his lessons, Gustav Steinbrecht always demanded a consistent poll flexion and rein contact from his students, but that he himself apparently took some liberties with this rule. It seems like he didn’t always ride his horses in an outline that we would consider on the bit. To Plinzner’s obvious confusion, Steinbrecht sometimes elevated the horse’s neck considerably and allowed the head to bob up and down, instead of riding with a consistent outline. Plinzner admits that he isn’t really sure how Steinbrecht did it, or how or why this worked, but it clearly did. The swinging of the haunches and the back increased and became more beautiful throughout the ride. It’s always fascinating to find out insights like this. In a way, it also shows that geniuses and masters can get away with all kinds of things for which the average rider would get into trouble.

If you look at the bigger picture, Steinbrecht’s emphasis on a steady rein contact and outline in his teaching made a deep impression on Plinzner, who then took this concept further and “invented” the concept of the “unconditional poll flexion”, for which he was heavily criticized and even ostracized by later classical riders, because many riders misunderstood the unconditional poll flexion as referring to a head position that is always vertical, regardless of what the rest of the body is doing. And this led some riders to force their horses into a headset with the reins only, which is, of course, detrimental to the balance, the suppleness, the rein contact, and the horse in general. Today, we actually still encounter advocates of the unconditional poll flexion, who haven’t studied the history of dressage enough to realize where their views come from, but who argue that the horse’s head should always be vertical – no exceptions – regardless of what the hind legs or the back are doing, and regardless of what the conformation looks like. They repeat the same mistakes for which Plinzner was criticized.

I will look at what Plinzner had to say on the subject in one of the next blog entries, in order to follow the development over time.

To be continued…

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