On the Bit 4.0
©Thomas Ritter 2009

Paul Plinzner is best known today for finishing and publishing the notes of his teacher, Gustav Steinbrecht, under the title “The Gymnasium of the Horse”. He was also the écuyer to the last German emperor, William II. Plinzner rode with Steinbrecht in 1877 and 1878, and subsequently made Steinbrecht’s lessons into his own system of gymnastic training. I find a lot of valid and intelligent explanations in Plinzner’s own publications, although he has been very heavily criticized for demanding what he called “unconditional poll flexion” of the horse. I have selected two brief paragraphs from his book “System der Pferdegymnastik” that demonstrate that the criticism is not quite fair and probably has more to do with other riders misunderstanding his explanations than anything else.

Paul Plinzner (1888, translation: TR):

“The ‘unconditional poll flexion on the bit’ is that arch of the neck and flexion of the poll in which the neck and poll are absolutely permeable, i.e. in which they neither resist the half halts of the hands nor evade them in any way. – When a horse is in the ‘unconditional poll flexion on the bit’, one also simply says: ‘it is on the bit’.”

This statement is very interesting on the background of Plinzner’s lessons with Gustav Steinbrecht. In the last blog entry I gave you a segment that contained a summary of these lessons. What apparently stood out in Plinzner’s mind was Steinbrecht’s insistence on a steady rein contact with appropriate poll flexion – although Steinbrecht himself often rode his horses with an unsteady head position, nodding up and down, not really “on the bit” by our standards. I believe that Plinzner’s interpretation of Steinbrecht’s lessons led him to come up with this “unconditional poll flexion”, which is his best known personal “invention”.

The paragraph above defines the “unconditional poll flexion” as the head and neck position, in which there are no resistances and no leaks in the neck and poll, so that the energy can flow freely in all directions. This is completely compatible with Steinbrecht’s teachings as well as with modern dressage. It’s a perfectly reasonable and very practical recommendation. There is nothing here that would warrant the harsh criticism that later generations of classical riders and authors would voice against him. He was widely considered to have strayed from the true classical path with this unconditional poll flexion, although there really is nothing in his own description of the concept that would justify such a severe judgment.

Paul Plinzner (1888, translation: TR):

“Although the neck is always rounded in the state of the ‘unconditional poll flexion on the bit’, the form of the individual parts is quite variable within this condition. – Whether the neck is more or less rounded and elevated, and whether the nose is precisely vertical, or whether it deviates forward or backward from the vertical, depends not only on the conformation and the inner strength of the horse, but also on the way in which the forces of the hind legs are used.”

After defining his new term of the unconditional poll flexion briefly in the last paragraph, Plinzner now gives some specific practical-technical information on what this position looks like. Interestingly, he does exactly what Steinbrecht did in the “Gymnasium of the Horse”. He stresses the importance of finding the right head and neck position, the right curvature of the neck, the right degree of elevation, etc., but he does not assign this functional position a specific superficial form. Instead, he says that the unconditional poll flexion may be achieved with the horse’s head in front of the vertical, in the vertical, or even behind the vertical. It all depends on the horse’s conformation, his training level, and the current goal of the rider. I suspect that this is where his followers went wrong. They assumed that the unconditional poll flexion can only be achieved when the horse’s head is vertical, or perhaps even behind the vertical. In this respect, Plinzner’s insufficiently educated followers are very similar to many modern riders who mistake form for function, and who think that the horse is not on the bit, if the head is not exactly on or even behind the vertical. For our purposes it is worth pointing out that Plinzner explicitly mentions that a horse can have his unconditional poll flexion even when the nose is in front of the vertical. In other words, being on the bit is not completely unrelated to the head position, but it is not the same. There are other factors at work that are more important.

To be continued…

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Comment by Thomas Ritter on January 2, 2010 at 3:53pm
Very true. It's important that the horse flexes not only at the poll, but that the entire neck arches. You often see horses with a straight neck, and a kink at the top, so that the head may be vertical, but the withers are dropped, the horse is on the forehand, and the back is not swinging. When the withers are raised, the entire neck flexes longitudinally, including the poll.
Also, if the longitudinal flexion is too tight relative to the degree of elevation of the neck, the poll comes too low, and the withers start to drop as well, so the horse falls onto the forehand.
I wrote this series of articles to explore the biomechanical factors that play a role in finding the right outline.
Comment by Jackie Cochran on January 1, 2010 at 5:29pm
Thank you for emphasizing that the horse can be flexed at the poll with the nose in front of vertical some. I think that the emphasis on the face being vertical or behind vertical is the cause of a lot of incorrect dressage movements, and on many horses I think it can put the horses more on the forehand.

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