Traditional Dressage / articles
THE SEAT CONDUCTS -
by Egon von Neindorff, translated by Dr. Thomas
"The equestrian technical jargon has ambiguous terms that have become open to misinterpretations through many different usages. Even basic concepts such as "Relaxation" and "Weight aids" are among them.
Their meaning must be explained again and again in order to eradicate misunderstandings in practice. For this purpose, a book from the last turn of the century is lying before me with the title "Natürliche Reitkunst" (Natural art of riding).
It was written by a man who combined both practical skill and theoretical knowledge uncommonly well: Lieutenant colonel Otto de la Croix (d. 1908) and discusses topics that are as relevant today as they were then.
His experiences and thoughts are so present that I shall take the liberty to repeat them in his words as much as possible.
This master and teacher is among those who hold that it is above all the back as an elastic bridge between forehand and hindquarters that determines the movement under the rider's weight, along with the horse's' natural crookedness and the activity of the haunches.
According to him, the correctly understood relaxation is to be found in "the race horse that is fully extended at the gallop, as well as in the haute école horse that is maximally collected in the levade."
The highest tone and activity of all the necessary muscles is an integral part of it, while their complete voluntary surrender precludes any disruption of the impulsion that floods the entire horse from the hind legs to the reins.
This means that the horse must refrain from bracing his muscles; and furthermore, no part of his body must be impeded in freely unfolding its natural activity by stiffness, clumsiness, or lack of flexibility or muscle tone..
I cannot think of a more accurate or concise way of describing the naturally numerous factors of true relaxation in the horse.
In the same clarity, the author says about the natural rhythm of the footfall sequence:
Swinging "with the regularity of the pendulum of a clock", the uninterrupted alternation between flexion and relaxation of the muscles results in the regularity of the gaits.
This requires not only the ability to relax completely, but even more so - and this is even more difficult - the absolute willingness and ability to flex the muscles to the utmost degree, refined to a playful execution in any demand (i.e. at the same time relaxation and constant readiness to flex, the opposite of slackness)!
For if the driving aids are discontinued, any contact with the rider's' hand ceases along with the impulsion from the hindquarters, until the horse "falls apart".
Since now the seat and legs are reluctant to drive, while the hand is afraid "to carry anything"... (Apparently even back then relaxation was often confused with slackness - e.g. labelled "English school").
However, the web of muscles can only cooperate elastically when the musculature flexes correctly as a whole, i.e. only when the back is used correctly. For "it is only on the back mover", the horse with strong and elastically swinging back muscles, "that the rider sits softly and quietly".
And it is only the effortless coordination of muscle flexion and precisely matching relaxation that turns the large "back spring" into a "gait producing and gait maintaining connection between forehand and hindquarters".
Modifying the flexion of this back spring in various ways is true control over the horse's energies and enables their development. The security of the gait as well as the preservation of the horse's legs rests above all upon the use of his back muscles.
The rider's seat on the horse's back is the closest connection between both: At first the rider's weight weakens and impedes the back's natural function. It also transmits the seat aids to the horse, however. It is the individual responsibility of every rider to apply these correctly in order to establish the common balance of horse and rider at every moment in the footfall sequence, i.e. the permanent harmony of the movement.
The rider's seat is thus the key for the correct effect of all other aids.
REGULATOR AND MODULATOR
As mentioned in an earlier article, I explain the correct effect of the rider's hand to my students by a comparison with a sieve: It must not interrupt the flow of the movement from the hind legs to the chewing mouth, but sift it, as it were. That corresponds to the rider's appropriate seat aids, based on the correct interaction of weight, and "Kreuz" (seat bones, and abdominal and shoulder muscles, TR).
The rider's weight determines in particular the position of the common centre of gravity depending on where the rider shifts his own centre of gravity.
The seat bones affect the activity of the back and the hind legs differently depending on how heavily or lightly the rider is sitting. The Kreuz "maintains and enhances the currently induced position of the centre of gravity as well as the direction of the pressure of the seat bones on the horse's back".
Although all three effects intermingle, the rider can determine each one separately: e.g. the racing seat with the rider's centre of gravity shifted far forward is very different from the deep seat of the school rider.
The intensity of the flexion of the rider's Kreuz thus independent of the two other seat effects, and one distinguishes riders with "much" or "little" Kreuz, accordingly. (This says nothing about the rider's individual physique, however, but only about the use of his abdominal, back and shoulder muscles in the saddle).
Wilhelm Müseler has illustrated the mechanics of the Kreuz effect in his famous "Riding Logic" with the example of a child sitting on a four legged stool and tilting it forward by bracing the Kreuz muscles.
Similarly, the rider's Kreuz transforms the gravitational pull of his body into a more or less determined pressure forward, when it is placed forward in the saddle along with his hip joints.
The thoroughly educated rider can achieve this effect not only with a vertical upper body position, but also in a forward seat. If his Kreuz is thus working in the same direction as the forward swinging hind legs, it prevents the loss of the achieved degree of collection in the movement.
De la Croix called this function of the forward placement of the rider's hips very aptly "analogue and at the same time correlate of the hand".
For the Kreuz determines the degree of flexion for the hindquarters and the position of the centre of gravity, as the hand does for the forehand. Both, united in an elastic interplay, maintain the horse in collection.
Kreuz and hand willingly absorb the pressure that corresponds to the tempo and the degree of the muscle tone of the horse's back, which means they also reduce their own muscle tone as the horse reduces his. However, the Kreuz is by far the more important aid.
The experienced trainer De la Croix also remarks that as soon as the horse tires of the collection, he will try to evade it by reducing the flexion of the haunches and by raising the croup.
Only the Kreuz, "sitting imperturbably through the thrust of the hind legs" can then induce the horse to realize his helplessness.
(The hand cannot accomplish this, since the excessive pressure against the forehand emanates from the thrust of the hind legs that is not immediately transformed into carriage to the necessary degree).
In all gaits, the Kreuz is, therefore, the rider's most important regulator of rhythm and stride length.
This goes especially across country: Unevenness’s of the terrain require different placements of the hind legs and front legs. This can interrupt the regularity of the movement.
The same thing applies when the horse stumbles or spooks in moments of surprise. Here the Kreuz absorbs the changed position of the centre of gravity as well by flexing more or less and by following the horse's movement appropriately.
"Following the centre of gravity's changed position and gently floating back into the old muscle tone and degree of balance"... ensures the beautiful, uninterrupted flow of the movement and thus resembles the valve of a machine that allows excess steam pressure to evaporate harmlessly.
Securing the established gait situation is the characteristic feature of the Kreuz.
FROM IMPULSION TO THE HALF HALT
This still highly interesting work on the "Natural art of riding" (last published in 1913), much discussed in the past, but difficult to locate nowadays, corroborates the key function of the Kreuz in the balanced motion: Leg and spur aids remain useless without utilization by the seat.
Even an experienced rider would then depend on his horse's good will. The respect that the often indispensable spur can obtain does not replace the main aid from the "midsection" placed forward in the saddle.
In other words, only correct seat aids guarantee the success of the leg aids and their amplifications by whip and spurs.
The hand must remain passive! It is not a lever to be applied actively, as De la Croix emphasizes. He uses a comparison similar to the sieve: The hand should be "merely a barrier that restrains the horse's excessive thrust (in cooperation with the seat and legs)". Its stillness ("steadiness") with the appropriate rein length abnegates any active backward work with the hand.
However, it must "absorb diligently what the impulsion from the hind legs places into it"! This is the only way to maintain the necessary tension in the back spring.
The hindquarters find the corresponding support in the ground as well as in the rider's adhesive Kreuz in the saddle: The more the Kreuz absorbs the impulsion from the hind legs, the more the horse flexes his back muscle through the thrust of the hind legs, and the less pressure arrives in the rider's hand (provided the back and hind legs are strong).
Horses with "weak muscle texture", on the other hand, often cannot produce the flexion and hence impulsion necessary for the demanded tempo merely by stepping far underneath.
These horses need a point outside their own body to help them flex their muscles. The hand must provide it.
But even here it is not the hand that does the real work: "It is the Kreuz here as well!"
The hand is attached to the Kreuz via shoulders and arms, and when a horse pulls, the difficulty is not to set the hand, but to keep the Kreuz "imperturbably still".
If it successfully curbs attempts of the hind legs to free themselves, the horse will temporarily lean onto the hand, but only to recognize his own helplessness against the Kreuz - "If the Kreuz gives out, the hand gives out - without a good Kreuz a good hand is simply unthinkable!"
This is his most relevant argument and shall conclude the quotes from Otto de la Croix as a witness for hundreds of experiences cross country and in the arena.
This perspective also makes it obvious why effortless half halts and full halts in any gait are only possible with increased absorption from the Kreuz.
This goes all the more for the compensation of defectively conformed backs of horses that are less generously endowed by nature. Only the constantly toned Kreuz, which is justifiably called "driving", makes it possible.
If one wanted to take the time to train an especially well conformed horse without leg aids, merely with the Kreuz effect, one could do this, as the Old Masters certainly did with great time effort. But any less than perfectly conformed horse - i.e. the majority - will require the cooperation of all honest aids.
If the training is done correctly, these horses as well will require smaller and smaller leg aids toward the end of their gymnastic development. Only the road there varies in length from horse to horse. Finding the right measurement remains a matter of the correct instruction of the young rider and experience for the old rider.
THE URGENT TASK
As practice shows, learning to sit is the foundation for the equestrian beginner regarding his later Kreuz effects.
Every student learns today as in the past: The Kreuz is the connecting link between the rider's aids.
But anything that requires time and effort is not popular nowadays. In the teaching practice, the Kreuz effect is therefore often neglected, and all the student receives is a theoretical explanation.
Maybe it is simply the lack of role models who can show the young equestrians horses that are truly tuned to the Kreuz and who can train these horses themselves.
I am thinking here of horses that would piaffe and passage with deeply flexed haunches and very light rein contact - almost with a slack rein, but without ever sucking back, finally horses that would perform levades in this manner.
We only need to think of engravings by Ridinger and his contemporaries that portray the school movements without any leg aids in the greatest suppleness and in absolute obedience.
The old French style of riding that Guérinière refined, the stretched seat that the great riding masters demonstrated at the end of the 18th century, can unfortunately be found only in very few places today. Instead of the horse in front of the rider - only achievable through correct Kreuz effects - we see short necks and tense movements with a rigid back that throws the rider uncomfortably that are mistaken for impulsion all too often nowadays.
Instead of downward transitions and half halts without pulling on the reins, crude effects of the rein hand appear even in the show ring.
There is therefore not only a practical task here.
The transmission of better knowledge must be accompanied by an acceptance of discipline on behalf of the teacher as well as the student.
So far, young riders have generally responded well to correct instruction and the convincing example of the teacher.
The sacrifices in spare time, often also in hard earned money, always deserve careful instruction!
Seat and Kreuz effect as the key to secure control over the horse and to a preservative increase of the demands merit the first rank in the training plan.
Unfortunately, the reality is often a rushed training of the horse and superficial knowledge of many riders nowadays.
The disappointing consequences become especially clear in the example of the Kreuz effect, as Otto de la Croix puts it: "The truth is always brutally simple. However, it lies deeper, hidden from the superficial glance."
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