Review: The Gymnasium of the Horse

This book is one of the ‘bibles’ of classical horsemanship, and a foundational work for what was German horsemanship for a century or more. In reviewing it I run the risk of being seen as heretical – not because I would in any way challenge the content or legacy of this work, but because I will point out some flaws with it as a written work. I have mentioned them on some Classical Dressage groups with mixed response. But not every book is for every person, and it’s important to know what you are investing your time and money in. So, here I go!

Gustav Steinbrecht (1808-1885) was originally trained as a veterinarian, but soon found himself under the tutelage of Louis Seeger (1798-1865). Seeger was a devout follower of the teachings of Guérinière, and deplored Baucher. These attitudes are also reflected in Steinbrecht’s work. Steinbrecht worked with Seeger off an on, eventually becoming director of the “Seegerhof”. He later ran his own school, and was training horses until very near his death in 1885.

Steinbrecht actually died before the book was written. A few years prior to his death, he passed on a collection of notes he’d been composing for decades, intended to capture his vast knowledge, to his student Paul Plinzner. Plinzner in turn composed those notes into the first publication of The Gymnasium of the Horse (1884), including adding the chapters on canter, piaffe, passage, and airs above the ground, as his former riding master had not completed material for those topics.

By the fourth edition (1935), Hans von Heydebreck, a former student of Plinzner, takes on the task of again editing the content. With advancements such as photography, which illuminated once and for all the footfalls of the horse’s gaits, and improved scientific understanding of anatomy and muscle function, Heydebreck felt the need to update some of the content. It is important to understand the provenance of this work, as it leads to some conflicts and contradictions that I will explain later.

Let’s start with what this book is not. This is not a riding manual. There are no illustrations, photos, or diagrams. This book is an attempt to pass on a lifetime of knowledge to the serious scholarly equestrian. Understanding the material in this book takes a moderate level of knowledge; the application, an advanced level of skill and feel. I say that in part because I would say that about many books about riding – they are a great supplement to, but not a substitute for, direct knowledgeable guidance. I also say it because the original target audience for the work had far more experience with horses and riding than riders typically have today. After all, horses were an integral part of daily life in 1884.

If therefore the present work is written throughout in a popular, easily understood way, so that the kind reader can take it up just like any other entertaining book, it is nevertheless not intended for the layman. It is actually not what one understands as a guidance for training horses, a lesson plan so to speak for working the horse. Instead it attempts to immovably set the goals of the equestrian art, to show what means the horse’s nature gives us to attain these goals, and to explain how a system of gymnastic exercises that we call the training of horses can be assembled through appropriate use of these means.

Paul Plinzner, Page xii (2011 edition)

If you have read German National Equestrian Federation’s The Principles of Riding (earlier versions) or works by the likes of Seunig and Burger, the principles in this book will not be new to you. The aim to restore to the horse, under saddle, the natural balance and movement that our presence robs of it. The challenge of overcoming the horse’s natural crookedness in order to obtain straightness. The role of bending and lateral work (particularly shoulder-in) in these aims, eventually developing collection. The guiding principle is: “Ride your horse forward and set it straight!”

Where this book differs from those I mentioned, and other similar works, is that it came before them. The contents of this work guided those authors of those other books. It follows a long line of works, directly preceded by his mentor Seeger. It also differs in those that came after (and perhaps those that came before – I have not read enough earlier works to be sure) in its thoroughness on the subject.

If the art were not so difficult, we would have plenty of good riders and excellently ridden horses, but, as it is, the art requires, in addition to everything else, character traits that are not combined in everyone: inexhaustible patience, firm perseverance under stress, courage paired with quiet alertness. If the seed is present, only a true, deep love for the horse can develop these character traits to the height that alone will lead to the goal.

Page 47 (2011 Edition)

This book is more of a ‘study’ than a ‘read’. Take the seventeen pages dedicated to the shoulder-in. The author goes into great detail not just on the purpose and execution, but also the common flaws encountered, its effect on all of the other work, challenges posed by conformation flaws, and much more. The chapter is also infused with the history of the movement and its uses by past masters. The intent is not just to tell you how to ride the movement, but to help you fully understand shoulder-in at all levels. This approach is throughout the book – bending alone takes up seventy-eight pages!

As important as this work is historically, and in its influence on training manuals and riding rules that followed, some readers will find aspects that may be disturbing. There are many references to strong use of spurs.

The jab with the spur is the strongest and most emphatic influence with the spurs. It gives the horse a momentary, intense pain and, by injuring the skin, causes infection and swelling of the parts involved so that, for some time, the sensitivity at that point is even greater.

Page 10 (2011 Edition)

But even for the most violent and repeated spur jabs, all activity must be limited entirely to movements of the lower legs, up to the knees. Any visible participation of the arms or the upper body is annoying and bad manners.

Page 11 (2011 Edition)

I will confess that I struggle to get past such passages, which are peppered throughout the book. I am certainly no Steinbrecht – the world will not remember me with great awe and admiration, as generations have looked upon him. However, I find it a challenge to view the rest of the work for its full worth with the picture of spur jabs meant to cause lasting pain running as a thread through my mind and the text. To be fair, there are many other passages, throughout, where he refers to gentleness toward the horse – which is even harder to reconcile with the examples above.

Even Heydebreck notes the inconsistency in an end note in the bending chapters, referring to changes he has made to the original text.

I have omitted the “sharp” spur and called the rein action caused by an “iron firm hand” and a “hard” contact a “forcefully restraining” hand and “full” or “stronger” contact. … Although it is possible to enforce what looks like yielding with “sharp spurs” and an “iron-firm hand,” this can never be lasting because is causes the loss of self-carriage.

Page 109 (2011 Edition)

He goes on to note that Steinbrecht’s “other suggestions” include “gentleness, patience, and giving in”. The discerning reader should be able to find the gold in this book, while ignoring the more cringe-worthy passages. However, in my experience this “ugly” side of historic Dressage texts is far too often ignored when people talk about these vaunted works. I find this problematic, as there will always be those riders (far too numerous!) who will see it as license to practice the more deplorable aspects. As historically important a work as this may be, I also do not want to mislead any readers that I would endorse those aspects that may cause concern while reading the book.

The quote from Heydebreck brings me to one more aspect that makes the book a bit of an interesting, sometimes disorienting, study. Remember the complicated provenance that I mentioned at the beginning? With three accomplished horsemen having a hand in what is the last major edition of the work, it makes for some interesting contradictions. Heydebreck himself gives some reference to this.

Later our opinions diverged in some points. The reason for this was mainly that Plinzner, in view of the special demands of his responsible position, began to adapt Steinbrecht’s equestrian principles and teachings according to his own experiences to the specific requirements for that position. For me any deviation from Steinbrecht’s teachings, which were my equestrian bible, was always a sin against the holy spirit of riding.

Page xvi (2011 Edition)

Even this is an interesting statement as there are several end notes throughout the book in which Heydebreck corrects even the original text, assumed to be Steinbrecht’s (as with the item on spurs I quoted above). In this example from another end note, Heydebreck actually seems to correct both of the other men.

When Steinbrecht speaks in the same sense of the difficult side and the stiff side, he refers to the right side since he always looks for the cause of front difficulties and resistances in the rear, that is, in the hind legs. … The difficult side is generally the right side, but the left side is the stiffer since its neck muscles contract and are tensioned because of the crookedness so that lateral flexion in the poll becomes more difficult.

In the Third Edition, Plinzner changed the original language and mentioned the left side to be the more difficult side instead of the right, because it was his experience that this side was usually the stiff side without becoming aware that there is a difference between the difficult side and the stiff side.

Heydebreck, End note 6, Page 110 (2011 Edition)

I actually enjoyed Heydebreck’s end notes so much that I looked for works he might have authored, but was unable to find anything translated into English. Maybe someday.

Not all books are for everyone. As important as this work is, it is not my first recommendation to many who ask for a reading list – largely because they are not at an experience level for this book to aid them. My recommendation would be to consider this book if you are one or more of the following:

  • A rider with a good working knowledge of the concepts of bending, straightness, lateral work and collection, who wants to develop more in-depth knowledge on the subjects
  • Someone interested in the historic side of classical Dressage, who wants to study the methods of past masters, and follow the theoretical lines back through time
  • A person who subscribes to the practice of Tsundoku – as long as it’s on the shelf, you’ll always have the option to read it later!

Etching of Steinbrecht
Gustav Steinbrecht

My recommendation would be a first read-through of the book that ignores the end notes, unless you are practiced in scholarly reading. This will allow you to fully appreciate Steinbrecht’s information without the other voices echoing in your ear. It is a weighty enough work to absorb, due to the level of detail, without adding the diversion of sometimes contradictory end notes. Save those for a second read through, or a later study of a specific section.

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7 replies

  1. Check the recent US patent application for electric spurs. The rationale is almost for word from the passage you quote on spurs. Except for the claim that electric shocks don’t leave unsightly scars from infected sores. S

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Steinbrecht might have started as a vet but James Rooney DVM who founded the Gluck research center for performances wrote a book on horse anatomy and lameness. The research into the horse’s back and neural wiring is fascinating to the serious student as an accurate picture of how horses move means profound rethinking of what suppleness and stiffness really mean anatomically and neurologically. The Lame Horse is out of print but well worth chasing

    Liked by 1 person

    • One has to keep in mind what veterinary training would have been in the early 1800s. Even Heydebrack acknowledges that ny the 1930s we knew so much more … and we keep learning. I am familiar with Rooney’s work, my former coach haing a biomechanics obsession, absorbing all new info that came along.


      • Glad to hear that. And i wish more people were obsessed w/ biomechanics and willing to rethink how treat their horses. The 75% of riding horses whose riders are oblivious to their lameness need all the help they can get.
        So please keep writing!

        Liked by 1 person

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