Review: The Way to Perfect Horsemanship

I came to this book through reading Balancing Act by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann. Dr. Heuschmann references or quotes the author of this book, Udo Burger, many times throughout his own book. This is not by accident, for not only was Udo Burger a master horseman, he was also a veterinarian who made a study of equine biomechanics and the effects the rider has upon it. By the time I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Heuschmann I had finished this book and was able to thank him for linking me to it. Not only is this book valuable for its content, it is truly a pleasure to read.

I can find little information on Dr. Burger (1914-1985), other than that he was an accomplished horseman and veterinary surgeon. I have tried, on several occasions, to find photos, videos, or even a biography of him – to no avail. (If anyone reading this knows of any I’ve obviously missed, please leave a comment!). However, this insight, from the preface to the fifth German edition, makes him sound like a man after my own heart.

He was involved with horses from an early age, and even in his latter years became fretful if unable to spend some time every day in the company of a horse. … Renowned for the forthrightness of his diagnosis, he could be blunt when incensed by callous disregard of the horse’s nature. On the other hand, he would be tolerant and patient when his advice was sought by clients who were sincere in their desire for guidance.

Preface to the Fifth German Edition

At the time I first read this book, I was in the middle of a quest to read as many works with a classical focus as I could – old and modern. This one fell in the center of that spectrum, being originally published in 1959. While I read many excellent texts before and after Burger, his book stood out as being the most enjoyable. He has an easy prose, and a very philosophical bent – as well as getting into more technical aspects such as biomechanics. As a bonus, he often ponders the comparison between art and sport, a pet topic of mine. If I’d ordered a text written for me, I could not have asked for anything better!

Like Riding Logic, this book is not explicitly a Dressage text. Burger very much believed that every horse should have a well rounded education, and the basics applied no matter whether the horse was intended for the hunt field or the High School. This, too, aligns with my approach and beliefs. He starts the reader off with seven rules for the art of horsemanship:

  1. The natural movement must never be distorted.
  2. The beat must always remain distinct and regular.
  3. Proper balance must be established and continuously perfected.
  4. A saddle horse must have a conventional posture only as a result of the first three rules.
  5. The rider’s aids should never contradict the natural movement of the horse.
  6. No horse should ever be trained to specialise until he has completed his basic education.
  7. The aids must always be adapted to the degree of understanding and physical strength of the horse.

The last four of these rules I have condensed, as he elaborates on each of those in some detail. Although he goes on to describe the high art of the Spanish Riding School, he also counts among the followers of the art of horsemanship “true amateurs”, “serious students”, professionals, and “creative artists”. All must adhere to the rules.

The art of riding must always remain based on well-established principles. The essential basic requirements listed above are equally applicable to hacking, to competitive sport and to the High-School.

Page 25

The comparison between the art of riding and the sport of riding is a recurring theme throughout the book. He is clear that there are sacrifices the sportsman (he also calls them “craftsmen”) will make that the artist will not. That is the nature of a performance that must be completed by set rules and parameters, versus a performance focused solely on quality, that can flow freely as no boundaries other than nature are placed upon it. He notes the degradation that Dressage suffered by becoming a sport, but also honors the human drive for competition and the place it has in the equestrian world.

Keeping a horse is an expensive luxury and it is only sport that will continue to support the breeding of good horses and encourage people to learn to ride; the art of dressage would not have ensured the survival of the horse. All horse lovers should therefore be grateful to sportsmen who take up riding and prefer to satisfy their competitive spirit on horseback rather than behind the wheel of a motorised machine.

Page 30

I could wonder at what he might think of the direction breeding has taken in the decades since his death, or if he would see some of today’s sport as being worth preserving – but the sentiment is valid. If not for showing, there might not be many horses for the rest of us to enjoy.

Burger spends far more time than many authors on the personal aspects of the horse, especially the personality, and psychology. He clearly sees the tendencies and talents of each horse as inextricably tied to the training approach.

A horse is an individual and not just another creature. Before we can gain his affection and then develop his understanding and composure, we will have to discover that he has moods and can be aloof, exuberant, timid, impertinent, obstinate. He cannot express these moods by wagging his tail or even by snorting, but in our presence, alongside him or on his back, he will either tense up because he distrusts us or relax because he does not fear us.

Page 48

Even conformation is a factor he discusses in choosing a training approach. Have you ever been in one of those discussions of whether an Andalusian should be started in the same longer frame as a warmblood? Well, he has an answer for that.

This is not an instructional manual, but the usual classical concepts are there: honoring the nature of the horse, rider position and its effect on the horse, straightness and bend, collection, etc. He goes rather deeply into bits, their origins and use. Being a veterinarian, there is anatomy and personal observation infused into this section, explaining the action and effect of each type of bit. There is even some interesting argument for why many riders should ride bitless (which I plan to use in a later post).

Three particular areas of his approach resonated with me, as they were key elements of my education. They stand out as rather unique among the classical works I have encountered.

  • Tempo – more than any other author I have read, he speaks of the beats per minute of the gaits and how the different variations of the gait change the tempo of those beats. Outside of the hours spent discussing this with my own mentors, I rarely see this as a topic of discussion – yet it is a key element in correct riding. Here again he goes into the difference between the high art of Dressage (where tempo does not change between collection and extension), the sport of Dressage (where it necessarily changes between versions of a gait), and all other uses of the horse.
  • Biomechanics – this aspect is clearly seeded throughout the book, but it also has its own chapter. As a veterinary surgeon, with more scientific discovery and knowledge available than those who came before, he was uniquely positioned to provide instruction on how what was known to be good horsemanship actually works through the anatomy and biomechanics. This aspect makes the book invaluable in any rider’s learning!
  • “Sculpting” of the horse – Burger credits Felix Burkner with first coining that phrase. In the chapter “A Horseman’s Diagnosis” he discusses how a good horseman can look at a horse and judge the quality of the training based upon its physique. I was taught that thoroughly, many decades ago – but I find that knowledge has been waning. When I have pointed out the many flaws with the neck development of modern horses, I am told that the neck has nothing to do with movement. Those people have obviously not read Burger!

The shape of the neck of a the trained horse reveals more about the quality of the training than any other part of the body. … as a result of this work, the neck of the well-trained horse becomes broader, and the triangular space between the cervical vertebrae and the mane, so clearly visible before training, fills up.

Page 216

If there is a flaw in the book it is that there are not enough illustrations to accompany the discussions of anatomy, biomechanics and development. For those who are new to these topics, it will be a bit of a challenge to read through the first time – trying to keep the various muscles and their roles straight. But it is critically important information to learn if you wish to further your understanding of the horse. So, take your time and stick with it! If you find that those aspects actually fascinate you, be cheered to learn that he co-wrote another fine work specifically on those topics – The Rider Forms the Horse – which I will review at a later date.

Felix Burkner on Herder, from Burger’s other book, The Rider Forms the Horse – a clear illustration of sculpting the horse!

There is a generous spirit in this book – everyone is welcome in his world of horsemanship. He frequently calls out those who use gadgets and take short cuts; yet, even they are seen as being redeemable with the right guidance. He welcomes all who have taken horses into their lives. There is but one requirement.

Yet, when all is said and done, what matters most is the love of the horse and riding for pleasure is as worthy a motive as riding to win in competitions.

Page 254

For anyone looking to start their equestrian library, who are seeking to be a better partner to their horse (whatever your pursuit) this is one of two books that I recommend as your foundation (the other being Riding Logic). The broad and inclusive approach, in a truly enjoyable prose, makes this a book that everyone should enjoy. If you already have a library started, but have not added Burger, you most certainly should consider it. Only those who are far down the road in their High School Dressage education might not find need for this book – yet, even you might find it a delightful read. It is certainly hard not to enjoy a book written so affectionately and with such a broad and worthy purpose.

Unknown horse and rider, photo from the book

I did not write this book only because of my dedication as a veterinary surgeon to the welfare of the horse. It is a token of my love for the animal and of my gratitude for all the hours of pleasure that horses have given me. One of them even saved my life during a war. What can I give in return, except this book which may help riders to understand them better.

Page 254

If you need more, I found an excerpt from the book, on the subject of relaxation, on The Horse Magazine’s website.

4 replies

  1. It is such a shame that the USDF refuses to address the biomechanics of the horse’s spine in schooling. They even go so far as to block my comments and questions on the official blog

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are not alone – I know of many folks who have been blocked for trying to address similar. They don’t want to hear … and I believe protecting the horse is in their mission. Really sad, because they hold the power to influence.


      • Telling the USDF they should be in the forefront of explaining anatomically correct schooling practices to protect horses welfare is what got my comments black listed. Makes it all the more important to speak up how ever and when ever we can. So glad to know I am not alone tho!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Definitely not alone. Many have been trying for a while … some keep going, others have given up … and, sadly, still others have drunk the Koolaid and turned their backs on what they once knew in favor of the current dysfunction.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s