Review: The Rider Forms the Horse

There are many who seek modern answers to questions that horsemen have been pondering for decades, if not centuries. There are those aspects that we have not fully understood until science had the tools to begin to explore them. Neuroscience is such an area, and a modern book like Horse Brain, Human Brain helps to lay out what we’re just beginning to understand about how our horses’ brains, and our own, actually function. However, there is much knowledge that has been around for far longer, and our understanding has not significantly increased in recent years – nor is it likely to in a significant way. The function and development of the horse’s muscles is one of those areas, and The Rider Forms the Horse lays out a clear map of those muscles, how they function, and how riding can improve or worsen their condition.

Originally published in 1939, The Rider Forms the Horse was co-written by two veterinary surgeons who were also top horsemen. Dr. Udo Burger, author of The Way to Perfect Horsemanship, was the chief veterinary officer at the Cavalry School of Hanover, and a highly esteemed horseman, judge, and teacher until his death in 1985. Dr. Otto Zietzschmann was a professor of anatomy at the School of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover.

This book is a reprint of the first edition which appeared in Germany in 1939! The photographs have been retained in their authentic form in order to maintain the integrity of the original book because the prints relate technically very closely to the text and should only serve to better illustrate the training of the horse to the reader.

The FNverlag categorically does not identify with the uniforms and any possible ideological associations!

Back cover (2003 edition)

Before I get into the content of the book, a word about the Cavalry School of Hanover and some of the photos in the book and this review. From the late 1800s through World War II, the School was the seat of some of the best training in Germany. I have heard differing opinions about just how classical the training was. Those who skew toward the much earlier styles of the Duke of Newcastle or François Robichon de La Guérinière sometimes decry the more utilitarian style of the cavalry schools. As with all forms of classical riding (and there are many that are labeled as such, as I covered in What is Classical?) the cavalry schools reflected their roots – you decide which style most appeals to you. Hanover was the source of many top riders of the mid-twentieth century – names such as Udo Burger, Felix Burkner, and Franz Mairinger, among many others. Theirs is the style I lean toward.

As for the photos, keep in mind that this book was written in the early years of World War II, at the top cavalry school in Germany. This history means that the riders in the original photos are all in Nazi uniforms. To my mind, their position in their country’s cavalry should not take away from the high quality of horsemanship they illustrate. But in this age of ‘cancel culture’ there are likely those who will not be able to get past that association. Dr. Gerd Heuschmann has used photos from this book in his lectures, and always gives a disclaimer as he received complaints early on. As you can see from the quote I placed above, even the publisher is careful to provide a disclaimer (and note that none of the original photos are on the book’s cover). So, I am following their leads to give you that warning.

The training of the working horse comprises three areas: dressage, exercise and obedience training. None of these should be accorded more importance than the other two.

The purpose of this text is not to give the reader training instructions and exercises which he can read in the rules of riding and other equestrian literature.

Page 87 (2003 edition)

A lot of information is packed into the 120 pages of this little book. It has the usual topics about the aids, carriage, and training the young horse. While all good information, those specific sections are thin on the ‘how to’ aspect. All of that is covered in more detail in Burger’s The Way to Perfect Horsemanship. The real value in this book is best illustrated by a pair of my favorite photos.

The first image is when the horse, Herder, is six years old and early in his training. His musculature is undeveloped, and his balance under the rider is still tenuous. In the second photo, we see Herder after six years of training. The transformation in his physique is obvious – most prominently in the neck and haunches. This pair of photos is the best illustration of the book’s title, and main focus, that I have ever seen.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to the horse’s anatomy – skeletal and muscular – and its function. The muscles of the back, neck, hindquarters, and forehand are all described in their locations and purposes. Those sections then go into specifics as related to the training of the horse for developing strength in each specific area.

For those not acquainted with just how the ‘stay apparatus’ of the forehand works, that lesson is provided at the beginning of the forehand section. This is an amazing feature of equine anatomy and function – the reason they can stand for hours without fatigue, and why they are one of the most efficient runners in the animal kingdom. It is something every rider should understand the function of, yet I find that few seem to.

It may be shocking to the modern rider that the abdominal muscles (what many refer to as the ‘core’) get merely one page for their chapter. Although they have a relevant function, it is far less important than many modern trainers like to emphasize. Most modern references to the horse’s ‘core’ seem to draw their ‘understanding’ from human anatomy, so you may be a bit surprised by how those abdominal muscles contribute to movement, and how they are actually best developed.

Where the book does discuss carriage, aids, and rider position, it is with an eye toward anatomy, biomechanics, and muscular development. This can be challenging to follow, at times, if the muscle names and locations are new to you. For example, they describe the muscles involved in creating the natural nodding movement at the walk, and the purposes they serve. The long paragraph devoted just to this topic refers the reader frequently to the anatomy diagram on page 30, as each muscle involved in the stride is referenced. If you have studied anatomy extensively, you may have no problems – but if you are new to the topic of anatomy and biomechanics, you may find that you have to read the paragraph several times before it makes sense. Thankfully, they always follow those more challenging passages with a much clearer message:

In the young horse the “nodding movements” are essential for unimpeded muscular activity. If the rider impedes the horse’s nodding movements, the quality of its gait is inevitably lost. During the course of consistent training the muscles mentioned above increase in size and strength and are able to carry out the same job by actively contracting without obvious movement of the neck.

Page 70 (2003 edition)

Perhaps my favorite chapter in the book is 9, wherein the authors discuss how the muscle development of the horse reflects the quality of the training. This was at the core of my own education, and I find myself automatically evaluating a horse at rest for those clues to the training they’ve received. Looking back at the photos of Herder, above, note the development of the neck. The greater arc to it in the later picture, the broadening of the base, and the filling in of that triangle just in front of the shoulder. Such development of the neck is perhaps the greatest indicator of good training. But don’t take my word for their importance – here is what Burger had to say in his other book.

The shape of the neck of a 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.

The Way to Perfect Horsemanship, Udo Burger

But chapter 9 does not just leave it at describing the signs of good and bad muscle development – for each muscle group it also describes what work will develop them properly. This is a chapter to revisit often, as you train and develop your own horse.

Chapter 12, “Basic Principles of Training” is another personal favorite. Although short in length, it is long in philosophy. The authors’ affection for the horse is reflected in their many references to kindness, friendship, and doing things that bring the horse pleasure. Their goal, of course, is a highly serviceable horse with a cavalry focus – not a fancy, showy competition horse. But that makes the advice all the more valuable, as we should all want horses who are happy, healthy, and destined for a long life. The authors are actually critical of those who only school their horse in the arena, with their sole focus on Dressage. They advocate for a well rounded education meant to develop a horse sound in both body and mind.

Through training the rider can influence the horse in varying ways: he can turn it against him for ever as a result of bad experiences, secondly, that the horse’s will is broken, it is taught to be passive, long suffering and submissive, and thirdly, the ideal: the horse willingly and trustingly uses all its strength, skill and concentration to carry out what the rider asks of it.

Page 87 (2003 edition)

The Appendix of the book completes this as a valuable reference to keep at hand. In it the authors list all of the muscle groups, their origin, insertion, and function. They are grouped by the area of the anatomy, such as the head and neck. In my copy, the back cover folds out to provide a handy anatomy diagram that you can refer to as you read about those muscle groups.

The books is easy to read, overall. Those new to equine anatomy and biomechanics may find challenges in following some passages, but it is well worth the effort. If you have not read Burger’s The Way to Perfect Horsemanship, I would recommend reading that book before this one. Although it is longer, it provides the baseline for everything that is in this book, and will aid someone who is early in their learning journey before tackling this subject matter.

The philosophical aspects of this book are an excellent reminder to all of us about our relationship with the horse, and the need to be a benevolent leader. But the absolute greatest value in this book is as a reference for the function and development of the physique of the properly trained horse.

In the forward to this book, Klaus Balkenhol says the book “should be compulsory reading for all those professionals or keen horsemen who want to study the training of the horse in a responsible manner.” I can think of no better way to describe my own feeling about this book. If you have an interest in understanding how riding and training physically affects your horse, beyond just basic fitness, this book should be on your shelf, well flagged or marked, and referred to frequently.

A handy anatomy diagram inside the back cover

Unfortunately, as I wrap up this review I find that the book may be difficult to locate now (surprising as I only bought mine 3 or 4 years ago). Amazon has it listed at $100 or more – please don’t pay that! I did find it online at Kingston horse supplies for $29.95 (I did not check shipping). If you happen to locate it at other sellers for a reasonable price, please do share the link in the comments below.

6 replies

  1. Udo Berger’s ‘The Way to Perfect Horsemanship’ is also priced weirdly. It was $69 new and used on Amazon when I first looked for. Now they have new copies available for 21.59 a copy but limited supplies. I also wondered of it was the same author and the right subject they also have the title proclaiming that it is about building barns etc. Maybe even Jeff Bezo’s is staggering under the volume of e-shopping of late.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, ha … we can only hope! 😄 Someone on Facebook pointed out the title problem, but someone else assured it was the right book. Funny to think they started out a book seller …


  2. The Rider Forms the Horse is one of the very few dressage books past and present that actually mentions the serratus ventrales muscle. Horses do not have a collarbone, so the ‘fingers’ of the serratus ventrales reach down from inside the shoulder blade and attach to the ribs. But they are not visible so their importance is ignored.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, far too many STILL make vague comments about ‘core muscles’ and draw arrows that miraculously and misleadingly transfer energy from the back feet to the horse’s head. It has been about 80 years since this book was published, and there has been more research since. Time for the ‘science based’ trainers to ante up and start acknowledging the evidence!

        Liked by 1 person

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