Train Your Eye – Josef Neckerman

I had the privilege of having as my early coaches two people who were not only top notch horsemen, but also outstanding judges. One was even said, by one of the most respected international judges of the time, to have the best eye for judging a horse’s performance. We would spend hours watching what was then high tech video – the VHS tape – of top European competitors. We’d discuss what we were seeing, asked to explain our reasons, and even discuss what might have led to any errors – training shortfalls, momentary glitches, etc. At local shows I would be invited to sit with them, and comment on the rides, and I spent hours scribing. I polished my eye and my analytical skills.

I recently found myself putting those skills to use in aid of someone who was trying to understand why content in a vintage video was better than modern riding. Too often these explanations are short and judgemental, one way or the other, and many a rider who is early in their journey can be forgiven for getting profoundly confused. So, I sat down and wrote her a lengthy (though not all-inclusive) explanation of what I was seeing and key points she could look at to begin to train her eyes. This exercise led me to the idea of periodically doing that here, as a way to help others further develop their eyes.

My plan will be to show a video, give you a chance to evaluate it, then share my thoughts on key observation points, and have you review the video again. However, as an introduction (and because this video is rather long), for this one I will share the points I wrote on the Facebook post (and a few others), so you can look for them on your first review.

This video focuses on Josef Neckermann (1912-1992). I knew little of Neckermann, save for that I really like most of the images and videos I have seen of his riding. It turns out that he has an unfortunate history in relation to World War II, being a business man who took full advantage of the situation. It does not give me a good impression of him as a person (though he did serve a prison term and had to pay the man whose business he took over) – but this exercise is about watching his riding, not judging or praising him as a person. He was a multiple Olympic medalist (1960, 1964, 1968, 1972) and World Champion (1966, 1970), making his riding worthy of study.

General notes: for my taste, the horse’s head and neck seem a bit contracted and high, which appears at times to have a negative effect on the back (some piaffe work doesn’t ‘sit’ as you would want). However, it is also possible that it is something about this horse, as I have seen many images of Neckermann riding other horses where this was not a concern. Overall, there is little to complain about here. Watch how quietly the rider sits, particularly how quiet the legs are as compared to most top modern riders we see. (The first minute are just miscellaneous scenes, which you can skip if you’d like.)

Canter pirouette (1:17-1:25): notice how fluid the steps, how centered the hind legs stay, and how much the horse ‘sits’ with each stride. The horse’s trunk stays well centered over the legs, showing excellent balance. Compare to modern versions, where hind and front legs are often wide and even flinging. There is a fluidity here you do not see today.

Passage and piaffe (1:32-1:49, 2:36-2:50): again you see a fluidity that is lacking in modern riding. In most modern passage you get jerky movement and hovering – here the pause in the stride comes from the ‘cadence’ or sinking and holding in each landing step, followed by a soft thrust upward in each stride. The piaffe is not perfect, as they are schooling, but again there is a fluidity and ease there that is absent in modern riding and the earlier video. There is a lightness in the front end, showing the true engagement we seek. A hint at how light is the fact that the front pasterns, typically longer and more mobile than the hind pasterns, stay rather upright with each step, while the hind pasterns sink deep. Watch modern versions and you typically see just the opposite. No clearer indication of where most of the horse’s weight is being carried! But watch also for uneven steps, and particularly any steps where the front leg moves backward (happens more on left front).

Halt (1:51-1:55): although it takes a couple of steps to get there, it is perfectly square and immobile, poll clearly the highest point and nose well in front of vertical. But note, particularly, how the hind legs are under the horse and ready for what comes next, as compared to most modern halts where the hind legs remain behind the bulk of the horse.

Reinback (1:55-2:10): note how the hind legs stay under the horse, never trailing out behind as you see often today; niether are the front legs shoving the horse backward. Instead, the legs are lifted and placed backward with each step, never straying too far behind the balance of the load. Here you can clearly see, because it is almost slow motion, the effect of the pelvis tilting and the hind joints flexing, causing the croup to lower and the front end to appear to grow – both in the backward steps, and especially in the forward transitions.

Collected trot (2:11-2:14): as the horse trots out of the reinback, note how the landed hind leg always thrusts the horse up and forward as soon as it reaches vertical – it never is behind the horse’s mass, as you very often will see with modern horses. Just as with the pasterns I mentioned above, this is a critical clue to the engagement of the horse. When the hind leg trails behind the horse before it pushes off the ground, it is by nature pushing backward not upward, and therefore cannot be collected.

Piaffe in-hand (2:15-2:25): a nice effort, but note how the horse is beginning to come backward with the front legs, signaling that the balance is not quite right. Still, far better than much of what we see today, as the steps are rather more light and regular.

There are several miscellaneous scenes of the barn, bridling, etc. You can watch through, or just skip to the next area of note.

Extended trot (4:44-5:07): you can see that hind legs are barely past vertical before they thrust the horse up and forward, even in an extended trot (which, by the way, is actually supposed to still be a collected gait) – this is all but non-existent in modern riding, where you frequently see trailing hind legs. Also note in this section that it is again fluid, not jerky or goosestep-like. The legs are flowing forward from the swing of the shoulder – not snapped up in a rigid fashion, and the front foot always lands where it is pointing. In modern riding you most often see front legs flung up and out in a flashy way, but then they drop down and backward because there is no real thrust from behind. The video obligingly shows this pace in regular time, followed by slow motion where you can really see the fluid and purposeful reach, with a soft landing. Ideally, to be classically correct there should be a little more reach allowed in the horse’s head and neck, which would result in greater reach in the stride (the leg can only land below the nose, not in front of it), but it is still an admirable effort.

Half-pass (5:08-5:16): note that the legs are not being flung away from the body, but stepping regularly and fluidly across under the mass of the horse. The changes are also fluid, as the horse in this balance is very agile and able to change direction and step while hardly missing a beat.

The video is rather long, and I have already gone on long enough myself. There are other scenes, with other riders – some moments better than others, ending with scenes of Olympic rides, which are definitely a mixed bag. But with the information above, you can likely start to pick the good from the not so good (I did not say bad, as most of this is so far superior to what we see today, that I can hardly call it really bad).

I will only make one more note – at 7:12 he walks off and drops the reins. Notice how calm the horse is, and how he casually reaches his neck out and down as he walks. No jigging, no need to hang onto the horse, as you too often see today. Also, look for a little surprise at 9:30, and compare the horse’s reaction to what we see today.

Some day I may come back to this video and discuss the Olympic scenes, as there are some interesting points there. But hopefully this video, and my comments on what to look for, have helped you start to see things you might have missed or not understood before. There may be things you see that raise questions – feel free to put them in the comments below. But the key thing you should see here that is typically missing from modern competitive Dressage is that fluidity of movement that comes from proper development and engagement.

Hope you enjoyed this exercise!

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