Review: Ridden

This book spent a few years on my wish list on Amazon. I was intrigued by it, but I was shy of spending money on modern works about Dressage. I had already purchased a couple that I found wanting. Still, the approach this book claimed to take was intriguing, so it remained on the wish list.

As time passed, I found myself friends on Facebook with a woman who ran a riding therapy program in the Netherlands. Her classical training knowledge was clearly sound, based upon what she posted and conversations we had in shared groups. She was a vocal critic of the modern training methods of rollkur and various other forms of hyperflexion. I enjoyed our interactions, and the knowledge she freely shared. Then one day an ad came to me from the publisher of this book, and the penny dropped – my Facebook friend was the author of Ridden! So, of course, it was time to buy the book.

Dr. Ulrike Thiel brings an impressive pedigree as author of this book. As the publisher lists it: “a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, sport psychologist, dressage rider, riding instructor, judge, and Xenophon Society classical trainer” (Trafalgar Square Books). To that list I would add, ski instructor (more on that later). She currently operates the HippoCampus Institute for Equitherapy and Equine Sports Psychology in the Netherlands. All of this background feeds into her approach to this book, her second published work (I have not found her first book, Die Psyche Des Pferdes, in English).

The core of this book is based upon classical training principles; however, the approach is very different, and for good reason. The classical works most people revere were written for an audience already approaching or at expertise in equitation. Many works, such as Gymnasium of the Horse, even come out and state that they are not written for a lay audience. The era in which Ulrike wrote her book is far different. The majority of riders today came to riding later in life, or returned after a long break, and many struggle to find (or afford) access to good trainers. This book is laid out perfectly for that audience.

I do not mean that in a derogatory way, either to the author or the audience. It is simply a fact that how you approach someone who has spent a lifetime in academic pursuit of a subject, often working directly with a master, is very different from how you approach someone who comes later to a subject and is often trying to learn on their own. The way Ulrike approaches the subject, using easily relatable non-horsey metaphors throughout, is very familiar to me. My former coaches had serious academic students as well as a large number of older wealthy students who had either returned to or started riding late in life. Although my conversations with my coaches were in-depth and detailed, I spent years listening to instruction that made liberal use of everyday metaphors to help the riders better understand issues of position, aids, training, etc. I watched how this approach helped achieve those ‘lightbulb moments’ and have used the same to great success.

Some have called this “dumbing down” of horsemanship – but nothing could be further from the truth! I have seen many a savvy professor ask a student to explain in plain English (or whatever your native language) what they have just said using their field’s jargon. The ability to do this is the surest sign of a person’s knowledge, and I have seen many self-proclaimed experts (across multiple fields) choke on just how to do it. That Ulrike uses this approach with such fluency is a testament to the depth of her knowledge.

Probably the best way to describe the approach of this book is to borrow some of the section titles from the early chapters of the book:

  • From Prey Animal to Dance Partner
  • Becoming Partners in Play
  • Horses are Relationship Animals

At its heart, the goal of this book is to help the reader understand the horse better – mentally and physically – with the aim of creating a deeper relationship than just ‘horse and rider’. Probably the thing that touched me the most about the book was how often she emphasizes that our relationship with the horse can be a motivator for the horse, and a reward in itself. This has been my life’s experience, but it can be very difficult to convince people that it is possible until they have experienced it for themselves. I have even had positive reinforcement trainers tell me how important the clicker/treat is to learning and to their bond with the horse. I have used this method, and there are specific areas where it can serve a purpose – but my experience is that the relationship is the most motivating, and least distracting, reward. The author addresses this difference beautifully.

We don’t want the horse to merely react to us as we are riding; we want him to think and work with us as an active partner in the dance.

Unfortunately, old-fashioned aspects of behavioral learning theory persist in the horse business, I think more so than in any other area. We often act according to the behaviorist approach, where every horse (“the learner”) is a “black box” – it does not matter that nothing is known about what goes on inside the box, because it simply requires conditioning the horse to stimulus response on the outside to train him.

Page 36-37

Perhaps my favorite concepts in this book are the “Dialogue of Motion” and the “Movement Plan”. At their core, there is nothing new here, but she lays the concepts out so clearly and returns to them time and again throughout the book. Put simply, the “Dialogue of Motion” is the continuous interaction between horse and rider as they work. The contact between horse and rider provides a unique opportunity to communicate on a most intimate level. She discusses how it is not just what we ‘say’, but how we ‘say’ it – and, importantly, that a dialogue is two-way. It should not be a military-style dialogue, in which the horse is simply expected to say “Yes, sir!” to orders we bark at them. As she puts it:

The rider and horse should be partners in a dance, each sensitive to the other’s movements.

Page 31
One frame from a set of images from a dialogue exercise for riders

The “Movement Plan” is a key element of the Dialogue of Motion. The author covers the physical and mental differences between reactive movement and planned movement. Planned movement is more comfortable mentally and physically for anyone – but particularly for the horse who must be able to move in coordination with the added weight of the rider. The goal is for the horse to be able to plan and execute movement on his own, based upon indications made by the rider. The concept, at its most simple, is well illustrated by this drawing from the book.

This is where the horse becomes a partner who is in control of his own movement, in response to the dialogue with the rider. The ultimate in self-carriage! But do not be led by this image to believe that it is simple to execute – there are a lot of mental and physical requisites for both horse and rider that must exist for it to work at its ultimate level. Her experiences as sport psychologist, rider, and riding instructor are on clear and effective display in discussing these concepts.

The author spends a good amount of time discussing the requirements for the rider – seat, aids, balance, and attitude. After all, we have to control all aspects of ourselves if we are to be the leading partner in our dance with the horse. She spends even more time on the training of the horse, and the rider as “Athletic Trainer”. This is where her history as a ski instructor comes into play. Having never learned to ski, I can only take her word for some of the material – but it all makes sense on the face of it. Some of the concepts she addresses in comparing a horse learning Dressage to someone learning to ski include:

  • Learning a new way to move
  • Developing mobility, power, endurance and speed
  • Finding joy in new ways of moving as motivation
  • Developing a relationship and communication (horse/rider, ski student/instructor)

She also uses a past fad in skiing instruction, meant as a shortcut, as a comparison to modern training methods meant to shortcut the process. Again, I will leave the skiers among us to validate this comparison, but I found it compelling.

There is a lot packed into this book – the role of the instructor, focusing on their relationship with the horse (a unique take on that); how to recognize well being in the horse; how riding can be fun for the horse. There are practical exercises, but mostly it is about principles and approaching the horse with understanding, helping him to become a willing partner. She intersperses research, several she led or was part of the team, in support of her points. She ties all of the information back to the classical training scale, and offers perhaps the best illustration of that scale that I have seen.

This version makes it clear that the elements of the scale are not strictly built upon each other in succession (as the traditional pyramid implies), but rather are all pillars that support the harmonious ‘dance’ of horse and rider.

The final sections of the book delve into the debate around modern training methods. The images can be disturbing, and she does not flinch away from using some famous riders in those images (although identities are obscured). I encourage the reader to take this section seriously. Although the book is nine years old, and many would say those extremes are no longer seen today, I caution you not to take that view. First, evidence still leaks out about some of these extreme methods in current use. Second, the method does not have to be as extreme as many of the photos in order to have the effects on the horse that she clearly outlines. Carefully look at some of the more ‘normal’ images in those sections for the signs of physical and mental damage she describes. Many top horses today still have those indicators of unhealthy training practices. Of particular interest to me is a study she conducted on one of my key indicators of a competition horse’s physical and mental state: how they leave the arena when the ride is over. So much can be told in those moments!

My original intent, for this review, was to recommend it mostly for those who are earlier in their classical riding journey, as this book is much more ‘user friendly’ than works typically recommended to them. Those who consider themselves more educated on the subject may not feel it is worthy of their time. However, recent comments in some classically oriented groups – justifying adrenaline as a necessary part of a horse learning, or that modern horses require a stiffer back to perform well – have caused me to change my mind. It is just as critical to understand the mental and physical nature of the horse as it is to understand the purpose to classical riding exercises. This book clearly lays out concepts that all but the most seasoned horsemen could benefit from as reminders, if not as new knowledge.

In fact, if I have one quarrel with the book, it would be the subtitle: “Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View”. With the exception of the modern competition and training sections (though even those methods can be found in other equestrian sports) there is nothing in this book that would not apply to any riding pursuit. The concepts, the exercises for understanding or improvement in the rider, the biomechanics, the horse and human behavior – all of those apply any time that we sit astride a horse.

On a side note, I found that the material in Ridden resonates very well with concepts laid out in Horse Brain, Human Brain. The latter has far more focus on the science, which is its purpose. In the nine years since Ridden was first published, science has gained greater interest in studying horses, particularly behavior, so there is more material now. Yet, Ridden is not short on understanding of those things science has more recently been proving – that is what a lifetime of learning from horses brings you. Ridden provides more of the practical application of the science that Horse Brain, Human Brain explains so well. If you happen to be thinking about a gift for a horsey friend, consider these two books as a set.

You can buy Ridden direct from the publisher, Trafalgar Square Books, and of course on Amazon.

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