This inspiring article appeared in EuroDressage.com January 2,2015.
With compliments to author for her research and storytelling, it is curated herein:
Posts from the ‘Spanish Riding School’ Category
This inspiring article appeared in EuroDressage.com January 2,2015.
I don’t remember having ever before felt separation anxiety from a thing…much less a book. But last week, soon after I delivered Charles Harris’s Workbooks from the Spanish School 1948-1951 back to the local Inter-Library Loan portal, I realized I was afflicted. I’d had use of…was possessed by …. Workbooks for two months. The effects of my reading it, re-reading it, pondering it, sorting it, re-sorting, now writing about it, are simply profound. My riding, the qualities of motion of horses I ride, and the competence of riders I influence is undeniably enhanced by this, my first interlude with Charles Harris. It recalled for me so much that I forget I know to practice.
I have to tell you about this book.
Although JA Allen did earlier publish three Charles Harris manuscripts, including a photo essay with Colonel Charles Hope and Charles Harris self-published a pamphlet, Riding Safety and Riding Negligence, Harris penned those works intending them for publication and distribution.
Charles Harris himself never intended his Workbooks for publication, but only for recording his lessons, insights and intellectual ruminations during his three years of study in The Spanish Riding Academy of Vienna, which we now know ( and I personally revere) as the Spanish Riding School, or SRS, for his own use, to facilitate his own learning, and for later review.
But by the sagacity of Charles Harris nephew, attorney Robert Sherman, who, not himself a horseman, got to know his uncle so well by audio taping conversations between them during Harris’ waning years, the publication of Workbooks, prefaced by Sherman, foreworded by Daniel Pevsner, FBHS MSTAT Pupil, The Spanish Riding School of Vienna, complemented by a 90 page biography comprised mostly of transcription of the taped interviews, and including all 681 notebook entries with reproductions of Harris’ own pen and green ink drawings and diagrams, was accomplished.
The foreword by Daniel Pevsner states that Harris’s focus, as his career progressed, became riding safety. I note that few entries in the Workbooks are concerned with safety. But surely Harris was surrounded with, made aware of, and adopted, safe handling and riding practices at The Academy.
If a theme is to be drawn from the Workbooks which, I repeat were never intended for publication, it is that “if dressage is about anything at all, it is about equine locomotion.” Harris, already a Fellow of the BHS when he entered The Spanish Academy, became fascinated with the analysis of horses’ gaits, including how a rider’s way of sitting on a horse affects a horse’s gait, not only in the moment, but trains an affected gait.
Harris finds himself disabused of the precept that a riders shoulders should parallel a horse’s shoulders and and a rider’s hips should parallel a horse’s hips on arcs and in lateral work, as they do when traveling straight. He realizes that any twisting of a rider’s spine impairs “bracing the rider’s back” and that concussion of the horse’s motion, absorbed by a twisted rider’s spine, damages the rider’s spine. Instead, the rider’s shoulders and hips should parallel the ground and be perpendicular to the radius of the arc of the horse’s spine above the horse’s center of gravity. Many entries explore technique and timing of bracing of the back, to move with, rather than to “follow,” a horse in Free Forward Movement.
In his analysis of gait, he was especially bemused by gait tempo. He attempted to sort through the concepts of tempo in relation to rhythm, pace, and cadence, and evidence in the Workbooks is that he never figured out tempo. Or cadence. I don’t think less of him for this failure…He was a Brit immersed 24/7 in a school where no other human being, except a single fellow student, spoke English. (period) And, it occurs to me while listening to From the Top on NPR as I type, that he had no musical training, from which lexicon he could have drawn correlative concepts. The failure to realize that tempo is merely hoofbeats per minute, might not even be a failure. Maybe, at the “uh….duh!” moment, he simply failed to record in the Workbooks this discovery.
I did not find myself enthralled by the good luck, bad luck, good fortunes, misfortunes, and controversies of his life as decanted by his nephew-biographer.
But I loved the anecdote of Harris visiting his protegé Pevsner at the studio of no less than Nuno Oliviera where Pevsner was studying while awaiting his own admission to the Academy: Harris arrives, thrilled to advance his own knowledge in the hall of renownded master Oliviera, joins the gallery, and is so excited by what he sees that he can’t keep his mouth shut…and voices his complimentary insights to other observers. Oliviera cannot hear what Harris is saying, and if he could, might not have understood the languages in which Harris spoke, but is annoyed by Harris’s engagement of the gallery…His, Oliviera’s gallery. So Oliviera challenges Harris to get on a horse and demonstrate his riding competence. Or to “put your butt where your mouth is,” I have heard other horsemen say. Well, Harris had traveled without riding attire, and upon divulging this, was offered a pair of boots, into which he horned himself, but no breeches. In travel pants, legs already throbbing from ill-fitting boots, Harris mounts the horse presented, and proceeds to walk it about the school, on loose reins, chatting with the onlookers and occasionally stroking the horse. As the story goes, his introductory cues to the horse were invisible to the gallery, and no one seemed to notice that the loose reins had become long reins, then the lightest of contact, or that the horse was moving magnificently, still at walk. So the gallery becomes impatient, vocally impatient, and friend Pevzner says something like…”ok Charles, it’s getting late, you don’t have to prove anything to me. Let’s go to dinner”…which Harris seems not to hear…as the horse walks from a corner to the center of the school where, to the amazement of all those still looking, the horse joyously piaffes, perfectly balanced, invisibly cued, absolutely correctly, for untold strides, after which the horse walks purposefully onward. Disgruntling Oliviera to call out “I trained that horse!” to the hushed and now mesmerized audience. (QED, I would have whispered, paatting the neck of my partner in proof.)
The 681 entries of the Workbooks fascinated me. Of course they are a jumble; Student Harris records his lessons and insights in the order in which they are presented to him, by his instructors, the horses, and the environment, and/or the lights go on for him. But I knew I was on good footing immediately upon reading entry #1, which I failed to record verbatim, because, since my own first introduction to the concept of clarity of gaits, I have held high among all absolute equestrian truths, that a horse’s diagonal canon bones move parallel to each other in natural (as differentiated from artificially affected) trot, in all modulations of natural trot, at all variations of tempo of natural trot of which an individual horse is capable. Harris’ entry #1 is focused on parallel diagonal canons level with opposite parallel diagonals at extended trot. With a pen and green ink abstract diagram to illustrate! First entry, and the editors and publishers swear in writing that this is the order in which the entries were made in Student Harris’ notebooks. And, that’s where I left the green silk ribbon bookmark when I returned the book.
Earlier this week, I was still feeling separation anxiety, when the results of 2011 Aachen Dressage were disseminated, including youtube videos of both Steffen Peters astride Ravel and M.A. Rath aboard Totillas. I was not surprised to read (and hear) that the spectators at Aachen, the best educated Dressage spectators in the WORLD, whistled for 75 seconds to sound their disapproval of the judges scoring Ravel second to Totillas in the finale Kur. Did the College of Judges hear them? I don’t know. I trust the College of Judges will get the message…eventually, if not by London 2012, hopefully by Deauville 2014. I was, nevertheless, feeling compelled to weigh in… to post and critique the videos of Ravel’s and Totilla’s tests against our ideals, but was distracted by the needs of horses I steward.
Coming back to this issue ( oh, how I hate that word, issue, in this context. Doesn’t that mean a progeny of a marriage? a child? or a foal?) I decided to go surfing. And soon before my eyes appeared a stunningly superb example of nearly ideal trot, by the body of…really?.. an Orlov’s Trotter ridden by Russian Young Rider Alexandra Korelova in Grand Prix testing at Aachen 2009.
So, toward better understanding of the ideal, I offer this video of Balagur. Actually the horse’s canter is also quite nearly ideal. But I must say that the collected and extended walks are disappointing, not enough, if any, overstep at extended walk, and not through, although still clear, in collected walk. Walk performance gets double coefficient by current rules, as they should, so that’s good enough reason for this performance to have not scored 80. But the trot, collected and extended, passage and piaffe are exemplary, and the canter is right up there!