From Paris to Bathurst - Philippe Karl in Australia
Clinic Review by Anna Marsden
His message is familiar.
Those who’ve ridden with or studied Nuno Oliviera, Kyra Kyrklund, Jose and Manolo Mendez, Andrew McLean or Tom Roberts will recognise the principles espoused by Philippe Karl.
What’s so different about this elegant, cultured Frenchman with impeccable credentials as a top level rider and trainer? It’s his intellectual approach to riding and training and his detailed and systematic method of achieving the lightness and softness he advocates.
More than that, he is making a stand on behalf of competition dressage horses around the world against the forceful, painful and ugly way many of these horses are ridden and trained.
His four day clinic in Bathurst, NSW followed a similar clinic in Western Australia at Brookleigh Equestrian Estate.
The contrast could hardly have been more stark. Brookleigh is a veritable "mini-Versailles" – the Bathurst clinic was, well, a bit agricultural, set in the middle of paddock along a dirt road. But the wonderful sail-covered arena erected by Cath and Robert McDowell and the passing mobs of kangaroos added a uniquely Australian flavour.
Philippe Karl and Kath McDowell (Pic Alex Wickham)
Shelter from the wind is where you can find it!
The range of horses presented at the clinic was wide, to say the least. Two wicked but charming Welsh cob stallions, two lovely Australian stockhorses, the former Trakehner stallion Ziegel (now a gelding), the glorious silvery white PRE (Andalusian) mare Maid of Ice, the Clydesdale-warmblood stallion Mozzimo, and the former showjumper Holsteiner mare Ego Alyssum.
Philippe Karl gives a lesson the lunge to an over exuberant Welsh cob stallion
Maarit teaches Ziegel the flexions from the ground
The four day clinic was unique in other ways, too. I can’t think of any visiting dressage clinician who sat his riders - as well as auditors - down for two hours of theory at the end of each day.
Philippe Karl show Sabina his method of using the hands to obtain
flexions and to open the angle of the poll.
These classroom sessions were simply gold -- they gave both riders and auditors the intellectual underpinning to fully understand the methods and system espoused by Philippe Karl.
After a particularly impressive storm on the evening of the first day nearly brought down the roof over the arena, day two was spent entirely "in the classroom" at the Bathurst race course on the theory behind the practice. No-one could say after a day of numb rear ends that they didn’t have a chance to fully understand the way his method works
Most instructors, to one degree or another, talk in riddles. They tend to paraphrase the current doctrine – push, hold, again, more - but largely leave it to the rider to figure out how to achieve the desired end state.
Not Philippe Karl. His instructions are precise, and his explanations of why a particular technique works are based on a detailed knowledge of equine physiology and the biomechanics of both horse and rider.
He gives absolutely specific instructions on how to use the hands, the legs and the rider’s weight. Exactly how to raise the hands to elicit a open poll angle, precisely how to turn the hand to achieve a flexion, how far apart the hands should be carried (how often did we hear "separate your hands!).
Similarly, he is very precise about where the weight should be, particularly during lateral work. The rider needs to sit in the direction of the movement at all times in order to assist the horse’s balance.
He asked most of riders to do rising trot rather than sitting, and put them all onto the "incorrect" diagonal when doing lateral work – again, to assist the horse’s balance.
He gives clear explanations of how to introduce a horse to the use of the spurs – not only how, but why it should be done with care and delicacy. (It would be interesting to know how many horse in this country have been schooled to the spur, rather than simply have them applied!)
He also demystified a technique that few classical trainers will actually talk about – stopping to the spur. It turns out there is a sound physiological reason for it.
Philippe Karl is a true revolutionary. He doesn’t believe in simply modifying the current system. He wants the current dressage system turned on its head completely.
"It is time to get rid of the current dogmas," Philippe says. "Until recently, riding was centred on cavalry dogma. We are now riding for art and sport, not teaching the cavalry any more.
"I didn’t invent what I am teaching people. Baucher and de la Gueriniere had already said it.
"All the schools (Spanish Riding School, Cadre Noir) say they want to be classical, but they want to continue using side reins and tight nosebands.
"There is no "nice" way to use these things. Many people say they want things to be better for the horses, but they want to stay within the same system.
"I don’t fight the German system. I fight world wide bad dressage riding. In this system, low hands are a dogma- side reins are a dogma. Bending the horse’s body with the legs is a dogma. The system breaks too many horses.
"This is not OK. We can do much better. Nowadays there is no excuse for riding or training in a forceful way.
"The bad way of riding is great for business – breeders, tack shops, osteopaths all do well out of forceful riding. But too many horses are suffering as a result.
So what is classical training? And how is it different from competition training?
"Less power, more harmony," says Philippe. "It is the way the result is achieved that matters. In competition, often the result is all that matters. It should be difficult for the rider, easy for the horse.
"If the horse is not able to do something, it means either he is not physically able, or he doesn’t understand the aids. Gymnasticising is not teaching the horse the aids. Above all we must educate the horse to the use of our hand.
Chris Fowles and Annie (Maid of Ice)
At the core of his system is teaching the horse to mobilize the jaw. His technique for teaching this comes from an intimate understanding of the anatomy of the horse, The tongue, the glands behind the jaw, the sternohyoid muscle and ultimately the horse’s ability to use itself is compromised if the head is flexed behind the vertical by pulling hands.
"The placement of the tongue affects the whole of the front of the horse. If the tongue is contracted, it affects the poll, the neck, the jaw and the back. It is a chain reaction.
"Biomechanically, mobility of the lower jaw and tongue indicate relaxation. Ethologists have shown that the opening of the mouth and licking are a sign of submission. If you can create mobility you create relaxation and submission.
Understandably, Philippe is highly critical of the use of tight nosebands. "The tongue is highly sensitive and vascularised. Think what an hour or training with fixed low hands must feel like to the horse."
"There is a mouth at the end of the reins! The blood supply to the tongue can be compromised with continued pressure, and can cause it to turn blue and lose sensation. Many horses have a partially paralysed tongue from this.
"Tongue problems are a clear indication that the horse cannot stand the pain."
"The curb always acts on the tongue and eventually the lower jaw. It always acts backward – so it is both powerful and dangerous. It must only be used on an already compliant mouth."
Curiously, he believes that a fantastic seat is not always a good thing for the horse.
"Clearly, as long as the back is not prepared to accept the sitting trot, it can be agonising for both. Half pass and other lateral movements are often better in rising trot. . I know people who can only do rising trot who school their own horses better than those with a fantastic seat.
But he firmly believes that the fantastic seat can be used as a weapon against the horse. "It is often used as the best way to give rough aids.
He teaches his riders and horses firstly taught on the ground, then at the halt, and then through trot and canter.
First comes the demi-arret: no, this is not French for a half parade, or half halt. Its purpose is to mobilize the mouth, and to raise the head to achieve a lighter contact. It also changes the balance of the horse and opens the angle of the poll. It is achieved by turning the fingers to face upward and then lifting the hands so that the bit acts on the lips and the corners of the mouth.
Next comes bending the neck to the side, which is achieved without flexing at the poll or lowering the head. Each time the horse bends, the hands must give and become lower. If the horse tries to flex at the poll, a small demi-arret will correct him.
When the horse maintains the bend for a few seconds at 90 degrees to the spine, giving the rein will encourage the horse to extend his neck. The act of bending stretches the whole of one side of the neck, and encourages the horse to stretch the neck forward as it is released.
"The mane should be almost horizontal, and the nose in front of the vertical. This is most important. The horse should be ready to extend his neck at any moment.
"Next comes the question of turning – lateral flexion doesn’t mean you are going to turn. It is a question of balance – the horse must change his balance to turn. The rider needs to weight the shoulder on the side to which he turns.
"Bending the neck puts weight on the outside – if a horse loads one shoulder, it means he is always bent to the opposite side. The rein effect to use is an opening rein, with the outside rein on the neck.
Finally, comes the flexion of the poll, once the horse is thoroughly conversant with the other lessons. Ramener means a high neck, flexed poll and giving the mouth. But the rider must be able to extend the neck at any moment. "
The bay Welsh cob stallion Glenwood Shakespeare fairly exploded into the ring on the first day. His owner Sabina Helmgens had her hands full as the cob took exception to the high winds swirling around the arena.
Philippe said he would prefer to see the horse in a single jointed snaffle, rather than the double jointed one he was wearing, and preferably with side bars. "Double jointed snaffles are not softer," he said. He explained that the two joints sit perilously close to the bars of the lower jaw.
"Where the bit lies, the bone of the bars is very sharp. Therefore, you don’t need much pressure to cause inflammation and damage. Some vets have shown evidence of microfractures of the bone caused by rough use of the bit.
"You should be able to extend the neck whenever you want," he told Sabina. "Stretching the topline will develop his gaits."
With the quip "now I return to the Pony Club!" Philippe hopped aboard the cob and showed the little horse how to flex from the saddle, all the while looking supremely elegant and unruffled by the horse’s occasional athletic outbursts.
"Don’t think – oh this poor guy is having to teach such basic stuff, when I usually am teaching flying changes and piaffe. I never give a lesson to new riders without having to learn the flexions and mobilizing the mouth.
"People should not feel disappointed if they only walk in a lesson. If the rider cannot do a particular movement in the walk, they can forget about being able to do it in trot or canter!"
Next horse into the arena was the elegant, black stockhorse Blackhawk ridden by George Finlay. Philippe mounted Blackhawk, and took up a contact, then began to ask him to flex his neck. Philippe’s hands were raised and operated softly and slowly ask the horse to flex, first to one side, then gently to the other. Within moments, the horse began to extend his neck and came into a relaxed and round self carriage.
"People who don’t want to have the horse being held in with low hands usually have loose reins. But there is something in between. There is contact with the lips. The job of the hands is to explain to the horse, with a contact that is soft, not aggressive, not pulling. It makes them incredibly confident. But if you have low hands, you WILL pull."
Maid of Ice is every little girl’s dream horse – a silvery white, exquisitely feminine PRE (Andalusian) mare. She and her owner Christine Fowles of Grafton already are competing at Prix St George.
Presented in a double bridle, the mare showed what she could do with lateral work and flying changes. The work was precise though lacking expression. Philippe then mounted and rode on the snaffle only.
"Like many Spanish breeds, she has a naturally high head carriage. She has a tendency to shorten her gaits. If you don’t bend and extend her neck, she will get shorter still.
"She has learned to flex at the poll and shorten her neck. If you open her poll, and flex her back she will improve her way of going, so at first I want her NOT to flex at the poll.
"People think that a vertical nose means the horse must be well schooled. But if a horse cannot extend its neck, that is a big problem. It is missing the gymnastic effect of the bend and stretch, and the horse will become more and more limited.
"Putting the head down, though, is not the same as extending and stretching the neck."
"The best way to explain to the horse is from the ground, then from the saddle do the same. But it is much more difficult to teach from the saddle."
Gradually the mare starts to respond to Philippe’s hand aids, and begins to extend her neck forward, and to open the angle between the jaw and the neck. The paces begin to become more active, the steps longer. By the end of the clinic, the mare is showing dramatic difference in the elasticity and activity of her gaits.
Clinic organizer Cath McDowell and her very large mare Ego Alyssum were next to go. She is a very big mare, and Cath is very slight. Still, she managed to introduce the concept of the flexions to the mare, and to get her extending the neck and becoming rounder and softer as the lessons progressed. They spent a considerable time in walk, working to make the horse less tense, and showing her that rushing was not an option. By the end of the clinic, the improvement in her way of going was evident, after using flexions of the neck, many, many small circles, shoulder in on the circle.
Next into the ring is the grey Trakehner gelding Ziegel who has travelled for 14 hours from Gympie in Queensland with his rider Maarit Welling. He is by Spiegel and was until a few years ago, an ACE-licensed stallion.
Maarit has been doing her homework, and it shows. She’s already familiar with the techniques Philippe has come to teach. But, she says, she keen to see them "in the flesh." It’s easy to misinterpret a video.
Her raised and upturned hands have had the right effect in opening the angle of the gullet. All it needs is the fine tuning from Philippe to begin to show some really wonderful work in trot, especially the lateral movements.
"I’m not saying that you ride with raised hands for ever more. Lifting the bit in the horse’s mouth shows him you are not going to act on the tongue or on the bars. When the horse is relaxed and submitting, extending the neck when asked, you lower your hands when the horse assumes the position you desire. This is descente de main."
Ziegel and Maarit, like the others, show steady improvement through the four days of the clinic, and Maarit is clearly delighted at the confirmation of the way forward.
Philippe points out that humans aren’t great at being able to distinguish right and left terribly well with their hands. He cites an old party game as proof of this!
"Hands need to be able to move – right, left, up down, forward. The fingers should not be squeezed tight - the thumbs yes, but not the fingers.
"The German National Federation encourages "neutral" hands, with the horse’s mouth in line with the hand and the elbow. Hands held low like this actually encourage the horse to come up above the bit. One needs to lift the hands and then lower them when the horse extends the neck."
Separate the hands! If we heard it once, we heard it a hundred times! Riders were regularly reminded to ride with their hands about 40 centimetres apart.
"If your hands are flat, the elbows go out, and all you can do is pull," says Philippe.
"The reins are held firm with the thumb and first finger. You need three fingers to play on the reins. "It should be like taking that hand of a three year old child - you don’t do it breaking his fingers!"
Nadine O’Sullivan and her Clydsdale-warmblood stallion Mozzimo are in next. Nadine describes him as "enthusiastic", and Philippe ask if that means he pulls at times.
"He is a bright guy, a good horse with a talented rider, but the problems are a consequence of the current dressage system and the way we are taught to school horses. He is using your hands as a fifth leg.
"He has rather a low neck and if he is always ridden with a low neck, he will never use the muscles to raise it."
When Philippe gets aboard, Mozzimo is slightly surprised at being asked to halt with his head raised and an open gullet. A few steps of rein back follow the halts.
"I am using demi-arrets with my hands high to prevent the horse pulling down. You want to have only the weight of the rein in your hand. You want him longer, not putting the head down to use the power of his neck muscles to pull.
"Once he is in self carriage, you can use more leg perhaps even the spur to at little. He must immediately react to the legs – tap with the whip if he doesn’t. Keep him with no weight in the hand.
There are two ways to do dressage – either it is a fight with the neck, or else it is a conversation between the mouth and the hand."
Mozzimo’s work shows increasing balance and lightness during the third day, but sadly was unable to continue on the last day of the clinic due to a sudden lameness.
One of the real characters of the clinic was the buckskin Welsh cob stallion Rockfire Monarch. He’s only four years old but, boy, has he got personality! Ro Jelbart had the ride.
At first, the stallions was simply too distracted be able to do the flexions from the ground, so Philippe suggest that Ro hop aboard.
Being green, he had a natural head carriage, which Philippe praised. "For me, this is the right way – a young horse is not supposed to like a dressage horse. He must first be schooled."
Philippe suggested Ro keep the youngster busy with bending, voltes, and changes of direction. It was, he said, important not only to be in trot, but his BEST trot.
Later, Philippe had him lunging in small circles at the walk, changing direction every half circle in order to get the horse to focus on his handler. Then came work in hand to teach the horse turn on the forehand on the circle. It was a chance to teach him, too, that the whip was to be respect, but not feared – not used roughly, but listened to, all the same.
Last horse of each day was the lovely bay stockhorse Sara Oaks Alo Abby, ridden by 16 year old Carly Wright.
Carly began with flexions from the ground. At the halt, he was asked to bend his neck up to 90 degrees from the spine, but from the saddle, and at walk, the bend was less – 30 to 40 degrees.
When the horse came above the bit, the neck was bent again and he was encouraged to extend his neck, and become round again. His transitions and lateral work showed consistent improvement as Carly used the technique to keep him extending his neck with an open poll. It was all slow and deliberate, giving the horse time to understand.
Philippe is deeply unhappy with the conventional doctrine of dressage that the legs must support the hands.
"We need understand what Baucher said - legs without hands, hands without legs. The conventional system teaches a half parade to slow down, using the seat and legs. To stop, the rider is taught to actively use the leg. And to rein back, to use active legs into a resisting hand. This uses the leg more to stop than to go!
"Don’t be ashamed to use the hand, though not by pulling. If you use the hand, then shut up with the leg!. And when you use the legs, shut up with the hand. When the horse fully understands, you can combine them – VERY carefully!
"If the horse slows down, don’t use the leg again, use the whip to correct him. Use the legs to get more, or something else, but never simply to maintain the pace.
"Impulsion is the response of the horse relative to the rider’s request. The less you use the leg for a particular activity, the more impulsion you have. If you ask for a more forward trot and get a canter, make sure it a really forward canter! After a few tries, he will understand you want more forward at trot not canter, you don’t want him to be pulled up, or do a doing a mincing canter.
"If the spurs are being used every stride for say, half pass, then it is worth 3, no matter how spectacular the movement.
"Good western riders have a better sense of impulsion than many dressage riders.
"One hour of riding without quality is to doing nothing! To improve, you must do 100 per cent of what the horse can do, every day. If you keep ask for only 90 per cent, soon it will become 80 per cent.
And what is it that motivates the man himself? He’s waging a battle on behalf of horses of the world, and gathering converts and fellow travellers such as Gerd Heuschmann as he goes. But how did it all start?
"I started to ride when I was 20. I always wanted to ride but I couldn’t. First I lived in Africa, and then near Paris so it was not possible.
He initially began to study medicine, but had second thoughts.
"I didn’t want to take up medicine as a profession, so I spent three years in Normandy (working with horses).
"Because I started riding as an adult, I was not doing as a child would have, obeying an adult giving instructions. Instead, I wanted to understand everything. I was intensely curious. My natural inclination was to read and research the anatomy and physiology of the horse. Even then (in those early days) I didn’t like the conventional way of dressage training.
"My first riding instructor was a very clever man, very cultured, and he introduced me to Nuno Oliveira. I was moved by the possibility of doing something artistic, so I frequently referred to what Oliveira was doing which was something fantastic.
"The first big piece of luck in my life was having the chance to meet and have lessons with Nuno Oliveira. The second great chance of my life was when General Pierre Durand took an interest in a long article of mine. He contacted me to discuss it. "
At the time, Durand was head of the French National School of Equitation, the Cadre Noir, at Saumur, and was a highly accomplished showjumping riding.
"I think it was because he was a showjumper that he had such an open mind about what I had written," Philippe said.
In 1984, as a result of this interaction with Durand, Philippe was invited to join the Cadre Noir. He was 38. He was to spend 13 years at the school as a teacher.
By the time he entered the Saumur, he was already on the path towards legerete – lightness – and intent on seeking a better deal for the horse.
"One of my difficulties was to hold true to my principles while at the Cadre Noir. I was almost immediately in trouble with next ecuyer en chef at the school!
Eventually he realized that he would never become head of the Cadre Noir, and made the decision to go out on his own a teacher and trainer.
"I am now freer to speak politically, and I can have a much greater influence than if I had stayed in the Cadre Noir.
Will he return to Australia next year?
"I don’t know yet. I have many commitments, but would like very much to return. If I can’t come myself I will send one of my most experienced teachers – either Nicole Weinauge or Sylvia Stossel."