German Olympian Isabell Werth is one of the most successful horsewomen in the world. With six Olympic gold medals and scores of championship titles to her name, there are few her equal on paper.
In Werth’s authorized biography FOUR LEGS MOVE MY SOUL, readers get the inside scoop when it comes to the dressage rider’s amazing accomplishments—and her failures, too. In this exclusive excerpt, Werth shares her personal thoughts regarding one of the biggest controversies to rock the dressage world: Rollkur.
Rollkur for me is the forced “screwing in” and “rolling up” of the horse’s neck in front of his chest. The horse is held in this too-tight position for a certain time. When this happens, the necessary stretching and lengthening of the neck is completely neglected. It doesn’t correspond to my understanding of dressage training at all. Truly gymnasticizing a horse is something completely different. The templates are out of place in every respect. Xenophon’s standard still holds true today: A horse’s nose should ideally stay in front of the vertical. Yes, but the way to this ideal has to be adjusted to each horse. For example, when I am starting a young horse whose body is not yet trained or muscled, I want to form that horse into an athlete with appropriate gymnasticizing. This means that, among other things, the horse is made more supple and elastic through frequent bending of his neck and stretching of his entire body.
This, however, has nothing to do with rollkur. The aim of the right kind of gymnastic training is that the horse can use his body elastically and be supple, just like a high-performance athlete, a gymnast, or a figure skater.
Total obedience, the achievement of so-called “blind obedience,” is an essential aim of rollkur. With this in mind, I have also pondered how such an exaggeration of position might relate to other exaggerations in training, such as remarkably frequent repetitions of movements. I have asked myself why a pirouette is constantly repeated, even after it has been carried out successfully several times before. Even in the time of Xenophon it was said that praise for the horse doesn’t only mean patting his neck or giving him a treat. “Calling it a day” when something goes well is another reward through which the horse learns to identify when he has done something right. That is a guide post that Dr. Schulten-Baumer firmly installed in me: If it goes well, it’s “home time.” The only explanation that I can find for the constant repetitions we so often see in dressage schooling is that they are hoped to lead to an automatization of the horse. People must feel that mistakes can be eliminated this way.
I principally respect my competitors’ achievements and don’t want to denounce anyone. My goal is to advance myself. But the great pleasure I take from my work mainly results from the fact that I work together with animals that have their own personalities, that are confident, and that I am on par with. A horse may and must live his own personality. Of course, I expect obedience, I wish to be in control, and I want to be the one who decides what happens when. But, my horses are also allowed to resist; they are allowed to tell me what they think. Live and let live. I have to lead my horse so skillfully over the years he is in my barn that he plays along voluntarily and has fun doing it…. Only a horse that has fun can develop the kind of charisma that captivates people in the show ring. The foundation of what connects us to our horses every day is affection and respect. It helps us see through all phases of doubt.
Read more of Werth’s personal thoughts on the world of international dressage, including the Totilas controversy and her long rivalry with Dutch Olympian Anky van Grunsven in FOUR LEGS MOVE MY SOUL, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
CLICK HERE to find out more.
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and videos, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.