By Sarah Brown
Baby birds, glasses of champagne and Christmas decorations - all visuals that embody training methods "for the good of the horse."
That is, according to German veterinarian and world-renowned horse expert Dr. Gerd Heuschmann.
These were some of the common themes last weekend in a local symposium titled "For the Good of the Horse: Biomechanics of the Horse in Sport." It was led by Heuschmann, who speaks across the globe about equine biomechanics and correct training methods.
The symposium - Heuschmann's only North American visit this year - drew hundreds of enthusiastic equestrians, both from the Sandhills area and several surrounding states. A group of veterinary students from N.C. State University also made the trip.
"Overall, it was a spectacular weekend," said Linda Hoover, chief executive officer for the U.S. Refined Horsemanship Association and organizer of the event.
The event opened with a dinner and discussion panel featuring Heuschmann and several horse professionals on Friday evening. The symposium itself took place among the rolling hills and top-notch facilities of Bob and Paula Johnson's Lochhurst Farm just outside Southern Pines.
A morning lecture from Heuschmann that concentrated on horse anatomy and the biomechanics of equine movement was followed by mounted demonstrations to illustrate his research in the afternoon.
The latter spectacles featured all comers from an FEI-level dressage star to a gaited horse to a representative from the rapidly growing discipline of Western dressage.
Saturday afternoon, in an interesting depart from the confines of an arena, Heuschmann put the demo riders on a steep hill in Lochhurst Farm's cross country field.
Among them were local upper-level riders Rhonda Dretel and Susan Beebee.
The seven riders had to encourage their mounts to take the reins and gallop up the incline, then develop a rhythmic and balanced canter when descending back down the hill. Riders were told to use their seat to slow the tempo in lieu of short rein contact.
This keeps the horse open, forward and mobile, Heuschmann said.
"Try to get out of the ring at least once a week," he told the crowd. "The horse must have fun to work with us."
Heuschmann's work with many of the riders had begun midweek. He said he typically employs this time before clinics to evaluate the horses' movements and the riders' styles and habits.
What he likes to see in the horse: "A good walk, an active hind leg, and no stiff movements," he said. Forwardness and flow of the gaits should be the emphasis.
Riders, Heuschmann said, need to ride forward - although they tend to have what he calls "protecting tension" in their seat.
Acting against the horse makes you become a "bag of stones on the horse's back," he said. "You want to make the horse dance. We riders are responsible to be the perfect dancing partner."
A good dancing partner needs not one, but two glasses of champagne - one of Heuschmann's trademark teaching visuals to stress soft hands. "No laying them down, no pulling them backward. Carry them in front of you," he noted.
The logic is simple: Quiet hands make for a soft poll, a swinging back and a harmonious overall picture. "No mouth, no horse."
Heuschmann believes these fundamentals, taught diligently for decades by the great European masters of old, need to make a comeback in all equestrian sport.
"In the long term, we cannot afford to abuse our animals," he said. "We have to remind ourselves that good horsemanship is key to good riding."
The national equine federations need to stop focusing on sponsors and profit and address these issues, according to Heuschmann. "Our rulebooks, our guidelines - they're perfect," he said. "But we need to put the principles into our riding practice."
Perhaps Heuschmann's message of forward movement, a swinging back and a soft poll was common knowledge for the seasoned equestrian professionals in attendance.
But the masterful teacher's clinic has drawn nothing but rave reviews from the local horse -community. The weekend saw audience members gasping in surprise and delight at Heuschmann's work, and many an eye was opened among those in attendance.
A firm reminder of classical riding principles is useful to anyone involved in equestrian sport, said local eventer Linda Dreher, who attended all three days. "I was pleasantly awakened," she said.
Heuschmann's open mind to a range of methods sets him apart from many instructors today, she noted, all of which he combines to "take us back to the proper way to train and ride a horse."
After a weekend of listening Dreher said she was anxious to put her horses to work, and she's already starting to reap the benefits.
"We're definitely making good progress in the right way," she said.
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