I have a secret about my past.
Not many know that during my teens I was a competitive dressage rider. I trained for ten years, owned three horses, competed and planned a future as a professional equestrian. I did completely leave it all behind and it is not something I talk about much. However life has a funny way of bringing things back to us that we thought we had left behind forever. It is 2016, exactly 20 years since I hung up my riding boots and I suddenly find myself writing about dressage.
It is sometimes difficult to explain what exactly I do or how Pilates-based Movement Therapy can help you. Many people believe that Pilates is all about strengthening or stretching muscles. I have worked with a few equestrians who came to me with the goal of wanting to increase core strength. It is not all about getting stronger. Often learning to move smarter is a much better strategy. This is definitely true in dressage. In order to get the horse to perform its dance, in-depth communication from the rider in the form of subtle movements is required. Some riders attempt to use strength to get the results they want. The great thing about dressage however is, that the rider will never win a strength contest against his horse, therefore dressage is a great sport to show that muscular strength is overrated.
I choose to use a disaster that took place several years ago in the dressage world, to prove my point and show how movement therapy could have been used to offer a solution to the problem.
Communication through Movement
Dressage is all about communication between rider and horse. It requires great sensitivity by the rider to sense what is required for the horse to perform well. Every horse is different. They move differently and they react differently to the rider’s communication with them. Some are more sensitive than others. The rider needs to be able to communicate effectively with the horse and know how to maximise its strengths and support its weaknesses.
The rider communicates with the horse through a combination of cues, in the riding world called “aid”. These come from changes in the rider’s calf positioning on the horses body, weight shifting of the riders body and slight changes of tension and positioning in the left and right rein via small movements in the fingers and wrists. Cues or aids are meant to be very subtle and the less you can see them the better. The entire performance should look harmonic, effortless and flowing just like a ballroom dance performance. In the best cases rider and horse become so in tune with one another that all the rider needs to do is to imagine what he wants the horse to do and it will sense the thought in the riders body and do it. It sounds crazy but this is no exaggeration. When we think about something things change in our body on a very subtle level that we may not even be aware off. When we lie still and think about getting up, the tissue around our spinal cord tenses in preparation. If we know the cues to transition from a trot to a canter intuitively and we simply think about making the transition, a sensitive dressage horse will detect the subtle changes our body is subconsciously making and it will respond. Of course in elite dressage there is a lot more going on, but this is the basis on which dressage can happen.
So dressage does not only require a horse with quality movement potential but also a rider who is able to communicate with the horse through his own body on a very complex level. Dressage is an amazing form of communication with an animal through movement and when horse and rider are in tune impossible things become easy and flow like a breeze. Working with your own body in Pilates or Yoga can be a similar experience. In Pilates we always try to find that point where everything within us is just the right kind of tension and relaxation and we feel ourselves effortlessly expanding into a movement with perfect inner balance. It is a very different feeling to trying to force a performance out of ourselves with strength. With dressage it is exactly the same. And I personally feel often reminded of my dressage days when I work on myself in Pilates. I am chasing the same kind of magic.
“What happened to Totilas?”
This was a question that a lot of shocked dressage fans asked in 2011, when the famous, world champion stallion Totilas suddenly started to refuse performing. The horse had rendered the world speechless with its record breaking performances. Now it appeared at a show in Germany, barely able to trot in a straight line. It seemed incredibly stressed, spooked, uncontrollable and confused, stumbling from one move into another and back again, -a complete disaster. People commented that it looked as though Totilas had quit the contract. What had happened to Totilas? The answer is simple. A new rider had happened to Totilas.
From a young age Totilas was trained by relatively unknown Dutch rider Edward Gal. Together they blew everyone's mind at the Grand Pix and European Championships 2009 and from then on they broke all sorts of records. Everyone agreed that this was something else. It was not just a new level of dressage, this was Art. Gal and Totilas were said to have some sort of magical connection and became widely known as the dream team. Totilas was named horse of the century, and considered simply not from this world. Then German breeder Paul Schockemoele and Olympic Champion Ann-Kartin Linsenhoff bought Totilas for ten million euros (making Totilas the most expensive horse of all time) for her step son, Matthias Rath to compete with for Germany. The dream team was broken up and expectations and pressure for twenty-six year old Rath were huge. The outcome was a financial disaster and embarrassment for the Germans. Rath and Totilas seemed to not get on at all. It took a lot of time, efforts and a new trainer until Rath was able to show Totilas at high level events. The performances remained to be a bit of a confused struggle and never came anywhere near the standard that Gal had set. Even more sadly the horse seemed to have lost its spark. It had turned from the wonder horse to just a well moving horse going through the motions. Industry professionals decided that Rath and Totilas simply did not connect with one another. Totilas was retired relatively young, aged 15, a shadow of what he was under Gal.
It is only fair to note that there are different opinions out there for why things turned out the way they did. While some blame Rath for lacking skill others blame Gal, saying he pushed the horse beyond its capacity, resulting in it falling apart under a different rider. There may be truth in all of these comments, including the fact that Rath and Totilas simply did not connect, but when I look at the two riders and their movement-based communication with the horse I can see reasons for why disaster happened. In my opinion as an ex-dressage rider and movement therapist a big part of the problem lies with German rider Matthias Rath.
I have chosen two performances available on youtube to base my movement analyses of the two riders on: The most disastrous early performance of Matthias Rath at a stallion show in Vechta and Edward Gal’s freestyle performance at the World Championships in Windsor. The videos can be found further down in this article.
Before trying to zoom right into detail and look for the problems it is helpful to actually step back and start with an overview of what is actually going on. What is the overall impression of the situation we are dealing with and what does it draw our attention to first.
My initial impressions of the video from Vechta are that we are looking at a couple in a dysfunctional relationship (by the way, all filthy jokes about horses and their riders have already been made!!!). The rider is almost completely unable to communicate with his horse. He just about manages to let him trot or canter around the arena, which seems to be some kind of compromise between the two. A dressage performance is not actually happening. Any exercise is interrupted by Totilas getting spooked or seemingly confused and aggravated by the aids he is given. One may think that the horse was just freaked out by something and it was just a bad day, however this horse has performed brilliantly in huge stadiums with much more noise, so there is no reason why it should randomly behave like this in a small arena.
In an interview on youtube (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6aHTJTGKSU) Edward Gal gives a little insight into the horses character and his own experience with Totilas when he explains: “First I was a little bit scared of him because he had so much power and energy (...) But ok when I got to know him you felt you can control it easily. (...) Whatever I do I get a reaction from him (...) sometimes at the start I did a little bit too much and then oh...oh (alarmed confused face) but then I immediately get the good reaction from him so he helps me, I help him, yeah that’s when you are connected.” Gal is telling us that Totilas is a very temperamental and sensitive horse, which responds easily to cues. This means aids have to be very subtle to not make him explode with energy. He also tells us that communication with the horse is not only possible but can be easy. This is useful to know and it does seem likely that Rath is simply doing too much. There is, not surprisingly, rigidity in Rath’s body and signs of frustration in the form of blunt and overpowering cues and attempts to use his body weight and leg strength to control the horse. This explains Totilas unmanageable behaviour. Rider and horse are shouting at each other in the way they communicate. Totilas is shouting that he is not feeling save and is confused about what Rath wants and Rath is shouting at Totilas, in the way he delivers his cues, for misbehaving. It is very sad to watch. You can best see this from 4:30 minutes into the Vechta video. One thing we learn in dressage is that it is never the horses fault. So what is Rath doing wrong apart from simply trying too hard? Or what was Gal doing right for that matter?
Looking at Gal’s freestyle performance is useful not only to see what is possible with this horse but also how Gal is making it happen. When I look at the Windsor video I see a performance like there has been no other. It is not just a well performed dressage with an amazingly moving horse. It is dramatic and dynamic. There is something going on. There are opposites and contradictions dancing together and expressed with incredible flow. I get the sense that Gal is really enjoying riding this horse. He looks relaxed and always seems to have a grin on his face. There is a great sense of pride. My initial impression from his body language is that he wants to support and show off his horse, rather than himself. Totilas seems extremely focused on his rider without any confusion or irritation. He looks willing to please his rider and there is hardly any miscommunication, except for a few very small hiccups. You can get a sense of the constant back and forth communication between horse and rider. At the end Gal just lets go of the rein and praises the horse wildly while the whole stadium erupts with applause. Totilas looks totally unbothered by this. So there is proof that his behaviour with Rath was not normal and there is a trusting relationship here.
Looking closer at Gal’s body in this performance there is something that instantly catches my eye. He has very good riding form, which I always appreciate but his form is not ridged or tense in any way. Dressage horses have enormous gait, which is not easy to move with. You often find a degree of stiffness or tension in a rider’s hips, back or shoulders in an attempt to stabilise themselves and keep deep communication with the horse. It can come across as looking like hard work. Gal does not do that. He rides with what looks like extraordinary easiness and lightness. There is an elastic, feathery quality to his body. This is particularity noticeable in his lumbar spine and hip. This elasticity means there are no blockages to the transmission of forces through his body, which makes him a comfortable rider to the horses back. This elastic quality in hip and back also mean that his aids will be clear and easy to read by the horse. Rath does not have the same light feathery quality in his body. His hips look completely uninvolved in his cuing of the horse and his back rather ridged.
There is another obvious difference between the two riders. Rath keeps using a fairly common tactic to try gain more control, which is to lean back so he sits slightly behind the midline and drives himself deeply into the saddle. The idea is to find a deeper connection and to make himself felt heavier to the horse. This often comes with a bit of rigidity in the lower back. The pelvis has to tilt backwards, which lengthens the lower back slightly. The back muscles have to contract isometrically to hold the body in this position. This rigidity hinders the absorption of impact from the horse’s movements, which can irritate a sensitive horse. The thighbones of the rider will be slightly externally rotated and not in a neutral position, neither is the pelvis. Communication from this end range posture will be limited as movement is only possible into one direction from here. Cues now have to come more from the calf, therefore this tactic often comes with a gripping of the legs. All this can be observed in Rath. This tactic can be useful with horses that need energy from the rider to gain form and expression. It is known as a riding style that is weight and leg aid dominant.
Gal seems to use an almost opposite tactic. It is noticeable that compared to Rath he mostly sits right on and sometimes in fact slightly forward of the midline. This looks more supportive of the horse, rather than forward driving. His legs also seem to just be loosely gliding along the horse without gripping or a lot of cueing. Knowing what we know about Totilas being very sensitive and the rider easily doing too much this tactic makes sense. As an ex-equestrian I know that leg aids can be a problem for sensitive horses as they can irritate the horse. Gal is able to solve this problem by hardly using leg cues. Instead he uses the movement quality in his hip and pelvis and cues the horse from here. He can be observed using slight rotations in his hip as well as lateral weight shifts through the pelvis to use essentially body weight cues for what would normally be leg cues. With him sitting more centred and neutral he has much more options for movement combinations through this area. From here his thighbones can both internally and externally rotate, he can laterally shift his pelvis and tilt it forwards as well as backwards.
The photos below show the difference. in riding postures.
You can also observe this in the videos, particularly the difference in rigidity and feathery quality in the lower backs of the two riders and the difference in sitting positions. During the lead changes at 5:00 minutes into the Windsor video it is particularly obvious, how much Gal is using the mobility in his pelvis and hips to cue the horse into each lead change (this is when the rider makes the horse skip by changing the leading leg.), without using much leg or rein aids.
There is another difference between the two riders, which is in the shoulders. The lack of movement in Rath’s lower body he seems to compensate for with an obvious movement through his arms, shoulder girdle and thoracic spine. In comparison Gal’s upper body never ever moves. Even during lead changes the obvious weight shifting cues stay localised in his lower body and do not affect his shoulders. His shoulders always stay aligned with the shoulders of the horse. Any rein aids come from his wrists and fingers only, keeping those cues very light. So he is using minimal leg, rein and body weight cues. Almost everything is coming from a light, centred seat, which allows for a lot of complex changes through hip and pelvis.
Rath can be observed cueing through the rein from his shoulders and arms, which also causes some upper spinal rotation in him. Rath controlling his rein aids from the shoulders and arms means a much more global, but less precise movement being felt by the horse. It is bordering on pulling it around by the mouth. At some point in the video Rath has to leave the arena because Totilas has started sticking out his tongue. This is considered a sign of great discomfort in the mouth of the horse and needs to be sorted out before a performance can continue.
Giving Rath the benefit of the doubt, I think it possible, that he may be under the impression that he is using rotation in his thoracic spine (which causes the movement in his shoulders) in order to cue weight shifting and he is not aware that this is not translating down into his lower body. For me this would be a sign of a lack of body awareness. There are other clues for this, such as his general riding form which is lacking in some areas. He also tends to sit with his body weight slightly outside of the bend. This is unlikely to be deliberate. There is no tactic I am aware of that involves sitting to the outside of the bend that could be helpful. The rider should always support the bend of the horse by sitting to the inside of the bend. This error must be extremely confusing for Totilas and may be the reason why he seems to not want to go in straight lines at times and the back or front of his body often pokes inwards or outwards.
One could summarise in simple terms that the two riders speak a very different dressage language. The horse was trained to understand Gal’s language, who is known to be a very talented rider with an amazing ability to listen to his horse and understand what it needs in order to shine. It is not surprising then to find that the horse is confused and irritated under Rath who speaks a very different dressage language.
Of course I have observed many more performances of the two riders in order to support my analyses, but this is also not just my own opinion. On youtube Alex Gerding and Ross Surgington from Professional Horse Services (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sK3TzBuGN0w) discuss the two different riders in much more detail in their video “The Taming of Totilas”. They too notice Gal’s unusual ability to communicate with the horse through the elastic quality in his hips and pelvis and conclude: “He is creating a problem. This is extremely hard to copy.” This may be true, however I believe that pilates-based movement practice would have been a way for Rath to improve his performance with Totilas greatly, and could have also helped him gain a similar hip and pelvis elasticity and improved two-way communication with Totilas. “The Taiming of Totilas” is also critical of Rath’s riding style and communication with this horse. They observe that Rath rides every horse the same, meaning he does not listen to or understand what the horse needs and simply applies what he knows. This is one-way communication. There is no exchange. For me this is another sign that hints at Rath’s lack of self-awareness. He simply rides the way he has learned to ride. The aiding and the strategy are in his body with no real awareness of what is happening. He is not particularly aware of what he is actually doing and how he is doing it. How can he respond differently to a horse and use different tactics if he is not aware of what he is doing in the first place?
I did not come across any information that Rath worked on his own body and riding communication in order to improve the relationship with Totilas. A new trainer however was hired, who is known for using rather aggressive training techniques on the horse (fair to note that some accuse Gal of using those as well). The result was that Totilas came under control and performed under Rath with barely passable results. It would perhaps have been a better idea to work on the rider, rather than the horse, as the horse had already proven its abilities. When you have a well-trained horse, which was performing to a level that is impossible to beat it seems crazy to retrain the horse to fit the rider. It clearly was the change in rider that was the problem, so it is logical to work on the rider rather than the horse. So how could pilates-based movement practice have helped Rath?
In my observation of Rath I believe to have identified a lack of body awareness that may be the cause of a probably habitual weight bearing issue and a possible misconception that the movement he creates in his upper body translates into his lower body. Secondly his sporting performance, particularly on a horse like Totilas, could have been generally improved by gaining more quality movement ability through his hip, pelvis and lower back.
We would start by addressing the body awareness issue. We would spend some time using somatic movement experiencing or feldenkrais inspired lessons to make him more aware of how he experiences his own body in motion, so he can feel his movements from the inside and becomes more aware of how it feels to move in subtly different ways. This would give him more control to deliberately change his tactics based on what the horse needs. This could be very general work in a studio to begin with. Then we would start targeting the misplaced weight bearing issue and the movement quality through his spine from his shoulders into his hips. We would then work with the same ideas while on the horse, to apply this in the relevant environment.
As we work on the quality of movement through the spine with more awareness, we would integrate and focus more on hip mobility. We would try decrease the tension and grip in his hips. We would work on gaining more possibilities for movement here to increase his ability to use his hip and pelvis for aiding and to support transmission of forces. Hip joints, being ball and socket joints have an incredible potential for a variety of movement, but we often find a lot of restriction and lack of awareness here. The work on the spine could already have improved some movement quality in the hip. We would continue working on this with internal and external rotation of the thighbone in the pelvis in various hip and spinal positions. We would then also add slight posterior and anterior pelvic motion to this, which can be very challenging for clients to access and coordinate.
We would spend further attention to the pelvic halves. It is a misconception that the pelvis is one big bone and that there is no movement within it. Most of the bones in the pelvis are fused but you can think of the pelvis as two pelvic halves that are able to move with each leg to some degree. If movement of the femur transmits into the pelvis and up along the spine and vice versa, as it does so well in Edward Gal, there is a considerable change in how the sitting bones make contact with the saddle and ultimately the horse. So the more subtle variations can be gained here the better for the communication with the horse. Therefore we would focus somewhat on the connection between foot, lower leg bones, thighbone, each pelvic half and their further deep connections to the lumbar spine via the illacus and psoas muscle. Some of the Pilates apparatus, like the ladder barrel, could be particularly helpful in all this. A classical exercise on the ladder barrel called “Horseback” would be very helpful for the work on hip rotation in the riding position and integration of spinal as well as leg movements.
Ultimately all the work done in a studio has to go back onto the horse. It would be expected that tension and stiffness would come back into the body when the rider is back on the horse in the “old” environment. The body can learn new ways of moving more easily in a new environment. That is why we would work on this away from the horse first, however when we get back to the horse we would need to see how easily the rider can adopt the new strategies. The final step would be to actually the new movement quality and different movement strategies in order to communicate with the horse. It would be naïve to believe that all problems would be sorted at this point. This is when the work with the horse begins again and some experimentation of how the horse reacts to the changes is needed to fine-tune the strategies that work and amend those that don’t. Then the trainer should start taking over to integrate the more sport specific work. Of course all this is purely hypothetical and the course of action always depends on the person, what works for them and the progress and challenges encountered when working with the body and the horse. However I do believe that Rath and Totilas could have been helped in this or a similar way.
If you read all this to the end you may have noticed that none of the solutions offered had anything to do with muscular strengths or stretching. Gal was not more successful because he was stronger or more flexible or stable in that traditional sense of the word. What he has that Rath lacks, apart from being generally a good communicator with his animal, is quality of movement and awareness of how he uses his body. That tends to be key in most sports. A lack of this is also often the underlying problem of chronic pain and tension in us non-sporty people.
If your interest has been stirred and you would like to know more about the two different riders and the sad story of Totilas, I highly recommend that you watch the full video of
“The Taming of Totilas”, which backs up most of my findings and explores the entire horse rider relationship of the two men in more detail.
If you know someone or are struggling yourself with dressage in particular or movement in another form, I would be happy to see how I can help.