Book Review: Tug of War

This book is written specifically for dressage riders, but I think all horsemen have something to gain from it. After all, under the skin, horses are fundamentally the same. Tug of War: Classical Versus “Modern” Dressage by Dr. Gerd Heushmann is a detailed description of what over riding or forceful movements do to a horse’s body.

Dr. Heushmann is a classically trained dressage rider and trainer (a Pferdewirt), as well as German DMV. He wrote this book in response to decades of experience, seeing how front to back riding or over riding, especially young horses, is bad for their long term skeletal health.

In modern dressage, there is a trend toward flashier movements, where the front legs extend out in front of the body, flicking the toe. The hind legs are overly collected, and the face is behind the vertical, meaning the nose is closer to the horse’s body than the poll. This, according to Heushmann, causes huge amounts of stress on the horse’s back and neck, as well as hind end.

dressage pic.png

The correct form is for the angle between the hind legs and the angle between the front legs is the same. The horse is loose, his back swings, and he is able to correctly carry the rider’s weight. This happens through back to front riding, and looseness.

Here are a few of the take home points I found throughout the book:

  1. Use your aids as aids

The aids, whether you put your inside leg on, shift your weight to your outside seat bone, or pick up on the reins, are meant to convey a message to the horse. Once that message has been conveyed, the rider needs to stop nagging, and let the horse do his job. Of course, when riding a young horse you may need to babysit a little bit more. But once the horse has figured out what you are asking of him, you need to get out of his way.

Secondly, the aids are not meant to force the horse into something. It is simply a question. The aids are not a means of forcing the horse to do something, but rather a means of telling the horse what you want from them. Believe me, if it comes down to a pulling match, you won’t win.

2. Allow the young or green horse time to muscle properly

A horse is naturally equipped with the musculature to support weight on his back when his head and neck are forward and down. When the horse is stretching forward and down, his topline is contracted enough to support extra weight. His neck, however, will need time to adjust. For your first few rides, a green horse might only be able to hold this form for about 20 minutes, and then he’ll need a break to allow his muscles to rest. Once the muscles along the topline and top portion of the neck are developed, you can begin to ask the horse to bring his head and neck more upright. You just want to be careful that as this happens, he also pushes more from behind, encouraging his back to rise and support the rider’s weight. If his back collapses he won’t be able to carry you properly, and long term injury may be the result. The Timid Rider has a blog post that details her experience with the result of early physical trauma in her event horse.

3. The training scale

The training scale was developed particularly for dressage, but I think it applies to all types of horses. It begins with the “Preliminary ridden training” or “familiarization” phase, including (in order) rhythm, looseness, and contact. Once this is mastered, the horse moves into the “development of forward thrust” phase, which actually picks up at looseness, then goes to contact, and then impulsion and straightness. The final phase is the “development of carrying capacity” which includes impulsion and straightness from the previous phase, and ends in the ultimate step: collection. These phases are not clear cut, but rather they bleed into each other quite a lot. They are necessary to do in order, and if order breaks, improper muscling may happen.

4. The physics of pressure

Because the reins act as a lever from your hands to the horse’s mouth, and the length of the face acts as a lever from the mouth to the poll, the amount of pressure the horse feels is exponentially higher than the pressure you exert onto the reins. I won’t do the calculations here, but you can find them on page 102 of the book. When you exert 1 lbf of pressure on the reins, this amplifies, becoming up to 132 lbf on each bar of the mouth, which amplifies yet again to up to 1,323 lbf on the poll. And we wonder why horses develop hard mouths! This shows the importance of a soft hand, and giving when your horse gets it right.

These are the points that I found to be relevant in the book to all riders from all disciplines, but I am sure this book has something to offer every rider. If you are interested, you can purchase the book here.