A Day With Christoph Ackermann

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program …

A section from the flyer for the clinic

I promised that my next post would be more information on sculpting the equine body, but I confess that time has not been in abundance this week, so that is still in draft.  However, having just spent a lovely day listening to Christoph Ackermann teach, I wanted to share some quotes and key points.  Perfect timing to buy me a reprieve on the other post.

I took Friday off, and made the two hour drive to Sebastapol to watch Christoph Ackermann teach at Traditions Farm, hosted by Tressa Boulden-Linsley.  It was a rare opportunity to learn from Ackermann, a successful competitive German rider who has managed to stay true to the classical roots he gained through decades of working under Egon von Neindorff.  Tressa has committed to bringing trainers with that tradition to our region, since the passing of her mentor of over twenty years, Melissa Simms.  Riding would have been a dream, but Coffee and I have not traveled since the day I brought him home – so it wasn’t in the cards.  Still, auditing clinics has contributed so much to my education over the decades, so I was excited.

Stone horses guard the entrance to the arena, while birdhouses adorn the edge of the edible garden

I turned up the tiny uphill road from the highway, and was pleasantly surprised at what lay behind the hedges and trees that lined it.  The facility is tucked on the side of a hill, laid out in a tidy efficient way that packs more into the area than one would have imagined.  There are lovely touches, everywhere you turn – tiny little garden corners and charming sculpture.  It was a lovely setting for a day of learning!

General Impressions

The horses and riders were varied in skills and experience, but the themes addressed were consistent.  Calm, relaxation, and no interference from the rider were the key points of the day.  Ackermann’s emphasis is on developing communication and a partnership with the horse.  Riding should enhance the horse, physically and mentally, not detract in any way.

Warm-up

He had all riders warm-up on a long to loose rein.  He emphasized that the neck should be long in warm-up.  It did not necessarily need to be low, but should be at least in a reaching and relaxed position – “midway” was how he put it.

The emphasis during warm-up was on an energetic and steady tempo.  The ideal speed gave the feeling of going somewhere with purpose, but was not the racing over-tempo you see too often today.  “You should drive, but not over-drive” was something he told us Egon von Neindorff frequently said.

During the warm-up, he reminded the riders that it is the horse’s job to go forward, but the rider must not interfere with the energy through their reins or position (more on those below).  “Driving aids first!” was repeated throughout the day – meaning, you should always have forward before you pick up contact or attempt to do anything else.

Rider Position

The position and effectiveness of the rider was a common theme in all of the lessons.  The most common direction was to “sit calm”.  On this topic, I think his own words serve best, so here is a selection of my favorite quotes from the day:

  • “It is the job of the hand to reduce activity. So, if you do not want to reduce activity, the hands must stay quiet and soft.”
  • “Whenever we get into difficulties, the first thing we go to is the hands. We have to stop that. Yet, it is not possible [to do this] without the hands, so they have to become independent.”
  • “Don’t drive him by moving your pelvis”
  • “Thousands of teachers tell you that you have to move the pelvis to stay with your horse, but that is wrong!”
  • “Sometimes there is nothing to do on the horse. Maybe it’s not good for the gallery [audience], but the horse likes it.”
  • “Without sitting calm you cannot achieve what you want from the horse, because you are always disturbing him.”
  • “At Neindorff I had to go on the lunge to work on my seat. Even when I was winning Prix St George I had to go on the lunge to work on my seat.”

Ackermann achieving relaxation with a young mare. Shortly after this moment, her nose reached in front of the vertical.

At one point I had the pleasure of watching these words in action, when he mounted a seven year old mare.  I do not know much of her background, but I believe she was fairly newly acquired by the rider.  Each time the rider touched a rein, the mare would raise her head defensively and travel inverted.  Ackermann started at walk to take a contact sufficient only to remove any sag in the reins.  His seat was quiet, has hands and arms moved elastically, simply following her sufficiently to keep a consistent contact and offering just the subtlest of play with his fingers.  It seemed almost immediate that the mare accepted this soft, non-threatening feel in the reins, and she was soon trotting around beautifully stretching in an easy swinging trot.

Inside and Outside Rein

There was clear emphasis on the outside rein, but it was not the typical “drive the horse into the outside rein” that I have heard most of my riding life.  Instead, he waited for the horse to reach for the outside rein, and emphasized recognizing those moments and using them to establish that steady connection.   He counseled that when you are early in training, it is easier to maintain the correct feel by riding straight when those moments happen, than to ride on a circle.  On a circle, the outside side gets longer, so it is easier for the rider to inadvertently restrict movement through the outside rein.  “You must give a lot!” to follow the arc of the circle without restriction.

The inside rein proved troublesome for many riders.  Even riders on loose reins who acted backward at all were immediately corrected.  He reminded them that the inside rein blocks the movement of the inside hind leg, which is counter to what we want to achieve.  Many might not believe that even a slight movement backward on a loose rein could have that effect – but a keen observer could see that it did.

Steering was the most common time when the riders would slip and act backward on the inside rein.  Ackermann emphasized that turning should not be from the inside rein.  Turns should be achieved through a combination of a weighted inside seat bone and outside leg.  “Your pelvis should be two thirds to the inside,” on a turn.

Working With the Horse

Watching Ackermann ride was a pleasure

If I had to pick a single thing that I appreciated most about Ackermann’s approach, it was his clear love for the horse.  He was kind and affectionate with each horse that he approached, talking softly and giving face rubs.  He encouraged every rider to stroke their horse when things went right, or just to relax them (but always put the reins in one hand, first!).  He also urged them to talk to their horses, telling them when they’ve done something correctly.

Perhaps my favorite quote of the day was this: “It is not up to the horse to understand us. It is up to us to explain!”  All of his teaching seems to be informed by this position.  For example:

  • “Allow the horse to have a fault, then do it again.”  He was directing a rider to not over manage by trying to prevent mistakes from happening.  Give the horse the freedom to try what is being asked.  If a mistake occurs, simply try again, perhaps evaluating that you’re asking clearly.  When they accomplish it correctly, be sure to reward so they understand that was what you were asking.
  • “We should be ahead of the horse! Prepare and plan.” In this case he was working with a rider whose horse was making the exact same evasion, in exactly the same spot in the arena, several times in a row.  It is the rider’s responsibility to not only recognize that a habit like this is developing, but it is also their responsibility to know that it will occur and be able to find a way to break the habit.  In this case the issue was in a particular corner, and he directed the rider that she should be preparing to avert it by the middle of the long side.

Other Words of Wisdom

Here are a few more quotes worth sharing that didn’t fit neatly above:

  • “If you do not have the back, then you have nothing.”
  • “It’s a knife’s edge between enough contact and too much or too little.”
  • “If it is important, take your time. If we do not take time, then it is not important to us.”
  • “You must be with the horse, not against him – not against his movement, his feelings, or his brain. With him.”
  • “On the one side is the technical part; on the other is the emotional.” (We must deal with both.)

It was a pleasure spending the day listening to the words of someone I would call a true horseman.  It is rare that I hear of a clinician whose work impresses me enough to take the day and spend the money to check them out – so I am grateful to Tressa for providing this opportunity.  I brought back the inspiration from this clinic and had a lovely ride on Coffee this morning.  Imagine how much better an actual lesson could be … next time!

Be good to your horses!

Lia

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