Quiet Riding

Equestrian Book Reviews

Book Review

My Horses, My Teachers

Snoopy, the horse.
A teacher will be successful with his teaching when he is understood and respected by his pupils. …a horseman will be able to learn from his horse only when he respects him as a creature and has affection for him.

It was with this attitude that Alois Podhajsky learned from the horses that he rode and worked with from his early days as an officer in the Astro–Hungarian cavalry, through his years with the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, and beyond. In My Horses, My Teachers (translated into English by his wife Eva), Alois Podhajsky shares what he learned in his more than half century of working with horses.

His experiences ranged from training remounts for the cavalry, to international jumping and dressage competition, to serving as director of the Spanish Riding School, famous throughout the world for its classically trained “dancing” white Lippizan stallions. Throughout his career with the cavalry, the army had little to spend on horses and the riders had to deal with the horses they were given. Podhajsky states that the morning workouts often seemed like the American rodeo he saw years later with horses bucking and often throwing their riders.

In writing of one the first horses he dealt with, Podhajsky states:

Repeatedly Neger proved to me how much of a greenhorn I was and how much there was yet to be learned. Although I was able to master him quite well in the indoor school he ran off with me ever so often in the vast training field. Downcast, I had to suffer many a rebuke from my captain because of his behaviour. But since everything negative in our lives has a positive side, Neger made it clearer to me than any riding instructor could that my seat was not yet sufficiently independent. Whenever I was in serious trouble I did not use the reins exclusively to guide my horse but hung on to them to restore my lost balance and consequently was incapable of the giving and taking action that alone would have been my salvation.

He goes on to say, “…because of these difficulties Neger taught me much more than I could have learned from a demurely obedient horse.”

As Podhajsky's knowledge and experience grew, so did his reputation. The commander of one of the regiments he served suggested he participate in dressage competitions as well as jumping. At the time, he was riding a horse named Napoleon. He states:

…Napoleon's lively temperament, which had been so important for jumping, was more of an impediment now and at first he was not willing to accept the strict rules of dressage. He could not understand why all of a sudden it should be the rider who decided on which leg he was to canter, why he should strike off not only from the trot or walk but also from the standstill and even from the rein-back. But because we were friends we found a basis of understanding in a few days and began regular teamwork.

“Teamwork” is a common thread throughout Podhajsky's writing. He looked upon his horses as partners. He states: “When riding and training my horses I was forever trying to put myself in the place of the animal and to think from his point of view, especially in order not to demand more than he could perform.” Such an attitude leads to mutual confidence which Podhajsky says “is the basis on which the horse may grow into a cooperative friend.”

Though this is not a book of instruction, it does offer some specific advice now and then. The book's major value, however, lies in the attitude the author promotes.

The book was originally published in 1967, but it might have been written yesterday. Many of the attitudes the author laments are still prevalent today. He writes: “The well–founded doctrines of the old riding masters are frequently rejected today with the remark that these methods are old–fashioned and not applicable in our present times, which demand quick success.” He expands on this thought by saying, “Today...few riders know their horses and the causes of their behaviour. Everything has become superficial nowadays, except technology.”

In contrast, Podhajsky offers the following advice:

Speed at the cost of quality is always wrong…
…horses cannot all be trained after the same set pattern.
…it is vital for correct and successful work to know one's partner intimately.
...thoughtless treatment will discourage even the most willing creature and blunt his eagerness.

In speaking about dressage, Podhajsky states:

…it never means anything else than a performance which has been built up through systematic physical training in which the two creatures have blended into one. It is a performance in which the rider thinks and the horse executes the rider's thought. The horse should be guided by his rider in such a way that the onlooker is unable to detect any aids nor should the horse realise that he is being guided. Both horse and rider should present the image of two happy creatures.

This approach is not only for the dressage rider. The author won international jumping competitions against horses that could run faster than his. Because of the physical development his horse had achieved through systematic training, his horse could turn more sharply and therefore could run the coarse on a shorter track.

A comment was once made of another of his horses: “What is this new horse of yours? Everybody in Vienna is laughing about this poor little sausage you have acquired.” Hardly eight months later, this same horse placed second against international riders in a medium test at the 1933 Concours de Dressage in Vienna. Two years later, he won the Grand Prix de Dressage in Budapest. A well–known German hippological expert wrote on this occasion: “Nature and Art have joined to create a horse and a rider that give joy and pleasure to everyone.”

Podhajsky writes of this:

...this was the same Nero whom only one year before the critics used to call a “long–legged gelding without charm and personality.” Correct work had made him more beautiful, his muscles had developed, and he moved cheerfully and powerfully in balance and harmony. He was, once again…convincing proof that systematic and methodical work will result in the increasing beauty of the horse.

In his concluding remarks, Alois Podhajsky summarizes his experiences with many horses:

On numerous occasions I have been confronted with the intelligence of horses in the course of their training. They rewarded the patience with which I tried to understand their characters by giving their best, just as they manifested their unwillingness when I demanded too much or had been unjust or too fast in their training.

He goes on to say, “My horses not only taught me riding but they also made me understand many a wisdom of life besides.” In My horses, My Teachers, he shares what these horses taught him.

Buy My Horses, My Teachers