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May 3, 2013

My First Encounter with Charles de Kunffy

Auditing a clinic with Charles de Kunffy changed author Allison Brunelli's outlook on dressage. Allison Brunelli photo.

I have not read an entire book for what seems like years. I’ve been prodded by my mother and sisters to join their book club, made attempts, but failed. I have professed my longing for the new Amazon Kindle Fire for the promise I might read because it made reading convenient, but never purchased it. I read children’s books, but I don't consider them books. And I often wondered which author would change my "spare time" habits and keep me engaged long enough to turn the next page.  

Just this Sunday, after having watched with awe a Charles de Kunffy clinic at Hassler Dressage at Riveredge in Chesapeake City, Md., I read The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse on my plane ride home. To whom may I give my thanks for all 99 -plus pages? Author Charles de Kunffy himself.  

This was my first encounter with classical dressage by a master, and it has changed my life. Because of him and because of his book, I now understand the conflict I have felt for years as an adult amateur exposed to the varieties of modern and competition-based dressage training to which I have been a student off and on and to which I never fully understood. As I engulfed every sentence Charles wrote, I thought, "I love this." If I had to live with only one of those sentences for the rest of my life it would be this: "Their [historical masters of horsemanship] mature love for the horse was based on their desire to serve him well, to cater to his, not to human, needs.  This emotion inevitably defines the logical goal of all classical equitation: to explore and unfold the nature-given potentialities of each horse to its fullest."

Oh, catch that...did I just quote two sentences? There I go again!  

The word “mature” is the word I'm most enamored with in this sentence. And, its use defining the word “love." 

The attached photo is of Charles with a young student of JJ Tate. She is with her very young, very large and very opinionated gray gelding. This horse did not want his rider to put pressure on his mouth in any way. He went around a 20-meter circle two days in a row throwing his nose in the air for much of the time.  

Charles was patient, and so was the rider. He asked her to continue to ride from her seat, to keep the reins very long so her horse could feel free to drop his nose to the ground, feel more comfortable in his back, and let go in his hips and lumbar. The rider's job was never to "check" or pull on the horse’s mouth. There was discussion that perhaps his former owner pulled on his mouth, and he got tired of it.  

Eventually, the horse dropped his neck for a few strides at a time, and he started to become round, and his hocks began to articulate as his back began to swing. No draw reins were used. No deadline for getting round was set. Charles praised the rider for her gentle way with the gray gelding and told her he thought it would take "five months" to work through this. We all knew this was not a date to try to keep, but perhaps it was Charles' way of saying to the rider never to expect what another rider might expect —an overnight transformation.  

This was the first horse-and-rider pair I saw Charles teach on the first morning at Riveredge, and it was a lesson in never damaging, let alone chucking, a horse's mouth. Too often we as riders are too far removed from the this type of extreme situation and forget that soft, following, light hands means soft, following, light hands. Not just the first step of the ride, but every step.

When I read his book I learned that those soft, following, light hands are possible through the rider's correct, following seat, proper timing and biomechanics of the half halt, and the intelligent, methodical use of lateral and longitudinal exercises and patterns used to gymnasticize the horse's body, engage the hind end, and lift the front end.

When just one aspect of this equation is lacking in any way, it compromises the rider's ability to shift the horse's weight to the hind end, and inevitably the immature or unsophisticated rider begins to feel the weight in front as well as the temptation (usually out of frustration and usually without the proper, athleticism, help or knowledge to fix) to hold, even mildly, or chuck the mouth to prevent the horse from weighting the front end instead.  

The book was so well written I picked up knowledge and understanding from nearly every page, filling in the areas of (mature) training I least understood. Often in the clinic, as riders rode past Charles while performing one or another of the manège patterns instructed of them, he would ask, "Are your hands light?"

What I absolutely loved more than anything about watching this clinic was the poetic-like ability for Charles to develop a horse and rider from an evenly-weighted frame (longitudinally) to sitting behind and lifting in front, most noticeable at the end of each ride when riders were asked to put their horse on a 20-meter circle, ride the medium trot, then lengthen the strides to an extended trot, and then back to the passage. All of the riders took my breath, especially JJ Tate and her new horse. Charles’ book also has several photos of this ultimate power, lightness and adjustability.   

In my training journal, my goal is to study the written words of Charles de Kunffy as they pertain to my life and training with my horse, Contigo. My future entries will attempt to quote a sentence (or two) and then perhaps show a mature application of it under saddle.