On the shoulders of giants

20 Jan


Before Mary Wanless, there was Sally Swift—but hardly any competition riders acknowledged this wonderful resource. There was no talk of the importance of biomechanics. Just the vague ‘rider’s position’ which was learned, usually painfully, on the lunge  or for the very talented, it was the natural position their bodies found quickly.


It was Wanless who pointed out that ‘The top 10% teach the top 10%’—that the naturally talented continued the tradition—so that no one needed to really think about HOW to learn to sit.

It was Wanless who championed the other 90%, painstakingly studied various subjects in order to codify and incorporate movement, physiology,horsemanship,etc.,into what is now breezily referred to everywhere as ‘biomechanics.’

Now of course, it is Big Business: the perfect technological tools to help the rider develop The Seat: physios, computerized robot horses; themography-rigged saddle seats; books after DVD after course after video after lecture.

It is a rare horse that goes through its career without the saddles being fitted,replaced, upgraded, re-flocked, and upgraded again. Even unto the girth and the pads and the massage rugs and the diet and horse communicators/whisperers.

Before Sjef  Janssen, there was Paul Plinzner and Nicole Uphoff. But hardly any competition riders know who Plinzner was (SRS rider and Steinbrecht student who taught horses to go deep ); for all the talk about Nicole Uphoff, few riders today really know what it was like to stand next to the arena and see this oh-so-rare combination change the sport,working her horse uber-deep in warm-up , then turning to the show arena, producing gorgeous piaffe-passage transitions  lighter than a souffle and just like a metronome.


And as for  Janssen—the Great Satan of dressage—his name will be remembered along with  Fillis, de Gueriniere, the Duke of Newcastle, maybe even Phil Jackson.

(Because there is something to being a great coach as well as a great trainer.)

Before Janssen, riders lengthened their reins maybe at the end of the session, seeing if the horse followed the reins down, proof of a solid connection. But the idea that a rider needed to think of BOTH horse and self as athletes; that both needed to be flexible and understand hyperflexion as used by most human athletes/dancers; that one could manipulate the connection in order to gain more response to the ‘engine’ that is the hind legs–no matter all the blather, it was nowhere to be found.

It used to be that riders performed movements and through the movements themselves, gymnasticized the horse. Janssen realized that human athletes first supple and then sharpen reflexes/ responses–and use that to create better balance and rhythm.

Or, as top sport trainer Wolfram Wittig says,

“We do not train exercises so much. We ride muscles and ligaments and try to build athletes. If you just ride the exercises, you lose the gaits—and you can see that everywhere.”

Hats off to both innovators –and Happy Birthday to Sjef Janssen.


One Response to “On the shoulders of giants”

  1. Sabina DiSano January 20, 2014 at 7:08 pm #

    Love it- very well put Lita!

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