The Military Riding Institute in Hannover was the riding school for Germany’s equestrian elite. Only the most talented officers were selected to attend for two years. During WWII, the school was moved from Hannover to Krampnitz near Berlin under the new name of Heeresreit- und Fahrschule, Army Riding and Driving School. In its last incarnation, the best civilian trainers, like Otto Lörke, Oskar Stensbeck, and Richard Wätjen were working at the School, and the Olympic dressage, jumping, and eventing teams were trained in Krampnitz as well. Many of the students from Hannover and Krampnitz went on to become top trainers and judges who dominated the sport in Germany after the war: Willi Schultheis, Bubi Günter, Fritz Thiedemann, Horst Niemack, the Stecken brothers, Egon von Neindorff, and many others were gathered at the School. Their students in turn carried on the tradition until the present day, and Germany owes its great international successes not in small part to the foundation that was laid in Hannover.
In the next few blog entries I want to share some interesting insights into the philosophy and the inner workings of the school, as then second lieutenant Felix Bürkner describes them in his autobiography. He arrived in Hannover in 1906 for his first two year term as a student. He would return years later as a teacher, and finally become the commanding officer of the army riding and driving school in Krampnitz.
“The Royal Prussian Military Riding Institute under its then commander, Excellency von Festenberg und Pakisch, was the bulwark of equitation, which was taught by proven, sometimes even famous, riding teachers, based on the classical tradition according to the cavalry riding instruction manual from 3 March 1882, to those students who had been selected by their regiments as sufficiently talented and suitable. Each Prussian and Württembergian cavalry regiment and each field artillery brigade of the army sent one first lieutenant or second lieutenant to Hannover for two years. Those who were there for the first year were called the „dumb“ yearlings, those who were there for their second year were called the „two year olds“.
Each student brought one charger from his regiment as well as a private horse. The mounted field artillery officers brought a charger and a groom. During the summer, before the deployment began, one rented an apartment with a barn near the riding school (Vahrenwald), which was usually taken over from one’s predecessor from the same regiment or brigade. On 1 October everybody reported to the drill square of the Military Riding Institute with a swelled chest and in full regalia to receive the orders and schedule of duty.
The magnificent colors and the diversity of all those 120 different uniforms along with the young, wiry riders’ physiques was a unique sight, and the awareness: ‘You are one of them now’, truly made one’s heart beat faster.“ ...
„The Military Riding Institute consisted of the officers’ school under Colonel Brecht and the cavalry non-commissioned officers‘ school under Major von Krosigk, later Major von Frankenberg und Ludwigsdorf.
The ‚yearlings‘ were divided into groups of cuirassiers, ulans, dragoons, and hussars of 16 students each. The mounted hunters and field artillery officers were divided among them. Thus, I joined the group of hussars under the extremely strict Captain Freiherr von Wrangel (cuirassier regiment no. 3), a more than tough, but extraordinarily educational school.
The seat, again and again the seat, as well as the most painstaking arena discipline was drilled with us yearlings on three horses a day – of course without stirrups at first – quite literally to the brink of exhaustion. After the four riding lessons we practically had to pull ourselves home by the trees that lined the lanes, in spite of being physically in great shape, at least in my case. But the strictness of our short, dry cuirassier captain, who did not allow even the tiniest mistake, made the toughest demands on even the greatest passion. In accordance with the old riding instruction, we practiced the especially complicated transitions from one lateral movement to another, changing rein in all its variations, as well as riding through corners on a single track and in lateral movements, to the point of exhaustion. The distances within the group of 16 horses were not allowed to vary by even half a stride. Constant checking of the distances and endless repetitions, until everyone could finally do it, drove us almost to despair.“ ...
Wrangel‘s pet peeve was the ‚honest hand‘. Pushing the hand down or pushing particularly the inside hand towards the outside drove him insane. Both hands had to be carried and to maintain the finest, steady, quiet connection with the horse’s mouth through the snaffle reins. If a horse braced upward against the rein, the hand had to rise above the mouth, while the driving seat and rein aids were intensified, so that the horse would defend itself against the upward bit pressure by lowering its head – in the opposite direction of the pressure. The fine equestrian tact then had to transform this initial defense into a soft forward-downward stretch. Of course the hand had to yield forward-downward at the first sign of the horse’s softening.
Deepest, flat knee, low heel, and a bottom that never left the saddle, always elastically flexed abdominal and back muscles, and gently swinging hips with upright head carriage and elastically absorbing shoulders, elbows, and wrists achieved such a steady, closed, elastic contact between horse and rider that a yielding of the poll and back was the automatic consequence. Most of the work was done in the collected trot or canter. Reprises in freer gaits were not inserted often enough, so that the development of impulsion was insufficient. But if you sensed these flaws in the system and avoided them in your own independent work, you had learned to establish the basics unfailingly in the adult horse.
However, this training method turned out to be much more difficult with the chargers we had brought, and even more so with our own more or less untrained horses, than with the well trained horses of the officers’ school.
I often had a lot of trouble with the former horses.“
I would like to draw the readers’ attention to the enormous emphasis that the old cavalry riding school placed on the development of the rider’s seat and the accuracy of the arena patterns as well as the distances within the group. Sixteen riders is a rather large group, and maintaining uniform distances at all times is very difficult. It requires complete control over the tempo and the stride length of the horse. Riding in formation like this educates the riders’ awareness of the tempo, the stride length, and the arena patterns in a way that private lessons cannot do. The regularity of the tempo and stride length helps the rider to establish a front to back balance in the horse, while riding accurate arena patterns straightens the horse and leads to a left/right balance. Together the two categories form the foundation of Losgelassenheit, the light, steady, and even rein contact, impulsion, and collection, i.e. the entire training. Nowadays, schools like that don’t exist anymore, unfortunately, which is one of the reasons why the number of good riders has been steadily declining over the last decades.
I find von Wrangel’s method that Bürkner briefly outlines very interesting. It is very different from what is usually associated with “German” dressage these days. He insisted on a fine rein contact that only receives the precise amount of weight that the horse places into the rider’s hand, no more and no less. The riders were apparently not allowed to ride with a heavy rein contact that holds the horse up in front, because that would be extremely impractical for a military horse.
The solution to an inverted horse was not to somehow force the head down, which has become so common nowadays. Instead, the riders were instructed to raise their hands, so that the horse would stretch forward-downward as a counter measure, which sounds very similar to what Philippe Karl describes in his books. It seems like the difference between French and German dressage was not as big a century ago as it is today.
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