Looking at the development of equestrian art over longer periods of time, you will detect pendulum-like swings of opinions in many areas. There are fashion trends that are taken to a certain extreme. Then, opinions change, and the pendulum swings in the opposite direction until it reaches the other extreme. Although these developments are often based on correct observations in some areas, extremes are usually counter productive and often damage the horse’s soundness and overall health. It is always dangerous when an observation of one training aspect is made the only criterion for evaluating training progress and then taken to an extreme, following the motto: more is better.
One example of such extremes are two diametrically opposed opinions on riding long and low. On one end of the spectrum are those riders for whom stretching forward-downward is the highest goal of dressage training and the solution to all problems. Many of them believe that you are not allowed to do anything else in the training of your horse until the horse is able to stretch forward-downward. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who categorically reject any and all forward-downward stretching because they believe that it puts the horse onto the forehand and ruins the horse’s legs.
In the classical literature you can trace the evolution of these two opinions. I want to share some quotes with you that illustrate the historical development. As far as I can tell, the starting point is an observation by Dupaty de Clam (1777). He is the first author that I’m aware of who describes the horse’s head and neck as a lever whose elevation can relieve the forehand. He writes: “The neck is the upper arm of the lever whose play lifts the horse’s weight in front. A long necked conformation will therefore be the best one, because the length of the lever arm increases its strength.” (German translation by Premierleutnant von Klatte, 1826, 1st vol., 213)
This comparison of the horse’s neck with a lever subsequently became a central part of German riding theory during the 19th century. All well known German authors worked with the concept that on the one hand flexing the haunches elevates the forehand, and that on the other hand elevating the neck can flex the hind legs.
This idea apparently led trainers to put even green horses into a so-called “high elevation” with an almost vertical neck and horizontal nose.
Ernst Friedrich Seidler, 1846, 95 reports: “Some manèges practice the principle that the head and neck of green horses are elevated and brought into a high position right from the very beginning of the training, and some books on training teach the same thing. You can often read: ‘Elevating is the first lesson we have to teach the horse; it is the foremost foundation of balance.’ However, this method does a great deal of harm to the training of horses, because elevating the head and neck prematurely, before the horse has learned to move freely forward under the rider, is the cause of all difficulties and resistances in those horses whose conformation deviates the slightest bit from the ideal …”
Seidler continues on the following pages: “According to the principles of the past, it was believed that balance had to be established by lifting the horse’s nose high up and by pushing the occipital lobe in a horizontal head position up and back; however, the experience of many years has shown that this method is not only less effective, it is actually harmful because even though the horse’s nose was raised, the body mass kept protruding, the hind legs didn’t engage, they braced, the front legs became worn out, the underneck was braced, which in turn caused an unsteady head position.”
You can imagine the immense damage this extreme elevation caused in young horses whose back and hindquarters were in no way prepared for this. Based on these observations Seidler arrived at the conclusion that it would be better to ride the horse at first in a posture in which he is able to let his head hang vertically without any effort. This is a much lower position than the “high elevation”, of course. He therefore recommends (1837, 54): “The neck position in which the head hangs perpendicularly without force is the first one that allows a good rein contact. Let’s begin the training there and let’s increase the elevation of the neck from there. Frequent releases from a more elevated position, frequent repetitions, and frequent breaks develop and shape these parts, and they keep the horse’s cooperation.”
He subsequently developed this into the method of “elevating from a low position” (1846, 110f.): “The followers of the elevation from a low position ride the horse freely forward first in a natural posture. They try to bring the nose closer to the body and to create a moderate longitudinal poll flexion around the lower jaw. They increase the elevation of the neck by increasing the lateral and longitudinal flexion of the poll, and they address the back and the hindquarters only in a later stage. They reserve the high elevation almost for the very end. - The horses are content when you proceed incrementally, and their legs don’t suffer wear and tear.”
In concluding this train of thought, Seidler writes: “The negative consequences of the high elevation for the training of the campagne horse made me write the first volume of this book.”
Seidler’s method of riding the horse on the bit in a lower head and neck position and of increasing the elevation only gradually, to the extent that the hindquarters and back became stronger, was much horse friendlier than the old method of the instant “high elevation”. Seidler’s principle of the “elevation from a low position” gradually evolved into the demand that the horse should seek the rein contact in a low position as well as into stretching forward-downward.
Almost exactly one century after the publication of Seidler’s first book, Hans von Heydebreck stated in a lecture (1935, 17): “There may be no other principle in horsemanship whose misunderstood application has wreaked more havoc and damaged the cause more with the contradictions it evokes than the demand that the horse should seek the rein in a low posture.” - which may come as a surprise to many.
This suggests that Seidler’s perfectly reasonable idea was taken to greater and greater extremes, until it went too far. If you only ride straight ahead and “forward-downward”, hoping that the horse will eventually “stretch into the bridle”, he will fall apart more and more, become stiffer in his entire body, drop his back, lift his croup, and fall onto the forehand. The longer the horse spends in this posture, the more difficult it becomes to ride the horse uphill, on the bit and through the back, and to make him supple and permeable for the aids.
We therefore have to try always to find the degree of balance and elevation that matches the horse’s conformation and training level. It is perfectly legitimate, and even necessary, to vary the degree of engagement and elevation, so that the muscles are not working in static tension, but work phases and rest phases, flexion and extension alternate so that the musculature is not overwhelmed.