Interview with Christoph Ackermann
(Translation: Lynne Echols)
To ride with and not against the horse, that is Christoph Ackermann’s highest priority. Unfortunately, this attitude is not always seen today in equestrian sports, not even on the part of the “officials.” Instead, training methods aimed at rapid success often seem to be put first. The more important question is how we can turn the tide for the welfare of the horse, rather than putting primary emphasis on competitive success.
This is precisely what Christoph Ackermann does, and not just as a trainer in demand throughout Europe and the U.S.A. In his new book, “The Quest for Balance (in the Spirit of Ethical Horsemanship)”, he points out the sore points of competitive dressage. He bravely and mercilessly dishes out an honest critique of the business of the dressage establishment, because as a successful national and international dressage competitor he knows what goes on “on stage” at dressage shows, as well as what’s happening in the wings.
That’s why Christoph Ackermann, a former master student of Egon von Neindorff, is driven in his work with horses by concerns like preserving the physical health of the horse through gymnastic exercises that comport with its nature. He never tires of repeatedly emphasizing that we are supposed to be helping our horses to do what we ask of them without disturbing or hindering them. So how are we to go about doing that? This is what we wanted to know – and a lot more besides – so we asked him a few questions:
Mr. Ackermann, the current state of equestrian sports is receiving more and more criticism. Where has it gone off course?
As far back as the 1980s, competition riding was a beautiful thing to behold, even though initial spectator turnout was lower than one might have wished, and lower than it is today. I still remember fondly my rides at the CHI in Donaueschingen or at the Bavarian equivalent in Munich. These competitions had already developed a great atmosphere and were making quite a stir.
At the end of the ‘80s and the beginning of the ‘90s, I was a member of the Federal Association of Professional Riders (DRFV e.V.). Back then there was a lot of talk about the umbrella organization for riders needing urgently to recruit more members so they’d have greater prestige in the sight of the Association for German Sport. They wanted to create more public awareness of equestrian competitions in order to be more attractive to potential sponsors.
At the time, I was happy for riding in Germany to become more visible. We wanted to attract more people; starting immediately, we needed to make learning to ride quick, easy, and convenient. So that’s exactly what trainers, judges, riders, breeders, and officials began to organize to accomplish. Initially, I didn’t think the basic idea was off track.
At the same time, almost simultaneously, the breeding of horses made enormous progress toward the goal of producing horses that are easy to ride, have great athletic ability, and take less time to train. Unfortunately, as we can see today, this math didn’t exactly add up.
The result is that we now have horses whose appearance, with their skinny necks and fault-laden movement, accords directly with the stereotypical expectations of both judges and spectators. The basic requirement of every fundamental training principal, namely the preservation of the purity of the gaits, no longer seems to exist. Everywhere we see “spectacular,” hovering trot steps that are supposed to amaze us. And the less observers know about the time-honored fundamentals of training, the more they like this style of showing.
And that’s exactly the problem! By now we all know that the training of these modern sport horses doesn’t work out so well after all. The horse is too often made “fit” for the path to success using harsh methods. This torture is then rationalized on the basis that the horse has to let himself be “taken hold of.”
As a result of this opinion, we see tense horses as well as riders who no longer learn to sit properly and sit half off to the left; we see the poor animal goose-stepping and hovering, running away out of discomfort and pain; only a strong hand can hold it back. It is so sad that it has come to this. Many horse enthusiasts turn away from the sport because they find no beautiful images or rides at competitions any more. There are only a few spectators left at these shows. Unhappily, the fact that the attraction factor of such events has greatly diminished can no longer be overlooked.
You’ve made it to Grand Prix and have trained all your horses yourself. What do you find most valuable in your work with your horses?
As a young man, I had no notion of setting myself the goal of entering a dressage test at the advanced levels, let alone winning it. And my mind was light years away from the “international Olympic movements,” as Egon von Neindorff used to call them. I had absolutely no plan to ride Grand Prix with “Duke,” my Trakehner gelding; I couldn’t even imagine such a thing.
But as it happened, over time I’ve become a better rider, and I’ve grown into these movement through my own mental discipline, my perseverance, and the support of those closest to me. In addition, my love for this work with the horse has increased, kindled by the great teacher Egon von Neindorff. The beauty of his kind of riding captivated me from the start. From him I learned how crucially important a good seat is in the education of the horse. Because a good seat is an absolute, fundamental requirement for having a conversation with my horse that he can understand.
Every unconscious movement or wobbling with our own body means that we have mistakenly and incomprehensibly asked for a response from the horse’s “reflex zones,” which [in German] we also call “effect buttons.” This immediately disturbs the horse’s balance – which can never give rise to harmony. That’s why I attach the highest value to that which is supple and relaxed in the horse. These render the horse willing to perform to the best of its ability, and from there we can develop the horse’s desire to cooperate with us.
That makes it clear that the horse’s training has to be adapted to the capabilities of the individual animal. As a result, the horse can retain its rhythm and tempo in the trot. They establish the horse’s balance, making possible the development of the cornerstone of further progress: rhythmic, dynamic, elastic movement—which we then designate with the technical term, “purity of the gaits.” This purity is the surest sign of a proper “back mover.” I’ve always attached particular importance to this. Add to that daily, precisely targeted and intensive work with the horse. And that is the irreversible foundation of all further training up to Grand Prix. Keeping my unwavering eye on these objectives, together with the horse – that’s how I make progress.
Two riding instructors in my early youth especially valued classic methods of training; I hadn’t previously found that focus with any of the others. Vefore the start of my competitive career – which was non-existent at that point – I took lessons from Gert Schwabl on my first Grand Prix horse, Duke, a big, black Trakehner gelding that belong to my mother. And after him, from Egon von Neindorff. For him, the focal point of all the work was the quiet, calm Seat. We never stopped working on the basic elements of correct equine movement.
I freely admit that it took a lot of mental fortitude and staying power to keep to this path, because it was more fashionable to take shortcuts. But as soon as I thoughtlessly strayed from this path – the constant work on the basics, I suffered repeated setbacks. Over the years I just forgot about it. It was simply a waste of time. Back then people would ask me – as they still do today – when I was going to make progress just by working on the basics. Nevertheless, with the passage of time I internalized this approach, so they gave me credit for staying on the right path, the one that leads to advanced training of my horses. I ended up overtaking all those who constantly drilled certain movements but didn’t care about the preparatory exercises for them.
Duke was my personal four-legged professor. He was big, very long in the back, a bit heavily built in the hindquarters, and on top of that he had a neck that was set on low and called heavily on the rider’s horsemanship. Intensive work on the fundamentals, in which both Egon von Neindorff and my mother, (using the longe line and longe whip) supported me, gradually brought Duke to the point where he could carry more and more weight behind. And so by 1987 he was so well prepared that he entered his first Grand Prix.
With the same mindset and the same training in the basics, at the same time as Duke I also brought “Champus,” who was three years younger and with whom I later had much success, along the road to Grand Prix readiness. In 1990 he won his first place score in the Grand Prix Kur. After that, other horses followed: “Elektron,” a Trakehner; “Maestoso Amistosa, a Lipizzaner; and “Elevado,” a PRE, all travelling the same path.
Not all of the horses I trained achieved at the same level. My consideration and concern for their individual abilities with regard to their performance set limits for me here. Training for the horses that were able to get to Grand Prix took eight to 10 years, start to finish – which, by the way, is in keeping with the teaching of the classical training texts. My current horse, named “Scirocco,” is an 11 year-old Hanoverian gelding who will be debuting at Grand Prix next year.
If someone wants to be successful in equestrian sport today, what advice would you give him or her on the way?
I want to start by saying that from my current perspective, entering competitions is almost no longer desirable. You can be a good rider without necessarily being out there competing publicly in order to compare or improve yourself.
Competitive riding now has its own laws. The focus is centered on quick success at the really big shows, devoid of any fundamental training. In contrast, good riding that is fair to the horse and the serious work that is associated with it used to be the focus of success. It used to be considered a lofty goal to successful present a horse at the L- level or even the M- level. Getting that far meant you’d traveled a long and difficult road, and that used to be acknowledged. But today, if I want to bring home a significant ribbon in today’s competitive environment, then I have to immerse myself more deeply in this circus, with its own [unwritten] rules…above all the rule that I have to present my horse in the outline that is now universally required of if you want to get a high marks [from the judges].
But maybe we should first redefine the word “success” to accord with current usage. For me, in any case, success is measured now, as always, by the way my horse follows me on foreign terrain, in unfamiliar surroundings, ready to perform the required Test with pure gaits and with relaxation and willingness! This is what I aim for whenever I enter a competition. I’m delighted with everyone who is with me in this athletic mindset towards horse, so that we can turn the page again, to improve the reputation of riding as a sport, and for the betterment of our horses’ welfare.
Horse are your world. How did you get started with these wondeful animals? And how are things going with them?
On my mother’s side, I come from a family of riders and so naturally I came in contact with horses very early on. I started to learn to ride as a child. Riding was considered good form, particularly in my early childhood, but I didn’t become enthusiastic about it until the time when I was allowed to ride with Egon von Neindorff. Around the time that I began to ride Duke, I started to feel drawn to horses, and especially to Duke. My passion grew from there. The more progress I made, the more I finally understood what Dressage was all about.
In my mid-20s I recognized that I would never be able to exhaust the possibilities for learning this profession. I became more and more humble with regard to the importance of treating the ridden horse fairly. Competing in dressage tournaments interested me less, because of the on-going way horses were ill-treated. It was my parents’ ambition, though, that led me to compete. For myself, I wanted the horse to produce what I was asking for in keeping with its own abilities; I never wanted to ask too much, so as to stay in a relaxed frame.
Judges and spectators like particularly approved of my refined seat, which Egon von Neindorff saw as a sign and a synonym of good riding. Even the warm-up of my horses looked completely different from what was then – and still is, even moreso – common practice. Because of their training, my horses all delivered the goods – without any kind of resistance – and that strengthened the emotional bond between us. I could, very simply, rely on them.
But precisely this harmony, this warm feeling of being able to “play” with my horses, that allowed me more and more success as my riding advanced. That’s why I am today of the opinion (as I was then) that our horses are such incomparably wonderful animals that they deserve appropriate respect and the very best treatment. And we all have the responsibility to step in when we see the opposite happening. So I agree with Marc Aurel:
Often he who does nothing does an injustice.
Whoever does not forbid injustice when he can, commands it!
Who in the world of horses inspires you most. And more importantly, why?
At the very top of the list is Egon von Neindorff, because his riding was exactly like what I imagine when I think of very good classical horsemanship. Whether during his daily, goal-oriented work with horses or during performances, he always exuded friendliness, discipline, great harmony with the horse; these attributes alone gave rise to a visually impressive presence the likes of which I have never experienced or seen again. His artistry remains my goal as a horseman.
You have achieved a great deal of success as an equestrian, you are in demand as a trainer, and you’ve already published widely acclaimed books. How do your plans for the future look?
I often ask myself the same question, and the answer is always the same: as von Neindorff demanded of all his students, I wish to “preserve the artform.” By this he meant to keep focualways on the correct, professional training of our horses — in the classical sense, of course – always as the center point of our vision. I will continue to put this into practice with my students and for myself, so as to demonstrate how beautiful riding can be, especially without having to go to a major competition or having to create a theatrical spectacle around the horses. Therefore, my plan is to change the mental picture that is now so common everywhere, and I can only do that if I continue to stand against that picture and to stand up for good and ethical riding.
Mr. Ackermann, what concluding advice would you like to give to other people who love horses?
Let’s concentrate on the essentials. In my opinion it’s not important whether you consider riding a sport, or if you’re a classical rider, or a recreational rider. These kinds of categories aren’t helpful. Because the danger is far too great to reject a broad spectrum of different equestrian disciplines without having first acquired a deeper knowledge of the details of ethical horsemanship.
When we do that, we consider our own superficial perception as the only correct way to see things. The fundamental need, set forth by Nature as a necessity, remains the same: to treat horses fairly and to ride them ethically! We can’t just select a riding system that seems fine to us, and then maybe even promote it by claiming that it is the only true one. To my mind, this is only seeing part of the picture, and it prevents us from being open to seeing the whole universe of correct training of the horse, which is so urgently needed.
In this context, I would also advise strongly against getting all of your information about how to “train your eye” from webinars or videos on the Internet. Since their advent, it has been established that what is available there (about “training your eye,” for example), has a polarizing effect on the viewer, because the “expert” isn’t in a position to explain or even demonstrate classical principals of riding and horse-training. Opinions are promoted in this way that are not based on fact, at least not in the classical sense.
Isn’t it rather the case that we should get our horses to love us, and to comply with our direction with pleasure, diligence and also with a certain effortlessness. I need your [help or support], as a rider and as someone who is knowledgeable about the art form that is classical horsemanship, no matter which kind of riding you are into, in order to revive every aspect of this amazing art.
Thank you, Mr. Ackermann, for giving us such an interesting and substantial look into your life and work. We wish you all the best down the road, and beyond that, continued success in making the world better for our horses.
You can find even more information about Christoph Ackermann and his fascinating work on his website Condé Reitseminare…